Bruce Springsteen and the ghosts we live with

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Spain earlier this year.

The emotional heart of Bruce Springsteen’s three-and-a-half-hour show at Fenway Park last night came about an hour in. As the E Street Band played the opening chords to “My City of Ruins,” Springsteen told the crowd that he’d written it about his “adopted hometown” (Asbury Park, N.J.), but that it had evolved into a song about “living with ghosts.”

At that point, he asked that a light be shone on the right-field foul pole. No one had to be told what that was about, and we all responded with warm, sustained applause.

Trying to describe what happened next cannot possibly do justice to the moment. “My City of Ruins” is a pure gospel song. It’s by far the best Springsteen has written in the latter part of his career, and one of the very few that would hold up to his classic work of the 1970s and early ’80s. In the middle, he took a long break in order to recognize his bandmates. Then he called out — repeatedly — “Are we missing anybody?” The moment carried all the more power because Springsteen did not mention Clarence Clemons or Danny Federici (or Johnny Pesky, for that matter) by name. And he acknowledged that everyone in Fenway Park was missing someone. (David Remnick describes a similar moment in his recent New Yorker profile of Springsteen.)

It was chilling, moving, spiritual, inspirational — possibly the single most intense moment I’ve ever experienced at a concert. And I write that as someone who has a track record with Springsteen.

I’d brought my 21-year-old son and a lot of baggage with me to Fenway Park. I consider myself close to an original Springsteen fan, having been turned on to his second album, “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” by Jon Landau’s famous review in the Real Paper. I’d seen him in 1974, ’75, ’78, ’80, ’84 and ’92, but not since. And I’ve thought his albums in recent years were hit-or-miss — mostly miss, marred by simplistic lyrics and hack production.

In truth, I also didn’t like the fact that Springsteen concerts had become places to be seen by swells who vaguely remember liking “Born in the U.S.A.,” though that’s hardly Springsteen’s fault. (This, though, is definitely David Brooks’ fault.)

Despite all that, our night ended up ranking with those earlier concerts. Springsteen skillfully mixed songs from his new album, “Wrecking Ball,” with a generous helping of his classics. Even the new stuff sounded a lot better than it does on the album, partly because the cheesy production was blown away, partly because Springsteen’s obvious enthusiasm for the new material overcame the weak spots. Besides, “We Take Care of Our Own” is pretty good.

Another high point was a masterful performance of “Thunder Road,” maybe the best song Springsteen has ever written. He seemed to be choked up at the end; I know I was. It’s hard to describe what that song meant to me when I was 19, waiting to escape from my own “town full of losers.” It means something totally different now, as most of those in the crowd were old enough and wise enough to know that there is no escape.

Finally, I have to mention “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” which used to end with an embrace and a kiss with Clarence Clemons. I was a little uneasy with all the attention and cheering focused on Clemons’ nephew Jake Clemons, who’s taken over the sax parts. And I was worried that Bruce would overdo it with Jake — maybe not kiss him, but bring him out for a star turn. I shouldn’t have. At “the Big Man joined the band,” everything stopped, and a slideshow of scenes from Clarence Clemons’ life was projected on the video screens. Then the song concluded. Perfect.

There was so much else that to keep writing would be to devolve into list-making. “The E Street Shuffle,” an old favorite. A phenomenal cover of the old John Lee Hooker song “Boom Boom.” Rave-up, full-band versions of “Atlantic City” and “Johnny 99,” a couple of truly dangerous songs from his album “Nebraska.” Closing with “Dirty Water” and “Twist & Shout” (and fireworks!), complete with a James Brown-style collapse and revival on the stage. (Here’s the full set list.)

My only complaint was the venue. This was my first Fenway Park show, and it was less than an ideal place to see a concert. We were in the grandstands behind home plate. The net was never lifted. The band members, in center field, were barely specks. The video and sound were adequate, but no more than that.

Still, the show itself was nearly as thrilling as the first time I saw Springsteen in the old Music Hall, the night that Muhammad Ali would shock the world by beating George Foreman — announced on stage after midnight, just after Springsteen had finished his final encore. Back then, Springsteen was a skinny, bearded 25-year-old who came out and opened, audaciously, by singing “Incident on 57th Street” almost a cappella, accompanied only by a young woman on a violin. “Born to Run” was still in front of him. So were the covers of Time and Newsweek and all the fame and hype that have marked and occasionally marred his long career.

Last night he was 62, with the energy and stamina of a much younger man, still singing and playing and performing like his life, and ours, depended on it. Maybe it did.

Photo (cc) by Juan Ramon Rodriguez Sosa and reproduced here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Sparks fly on E Street for Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons

Clarence Clemons spent most of his career in the awkward position of having been the key to a musical idea that Bruce Springsteen lost interest in early on.

Clemons, who died on Saturday at the age of 69 after having suffered a stroke last week, was the heart of the great horn section that played on 1973’s “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle.” It was unlike any album Springsteen made before or after — an amalgam of rock, folk, soul and Latin music played by a first-rate band with lots of room for stretching out and soloing.

This early version of the E Street Band featured two black musicians — Clemons and keyboard player David Sancious — and a drummer, Vini Lopez, who was fired after a fight with the brother of Springsteen’s manager, but who on “The E Street Shuffle” plays with a wonderfully loose, propulsive feel that is the opposite of Max Weinberg’s hard-rock pounding. It may or may not have been Springsteen’s best album. I do think it’s the greatest summer album ever.

But Springsteen decided to go the rock-god route, although he continued to grow as a songwriter and, especially, as a lyricist. His next album, the elaborate, rococo “Born to Run” (1975), carved out large spaces for Clemons, especially on “Jungleland.” But “Darkness on the Edge of Town” (1978) is a traditional hard-rock album, with scarcely any room for Clemons at all. For the most part, Springsteen has stuck with a spare, stripped-down approach ever since.

What to do? Clemons and Springsteen were friends, and Clemons was the biggest draw at the live shows other than Springsteen himself. The solution was to keep him, let him play percussion and sing back-up, and of course play sax on the old songs — as well as on the occasional newer songs Springsteen would write to give Clemons something to do other than bang a cowbell.

It was a workable and honorable solution. But I always thought it was too bad that Springsteen abandoned his original (in more ways than one) idea of having an integrated band play integrated music in favor of becoming just another white rocker — albeit the best in the world for a time — with a black foil/sidekick on stage.

Tuesday is the first day of summer. Sparks fly on E Street, and I know what I’ll be playing in my car that day. God bless you, Clarence Clemons.

Photo (cc) by Martin Olbrich and republished here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.