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.

Say it ain’t so, Frank Rich

Frank Rich

When you get to my age, you look for your thrills where you can find them. Come Saturday night, I usually find myself asking … Should I read Frank Rich now, or save it until the morning?

So I was shocked to learn this morning that Rich, one of our leading liberal commentators, is leaving the New York Times for New York Magazine, where he’ll write a monthly essay. He’ll edit and lead some online conversations as well.

It’s not the first time Rich has grown restless. He was the Times’ chief drama critic from 1980 to 1993, and I think it’s his theatrical sense that makes his political commentary so sharp and entertaining.

This is not good news for me, and I’m sure many other Times readers feel the same way. New York Magazine has a good reputation, but I can’t picture myself subscribing or seeking it out online. Other than the occasional must-read media feature, it just isn’t compelling enough for me to change longstanding habits.

In 2000 I ran into Rich at an event for gay Republicans at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, which I was covering for the Boston Phoenix. I asked him about the collective nervous breakdown the media were having over the lack of news at George W. Bush’s coronation. Here’s what he told me:

Not to be too Freudian about it, but what you’re seeing is a sort of displacement. There are 15,000 reporters here and no story. What are they going to talk about? Themselves and their own anxiety.

It will be interesting to see whether the Times tries to recruit a big-name replacement for Rich. (Maybe it will be Joe Nocera, who’s moving from the business pages to the op-ed section.) With the exception of Paul Krugman and David Brooks, I just don’t find the rest of the paper’s opinion writers all that compelling.

Rich had one of the best jobs in journalism. I guess it shows that anything can get boring after a while.

Paul Krugman, cat person

If you’re a fan of New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, as I am, then you really have to read Larissa MacFarquhar’s profile of him in the current New Yorker.

I love the Tina Barney photo of Krugman and his wife, Robin Wells, posing with their cats. You don’t really get the full effect unless you see it in the print edition, but there’s something hilariously incongruous about Krugman holding a cat while looking like he’s about to bite the head off a political adversary.

I was also interested to learn that Wells has had a strong hand in sharpening and toughening Krugman’s prose. For instance:

Recently, he gave her a draft of an article he’d done for Rolling Stone. He had written, “As Obama tries to deal with the crisis, he will get no help from Republican leaders,” and after this she inserted the sentence “Worse yet, he’ll get obstruction and lies.”

Recently I heard someone describe the columnist divide this way: you’re either a Krugman person or a David Brooks person. Go figure: they’re my two favorite columnists, though I’ll confess I find fault with Brooks’ cautious conservatism far more often than I do with Krugman’s fire-breathing liberalism.

Why did Brooks invoke Coulter?

One of my favorite conservative pundits, New York Times columnist David Brooks, goes off the rails today, writing, “Every cliché Ann Coulter throws at the Democrats is gloriously fulfilled by the Democratic health care bills.”

Here’s a list of Coulter witticisms about the Democrats, compiled by Media Matters:

  • “Democrats are racist, and they’re just stunned to find a black man who can walk and talk.”
  • “The Democrats want Saddam back.”
  • The Democratic Party is “a party that supports killing, lying, adultery, thievery, envy.”
  • “[Y]ou just expect Democrats to side with Al Qaeda.”
  • “I think the problem the Democrats have is, no one really believes they’re authentic patriots.”
  • “I understand why you are so terrified of letting us point out what racists the Democrats are and how they have a big problem with black women.”

As for health care, the issue at hand, I can’t find much of anything Coulter has said directly about the subject, which makes it doubly puzzling as to why Brooks brought her up in the first place. At, though, I did find this gem from 2007:

  • “The only ‘crisis’ in health care in this country is that doctors are paid too little…. [T]he Democratic Party treats doctors like they’re Klan members.”

Every so often Brooks, as sharp an analyst as we have, feels the need to re-establish his conservative credentials in the most boneheaded way imaginable. Today was one of those days.

Critiquing Obama’s speech in Egypt

They don’t come any dumber than U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. In a piece on local reaction to President Obama’s speech in Egypt, Inhofe tells his hometown newspaper, “There has never been a documented case of torture at Guantanamo” and “I just don’t know whose side he’s on.” (Via TPMDC.)

On the other hand, New York Times columnist David Brooks gets right to the heart of the contradictions in Obama’s speech, writing:

This speech builds an idealistic facade on a realist structure. And this gets to the core Obama foreign-policy perplexity. The president wants to be an inspiring leader who rallies the masses. He also wants be a top-down realist who cuts deals in the palaces. There is a tension between these two impulses that even a sharp Chicago pol is having trouble managing.

My own reaction: underwhelmed, despite the characteristically first-rate craftsmanship and delivery. I couldn’t really articulate why, but I definitely think Brooks is on to it.

David Brooks almost gets it right

David Brooks’ column in today’s New York Times is smart and useful in its treatment of the similarities between the national-security policies of President Obama and those of George W. Bush after 2003 (though I think a more reasonable date to pick would be 2005), and of the differences between the Bush team and Dick Cheney during the waning years of the Bush White House.

But Brooks misses entirely why Obama has been more successful in selling those policies. It’s not just that Obama is more skillful at it, and understands public leadership better than Bush ever did. More than anything, it’s that when Bush finally moved away from the abject failures of the Bush-Cheney years, they were his failures.

Bush may have begun doing the right thing — or, at least, he may have begun doing the wrong thing less often — but he no longer had any credibility. Thus, by the time Condoleezza Rice had begun moving foreign policy in a less-insane direction, Bush had already irretrievably cast himself as a malleable tool.

Nor are the choices Obama is making today — on Guantánamo, on torture photos, on military tribunals — the sorts of things that will gain any real support on their own merits. Rather, most reasonable people see them as the least-bad decisions he could make given the “mess” that he inherited from Bush, as he put it yesterday.

Again, not an argument Bush could have made.

Collins and Brooks on Obama

Not only do I like this exchange between New York Times columnists Gail Collins and David Brooks, but I like it more than many of their columns. It’s not blogging. It is a conversation — or “The Conversation,” as the Times labels it.

It’s not that they’re finally saying what they really mean — in fact, they’ve both made essentially the same points in their columns, especially Brooks. It’s that their exchange is loose and human in ways that their published work isn’t.

I hope “The Conversation” affects their column-writing.

David Brooks’ reality-based conservatism

I think this column speaks incredibly well of both Team Obama and David Brooks.

Earlier in the week, Brooks went off on President Obama, characterizing his budget and spending priorities as “a promiscuous unwillingness to set priorities and accept trade-offs,” and calling for an alliance between moderate conservatives (such as himself) and moderate liberals to stop Obama’s runaway ambitions.

The White House responded to Brooks by laying out its case, arguing that the president hasn’t abandoned his preference for a cautious, incremental approach to problem-solving, but had to respond to an unprecedented financial crisis. Given a few years and a little luck, Obama’s aides say, and things will be back on track.

Brooks writes:

I didn’t finish these conversations feeling chastened exactly….

Nonetheless, the White House made a case that was sophisticated and fact-based. These people know how to lead a discussion and set a tone of friendly cooperation.

I’m guessing that Brooks doesn’t think Rush Limbaugh is the leader of the Republican Party. Or, if he does, he’s horrified.

Obama’s bankrupt opponents

In recent days I’ve been struck by the overwhelming nature of the problems that face us, and the utterly bankrupt nature of the conservative response. Because the more mindless of those responses drives me crazy, I will instead present the rational but wrong David Brooks, who writes today:

Readers of this column know that I am a great admirer of Barack Obama and those around him. And yet the gap between my epistemological modesty and their liberal worldviews has been evident over the past few weeks. The people in the administration are surrounded by a galaxy of unknowns, and yet they see this economic crisis as an opportunity to expand their reach, to take bigger risks and, as Obama said on Saturday, to tackle every major problem at once.

I think Brooks is fundamentally mistaken in his assessment of what the Obama administration would like to do. Everything we know about President Obama tells us that he is an exceedingly cautious politician — a mainstream liberal, not a creature of the far left, who, given his choice, would have liked to proceed deliberately.

He can’t. Not with the economy falling apart, the auto industry careening toward bankruptcy, the financial system in meltdown and housing as dead as it’s been in decades. (Let’s not forget, too, he’s also dealing with war and terrorism on multiple fronts.) Finally, as Obama argued during the campaign, a lot of what ails us economically can’t be fixed without finally doing something about health care.

In the midst of all this, it is striking that the Republicans have nothing to say. Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who will deliver the Republican response to Obama’s address to Congress tonight, is getting a weird amount of attention for rejecting about $90 million in federal unemployment assistance — while eagerly grabbing $4 billion in stimulus money.

I don’t know if you caught Jindal on “Meet the Press” Sunday, but he came across as Sarah Palin with better syntax: plenty of pre-rehearsed soundbites, but little or no ability to answer moderator David Gregory’s simple questions.

It’s no wonder that Obama’s job-approval rating is so much higher than that of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at a similar early stage of their presidencies.

Jacoby joins Brooks in getting CBO study wrong

Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby today repeats David Brooks’ error in using an outdated, incomplete Congressional Budget Office study to argue that President Obama’s stimulus package won’t inject money into the economy quickly enough to do any good.

Jacoby writes that “less than half of the $355 billion the bill allocates to infrastructure and other ‘discretionary’ projects would actually be spent by the end of 2010; of that, a mere $26 billion would be spent in the current fiscal year.”

Unlike Brooks, Jacoby does credit an accurate source — a Washington Post story from last Wednesday, which makes clear the CBO study’s limitations, if not its utter worthlessness. But Jacoby himself doesn’t make it clear, thus leaving the same wrong impression as Brooks.

In today’s New York Times, David Leonhardt lays out how and why too many in the media got it wrong. And he reports that, on Monday evening, the CBO put out an up-to-date report estimating “that about 64 percent of the money, or $526 billion, would be spent by next September.” Here (PDF) is the CBO study to which Leonhardt refers — readily available, as Leonhardt notes, since Monday evening.

I’m not sure when Jacoby’s deadline is, but surely he had time to peruse the new study.