On the way out of the Springsteen/E Street River show at the Bradley Center last week, I ran into a friend who I suspect has done much more Bruce tourism than I have. I have made a couple of trips (to Detroit for Rock The Vote in '04; Indianapolis once just for the hell of it), but usually I just catch them when they come around. But I think he has followed the band much more around the country.
"I'm done." he said.
Coming as it did after yet another three-and-a-half hour marathon by the Hardest Working Man in Show Business and the World's Greatest Working Band, the comment took me aback. But, this concert raised more issues than it answered -- issues of content, passion, execution, the choices made. Springsteen fans think about these things; where the band is headed, what happened before, why we are here again. We care. He insists on it.
Now that I have had a chance to think about it...Yeah. I think I'm done too.
The problems on this tour begin and end with content. The Elephant in the Room on this tour is the whole wrong-headed idea to play The River, a minor release in the Springsteen catalog from 1980. As loyal fans, we smile, show up and hope for the best. This is not the best -- not nearly.
But Bruce Springsteen has never been the best judge of his own music, his talent or his own legacy. The first greatest hits album he pieced together in 1995 was a collection of trite, predictable cuts that were on his mind at the time, with nothing from his best album, The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle or Ashbury Park. His solo outings have been -- at least -- a disappointment. At his Tom Joad show at the Riverside in 1996, Springsteen was a silence-demanding crank, yelling at people who dared to cheer "Born in the USA" (hey, Bruce, I thought, maybe the guy's a veteran, fer crying out loud). And let's not forget the worst concert ever at the Bradley Center, when Springsteen and a band of younger hired guns stunk up the place on Bill Clinton and Russ Feingold's election night 1992 with some of the same songs and none of the spirit of E Street. At least Bruce has gotten the picture since 1999 that he and the E Street Band as a unit is ten times better than anything he could do solo or with anyone else.
Which brings us back to The River.
The River was a double-album, back in the vinyl days, and, as with all double-albums from The Beatles' White Album on down, it has some, er, junk on it. Not as bad as "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da" or "Honey Pie", mind you (ah, McCartney...), but, you know, junk. In fact, I don't think I've ever bothered to listen to the damn thing all the way through since I first dropped the needle on the day it was released. I now know the whole project sputters and dies in the middle of Side 3, starting with "Fade Away" and ending, five songs too late, with the weary "Wreck on the Highway". Sure, "Ramrod" is in there somewhere, but I've always thought it a plodding too-slow excuse for a rave-up.
How do I know this? Because I have now lasted through two concerts where I couldn't get away from the damned thing. The songs kept coming. It -- they -- would not stop.
How did this happen? Imagine you are in the room with Springsteen and/or manager Jon Landau last year and someone comes up with the bright idea to hit the road playing the entire River album, from beginning to end. Would anyone dare to say "but what about the dreck?" Not bloody likely -- the world is littered with could-have-been-greater superstars (Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, etc.) with fawning entourages and enabling managers who refuse their to give their bosses the benefit of the advice they deserve.
Alright, so the idea is hatched and they get to rehearsals. You can see Bruce and what is left of the E Street Band working through the first nine songs and, yeah, this seems like a great idea. But then they hit the giant speed-bump called "I Want To Marry You", a song that was too cute by half cute at the time, and that there is just no reason to play again, ever. I imagine Miami Steve at that first rehearsal when they come to that song, and then it dawns on him: Oh my god, we are playing the whole fucking album! He has to think it -- does he say it? Is he a good enough friend to...? The album recovers with the title track and film-noir "Point Blank", a dramatic high-point in concert. But a Wisconsin night "Cadillac Ranch" and a too-obvious "I'm a Rocker" later, the whole album falls off a cliff. After the first practice, does the band look at each other and think "Well that was fun, but what are we really going to do on this tour?" Maybe. And the The Boss says "OK. Let's do that again!"
Springsteen now calls this his "coming of age" record, but that was Darkness on the Edge of Town. The River is really his (then) mid-career crisis, his "what do I do now after all this success?" album. There is a lot of flailing around, a lot of phony (stolen) car mysticism, and nothing digs all that deep. Other than "Cadillac Ranch" and "Hungry Heart", none of this album has been featured in his usual setlists through the years. Nor should it have.
When I first saw this tour in Chicago in January -- the second show of the tour -- Springsteen seemed to understand he had some 'splaining to do about why he was going to make us sit through over two hours of The River. His solution then was talking it to death. Many songs that night were preceded by explanations of where he was, what he was thinking, who it was about. There was a real long one before "Marry You" and it didn't make the song itself any better. There was much less chatter in Milwaukee -- only "Independence Day" got the usual "this is about my dad" treatment. The shut-up-and-play version worked much better.
But, still. As the River part of the set wound down, the antiseptic concourses at the Bradley Center filled with knowing fans on an extended beer break. There is always something disconcerting about hanging around outside the arena while you can hear Bruce Springsteen echoing off the walls -- he's not here every day, shouldn't I be in there? Back in '78, I was thankful for relative duds like "Racing in the Streets" because it gave me a chance to catch my breath before hurrying back in there. Now, I heard "The Price You Pay" droning on and realized there are still three songs to go until the Real Show starts.
But I will say one thing for enduring all of The River -- it sure makes whatever he plays after that very much appreciated. In fact, the rest of the set brought tears to my eyes, which usually happens at least a couple of times at the best of these shows. The hour-and-a-half post-River set was moving, through not revelatory; impeccable, without passion. It was about the past -- our past, his past -- not the present.
It started with "Badlands", not usually a weeper for me. "I ain't no sin to be glad you're alive..." I felt the heart in "No Surrender". "Now I'm ready to grow young again..." The two cuts from The Rising -- the title song and "Lonesome Day" -- brought me back to that great comeback tour and the whole album, the single greatest artistic expression of 9/11 emotion produced by anyone in any medium. "It's alright/It's alright/It's alright/It's alright yeah!".
Nils Lofgrin spun on his heels, his rock star tassels flying, during an incendiary solo during "Because the Night", a rare moment -- for this show, certainly -- of unplanned spontaneity. Or maybe they planned it. But not like that. Even Nils couldn't have planned it just like that.
Then came "Jungleland", apparently called as an audible. The audience sang along and Bruce let us until he gradually took control of his own lyrics and voice. By the time Jake Clemons took his late uncle's great solo -- as he was all night, musically perfect, note for note, if not as emotionally invested as the Big Man (how could he be?) -- I was reduced to a slobbering, crying grown man. "Kids flash guitars just like switchblades..." In that moment, I wanted Bruce and Steve to do that guitar battle I saw back in 1978, when they both "reached for their moment and tried to take an honest stand". It seemed to last forever. They wouldn't let it go. They couldn't.
These things don't happen with the E Streeters any more, except by design. The deaths of Danny Frederici and Clarence Clemons took much of the heart and soul of the band and time has taken the rest. The band is still the best in the shrinking rock band genre; talented veterans with the best technology. And (except for Steve, I imagine) they are totally Bossed, with a job to do. Any passion there is comes from the songs themselves, not necessarily by their current sparkling execution. Maybe, still, capable of spontaneous combustion, but nobody asks them to do that thing any more.
Super Bowl Slides at these shows by Bruce, who is still in great physical shape for the long show (with no breaks) but, unlike before when he did it because he was a passionate, jazzed-up, crazy motherfucker, he does it now by measured, well-paced endurance. At 66, he is finally showing his age.
I'm sure this has been going on for a while and I've just refused to notice, but this show lacked two of the most important elements that I love most about the Springsteen experience -- spontaneity and whimsy.
First of all, you can forget about spontaneity in a concert in which you promise you are going to play a double-album from beginning to end. That also effects the rest of it, now rushed and constrained to an-hour-fifteen, tops -- and don't forget to leave 9 minutes at the end for a pointless rendition of the over-played-to-infinity "Shout".
As for whimsy...defined as "playfully quaint or fanciful behavior or humor", by somebody...it has always been an element of not only Springsteen shows, but his earlier work. There are songs -- "E Street Shuffle", "Spirits in the Night", "So Hard to Be a Saint in the City" and, god help us, "Kitty's Back" -- that represent the best of Bruce -- passionate, playful, lots of chord and tempo changes. They worked on record and have completely rocked in concert when the time and the band was right.
The only song of this kind that the band played here (and, apparently, everywhere) was "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)". I was shocked in Chicago how dry and rote this was played, and it didn't get any better here. All of the essential parts were there -- all that stuff going on out in the street, but "Rosie you're the one"...the sax break...the guitar duel..."don't you know daddy's comin"... But where's the joy? I know it's too much to ask to go back to the days when Clarence and Bruce exchanged that beautiful sloppy kiss at the climax, but is it too much to ask for something real, and really in the moment? "Hey, man, they did Rosalita!!" Yeah...I guess they did...
Bruce Springsteen has given me some of the best, highest moments in my life -- and that is no exaggeration. They were the kind of moments you never get from distant rock stars; the kind of moments that usually only happen with family, lovers and friends. We were both in the right place at the right time, more than once, whether he knows it or not. I'll never forget that. I'm just not expecting it to happen again.
"I'm done," he said.
Yeah. I think I am too.