Judging by the hyperbolic tone of reviews that have poured in from the April-June European leg of the tour, Springsteen's first E Street Band tour in a decade is the must-see concert attraction of the year. Having just turned 50, The Boss is also flying high in the wake of his March induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. But is this just another money-grossing reunion tour aimed at the AmEx cards of graying hipsters desperate for one last nostalgic whiff of the born-to-run era?
It's true that, for a lot of us also nearing the half-century mark, the chance to buy into the well-worn myth once again -- you know, the metaphorical breaking of parental and small-town shackles as you hit the road with an idealized Wendy or Rosalita by your side in search of the apocryphal promised land -- is irresistible.
For me, there's no memory quite so resonant as way back in '73 or '74, when I was living in my tiny textile-mill hometown in North Carolina. I used to huddle with my girlfriend in her cramped bedroom, which was stuck under the eaves in the top of her parents' house, and we'd listen to Greetings From Asbury Park over and over. When Springsteen sang, "By the time we made it up to Greasy Lake I had my head out the window and Janey's fingers were in the cake--And we danced all night to a soul fairy band/And she kissed me just right, like only a lonely angel can," (from in "Spirit In The Night"), the two of us held each other tight, eyes closed and imagining that we, too, were free spirits in the night, dancing down by the banks of our own Greasy Lake.
I'd go on to fall deeply in love with my girlfriend, who was my Janey-Wendy-Rosalita all rolled into one, and nowadays, after nearly 19 years of marriage, she gives me a knowing smile when I start babbling excitedly about the upcoming tour. Although I think she may be getting just a tad weary of hearing my incessant play of Springsteen albums, Springsteen videos and Springsteen bootleg tapes. (Sorry darlin', can't help it if I was born to--you know.)
For his part, Springsteen doesn't use the word "reunion." Toward the end of each of his European shows he spoke sincerely to the audiences of "a rebirth, a rededication of our band, and of our job, and our commitment to serve you." Moments earlier, during the raucous hellbilly raveup "Light Of Day," he'd invoked an image of himself as proselytizer for "the ministry of rock 'n' roll." Bellowed Preacher Bruce, "Tonight I have a mission in mind: have you ever been dis-gusted? Dis-possessed? Dis-tressed? Over-analyzed? Retro-psychedelicized? Stigmatized? I wanna tell you that I--cannot--promise you life-everlasting! [drumroll] "But I can promise you life -- RIGHT NOW!"
Scripted? Of course. Springsteen is one of rock's most astute entertainers, his genius being how he infuses every dynamics-rich performance with a crucial suspension of disbelief that lasts for two and a half "spontaneous" hours. Each 26-song European show featured a recurring group of tunes roughly comprising the core set: "Prove It All Night," "Promised Land," "Two Hearts," "The River," "Youngstown," "Badlands," "Murder Inc.," "10th Avenue Freeze-Out," "Ghost Of Tom Joad," "Light Of Day." Encores included "Hungry Heart," "Born To Run," "Thunder Road," "If I Should Fall Behind" and a new composition "Land Of Hope And Dreams" (a wonderful gospel-inflected midtempo anthem that closes each show). Some 44 other songs made appearances in the set lists over the course of the tour. And by all accounts, the Boss-E Street chemistry is as volatile and thrilling as ever.
It's significant that amid the pulpit-thumping, the showmanship and full-on rocking, in 1999 Springsteen is urgently recasting some of his best material in order to reflect where he stands as a songwriter. In particular, "Prove It All Night," arguably Springsteen's most determined testimonial to date, is sung not in the trademark breathless rasp of yore, but with a more intimate, countryish inflection as befits someone who spent much of the last three years touring as a solo acoustic act. (In Cologne, Germany, on April 15, he got so caught up in the tune that towards the end, in place of his familiar "Whoa-ohh-yeahh" flourish he swooped into the upper register. Voice cracking, he nevertheless persisted, finally nailing an ecstatic falsetto.)
And "The River" is completely overhauled: in place of the opening harmonica solo, Clarence Clemons and Roy Bittan engage a haunting sax-piano duet; then, as Danny Federici coaxes the tune's guarded melody from an accordion, Springsteen unveils his words in a voice rendered so downcast and rueful that the impact of the lines, "Now those memories come back to haunt me/They haunt me like a curse/Is a dream a lie if it don't come true/Or is it something worse?" is devastating. You're left pierced and drained, the tune's poignancy directly calling into question the trajectory of your own life.
"Everyone has memories," explained Springsteen to a BBC interviewer in the '98 documentary Secret History, outlining what bonds the songwriter to his audience. "The sound of the wind in the trees, the way the gravel in the drive sounds beneath your feet, the way the light hits the side of the house in a particular way. And whether you call them sense memories or whatever, they live within you. They are an essential part of who you are--moments of pure experience on that particular day that revealed to you what it meant to be alive, what the stakes are.
"What you can do with it, with your life: that can be brought back, with the sound of your feet on the gravel, to you on a certain day. That's the writer's job. The writer collects and creates those moments out of your own experience, the world you see around you. And then you use your imagination to pull all those things together. And that experience you present to your audience, who then experience their own inner vitality, their own center, their own questions about their moral life -- whatever you're writing about. There's a connection made. That's [the writer's] job. That alchemy or whatever you want to call it is what you're paid for. You just try to bring forth experience and get people in touch with all those things in their world. That's what keeps you wanting to write the next song, because you can do that.
"Because--if I do it for you, then I'm doing it for me."