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Before the Bruce Springsteen show at the Paramount on October 16, I caught a few minutes of the second and (blessedly) final presidential "debate," broadcast live to the nation from San Diego. What I saw of the event wasn't exactly scintillating: Bill Clinton oozed fake sincerity (he made a point of memorizing his questioners' names, then referred to them personally throughout his stock answers), while Bob Dole galumphed around the set like Richard Nixon visiting the beach in a blue Republican suit. At one point, Dole did his best to pander to the Californians in attendance by referring to the millions of dollars of welfare funds allegedly paid to illegal aliens in the state. Clinton responded by noting that it has long been against the law for illegals to receive welfare payments. Each seemed determined to prove that he, rather than his opponent, would do the most complete job of locking down U.S. boundaries.

And Springsteen? In the midst of his solo appearance, he visited this issue as well, but not to score demagogic points on the backs of some of the poorest people in this hemisphere. "You hear so much about this these days," he acknowledged, "but I guess I just don't understand why people crossing the border to do work that no one here wants to do is such a big problem." A moment later Springsteen played "Sinaloa Cowboys," a brilliant song from his latest album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, in which he demonstrated that he had done something neither Clinton nor Dole had so much as considered: He'd gone to the trouble of learning a little something about these people--and found himself empathizing with them.

Of course, such compassion is something you'd expect from Springsteen, a man with so humanistic a reputation that even he couldn't resist joking about it. (In asking the crowd to be quiet during his songs, he said that at his last show, he'd climbed from the stage and slapped a noisy young child. "That really blew my man-of-the-people image," he claimed.) But during his last Denver appearance, a couple of McNichols Arena stopovers in support of his lackluster 1992 discs Lucky Town and Human Touch, such jests would have cut too close to the bone. Staged with a cadre of anonymous studio pros seemingly recruited for the tour from the casting office of Beverly Hills 90210, he came across less as himself than as a Springsteen imitator--and there hasn't been much of a market for those since the commercial failure of Eddie and the Cruisers II: Eddie Lives! Coming at a time when Springsteen, in a couple of national interviews, confessed that he was not as driven by music as he once had been, his surprisingly tepid turn suggested that the Boss was no longer in charge. Moreover, shifts in musical tastes (read: the Nirvana revolution) left him seeming like something of an anachronism--a respectable but no longer relevant throwback to another era.

Rather than fighting this perception by donning flannel and releasing an album called Born to Grunge, however, Springsteen chose to embrace, not reject, the most unfashionable aspects of his work. Joad, released last year, didn't come close to matching the sales of most Springsteen platters, and many of those who bought it probably didn't spend a great deal of time with it; a spare, gloomy disc, it didn't brim with hit singles or hummable melodies. But those who braved its depths discovered what was perhaps Springsteen's most mature, deeply felt recording ever, a CD that allowed the songwriter to find a new outlet for his creativity.

As the Paramount show underlined, the album also loosened Springsteen up. He concentrated on material from Joad, providing superb renderings of "Across the Border" and "Youngstown" (his best new composition) and uncovering hitherto unknown dimensions of "The Line," "Balboa Park" and "Galveston Bay." But he also offered fascinating reworkings of archival favorites, giving "Darkness on the Edge of Town" a relentless, driving edge and stripping from "Born in the U.S.A." every element that had allowed it to be misinterpreted by mid-Eighties jingoists and know-nothings. He even cracked wise throughout several goofy throwaways, including a piece about infomercials in which he referenced Dionne Warwick and Evel Knievel (and advised exercise guru Tony Little to kill himself), and "Red Headed Woman," which he introduced as "a great song about a great subject--cunnilingus."

How Springsteen moved without a transition from this randy tribute to oral sex to "Brothers Under the Bridge," a song about displaced Vietnam veterans, remains a mystery. So, too, was Springsteen's success at selling the latter, a fairly weak number about subjects he's revisited too often. But on this night, at least, nothing seemed beyond him. Just as I was ready to quibble with his heartfelt tribute to author John Steinbeck (why couldn't he have chosen, say, James M. Cain as a literary hero?), Springsteen casually re-enacted the denouement of The Grapes of Wrath, director John Ford's version of Steinbeck's most famous novel--and in the process, he gave a performance every bit the equal of Henry Fonda's. By the time he'd finished, there were more red eyes and runny noses at the Paramount than at a convention of allergy sufferers. (The last time I shed tears at a concert was when I saw Depeche Mode--but those were a very different kind of tears.)

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