Prove It All Night

Bruce Springsteen can still rock -- but has he lost his human touch?

In 1984, when a then-in-his-prime Springsteen and the E Street band embarked on the epic Born in the USA tour, the crowds were all blue jeans and handkerchiefs, baseball caps and Budweiser. In the lobby of the Pepsi Center, it was leather coats and namedropping, people sipping lattes, fer cryin' out loud. It seemed that Springsteen -- a songwriter who primarily toils in life's difficulties -- was drawing crowds of people for whom the phrase "getting your hands dirty" means there's a little too much finger grease on the cell-phone keypad. Not exactly the audience that Springsteen -- a champion of veterans, laborers, farmers -- sought to connect with in the early days. One has to wonder, for example, how "The Promised Land" -- a song rooted in the small-town frustration of endless work, confusion and pain and the dream of something better, faith in redemption in the face of it all -- resonated with a crowd of thousands who appeared to be comfortably detached from such a rigorous day-to-day existence. "Mister, I ain't a boy, no I'm a man/And I believe in a promised land," he sang on Thursday night, and it sounded like an affirmation of the place where this crowd already lived.

Though Springsteen has managed to avoid the crass commercialism of some of his peers in the rock-and-roll-revival movement -- Plant and Page, CSNY, for example -- there's more than a touch of nostalgia in what he's doing on the current tour. Near-nightly renderings of recognizable fare like "Two Hearts," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Badlands" indicate the Boss is not interested in using this tour to break new material, or woo new fans. Maybe it's a concession to those who were disappointed by the Tom Joad tour. Maybe Bruce knows full well what happens when he strays too far from the familiar: People talk, get up for beer or to pee, they look anxious, they sit down.

Sure, Thursday's crowd went wild with adoration. From the first moment when the lights dimmed and each of the E Street bandmembers made their individual entrances -- waving, smiling, saying hello, like Disney characters greeting a crowd of sugar-high children -- it was clear that the people who'd trudged down the night's snowy roads were more than happy to do so. There were high-fives shared during particularly impressive guitar solos offered by Bruce, Lofgren or Van Zandt; there were many audience incidents of unapologetic air guitar. During loud, rocking numbers -- which dominated the 23-song, three-hour-long show -- there were more raised fists than at an Aryan youth rally. Even inside the isolationist corporate boxes, folks were rocking with abandon, going for it, man. Yet in quiet moments -- such as during the understated "Youngstown," or the acoustic rendition of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" -- attention waned noticeably. Which is too bad, considering that the acoustic moments were among the night's most enjoyable glimpses of Bruce at his concentrated, earnest best, such as the twelve-string, inverse reading of "Born in the USA," on which Bruce emphasized the song's wrenching, weary verses rather than the unmistakably familiar chorus. To hear him reclaim the song from those who interpreted it as a patriot's rallying cry was to be reminded of the power inherent in so much of his music: that is, his ability to frame a human story in the context of song. It was a moment that was over much too quickly (as was his almost obligatory nod to the Food Bank of the Rockies -- despite his plea for audience members to remember the Food Bank by making donations on their way out, the crowd coughed up a measly $400 over two nights; for their part, Springsteen promoters donated sets of auction tickets, which netted more than $8,000). Soon, the volume was again cranked, the guitars again plugged, and a bloated version of "Backstreets" assured everyone that the performance wouldn't wander too far away from its rock-and-roll center.

Springsteen's original vision may have been to reach as many people as possible with his music -- not for the sake of Elvisian infamy, but to communicate his words. To remind us of just how very far from the so-called promised land so many of us are, to remind us how many dreams die, to remind us to feelsomething once in a goddamned while. Now realized, his vision seems as much like a curse as a blessing. He can pack any house in the world, practically (or ten houses in a row, as is the case with a series of upcoming concerts at Madison Square Garden). Trouble is, crowds of thousands don't trudge through rain and snow and pluck down big-time money to listen to someone's words -- just ask Steven Spielberg. Springsteen has reached an audience of millions but has become all but inaccessible to the very people who populate and haunt his creative mind. As he asks in "The River," another song he performed on Thursday night, "Is a dream a lie if it don't come true? Or is it something worse?" All these years later, he still doesn't seem to know the answer.

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