Bruce Springsteen’s Rock & Roll Salvation
My desire to see Bruce perform is a yearning to be young—tonight he returns that love
Filled with mixed, strange feelings after Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s epic Sydney performance, I stood on the late-night platform at Lidcombe Station with other exhausted concertgoers, waiting for a city bound train to take us home.
To kill time, I read a billboard history of the station. Proximity to the opening of Rookwood Cemetery made it the major destination point from Mortuary Station in Redfern, then the haunted heart of Sydney. From the late 1860s to the peak of service, around 1900, trains with the word ‘FUNERAL’ on the front would make their way out to Lidcombe, pausing at stations to pick up mourners who boarded at the rear while forward carriages transported coffins containing their loved ones. At stop-overs it was a commonplace to see railway workers taking off their hats out of respect for what was happening.
As I read these notes an endless coal train came booming out of nowhere, groaning past us like some hangover from a near-forgotten industrial age, its containers brown with rust. The coal train moved so slowly it seemed at walking pace, and we could hear the metal clanking and stretching; the retained heat of the day left their emptied frames as they were returned to a siding for use again the following morning. The coal train appeared to run on for miles — and it was quite a while before a tail finally appeared and the slow, powerful sound of it pulling away left us in a humbled, even reverent silence again.
As I stood on the platform I could not help but compare the 67-year-old Bruce Springsteen to this long vast train stretching its way through the night, rust-deep with history — immense, powerful, even overwhelming — and yet so steady, close and hard at work despite by-gone appearances.
Still caught in the sonic slipstream, I watched as couples held each other and talked, as a boy in a wheelchair with a 2017 tour T-shirt rolled by, the muscles in his arms glistening, as fathers and sons stood steady, and groups of women—middle aged and surprisingly young—moved their hips as if the music was still echoing over them in an invocation to keep on dancing in the dark.
A few mates bantered beneath a lamp light and spoke of Springsteen’s songbook and how he could have played a whole other set of songs despite having already given us a mighty three hours. And I thought how what they said was true; he didn’t play “It’s Hard to Be A Saint in the City” or “Racing in the Streets” or “Point Blank” or ‘Streets of Philadelphia’ or “Into the Fire.” These are all songs I would have loved to hear.
Then I thought about Springsteen, his body held aloft by the crowd as he sang “Hungry Heart” as many hands transported him back to the stage across a dance-floor half the size of a football field. Was there ever a singer who looked so happy, or a crowd able to share in the same joy? Only Jesus walking on water for his Apostles could have topped it. One might have seen this moment as the climax of any other show on earth, but we were barely half a dozen songs in — and Springsteen’s towering commitment to performance was already clear and about to go much further.
Springsteen opened the night with “New York City Serenade,” a stunning and unexpected choice from his early days, its symphonic ambitions emphasized by a lithe, eight-piece, all-female, string section and Roy Bittan’s eternally extravagant and bright piano work. It felt like a deeply subtle move, unearthing this neo-classical gem from a time when Springsteen’s music reverberated with the romance of strolling down the boardwalks of Asbury Park, New Jersey, his dreams of the big city just beyond him. It’s a story that blended Phil Spector’s operatic vision of pop with what a later classic, “Jungleland,” delivered tonight.
“So walk tall,” he sang with cryptic urgency, “or better don’t walk at all.” Walking tall would become one of the central invocations of Springsteen’s work, an essential mark of being alive and unbeaten, or wearing a mask that told the world so and finding in that illusion some temporary respite.
You hear Springsteen talk of “too many words” back then, of embarrassing lyrical excess and meaninglessness. He jokes about the meaning of “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” not knowing what it means. But it’s precisely this fountain of language, Dylan-indebted, street-infused, that made him such a thrilling and joyful talent at his start. Despite Born to Run’s nation-bursting title track (listen closer to its hidden hints of futility) the album marked the beginnings of a shadow that closed in on Darkness on the Edge of Town and was, at best, barely resisted by the check-shirted working-class austerity and 50s-spirited musical toughness of The River.
That early lyrical rush so apparent in Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle had faded from Panavision color to black-and-white hues. Like early Dylan and Neil Young, Springsteen would never create such a consistent string of great albums again. He would have to settle, in a way, for less: confirming his place as the premier songwriter of his era with Born in the USA. But the weight of the that, the terrible weight.
I mostly lost sight of Springsteen after The River, if one can ever lose sight of someone who is there responding to your time and defining it, an historical fact outside of any taste. Nebraska’s violent mourning was too spartan, even for me. Not till his post-September 11 album, The Rising did I return to him, then the focus seemed lost once more.
I understand now that my desire to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band tonight stretches well beyond a natural yearning to see one of the great artists of this era. It’s about a yearning to be young, inherent in that string of albums I have noted, a rite of passage I identified with, and which ended similarly in an early death of self and accompanying rebirth. I just didn’t know how far Springsteen was ahead of me, the boy becoming a man and taking on that responsibility while I was still learning what that meant. Which, really, has been his role all along for many of us; the older, wiser, troubled, brilliant brother we never had, the boy having to be a father to himself.
Revelations of a decades-long struggle with depression in his recent autobiography could hardly be news to fans involved with his music. Springsteen is the king of male struggle and identity in much the same vein as Australia’s Tim Winton, beloved and misunderstood, or limited as well as exalted by his public’s love.
Tonight, though, Springsteen comes to return that love and lift us up. So, before I go any further, it seems necessary to say thank you so much for that. For this is a show that is pure crusade as much as Springsteen has fun with it all, sending himself up as he channels James Brown in a glorious sweat, his guitarist and maverick friend Steven Van Zandt draping his shoulders in a cape that says “The Boss,” waving his hands at the crowd in a camp showbiz routine that says Bruce just can’t give any more than he has given (which, of course, Bruce can and will).
The E Street Band blows the roof off with the old Isley Brothers classic, “Shout.” The lights have already been up for half an hour since he first looked like ending everything with the chiming rush of “Born to Run,” crystalizing us with that roar of youth we had asked him to return us too. Yes, the lights of the stadium are brought up around us for that song, for he wants us to know we are all here together — and we can do it. The lights will never go down again.
The night is counterpoised between the joyous currents of songs like “The Ties that Bind” and “Mary’s Place” and Springsteen’s almost holy grasp of the darker stuff, including an eerie, potent assertion of racial inequality and police criminality in “American Skin (41 Shots).”
Saxophonist Clarence Clemons, whose image twined with that of Springsteen on the cover of Born to Run — raising up an idea of music as the one true place for integrated communication (free at last) — is replaced in his death by his nephew Jake Clemons on stage, built similarly like a titan and easily the youngest band member by quite some margin.
Clemons plays his uncle’s old saxophone, producing the same raw-sweet tones that Springsteen’s most emotive, Otis Redding-inspired singing can still match, though perhaps there’s less peach left in his voice than there once was. If Steven Van Zandt can seem so lugubrious as to be deflating, Jake Clemons’ on-stage demeanor can verge on annoyingly intrusive. But standing there urging everyone to hold both hands, palm-forward, during “American Skin,” his black hands face us as he watches the crowd respond with their hands back towards him, we are physically charged by the injustice of racism and the powerful human connection that goes far beyond it.
Elsewhere Springsteen struggles with his own machismo, which makes his decision to couch the core of his set as a dialogue with his muses all the more interesting to witness. His version of “Candy’s Room” just can’t get back to the young man who was enchanted by the heat of his desire for a young woman, while “She’s the One” perfectly evokes that same fatal enchantment with a female loner much like him. In “Because the Night,” he slightly changes the lyrical claims Patti Smith made over the song. Yet he cannot quite recapture what he started writing for himself, and he stays somehow outside the intimate, shamanistic orbit of Smith’s interpretation, all the while guitarist Nils Lofgren—top-hatted and imp-small—twirls round and round in a dizzying dervish of solos that pulls white fire from the air.
Springsteen’s covers of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally” affirms that he is not really a child of the 70s, or even the 60s, but the ’0s and the birth of rock & roll itself. His own songs have gone on to become a staple of all our lives too, and yet it is the shadow I gravitate to, manifest tonight in “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Springsteen, however, is aware he must turn his face from tormented internality and give us hope and pleasure in difficult times.
Perhaps this underlying necessity to literally save us is what made me feel so melancholy at Lidcombe Station as the coal train pulled away. The amplified chimes of freedom inside of us are in danger of being lost. I had seen rock & roll past and its name was Bruce Springsteen.
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Top Image: Tour Poster, Sydney, Summer 2017 | photo by Mark Mordue