On October 1, 2004, Bruce Springsteen played Philadelphia in a cavernous arena, then called the Wachovia Center. Bright Eyes, John Fogerty, and R.E.M. made up the rest of the bill, part of the “Vote For Change” tour designed to encourage people to register to vote in an election that ultimately saw Democrat John Kerry fail to become president.
Springsteen closed the sold-out show—and blew everyone else away, as he had years before on the similar multi-artist Amnesty International tour that also featured Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N’Dour (which I saw in London in 1988). It takes all sorts, so this doesn’t reflect badly on the other performers (R.E.M. were particularly good but played only three or four crowd-pleasing greatest hits in their twelve-song set), but it made me wonder why Springsteen is so good, the best, at what he does. It’s not even a controversial opinion: you’d have to dislike or misunderstand rock and roll to disagree with it. Yes, he’s a great songwriter and lyricist; but how does he also manage to provide the best rock-and-roll show of all time, almost every time, in the same inhospitable arenas that regularly dwarf other performers?
It’s easy to conclude that he’s a natural, a born performer. None of the other singer/songwriters I liked when I first saw Springsteen were incredible musicians; they simply strummed while the rest of the band did the music, so it astonished me to realize that it was he who played the solos (I had naturally assumed it was Steve Van Zandt, the show-offy guy with the headband). But Springsteen is not only a great guitarist, a great bandleader, a great songwriter, he’s also a great mover. You don’t often see his moves analyzed, but whether he’s grinding the mic stand, swaying his head as he plays a solo, or presiding over one of his religious revival routines, it all seems effortless and unembarrassed. The way Springsteen moves is the way everyone wants to move on a stage: joyously, unselfconsciously. This is the key. Bruce does not wink at you. Though there is always humor, the show is not ironic. His smile is open. Bruce gives you the truth straight. The set seems entirely honest. That is its appeal.
I should declare, in the interests of transparency, that I’ve had the pleasure of playing with Springsteen: we met quite by chance at the very back of The Palladium in Hollywood in 1994 at a show by The Rock Bottom Remainders, a tongue-in-cheek band of authors including, among others, Stephen King, Amy Tan, Ken Follett, Matt Groening, Dave Marsh (a friend of Bruce’s), and Joel Selvin (a friend of mine). We were both there to celebrate and make fun of our respective friends. and, by some miracle, he happened to like, or at least have heard of, the albums I made for Sire Records in the early Nineties under the name John Wesley Harding.
He subsequently came to duet at one of my own shows (McCabes in Santa Monica: perhaps the tiniest place he’s played in public in the last thirty years), and I opened for him on a couple of dates in Berkeley in 1995, when he was touring solo with his album The Ghost of Tom Joad. Since then, we’ve both been involved in various events, including Woody Guthrie’s induction into Cleveland’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and Jersey Rain, an afternoon at Fairleigh Dickinson University in 2010 when Springsteen and Robert Pinsky discussed their respective experiences as New Jersey poets.
I have thus had the opportunity to wander backstage in Springsteen’s world, where a kindly roadie occasionally gave me Bruce’s used harmonicas, ones in unusual keys that I was able to recycle for my own act (and many of which are still in operation). I know there are secrets, because all great magicians have secrets. But I am, in my own modest way, a fellow member of The Magic Circle, so I would never reveal anything from the other side of the curtain. No, what follows is something I had noticed already—from my far-distant and very poor seat at the Wachovia.
Despite the sponsored arena, the insulting parking situation, the overpriced drinks, the punitively uncomfortable chairs, and the dire troubles associated with getting into the venue and then extricating yourself (and this was before the days of security checks), Springsteen somehow makes you believe in rock and roll once more. Whatever it was you liked about it to begin with, before it was dirtied by the horrid smirk, the knowing wink, and Ticketmaster pre-sales, Springsteen will help you recover. His show is good for anything that ails you.
The truly remarkable thing is that these good time shows are primarily showcases for Springsteen’s own catalogue, which, lest we forget, comprises songs of intense lyrical seriousness and musical complexity, set in what might—in anyone else’s hands—seem a bewildering array of styles, indicative of their author’s generous musical tastes. He’ll take you back to the prelapsarian world, and yet, the whole way there, he’ll tell you in detail about the fall.
No one will tell you better.
But back to that Thunderdome near Philadelphia, formerly known as the Spectrum, then CoreStates Spectrum, then First Union Spectrum, then the Wachovia Spectrum, and now, finally, replaced as the Wells Fargo Center. Which goes to show that it’s only the names of the banks that change, a reminder that they’re all otherwise identical, that they own both you and rock and roll, that there will be another crash, and, despite being its victim, there’s nothing you can do about it. I was thinking about all this as I watched Springsteen play, and then I noticed a wonderful thing.
For a moment during the show, Springsteen wandered offstage. From my oblique angle, I could see him in the wings, shaking a bottle of water over his jeans from the knee down. I immediately thought something along the lines of: “That’s weird. His calves must be hot.” Then, soon after his return to center stage, he took a long run-up and slid along the front of the platform. He slid a long way. He slid miles. He seemed to slide the breadth of the stage. His knees hadn’t needed cooling down, after all. The bottle of water was a prop: a simple, charming solution to ensure the longest, smoothest, most aesthetically pleasing slide imaginable.
Later, he ducked into the wings once more, shaking that same prop over his hair. (Or perhaps he ducked his head into a bucket, I can’t quite recall—but I could see that he’d soaked his head.) When he returned to the stage, while the light shone on him in a certain way during a particularly effortful solo, he shook his head, and the water flew off his locks in great arcs.
No one, I think, in Row ZZ or Section 20001B thought: “Oh, that’s water.” They thought it was sweat—that he was working that hard. For us. It was a show-business trick, a little fakery that read perfectly to the fans.
Some time later, I told someone this story, with enthusiasm, theorizing that these things must happen at the same precise moment during every show on the tour. The reaction I got in return for my enthusiasm from this prissy indie rocker was: “That’s lame.” I understand this point of view—fake is wrong; rock and roll should be honest; else, you’re Elvis in Vegas—but I don’t sympathize with it. To me, this is the very essence of Bruce Springsteen’s genius.
Rock and roll has always been a dirty business: the lead singer a cross between snake-oil salesman and televangelist—a trope Springsteen has so often, so successfully, pastiched in his shows. He clearly sees the link. Perhaps “honesty” is what makes all other performers—from Peter Gabriel to Sting—pale in comparison. (I don’t know precisely who, or which think tank, comes up with these bits of business, or figures out how many creative uses a humble bottle of water can be put to; perhaps it is The Boss himself. Perhaps Penn and Teller work it all out. That isn’t the point.)
Springsteen is the best live act in the world because he has taken the essence of his club show, famously the most powerful on the circuit, and used every means at his disposal, every trick in his bag to recreate that up-close atmosphere in the faceless arenas and stadiums that shrink most other acts. His wonderful songs, the intimacy of his banter, that dynamite band, the bottled water… they’re all an indivisible part of his consummate showmanship.
Whatever effects, whatever little bits of business he employs to bolster this illusion—the illusion that we are all together, in a small place, where we might be spattered with the performer’s sweat, where one might be able to get from one side of the room to the other by sliding—are in the service of a much greater illusion: that rock and roll still matters, that it can take you away from your dull daily cares, that it can transport you.
The truth is that, with a little sleight of hand, it can. Springsteen proves it all night, every time he plays.
This essay was adapted by the author from his contribution to Long Walk Home: Reflections on Bruce Springsteen, edited by Jonathan D. Cohen and June Skinner Sawyers, published by Rutgers University Press on September 23, which is Bruce Springsteen’s seventieth birthday.