Bruce Springsteen has made the music which has been the most important to me over the course of my adult life. Not always the thing I listen to most, especially these days, but the music I always come back to. My love for his music began in earnest with the release of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” in 1978. The music on that album, full of despair, anger, love, redemption spoke to the 19 year old me in a way that nothing else had done before, from the moment I heard “Racing in the Street”, lying in bed, in the dark, stuck on an RAF camp during the holidays from university. I was lucky enough to be at Oxford, doing well, lots of friends, enjoying my football, beer and discos. But I was still angry, maybe even depressed. That’s hindsight, but I think I still felt a bit out of place, lacking the social ease of some of my contemporaries; and was frustrated with my own shyness and inarticulacy with the women I liked. Yeah, typical teenage angst – I got over it. But Bruce helped me a lot. I could lose myself in “Darkness” and its predecessor, “Born to Run”. I could celebrate the songs with my friends, but there was something about them that I kept to myself. My own Bruce story.
Over the years I went back to the fantastic first two albums – “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ” and “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” – immersed myself in “The River” (no pun intended), railed against “Born in the USA” for appealing to the yuppies before realising later how good it was, and stuck with him through all the years when he didn’t always seem to be doing anything new, but always released albums with tracks that came to have great meaning for me. Songs like “Tougher than the Rest”, “If I should Fall Behind”, “Highway Patrolman”, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”. And when Bruce reacted to the appropriation of the song “Born in the USA” by triumphalist politicians by stripping it down to its anti-Vietnam war essence and playing it as a visceral blues, it became just about my favourite song in the canon. I have a story for each of these songs, and I told them in my book “I Was There – A Musical Journey“. Bruce got more coverage than any other artist in that book (though Bowie crept across more chapters).
In 2016 Bruce published an autobiography, inevitably called “Born to Run”. Equally inevitably, it was a searing, brutally honest account of his life: the impact of his family and, especially, his father; the inspiration he took from music from an early age; his desire for control; his hopelessness in love; his depression and more besides. It was a moving, inspiring account. Then it was announced that he would be performing a one man show on Broadway: singing songs, telling stories about his life. A limited run in 2017, to start. How good would that be, I thought to myself, never thinking I would get a chance. Then I got a chance.
The run of shows was extended, initially to the end of June 2018 (it’s now running until the end of this year). And my friend DC got offered some tickets by an American friend. I had the chance to go. But this was when I was contemplating early retirement, and hadn’t figured out the finances. So the cost of the ticket, flights and a few days in New York felt like a self-indulgence too far. And I turned down the offer. DC and Tony went. They loved it. I felt a pang of regret. But I felt I had done the right thing.
At work I eventually delayed my retirement to this September, worked out it was affordable. And Bruce extended the run again. My colleague Matthew had a ticket for 30 June, which had been due to be the last show. He likes the big events, so wants to go to the new last show. And he offered me his ticket for June. That second chance! I couldn’t say no…
… 6.30 pm, 30 June. I’m walking in the New York heat from the 47/50 Sts Rockefeller subway station on 6th Avenue, over to West 48th off Broadway and the Walter Kerr theatre. The venue for “Springsteen on Broadway”. I’m feeling a sense of anticipation, but also apprehension – about what, I’m not sure. Will I get in? How will it feel when music has been mostly about Honeyblood, Kacey Musgraves, Lindi Ortega, Taylor Swift for me this year? How will I react? I don’t want to be a blubbering wreck. It isn’t about me. It’s about Bruce. It’s his story, not mine. I have avoided drinking all day – don’t want to feel tired, I want to stay in control. I’m on my own in this magnificent but still unfamiliar city (only my third brief visit). I get to the theatre and look up at the billboard. I feel a sense of awe. How did I get here? I take some photos on my iPhone, and queue up. They let me in! It’s cool, air conditioned. I have a great seat, in the stalls. I get some white wine – hideously expensive. I settle into my seat. The audience is well-heeled. Hardly surprising, with the price of the tickets. I look over at the stage: spartan, dark brick walls, just Bruce’s piano and mics, some boxes and a lot of monitors. I visit the “rest room” – it’s a 2 hour 20 minute show, no break. I get back to my seat and soon the lights go down. Bruce wanders on with an acoustic guitar and with no fanfare starts to tell a story, the same one as in the book’s introduction, about how deep down he’s a chancer, a fraud, the one who got lucky. But yeah, through hard gigging, musical talent, and that break, which everyone needs. He introduces the young Bruce, the kid from Freehold New Jersey, and launches into “Growin’ Up”. There is a tear in my eye – just a small one. Just an acknowledgement of my sense of wonder at being here tonight.
The show isn’t a narrative of Bruce’s whole life and career. Rather, it’s the story of his family – his often troubled family – and how they made him what he is, what his music is. And a celebration of some his greatest inspirations – his 1+1 =3. For me, the most moving song of the evening is the second, “My Hometown”, last song on “Born in the USA”, the album I dismissed at first. Bruce at the piano, after telling the story of his early life and beginning on his his troubled relationship with his father. That story continues, and leads to “My Father’s House”, off “Nebraska”, Bruce’s darkest album. As he switches to his mother, Bruce assures us it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact the story of his mother and her sisters, the Italian side of the family, is one about the love of life, giving it everything, whatever the circumstances. He sings quite an obscure song called “The Wish”, off an outtakes box set of CDs called “Tracks”, which came out in 1998. Bruce aficionados will have it – so do I! It tells the tale when his mother bought him an electric guitar, even though she could barely afford it. That gift set him on his way.
The family roots established, Bruce goes on to his desire to escape the confines of Freehold and New Jersey. To move from being a local star to someone they’ve heard of in New York. Cue “Thunder Road” and the “Promised Land”. The real deal. Songs that are central to what Bruce Springsteen is about. Throughout the show Bruce has some good lines in self-deprecation, like how the man who was born to run now lives 10 minutes away from his first home in Freehold. But he doesn’t do false modesty either. He knows he has a gift. And when he jokes that I made New Jersey, he probably also means it.
The story of “Born in the USA” comes next: how Bruce read a book by a Vietnam war veteran Ron Kovic, “Born on the Fourth of July”, then met the man by chance. That led to a visit to veterans in Southern California, men who had lost limbs, jobs, loved ones, maybe even their sanity. Bruce himself managed to dodge the draft, having been summoned to a recruitment centre. He says, poignantly, I often wonder who went in place of me… someone did. And plays a brutal, raw, sliding blues version of the song, like nothing I’ve heard before. He howls the words with no accompaniment. An excoriating rejoinder to the politicians who want to distort the message purely to America is great. For me, this is the outstanding moment of the show.
“Ten Avenue Freeze Out” features Bruce on ambling, jazzy piano as he pays a lengthy tribute to the Big Man, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011. The audience responds with joy. And then from one soulmate to another: his wife Patti Scialfa joins Bruce on stage and they duet on “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise”. Bruce on piano for the first, both of them on guitar for the second. A truly moving interlude.
It gets serious again for “The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “The Rising”. Bruce prefaces them with a statement of support for all the people who are fighting back against Trump’s appalling immigration policy and the separation of children from their families. I saw a news story on the local New York TV station about how 327 of these children had wound up in New York, some with little or no documentation. Getting them back with their parents may prove impossible. It’s shocking to see a great nation, a beacon to the world, behave like this. “Tom Joad” is a song about people at their lowest point; “The Rising” offers hope. At the time it came out, that hope for renewal, recovery, was for New York, recovering from the trauma of 9/11. Bruce doesn’t mention that tonight.
Now we are into the home run. “Dancing in the Dark”, with Bruce giving his guitar a good thrash, prompts the most celebratory response of the evening. It’s the only Bruce song you can really dance to (unless you can jive), the most streamed on Spotify. And yet the lyrics are full of frustration and self-loathing. The irony of pop, eh? The song segues into “Land of Hope and Dreams”, another riposte to the Trumpian hate-view of the world. Bruce’s last story gets spiritual. The return to his roots – literally. There used to be a large tree in the yard where he first lived. He spent a lot of time in its branches, lord of all he surveyed. It’s gone now, cut down to make way for a car park. But Bruce describes how some roots have survived, how he took the soil by those roots in his hand and how he felt the spirits of friends and family, long gone, all around him. And then he declaims a version of the Lord’s Prayer. A bit of me says, steady on now Bruce, let’s just worship rock’n’roll tonight, but the power of those words coming from his mouth is enough to overcome the scepticism. In Bruce we believe!
And then it’s “Born to Run”… hooray! Had to be the last song didn’t it? Turned inside out by Bruce on his acoustic guitar, but still “Born to Run”. Living the dream. And tonight was living the dream. Two hours twenty just flashed by. I’m still processing it as I write this on the flight home. How did it compare with that night in 2013 at Wembley, when he played the whole of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” in one go? Well that was a blub fest – and it wasn’t just me. But that was back to those memories of being nineteen – and we’d had few beers. So they don’t compare, except to say that they will both stay in the memory to the day I die.
Redemption in music. No-one does it like Bruce Springsteen.