Springsteen on Broadway
It is just three years since I wrote and told anyone who was interested (not many) that I had cast off my cloak of ignorance and had fully embraced the magic of Bruce Springsteen. I use the word ‘magic’ advisedly of course, for there is certainly something of the magical about all great Pop music (Springsteen would call it Rock’n’Roll and that’s fine too). Alexis is right in his own review of ‘Springsteen On Broadway’ for the Manchester Guardian when he talks about how with these shows Springsteen has explicitly acknowledged the artifice inherent in all of his work (hell, he howls it out with delight in the opening few minutes). It is a point that exposes the myth of ‘authenticity’ in Springsteen’s or in anyone’s art, a point that reinforces the point that Pop is entertainment and that entertainment is theatre (of the mind or of the physical). In this Springsteen is firmly in tune with Ray Davies or Princess Chelsea and I find this comforting and fitting.
Live records are difficult beasts and there are few that I would willingly listen to over a studio recording. Springsteen is one of the few to occasionally buck this trend (it can only ever be occasionally) and I truth I probably own more Springsteen live recordings than any other artist (this in spite of the fact that it is, as we said, just three years since I actually started hearing him in any kind of positive light). Oddly too the very reason I have enjoyed live Springsteen recordings is for the element that makes most so frustrating: the between song talking. Springsteen has always been gifted at this and it should really be no surprise because storytelling has always been such an essential part of his songwriting. It really hit me one evening early in 2016 when I was driving home from work and listening to a recording of a contemporaneous Chicago show on the stereo. As the soft backing to ‘Independence Day’ started up Springsteen began talking about the relationship he had with his father and how this informed and drove the song. Now this would have been a week or so after the two year anniversary of my own father’s passing so I realise this inevitably coloured my emotions at the time, but I swear to god I nearly had to pull over to the side of the road because the tears were welling up so bad. And this before he even started singing the damn song. A couple of days later I listened to another show from the same tour and sure enough there were exactly the same words delivered in almost exactly the same way. The emotional impact was lessened slightly by the knowledge that it was all scripted and rehearsed to a polished performance but only slightly. Only slightly. The magic persisted.
It’s clear now that in those 2016 shows Springsteen was very much laying the groundwork for his excellent ‘Born To Run’ biography and in turn for the Broadway performances. In truth too you could/would/should say that all of his shows and recordings throughout his entire career were the foundations for the Broadway performances, a thought that itself suggests what Whistler said about a five minute drawing taking a lifetime to make. Art historians will doubtless tell me I have either misquoted or misappropriated here but as Springsteen would certainly agree, we should never let the truth get in the way of a great story.
The presence of family and particularly of fatherhood looms large in Springsteen’s great story and he revisits this on a regular basis throughout the Broadway production. The power of this theme to connect is another example of the trick of theatre, of Pop, of rock’n’roll, but it is to his credit as a magician that Springsteen can so effectively reach deep into our souls and wrench our hearts so deeply and touchingly. We know we are being manipulated through a trope obviously employed for emotional connection yet we willingly open ourselves up to this and we revel in it for the duration. This willingness to surrender to the trick, this desire to be duped is an intrinsic part of the deal we make with the magicians. It’s what makes the relationship between performer and audience work and it is immeasurably more difficult to carry off than some would credit.
Paddy MacAloon (in)famously wrote some semi-disparagingly lines to Springsteen, saying that “there’s more, much more than cars and girls”. Now I love Prefab Sprout almost as much as I (now) love Springsteen but surely Paddy knew then and knows now that whilst what he wrote is true, it is true only to a point. Springsteen’s records themselves have proven this over the years but if there is an essence to which his narrative returns again and again it is to this (knowingly) mediated mythology of movement, distance, longing and loss. Because of this there is inevitably perhaps the spirit of Kerouac coming through in much of Springsteen’s storytelling, never more so as when he ends the eleven minute ‘intro’ to ‘Promised Land’ by reading the extract from ‘Born To Run’ (the biography, not the song) where he is riding across the country of the U.S.A. for the very first time. If it does not quite match up to Kerouac himself half-mumbling about god being pooh-bear (and let’s face it, what could, for the sound of Kerouac reading is the most perfect you could ever hope for) it’s still a lovely passage perfectly delivered.
And the songs? Well, the songs themselves are fabulous. Of course they are. And if they suffer somewhat by deliveries that have by necessity something of the cabaret singer to them, this is a sacrifice that is, on the whole, worthwhile. For in this context the songs are sacrificed somewhat to the theatrical performance. The songs almost become bit part players, plucked from their origins and made to serve a different narrative of which they are simultaneously a part and apart from. It’s almost like Springsteen himself has duped his own songs into being something they are not, illuminating them with a follow-spot and calculating the sight lines just so.
In the end (actually right from the beginning) we pay no attention to the man behind the curtain because we know he is weaving the spell we do not want to be broken. We know his magic is in illuminating our lives and our worlds in ways we know we could never quite do ourselves. And if that sounds just a little self-defeating, like Princess Chelsea “being inspired to write a song that’s not as good” it shouldn’t. Because just as each of those smaller illuminations are every bit as valuable as what Springsteen makes, in truth they also serve to show the distance between the really good and the truly great.