Where We’re From, Where We’re Going To: On Death & Bruce Springsteen

Wiltshire-based novelist Tariq Goddard and New Jersey-resident writer David Shaftel set aside their cultural differences to enjoy what could be Bruce Springsteen And The E-Street Band's last shows in the UK

For one of us America was The Promised Land, for the other home. Both of these relationships were complicated. America has never been an ignorable presence in the world, but in the early 80s it was still deep in the process of proving itself, and demonstrating across every cultural sphere why it deserved to have a century named after it. It seemed as though the world spoke American and not English. British culture, however arresting, felt intrinsically local and unhygienic. It was for connoisseurs, we consoled ourselves, compared to the “right stuff” coming out of The States: The Space Shuttle, Rocky, Eddie Murphy, The Cannonball Run and lots and lots of music. American cultural production was reliable, robust, effective, and above all, optimistic and friendly; “Death to America” may have held in Tehran, but with its bacon-cheeseburgers and Charlie’s Angels reruns, the US was welcome in the corner of West London one half of us grew up in.

When all this changed for good is hard to say – and it was certainly all over by the time of the interregnum that lay between Rocky V and the Second Gulf War – but by the end of the 80s America’s cultural and political exports were beginning to lose their sheen (ironically Bruce Springsteen, later a victim of this process, probably felt the same way). Top Gun did not say much to a young Englishman about his life, Reagan was not an obvious improvement on his Spitting Image puppet, and no kid with any self respect would opt for Bad over The Queen Is Dead. Partly through an endemic and historical British snobbery – shared across classes, where it was certainly acceptable to say that you didn’t like something or someone simply because it or they were American, with no further explanation needed, subsequently weaponised by righteous impatience with forty years of US foreign policy – America was in danger of becoming as cool as Ronald McDonald’s flat footed clown shoes.

In this context an album with the Stars and Stripes emblazoned in its cover, and “USA” in the title, was unlikely to receive an unpartisan hearing, and so was a perfect scapegoat for the cultural turn. Bruce Springsteen was the first artist one of us steered clear of for cultural reasons, despite loving every minute of any song of his heard anywhere but in his own record collection, which by then had taken on a strong nativist bent. A combination of Shane McGowan setting a journalist straight on what the lyrics of ‘Born In The USA’ were actually about and disquiet at the superficiality of the analysis of what was going on in America changed that. For the Great Satan, the US was eerily prescient in delivering its own critiques, the counter culture seeming to feed off and yet add to the energy of the system it was at odds with. Capitalism, far from killing music, was locked into an inventive and dialectical relationship with it, creating an entwinement between what we loved and hated, and with that, a far less clear cut politics than the didactic left could comfortably acknowledge. From there, buoyed by the unconscious pull of the songs themselves, The Boss’s Steinbeckian vision of the States was irresistible, and in very little time, the Marylebone Flyover had become Thunder Road, Praed Street 10th Avenue, and Margate, Atlantic City.  

All this was academic for the half of us actually born in the USA, in the Boss’s backyard, no less. In New Jersey, as in the rest of the USA, only more so, Born In The USA was inevitable, even if our musical reasons for loving him were sometimes at odds with the cultural ones (close listeners know that Springsteen didn’t share the political views of some of those he championed, just look at all the first responders who take a seat when the Boss plays ’41 Shots’, a song about police brutality). At the end of the 70s Springsteen was still just a local hero with a rapidly growing cult following. That started to change in 1980, when he had finally had a Top 10 hit with ‘Hungry Heart’, and by 1984 MTV was the dominant cultural force, the Boss had a synth player in the band, and Reagan was on the cusp of a landslide reelection. ‘Dancing In The Dark’ broke the dam open, but ‘Born In The USA’ was a juggernaut. So broad was its appeal that a cynic could love its dark verses, while a bag of bones like Reagan could campaign on the patriotism of its chorus, without the song risking any fear of contradiction. And if ‘Born In The USA’ was the A-side to the final years of our childhoods then its B-side was Top Gun, which most certainly did say something to young American men about their lives, in that it let us know what our country expected of us: exceptionalism, above all, but also to defeat a nameless but menacing enemy all the while following only the most important rules: duty and un-questioning patriotism. Springsteen’s gift – one of them – has always been to undermine these values without alienating fans who share them. Did Pete “Maverick” Mitchell have a Boss cassette in his Sony Walkman? Probably.

Yet in terms of the American dream he was savaging, Springsteen’s rise from the Asbury Park bar scene to world domination was even less likely than that of a fuckup like Maverick’s freak appointment to flight school at Miramar. For starters the Boss was goddamn lucky not to have been sent to Vietnam, where his bandmate, Castiles drummer Bart Haynes, was killed in action in 1967. By 1984, when he had the country’s ear, Springsteen was the rare singer who could tell the stories of our beaten dogs without seeming at all condescending. (It wasn’t until ‘Rainmaker’, aka The Trump Song, from Letter To You, that he showed his ambivalence for the section of his audience that overlaps with that of our former President.)

Put crudely, to be intimate with Springsteen’s New Jersey was like being from William Faulkner’s Oxford, R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi, or whatever world Wes Anderson’s films are supposed to be set in. The landmarks are not metaphors. The Turnpike is spooky at night when you’re all alone, the giant Exxon sign does give this fair city light, and there’s something about New Jersey being so close but so far away from New York City, that means that while your hometown was a purgatory, for losers, you were nevertheless intimidated by “city dudes”, and deeply suspicious that “strangers from the city” were indeed dialing your girl’s number. When Springsteen sings ‘My Hometown’ one of us will always picture, literally, Freehold, NJ. And yet for the other, it is Paddington, and for other people we know Middlesborough or Nutbush, Mississippi, and for the tens of thousands who sang along to it tonight, some of whom for which English is a second language, a multitude of other places, most of which the Boss will never have visited far less played. As long as your son is on your lap as you steer through town, you’re there.

Music has never shied of appropriation, stealing styles and experiences, and it is a truism that one can sound like one knows what it is like to walk in someone’s shoes without ever having done so, but with Springsteen and his audience this tacit contract is taken off the scale. Never have so many been drawn to the particulars of a life that is not theirs, and while conventional wisdom rightly has it that the universal themes of his songs cut through the differences between The Boss and his audience, it is a telling that his audience are drawn into his world not despite these differences but because of them.

We may all relate back to our own worlds when we hear these songs, but when Springsteen performs, we all see the places that he does. In fact, for one of us the shock of recognition of going to New Jersey for the first time was for the most part due to what his back catalogue had prepared us for. The mixture of campfire stories – the embrace of a world that is quite certainly not the one known by most of us – told by someone we trust implicitly is Springsteen’s metier, and tonight ‘My Hometown’ is a real highlight of a set that does not shy from self-consciously important moments. It’s the song where Springsteen finally gives up the notion of his town being for losers and of wanting to tear the whole place apart. He doesn’t need to, for de-industrialisation and middle age disappointment has done that for him. It’s a mournful song of wistful and reluctant acceptance, about the real death of a real town, but though the narrator and his wife Kay talk about getting out, they stay. And because everyone carries a part of wherever they have come from with them, whether they leave or not, with the necessary sadness inherent in every choice that is at once the cancellation of some other path that could have been taken, the song speaks for those who have remained and who have left alike. This ability to speak for both sides of what in actual life are conflicting positions, runs through all of his most successful work, and explains why both Steve Bannon and Barack Obama can claim him as one of their own.

Much has been made, especially by himself, of Springsteen not (always) having experienced what he sings about, that basically his authenticity is an “act”. (When he wrote ‘Racing In The Street’, to take one stark example, he still did not have a driver’s license.) It is a confession that makes surprisingly little difference to their emotional truth for those who accept a man who has never worked on a highway can still sing convincingly on the subject (which is pretty much everyone here tonight – this is not a show for neutrals, or one that stands a high chance of converting anyone who thinks the Boss is an overblown Philly cheesesteak sandwich). In fact, Springsteen is well aware that he is music’s sincerest ham, or showy straight man (and that these sobriquets are not insults). Again, without lapsing into contraction, he straddles the “serious" artist/entertainer divide in a way that Bob Dylan and Elton John (falling just either, and opposite sides of it) cannot, dominating the elusive commercial sweet spot where quality meets popularity for the last four decades. Nowhere is that more evident than on Born In The USA itself, and in recognition of that fact, the band play eight songs off it tonight. 

Despite this obvious crowd pleasing device, tonight is a more adventurous set than the presence of the most rambunctious of the greatest hits might suggest. We all know that this is almost certainly the last couple of shows the group will ever play in this country (throughout the night, certain hints are dropped to this end), and while the anthemic belters are entirely expected in a set that is a career showcase, the inclusion of a significant handful of “shadow of mortality” numbers offsets what would otherwise be a straightforward valedictory lap of honour. Their inclusion feels at least as relevant to Springsteen and the band as the stirring bangers, and these quieter songs, subtly colour and frame their noisier and better known companions, teasing out the pathos and darkness from the more outwardly cheerful numbers.

It is not too much to say that the underlying and sometimes overt theme of the show, indeed the tour itself, is the acknowledgement and acceptance of the fact that we will all die, and also possibly quite soon. Yet the mood is one of pure elation to be going around one last time, and the sheer euphoria of knowing that although the “train” (as Springsteen refers to it) is coming, it is not here yet, the consolation without which even the least imaginative and metaphysically inclined of us might be put off our stride. Bruce and an invigorated Little Steven are playing and singing off each other, Steve in his most pirate-ish getup to date. They’re poised between the desire to go on as long and as joyfully as possible, and stepping back to allow the more sombre elements the evening is carefully constructed around to take centre stage. ‘Last Man Standing’, played acoustically, bleeds into a speech about the death of George Theiss, the second to last surviving member of the above-mentioned Castiles, before ramping up into a defiant version of ‘Backstreets’, before reverting back to his Theiss rap, a speech on confronting our mortality. it is hard to think of any other artist who would risk a rolling monologue on death, plainly and without musical accompaniment, as Springsteen does, with tens of thousands of people on a Summer evening, without fearing that his nerve or the spell might break.

‘Nightshift’, his choice of song from his recent fun-if-minor covers album, doubles down on the subject. Originally written by The Commodores about the untimely deaths of Jackie Wilson and Marvin Gaye, it is delivered as though he were still singing ‘Badlands’ but with surprisingly effective results. ‘Wrecking Ball’ deals with the death, not of a person, but of Giants Stadium, literally built in the swamps of Jersey. It’s a song that brings a tear to the eye in the Tri-State Area, where fans conflate The Boss’s marathon shows there with gridiron glory and the rumored proximity to the shallow grave of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa.

And as if to acknowledge that his back catalogue has never just been about celebratory declamations. ‘Prove It All Night’ and ‘Out On The Street’ sounded fresh enough to have been composed on the way here. A pair of rockers that sit next to each other on Born In The USA, ‘Darlington County’ and ‘Working On The Highway’, are a treat, both songs sticking to the darker-than-you-might-realise template of the title track, their denouements precisely what denizens of New Jersey were taught will happen to them down South. One song ends with the narrator’s buddy “handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford,” the other with the narrator himself back doing his same old dead end job, only this time as part of the “Charlotte County road gang”. The version of ‘The River’ (the mouth organ solo sounding like the entirety of Deer Hunter distilled into sixty seconds, and possibly the most mournful sound in the world), though written before NAFTA, plays out as one of the best history lessons we have ever heard set to music. Moreover, there isn’t a politician in the world that would not envy Springsteen’s unashamed treatment of economics, unemployment and teenage pregnancy in this song, especially those on the left who despite sharing some of the Boss’s worldview manifestly lack his presentation skills. They’d no doubt also dream of the kind of reverential treatment he’s afforded by a mass audience.

‘Born In The USA’, the first of the encores, is greeted as though it were being played on the other side of the Atlantic before a home crowd (which ironically, the band have chosen not to do in recent times). Perhaps the British, who in our experience are generally dismissive of solidly mediocre American institutions such as Joe Biden and the American national football team, are more comfortable belting out “I was born in the USA” because the song is such an incisive and reproachful indictment of American society. It’s hard to imagine Grand Funk Railroad or, heaven forbid, Lee Greenwood getting the same ovation in London. Seven more songs blaze past, and our responses are so involuntary (smiling when not joining in with all the words) that it is easier to doubt whether they have happened at all, than credit having been stood here for over three hours. The same may be true for Springsteen himself. There are points when the cameras home in on his face as he wanders into the audience and he looks back up at the band on stage, sharing in the excitement and wonder of his audience, a happy old man amazed at his achievement, defiant in the face of the approaching abyss. Paul Bowles is perhaps too exotic a figure to be a natural fit for inclusion in a review of a Bruce Springsteen show (though it’s likely the Boss, forever a literate rock star, has read Bowles). However these two very different Americans define themselves on very similar ground:

Death is always on the way, but the fact that you don’t know when it will arrive seems to take away from the finiteness of life. It’s that terrible precision that we hate so much. But because we don’t know, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. Yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, a few hours that are so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without them? Perhaps four or five times more. Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless….

Taking to the stage alone, with just his guitar, for the very last encore, there’s a line in ‘I’ll See You In My Dreams’ that resonates with this very point. Death, for The Boss, is "when all my summers have come to an end.” That line, if you bookend it with, say, ‘Sandy’, in which it’s the 4th of July and the metaphorical summer is still yet to unfold, where “the pier lights our carnival forever” and the aurora is only just rising now behind them, feels like Springsteen has chosen this to be the last summer he shares with us – at least with the whole band, of which only Garry W. Tallent, the bass player, remains from Greetings From Asbury Park. The departed are toasted during ‘Backstreets’, with imagery of Clarence Clemmons (Jake, his nephew, has taken his place in the band) and keyboardist Danny Federici, who died in 2008 and 2011 respectively.

And that is it. Not everyone’s dreams are going to come true tonight – we would have loved to have heard some of the rockers from Letter To You. The ZZ Top boogie of ‘Burnin’ Train’, ‘Janey Needs A Shooter’, whose title and chorus were borrowed by Warren Zevon or the Greetings From Asbury Park-era ‘If I Was The Priest’, to say nothing of ‘Rainmaker’, which feels like a preemptive message to the Trump campaign not to fuck with ‘Born In The USA’ this time around. Maybe even Tom Waits could have joined him for ‘Jersey Girl’, a song Springsteen typically only pulls out as a rare encore while actually in Jersey, turning the crowd, who have been tailgating in the parking lot of a stadium since mid-morning, to jelly. But he didn’t and now he never will. So it goes, because as the night shows, getting older is not just about all the things you have done and have still to do, but all the things you now know you will never do (which a man who wrote and sung the lines "maybe we’re not that young anymore" at the age of 24 understands better than most, a line that still sounds very affecting sung at 73). We may never see Springsteen here again, but it would be an even greater loss to never see his like, even as the traffic moves around Hyde Park as though nothing has happened. One of the hardest aspects of loving an artist is the incomprehension at all those who do not partake of our passion. Yet given that most of us will never care about most musical endeavours, and never love more than a tiny amount of the total music that has ever been created, Springsteen has had the courage to ignore the absurdity of taking himself seriously, and see what happens. Which is the least anyone would have had to give the Boss tonight, or any of the thousands of us gathered here that have the arrogance and temerity to run, whether we were born to or not.

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