View From the Cheap Seats ~ Springsteen Sails The River ~ Part 1

Before I go into my review and experience with The River Tour by the Boss, I want to talk a little bit about the value of fandom.

As my tagline says, I am an unapologetic geek. That means I have interests I enjoy enough to learn about them and immerse myself in them. I've also reached an age where I don't have to justify my passions. As I've followed the river of my own life, one thing has remained fairly constant: the Bruce Springsteen soundtrack.

Yesterday, someone posted on Facebook that he wasn't a fan, but respected the man. Of course, suggestions came in about the "best" music by the Boss and where the original poster should dive in. And, of course, everyone was right. With a career pushing into its fifth decade, there is a body of work for everyone, something for every taste and life experience. Driving back from one of the concerts, I identified five phases of Springsteen's musical evolution. Disagree with me? Cool. I'm always up for discussion.

Born to Run - 1975
I - The Wild and Innocent. By 1975, the Boss had dropped two artistic, but commercially disappointing albums. I'm going to state it right now that Asbury Park and E Street Shuffle don't do it for me. It makes sense. In 1973, I lived in a hick town in upstate California and not a single radio station picked up on this skinny kid from Jersey. I was 13 and being raised on country music and the Osmond Brothers. The connection wasn't there. To steal from Jon Stewart, I was still too young to yearn.

On the verge of being dropped by his label in favor of some dude named Billy Joel, Springsteen was given one more chance. That chance turned out to be Born to Run. There's nothing to be said about this album that hasn't been said. I'll only point out the irony that Thunder Road, the epitome of adult angst, was written by a 25-year-old. Even then he could tap into the well of human emotion, romance, and experience. This album also penetrated the airwaves in podunk California and I, along with millions of others, was like, "Hey, this guy is good."

But like many other things in the Boss's career, it was short-lived.

Darkness on the Edge of Town - 1978

II - Darkness. Born to Run brought the fame, the fans, the tour . . . what it didn't bring was the money. At the end of the day it is about being paid for the work. His manager, Mike Appel, had signed Springsteen to a slave wage contract that took the rights to his songwriting. In short, Bruce had his own Colonel Tom Parker.

This is also the time when personal demons were whispering lies in his ear. The black dog always lies, but sometimes we listen. A lesser person, one less driven, might have succumbed, and like Elvis, ended up a self-medicating Vegas act.

But the Boss was made of sterner stuff. A lawsuit to reclaim his copyrights consumed most of 1976 - 1977 and kept him out of the studio for almost a year. In an industry that runs on "what have you done for me lately," that could have been career killing. The suit was settled on May 28, 1977. Bruce Springsteen was a free man. Forty years later, he still guards his intellectual property like it is dragons' gold. Because he understands.

Darkness on the Edge of Town in 1978, The River in 1980, and the raw acoustic Nebraska reflect this. Along with the scruffy rocker vibe, he also lost the innocence of the earlier albums. Staring down thirty, out of the spotlight, and battle-hardened in court, these albums are about the dark search. The wondering what the hell this is all about. In the narration of The River tour, Bruce talks about trying to write his way into clarity about the "home he was trying to find." The albums were praised artistically and commercially successful, but some people were wondering what happened to their Turnpike rebel. Life happened and it was a hard stop where a very young guy became a man searching for The Promised Land.

This is the era that started to vibrate with me. I was 20, on my own and heading into a marriage that would turn out to be bruising (mentally and physically) and soul-crushing. I still hadn't seen Springsteen perform, but I lived the music.

But, again, in a twist worthy of a novel, things were fixing to change . . . .

Born  in the USA - 1984

III - The King of Rock. Some fans don't know that Bruce made albums before Born in the USA in 1984. Purists sneer at this, but, in my opinion, there is no wrong way to Springsteen. We all discover the music that we need in our own way.

Success is often the confluence of talent, timing, and luck. With his stunning made-for-the-80s sex appeal, and songs of blue-collar loss coupled with pounding rhythms, USA sent the Boss straight to the top and made him the global superstar he is to this day.

And I will say, there are few things that make me happier than being in the car with the sunroof open, singing along with this album. If the critics don't like it, they can bite me.

He was everyman. The car mechanic in I'm on Fire, the mill worker of Glory Days, the kid in trouble with the law in Working on the Highway, the veteran who never quite made it home from Born in the USA. No matter where you lived, he was that guy you knew around town.

It also nearly destroyed him.

At the end of the epic tour and a picture-perfect stealth wedding to the picture-perfect Hollywood starlet, he woke up, in the words of one writer, "rich, married, and bored." Over-exposed in the press, a teen magazine centerfold, and many of the original fans wondering what had happened to their poet, this was not a recipe for success. This is where some rockers veer off into drugs and excess and become VH1 "Behind the Music" documentaries. Instead, Springsteen turned inward and consumed himself.

Caught in the middle was Julianne Phillips, the true innocent who was hurt in this journey. Yeah, a very big check and non-disclosure agreement cushioned the fall, but in the rare times Bruce will mention her, it is with regret over the pain he caused.

And it teed up the next phase.

Tunnel of Love - 1987
IV - Adulting and Compromises. By the late 80s, Bruce had gained the stars, but felt like he'd lost the sky. This is also my time of greatest resonance with the music, because things had pretty well tanked for me as well.

If I was allowed to only keep one Springsteen, it would be the 1987 Tunnel of Love. It was the soundtrack to the end of my horrific first marriage and would turn out to be prophetic 20 years later. If you've lived it, One Step Up is the song that you will feel like was written for you.

In 1988, fans noticed a change. Instead of crooning Elvis songs to the lovely Julianne, Bruce was torching it up on stage with his back-up singer Patti. 

It had to be done, but no wife should learn of her husband's infidelity on the cover of People magazine (I learned by a set of tire tracks and small footprints in the snow leading up to my own front door while I was at school.)

The music about "men and women" was a return to the poetry of the old days, but more spare and lean than the "passel o' verbiage" of his early work. If you've ever been hurt, then Tunnel of Love understood.

"It ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough . . . "

We all know the history. Bruce wrote a big check, moved on with Patti, and the first of their three children was born in 1990 (near his 40th birthday.) Two more kids followed quickly and Springsteen had the family that would sustain him for the rest of his life. It wasn't without rocks (boulders) in the road, including Patti telling him to father up or forget about it. This is also the era where Bruce finally faced his mental health issues and entered into serious treatment.

What followed was a semi-withdrawal from the spotlight. There was human rights work, acoustic sessions, small gigs, and a lot of introspection. Overlooked in this period is the album Lucky Town. Under-rated and often forgotten, three songs (including Living Proof about the birth of his oldest son) are more insightful than any biography. The jagged-edged lyrics are front and center in this hard look into a broken mirror.

Better Days

"Well, I took a piss at fortune's sweet kiss,
It's like eatin' caviar and dirt,
It's a sad funny ending to find yourself pretending, 
A rich man in a poor man's shirt . . . "

"Now a life of leisure and a pirate's treasure, 
Don't make much for tragedy,
But it's a sad man my friend who's livin' in his own skin, 
And can't stand the company."

From the title track, Lucky Town

"I had some victory that was just failure in deceit,
Now the joke's comin' up through the soles of my feet,
I been a long time walking on fortune's cane,
Tonight I'm stepping' lightly and feelin' no pain.

Well here's to your good looks, baby now here's to my health,
Here's to the loaded places that we take ourselves . . . "

Those last two lines haunt me when I think about my husband's crippling accident. He took himself there, to that loaded place, and lost.

But out of all this came happiness. The hunted edge seemed to leave his eyes as he was photographed with his children. Some of the photos of smaller gigs show a few extra pounds. Throw in the obligatory greatest hits and live albums. Bruce had grown up and mellowed out. In the narrative of The River, he mentions how the young man he was could only see the compromises, not the blessings living behind those compromises. It's easy to see that he understands those blessings now.

The Rising - 2002
V - Statesman and Social Poet. The seeds of the next and current stage of his career were sown in 1995 with The Ghost of Tom Joad, a somber narrative of "poverty, immigration and the brittle trouble of Americans and Mexicans in the Southwest."

In 2001, America changed and Bruce changed with it. The Rising was his tribute to 9/11 and his return to examining the social fabric. His fame also gave him a platform to comment on what was happening in this country. Who knew the motley rocker from the streets of Asbury Park would play at the inauguration of the first black president?

He'd returned to what Steven Van Zandt said years ago, "They don't listen to hear about your life. They listen to hear you explain their life."

This chapter is still being written. Tom Joad morphed from a ballad into an angry anthem for change in a duet with Tom Morello on High Hopes.

In Wrecking Ball, he wasn't just talking about the loss of an iconic stadium, he was daring age to bring it on . . . The album is threaded through with comments on contemporary America and the paradoxes of immigration and poverty.

This Bruce speaks to my social justice sensibilities. As a long time Legal Aid attorney and public defender, the strident calls for justice vibrate with me. Some scorn him and call him another limousine liberal who hates cops and veterans and America. Truly, "there's a joke here somewhere," because anyone who reads the lyrics and the poetry knows differently.

There is also a sense of fun and experimentation in the music. High Hopes toyed with the classic Phil Spector "wall of sound," with an elaborate back-up band and a touch of island in the rhythms. In 2016, he spontaneously drops a tour where he plays an album he wrote when he was his son's age from start to finish to near sell-out crowds from coast to coast. This week, he cancelled one of those shows in North Carolina to make a statement about discriminatory anti-LGBT laws. He has reached the point in his career when he can sacrifice money and risk criticism to make a stand. That carries weight and hopefully other artists will follow suit.

This new Boss is out of fucks to give and out of things to worry about. That makes for excellent music and even better live performances. That iconic guitar has earned its scars. It is the symbol of a passion well and truly lived. 

This was long and I appreciate anyone who has hung in to the end. I rang in 2015 newly widowed and faced with the physical and financial detritus of my husband's long illness. I also had to decide what's next for me because the river of life keeps flowing.

I have no clue where I'll be standing a year from now. I do know what the soundtrack will be and that every chance I get, I'll be in the cheap seats singing myself hoarse.

If you still have a few minutes left on your break, check out Part 2 and my take on The River Tour 2016.


Joe Clifford said…
I discovered Bruce over Born in the USA too. If I had to pick ONE record? Darkness on the Edge of Town. His angriest to date, and I am an angry man... Good post!