Who’s the boss now?
Bruce Springsteen is the consummate live performer
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When Bruce Springsteen arrived in Australia late in January for a month-long tour, his third such in four years, Donald Trump had just become president of the United States. Both men are used to performing in front of large and adoring crowds, and both are adept at letting their audiences feel the pleasure of becoming, if only for a moment, someone special. “When I’m out in the street / I walk the way I wanna walk,” sings Springsteen on ‘Out in the Street’, a song from his 1980 double album The River. When Springsteen plays this song live, as he did during his last Australian tour, everyone in the audience sings these lines, and the sensation is akin to being lifted suddenly clear of the ground. Here we are, with a view on the whole mess, and a chance at last to call the tune. “When I’m out in the street / I talk the way I wanna talk.”
And isn’t the desire – and more, the licence – to speak freely, without reference to anyone else’s needs, a key part of Trump’s appeal? And hasn’t Springsteen been warning us, since at least The River, of the economic and psychic collapse of America’s industrial working class, a class whose sense of silent abandonment was transformed into the raucous and bitter resentment that powered Trump’s presidential campaign like a malignant fuel? Springsteen is a millionaire rock star and Trump is a billionaire businessman turned demagogue, but their status is a vehicle through which their respective audiences (and who knows, but maybe these audiences overlap) can enact revenge against the powerful. “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king,” sings Springsteen on ‘Badlands’, one of the defining songs of his career, “And a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything.”
Springsteen delivers these lines as a statement of fact, a fact reinforced by the mass of instruments – guitar, piano, organ, bass, drums – building like a wave, or like a wall, behind his voice. The influence of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” on Springsteen’s songwriting and production style has long been noted, including by Springsteen himself, but he turns the force of Spector’s teenage symphonies towards a deadlier purpose. What’s at stake here isn’t only the girl; winning the girl is just a step on the way towards supremacy. The conservatism of Springsteen’s music – the classic chord sequences, the in-built reverence for pop history – enhances, by contrast, the recklessness of his lyrics, and in bringing these elements together his songs suggest that an overly familiar form might still contain within it an untapped supply of energy. His live shows are a gamble on this premise: play it well enough, play it loud enough, and the world could turn upside down. When Springsteen plays live a curious noise can be heard throughout the venue, a low, sustained note: Bruuuuuuuuce. But it sounds just like booing, as if the people have finally had enough of being spoken for. Who’s the boss now?
Last time Springsteen and his E Street Band played in Sydney, three years ago this month, he had, after half a dozen songs, an announcement to make. It was time for the musicians onstage to play his album Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978) in its entirety. There are certain expectations that a fan brings to a Springsteen show, and, though he has played the full album in concert before, this wasn’t among them. One could sense, more than hear, the collective intake of breath. We stood on the precipice of something. The album’s opening song is ‘Badlands’, and before anyone could stop to think for too long about what was going to happen next, the band plunged into it.
In his recently published autobiography, Born To Run, Springsteen describes Darkness as his “samurai record, stripped to the frame and ready to rumble”. It is a set of songs that dwell upon an isolation that is partly economic and partly existential. At the furthest edge of these circumstances lies the prospect of becoming an outlaw, a narrative logic that Springsteen would carry to its end on Nebraska (1982), where his characters are (mostly) murderers.
The rage that punctuates Darkness had its origin in Springsteen’s own New Jersey childhood (“I never saw a man leave a house in a jacket and tie unless it was Sunday or he was in trouble”), but the album is also a response to the punk movement that was brewing on both sides of the Atlantic at the time. The punks mightn’t have cared for Springsteen – he wore blue jeans, for God’s sake – but he was intrigued by them, recognising “a distant kinship” between their anger and his own. Both were reacting to the widespread economic crisis of the late 1970s, a crisis that was undoing any material gains made by the working class since the end of World War Two.
But Springsteen also grasped a couple of things that many punk bands didn’t. The first, as he recalls in his book, was a sense that “there was a great difference between unfettered personal license and real freedom”. He had escaped his own upbringing, but the structural inequalities that shaped it remained in place. The second was his realisation, born in part out of his engagement with the traditions of folk and country music, that an angry song didn’t always have to be a noisy song. What might happen if instead of giving anger full vent you clamped down more tightly upon it?
The answer was ‘Racing in the Street’, the song that splits Darkness in half. And Springsteen’s performance of this song in Sydney lingers in the mind.
Throughout most of it, his guitar hung limply around his neck: the rock hero divested of his primary armour. ‘Racing in the Street’ is a piano-based ballad, but the word “ballad” can imply mawkishness, and ‘Racing in the Street’ isn’t mawkish. It is terribly sad, and, for a song that is set among and inside of cars, terribly still. The music doesn’t really go anywhere. The characters in the song don’t go anywhere. They just edge closer to despair.
The narrator of ‘Racing in the Street’ races cars only for money. And the devastating though unspoken realisation at the heart of the song is that money is all there is left, the sole measure of human endeavour. The song’s arrangement is bare, the vocal melody repetitive; the one opportunity for departure comes after all the words have been sung, when an organ refrain takes over – here, the studio version begins to fade out, while onstage, that night, Springsteen and his band circled around it for minutes on end, as if they might yet find a way to escape the song’s emotional force field, which of course they couldn’t. “Tonight, tonight the highway’s bright / Out of our way, mister, you best keep.” It is an impotent warning, a fury swallowed down.
Behind ‘Racing in the Street’ stands Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 Motown hit ‘Dancing in the Street’, a song that was, in its time, both a party favourite and a harbinger of the civil unrest about to hit American cities. Springsteen has spent his career in dialogue with African-American popular music, a dialogue personified by his brotherly relationship with the E Street Band’s late saxophonist, Clarence Clemons. Their fraternity was genuine, and it was also the symbol of a possible reconciliation between white and black America. But, writes Springsteen in Born To Run, “we lived in the real world”, where nothing, “not all the love in God’s heaven, obliterates race”. This isn’t fatalism, but a recognition that pop music trades in signs, and that signs alone cannot change the world, though Springsteen and his band play as if this wasn’t true. This, apart from anything else, gives his music its pathos.
Springsteen can build a wall in his songs and then, through a change in pace and pressure, knock it down again. Circumstances close in on his characters, circumstances that the music yearns to be free of, even when it can’t be. Trump intends to build a wall, a real one, that will partition real people from one another. Venomous and permanent division between the powerful and the powerless is his raison d’être. And that is the difference between them.
At the very end of that Sydney show, after more than three hours of performing, Springsteen returned to the stage and sat down behind a pump organ. The song he chose to play was ‘Dream Baby Dream’, which is included on his most recent studio album, High Hopes (2014). This is a cover version of a song first recorded by the New York punk duo Suicide in 1979, and out of Suicide’s nervous agitation Springsteen pulls something fervently beautiful. It’s not a betrayal of the song’s original terms, but an enlargement of them.
There’s a film clip that accompanies Springsteen’s studio recording of this song: slow-motion footage of his live concerts, and particularly of his audiences. Faces are picked out from the crowd, and the expressions on these faces (young and old faces, male and female, black and white) range from prayerful to goofy to overjoyed. It is a democratic vision, because it implies that democracy is not merely the accumulation of numbers but is instead created by the complete presence of each citizen’s individual being.
I don’t know, entirely, why this song has the power to dissolve me, but it does. As with so much in Springsteen’s catalogue it walks a fine line between affecting and hackneyed, and I resist the trace of manipulation, though I don’t think in the end that it’s manipulative. Springsteen, being only a musician, cannot bring his vision of democracy into being, but that isn’t the point. The point is that for the length of a song one can believe it.
Anwen Crawford is the Monthly’s music critic and the author of Live Through This.