(or “What’s it all about, Stevie?”)
“I’m just a prisoner…OF ROCK ‘N’ ROLL!”
Bruce Springsteen’s been screaming that line for decades, and this time he’s screaming it in Cape Town, South Africa. These are his first shows ever in the country; rock ‘n’ roll has brought him here, just like it brought him to Australia and London and Prague and every city imaginable in the United States.
Rock ‘n’ roll has been good to Springsteen. But he’s never been a passenger of rock ‘n’ roll, or a student. He’s always been a prisoner. And on this night, it doesn’t sound feel like he’s inspired by the possibilities. It sounds like he’s pushing up against the walls, working at the limits of his artistry, trapped and resigned. But still, y’know, having an awesome time.
Springsteen has always been unique for the directness and clarity of his message across decades of work. There’s a clear arc from the desperate yearning for liberation on Born to Run, through the bleak wasteland of Darkness on the Edge of Town and Nebraska, to the more pointed American stories on Born in the USA and The River. That’s a gross oversimplification, but for the purposes of this conversation, it helps to have a broad idea of where he’s been, so we can talk about where he seems to be going.
He’s going to the end. He’s facing down death, and he’s coming up short.
Springsteen’s 2012 release Wrecking Ball mashed up Bruce’s reaction to both the murder of America’s economy and the death of his close friend Clarence “Big Man” Clemons into a single defiant blast of rock, blues, folk, and gospel. The shows on his Wrecking Ball tour echoed those themes. Most of those concerts featured as their centerpiece “My City of Ruins” from his 2002 album The Rising. It was written in 2000 for Asbury Park and recorded in the wake of 9/11, but ten years later, it became a soul-infused reaction to every kind of loss–money and job, status and self-worth, family and friends. “Tonight all the dead are here/So bring on your wrecking ball,” he would sing on Wrecking Ball‘s title cut, usually part of an opening one-two punch with “We Take Care of Our Own” or “Badlands.”
It was rage, rage against the dying of the light. The message was potent. Songs from across Springsteen’s catalog were pressed into service, from “Badlands” to “Hungry Heart.” But the main show (before forty-plus minutes of encores) often closed with “Thunder Road,” in a slightly slower and statelier approach than in the past, and with a full horn section stepping in to play Clemons’ sax solo on the song’s outro. It was such a cathartic moment; the entire night seemed to build to it, this musical expression of the community reaching out to lift you up and support you when you are toppled by loss.
Today it’s two years later, and Springsteen is touring again, this time behind High Hopes, an album released in January that may or may not actually be an album, depending on how you choose to view it. High Hopes compiles tracks that were left behind from albums recorded over the past fifteen years–songs that were in consideration for Magic, The Rising, Working on a Dream, and Wrecking Ball. There’s also a few more recent recordings including three covers, two re-records of Springsteen’s own songs, and heavy contributions throughout from former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello.
Look closely, and maybe you see something’s missing–a moment of catharsis. High Hopes crescendos at “The Ghost of Tom Joad” with a fury of guitars and fades away into the bitter disappointment of “The Wall” and yearning of “Dream Baby Dream.” That’s the one song where Springsteen strains to find hope, but not in reality–in dreams, baby, dreams.
The overwhelming message of Springsteen’s work over the past fifteen years has been that we face hardships, and American life is lousy for reasons completely outside our control, and we always pay a price for our good and bad decisions–but we do it together. In the E Street reunion shows of 1999 and 2000, he shouted like a fundamentalist preacher about how you may find your way to the river of love, and faith, and sexual healing, but “you can’t get there by yourself.” On the 2009 Working on a Dream tour, he developed a rant about building a house as a community, one built from spirit and music and noise.
The centerpiece of most of his 2014 shows to date has been a version of his 1973 track “Spirit in the Night” that begins with Springsteen asking his audience a simple question, “Can you feel the spirit?” “Yeah, yeah,” comes the response from the crowd and the band. Springsteen seems unconvinced. He spends these evenings constantly moving, a shark with a Fender Esquire strapped across his chest, singing about romantic desperation and spiritual yearning.
“I got high hopes,” he growls, in a song where hope has to reach high because the lower rungs of reality are so disappointing. “Darlington County” is a party song about two out-of-work drifters who search out a better life and find nothing but trouble. Nebraska songs like “Johnny 99,” “Reason to Believe” and “Open All Night” explode in full band arrangements that hide the fatality of the songs inside rave-up blues, swing, and Chuck Berry rock. He’s pushing himself and his band with random covers and obscure rarities–his final show in Australia was like an old-school Springsteen fan’s wet dream, with deep cuts from Greetings and The River along with a full album performance of The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.
He’s still opening the shows with defiance (“Badlands”) and closing them with some hope at redemption (“Land of Hope and Dreams”). Sometimes it’s vice versa. But in between, it feels like Springsteen isn’t offering many answers. And having faced death now in the eyes of his closest band mates and friends, he’s turning to his own life, and asking a million questions in a single howl–can you feel the spirit?
Springsteen now makes all of his live shows available for download within 4 days of their performance. At $9.99 apiece for three hours of music in mp3, it’s quite a deal. Casual fans will certainly enjoy grabbing any one of these recordings; the gigs in Sydney, Brisbane, and Perth are especially choice. Those who are willing (or crazy) can listen to every note he’s played live over the past month, and gain a tiny window into Springsteen’s brain.
Listening to these shows, it’s not the beauty that stands out, although they are sometimes beautiful. And it’s not the wild nutty fun, though that’s there too. It’s the nearly tuneless moan at the end of a rare “Jungleland,” or the way he snarls “Trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong” on his 2012 song “Shackled and Drawn,” a set list regular. Croaking, jagged, drenched in sweat, the night always ends like a party. But it’s not a celebration; it’s part desperate dance, part nervous giggle. It’s like he knows God’s not always home, so he swiped the keys to the liquor cabinet and he’s passing out the altar wine–a thief in the house of love, and he can’t be trusted.
He’s one of rocks last warriors, and he’s watching his troops fall around him. He’s not the last man standing yet, but it sure looks close. He’s on a stage every night packed with musicians, and he’s making loud, lonely music. He’s locked himself up inside rock ‘n’ roll again, a prisoner with the key to his escape stuffed deep in his own pocket.