There’s been a recurring theme in this column of me just not getting it with music legends to start with, then discovering later that I’d been missing out on something wonderful for years. So now, following on from Joni Mitchell and Van Morrison, here’s The Boss, who I was completely ambivalent to until I saw him playing live.
When I say “playing live”, there’s a bit more to it than that. On holiday on the East Coast of the USA in summer 2001, we were staying a couple of weeks in the lovely town of Hyannis on beautiful Cape Cod. We brought away lots of good memories, which is something you want from a holiday.
What I didn’t expect to come away with was a musical revelation.
We were visiting the shopping mall in Hyannis and wandering round one of those American department stores that seemed so exotic to a British visitor (the gap’s closed over the years, but it was exciting back then). I was in the technical section looking at TVs, and on the biggest screen, demonstrating the merits of the TV picture, the DVD player (this was the early days of DVD) and the stunning sensurround sound system (or whatever), was a rock concert. It was Bruce Springsteen, and as I stood and watched for several minutes a light went on in my head. This man was awesome on stage.
Even in those few moments you could see what was special. He was dynamic, enthusiastic, working with the audience, putting on a show without resorting to showmanship – no special effects, no pyrotechnics, no elaborate stage sets. Just Bruce and the E Street Band playing what the audience wanted to hear and looking in that moment as though there was nowhere else on Earth they would rather be than up on that stage playing for those people.
I’d spent years largely ignoring Springsteen, apart from Born To Run, which had been my singalong cassette of choice on many a long (solo) car journey. I’d known people over the years who’d loved his albums, but it was only the odd song that ever made an impression.
So naturally I now wanted to see him play live in person. Foolishly, I’d decided I only wanted to see him with the E Street Band so, missing out on the 2002 The Rising tour, I was disappointed that he went back to recording solo stuff and then the Seeger Sessions Band tour (with hindsight, that’s one I should have seen – even people who don’t like Springsteen should watch the DVD of that tour).
So it wasn’t until 2008 that I got the chance to see Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band in Cardiff. And here’s where the magic worked again. My wife was completely indifferent to Springsteen’s music, but agreed to come with me to Cardiff Millenium Stadium. We didn’t want to stand, so with unreserved seating tickets we queued for an hour or so to be let in, then waited another hour or more before Springsteen came on stage (there’s no support band at a Bruce Springsteen gig).
By the time he left the stage three hours later, my wife was up and dancing with the rest, completely won over. He was energetic, engaging, and so clearly enjoying playing the music. He talks to the audience (see Van Morrison for comparison), tells stories, chats. The crowd is part of the show – we soon realised the places where you’re supposed to join in, like singing the first verse of Hungry Heart while the band just plays, or punching the air at the right moment in Born To Run, or just singing all the choruses and riffs.
It doesn’t sound like much written down, but in a crowd of 60,000 people, it’s infectious. And he plays requests – a lot of the audience have brought handwritten signs that he collects then chooses what to play. He’s having fun, and so are the thousands of people watching.
My wife’s been with me to see Springsteen and the E-Street band three times since, and each time has been an event. I’ve written before about wanting to see bands on their home-town gigs, so when I found out that Springsteen was playing Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ at the same time that were going to be in the area on vacation we had to rearrange the holiday itinerary to get there. At Manchester he was playing the first tour since the death of his long-time friend and sax player Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, which included a perfectly staged and perfectly observed and very moving two minutes’ silence.
And in Coventry the gig was on the day that actor James Gandolfini died – a close friend of the band, and particularly of Steve Van Zandt who had appeared with Gandolfini in The Sopranos. I’m sure it must have been hard to go on stage that night, but Springsteen put the band on his back and carried them through it, still entertaining the crowd, and playing the whole of the Born To Run album by way of a tribute to Gandolfini.
After years of indifference to Bruce Springsteen, ignoring college friends who tried to convince me, even shunning Wembley Stadium when he played there on the Born In The USA tour despite living close enough to be able to hear the sound from the stadium, I finally got it.
And his recent albums have been packed with terrific songs – he’s still doing great things, and I’m glad I wasn’t too late.
Springsteen’s just announced dates for a tour at the start of 2016 – USA dates only so far, but I’m keeping me eye out for UK dates. If you get a chance, just once, go and see what it’s all about.
Each week when I’m thinking through who or what to write about in this series, there are three things I’m thinking about – the “origin story” of how I got into the subject, a bit about why the subject matters to me, and what links to include, particularly for musical subjects.
The first part of this one was easy, but I’ve started and then deleted no end of sentences trying to explain why Bruce Springsteen matters to me, and I just have to give up. Maybe there’s another post to come some day where I try to wrestle those thoughts into some kind of order, but that feels like a whole separate piece of work.
As for the links – this is Bruce Springsteen, for goodness’ sake. Apart from the 40-odd years of material, and especially the epically monster albums and songs, surely everyone knows everything they think they want to know about his music. You can go and check out the albums on Spotify or You Tube – if anyone wants a playlist from me, let me know, but last time I did one (to get my sons up to speed before that Giants Stadium gig) there were around 30 songs on it and it could easily have been twice as long.
So here are four very different links that I think illustrate aspects of what makes Bruce Springsteen so damned special….
Born To Run: An acoustic version, that makes this a completely different song from the version everyone knows.
The Ghost of Tom Joad: started life on an acoustic album, but this version with Tom Morello guesting on guitar is explosive.
Dancing In The Dark: Springsteen always pulls a woman from the audience to join him onstage for Dancing In The Dark (famously, Courteney Cox in the video). This time, he got his Mum and his sister, and it’s joyous. And this gives you just a short taste of how much fun a Bruce Springsteen concert is.
Pay Me My Money Down: With his Seeger Sessions Band – there’s not a single person in that entire building, whether on stage or in the crowd, who isn’t having fun.
This will be the last “How I Got Into….” post of 2015 as next Friday is Christmas Day. So a very Merry Christmas to anyone who’s still reading all the way down here, and I’ll see you in the New Year.