• Review: Springsteen on Broadway

    October 15, 2017 // 8 Comments »



    Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show now running through February in New York City, is something extraordinary. A man who has entertained us our whole lives stands on a stage for two hours and confesses his sins, asks for our forgiveness, offers an apology, and opens his heart to a room of people about what it means to acknowledge you’re closer to the end than the beginning.

    I almost wrote “a room full of strangers,” but that would not have been true. We all grew up with different parents in different towns, and went to different schools together, but we knew each other. Despite our differences, we grew up hearing the same stories, listening to these same songs. And now, he at age 68 and most of us in our 50’s it seemed, it was time to make amends.

    I’d heard some of this before – at AA meetings where people working through their 12 Step Programs had to admit what they had done, the people they had hurt, and seek forgiveness. Bruce stood up and apologized for allowing Born in the USA to become an anthem; he sought amends tonight by telling us it should have always been sung as a protest song, that it always was to him, but he let it slip away. So tonight he took that back, hitting the line “son, you don’t understand” hard, maybe directed at himself back in 1984 trying to ride the tiger of fame, maybe at himself as a young man dodging the draft and wondering when he visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington decades later who was sent in his place. Calling his own career “frivolous” in the face of such sacrifice, Bruce was pissed off up there tonight singing, no, shouting the lyrics.

    Age is omnipresent as a theme – maybe we ain’t that young anymore – right down to the construction of the unchanging set list; of the 15 songs, three of them come from the Born to Run album, published when Bruce was only 26 years old, one from earlier than that (Growing Up), and another from before he turned 30 (Promised Land.) For a career that spanned 45 years and counting, it’s telling that a 68 year old Springsteen chose a third of the set from that youthful period. As Bruce said tonight, there’s less blank paper for us to write on.

    “I have never held an honest job in my entire life. I’ve never worked 9 to 5. I’ve never done any hard labor. And yet this is all that I’ve written about. I have become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which I personally have had no practical experience,” Bruce confessed or apologized or maybe both, confusing us further by delivering the sentences in his odd acquired Midwestern drawl that sounds like nobody in New Jersey. These thoughts could explain the absence from the show of any of Bruce’s material from Ghosts of Tom Joad, the industrial songs from The River and Darkness, the American folklore tunes, and the Seeger sessions. He had to leave a lot out to make it all fit on Broadway, but those omissions seemed purposeful, not merely practical.

    Maybe those tunes were left out because they really weren’t his own; he owned the emotions there as a character but not the biography, and tonight was all about biography. A lot of this has hummed around the edges of Bruce’s performances for years; he was already working out his emotions over his unloving father on stage as a kind of rap meditation when I first saw him perform in 1978. But tonight when he imitated his father telling him to go away as a young Bruce was sent to fetch him from some bar – “don’t bother me here, don’t bother me here” – that was an 8 year old on stage mimicking an adult. If it was Bruce acting for us, it was Academy Award-quality, because the pain as present as the sweat that popped out involuntarily on his forehead.

    Bruce’s autobiography, published last year, covered a lot of what he’s saying on Broadway, and parts of his speeches tonight were nearly verbatim quotes from the book. But it was clear the book, the words, weren’t enough without the music. Springsteen’s a poet, but his poetry is meant to be played, not read.

    The unexpected musical highlight of the evening was Promised Land, framed around a retelling of Bruce’s first long car trip out of Jersey, one that took him across the great western deserts. Bruce made no secret that the promise he saw in America then remained unfulfilled now in what he described as a dark chapter in American politics. He finished the song, updated from 1978 to 2017 in those few words, aside the mic, singing and playing without amplification directly to the hushed crowd. It was as if he was singing to each of us as individuals, and it was meant to be so. Unlike the other songs, applause waited for a moment of silence to pass after the last chord faded. The universe of people who had previously heard Bruce Springsteen sing to them unamplified just grew exponentially.

    Unlike a typical Springsteen concert, where anything less than three hours is a short cut, and four hours on stage more common, the Broadway show was about two hours, with a definitive ending. No encores. It was tight, maybe even felt a bit rushed. Not like Bruce was trying to cram in everyone’s favorite songs and still get home for the news, but that he had a lot to say and knew he didn’t have a lot of time to say it. The end is coming even though we don’t know exactly when, so you listen up now.

    While the tickets cost a fortune, and while Bruce was careful to throw in a few stagy tunes (Dancing in the Dark didn’t fit otherwise except maybe to pump up the crowd for the finale), much of what happened in the theater wasn’t for us. We didn’t show up to see him as much as he seemed to need us to show up so he’d have someone to talk with. It’s something Bruce maybe didn’t even know he told us about in his autobiography, but when you see the book as a whole, his adult life has been all about crippling bouts of depression relieved only by maniacal touring and marathon shows. You could imagine if it was somehow magically possible, Bruce would have liked to deliver this show to each of us individually, maybe in the kitchen, with little more than the light off the stove to give some space between us. Gathering everyone into a theater was a necessary but unwanted logistical thing.

    The evening was as dark and sad and as necessary as a last hospital visit with an old friend. Bruce wanted to know – he asked – if he’d done OK by us, had he been a “good companion.” We’d made him very rich, allowed him as he joked to never have to hold a job in his life, indulged him through the low periods, let him sneak some mediocre material in here and there. Twice he accused himself of being a fraud, saying he’d never been inside a factory in his life. But it’s time now not to focus on a bad track or a disappointing night, but take that long walk. We’re tired, we’re old, we’re at the point where there is more to look back on than to look forward to. So did he do OK by us? Was it… enough?

    Yeah, Bruce, it was enough. The show finished where things started really, with Born to Run. It was on side B of his third album and it was 1975 when it came out. And everyone in the audience heard it a first time a different time, but now, 42 years passed, we were all hearing it together. Every one of us, and by God that had to include Bruce, heard a hundred versions of that song in that moment, our lives flashing before us. Born to Run on a car radio, our hand slipping a satin bra strap aside. Born to Run in some foreign dive bar, reminding us we were forever tied to who we are no matter how far we’d run ourselves. The DJ played Born to Run at our wedding even though there is no way anyone can dance to it. Born to Run the first time one of our kids asked “What’s that, it’s not bad” and every time we heard it on 8-track, cassette, LP, CD, MP-3 and had to face the warm embrace and cold slap of never being 16 years old again.

    Bruce’s message was clear and true, and he made sure we got it: I may not be doing this much longer. The weight of it all – the bad father, the love lost, the hate and pain collected, that marriage gone wrong – feels heavier than it used to. So, Bruce seemed to say, I’m going to get these things together for you and hand them over during these two hours. After that, they’ll be yours to take care of.

    In a way, they always were.



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    Watch Bruce Springsteen Sing “Thunder Road” Through the Years

    April 23, 2016 // 1 Comment »






    One of the things that defines great art is not only that it hangs around for a long time, that people still want to see a play hundreds of years after it was first performed or read a book that was written thousands of years ago, but that that art morphs and develops alongside our own lives changing, not only staying relevant, but becoming more relevant as we ourselves change.

    And so to Bruce Springsteen and, in this case, Thunder Road. The amazing supercut you see above spans 41 years of Bruce performing the same song, seamlessly arranged in chronological order. There’s Bruce in the 1970s all young and brash, there’s the buffed up Bruce of the 80s, the introspective Bruce of the 90s forward. Along the way E Street Band members come and go, most notably Clarence Clemons (RIP) and newcomers like Nils Lofgren and Springsteen’s wife. The presence of the latter in the band speaks much to the changes of time.


    But there is also that song.

    I’m gonna play the old guy card here and say I was in high school when I first heard Thunder Road. Living outside Cleveland, Ohio, we found Born to Run on our radio a bit earlier than most folks outside of the Jersey Shore itself. At a time in my life when music was dominated by pop garbage and metal (both have their place), here was a song that put into words what I wasn’t able to do myself: the need to get out of a town full of losers, the promise of talking a pretty girl into climbing into your car and taking off to, well, anywhere, that sense of something out there you needed to see.

    Some 40 years later, I still listen to Thunder Road, having left that town, seen some of what there was to see, but at the same time knowing maybe I’m not that young anymore, and that there are some roads I am probably just not going to get down. In an era of cynical politics, the line about waiting on a savior to rise from the streets rings strong, yet also sad.

    I think I can hear it in Bruce’s lyrics, I’m certain I can see it on his face and hear it in his voice, and I’m glad he stays (virtually) on the ride with me, desperate and hopeful at the same time.




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    Author Interview: Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent

    January 13, 2014 // 11 Comments »




    An interview with Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent author Peter Van Buren, tracing the evolution of his book from John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, through Woody Guthrie, Bruce Springsteen and Tom Morello.

    The still photos in the video were taken by the author during his research travels throughout the Midwest. One location, Mingo Junction, Ohio, is famous as the shooting location for the factory scenes in Michael Cimino’s movie, The Deer Hunter. That factory, like most in the area, is now abandoned, so unneeded and unwanted that no one even bothered to tear it down.









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    Bruce Springsteen Makes the Lesser Evil Case

    October 19, 2012 // 16 Comments »

    I do not support either candidate for the presidency; I have a large “Nobody” sign in my yard and encourage my dog on walks to wee wee equally on all candidates’ signs. It’s the American way. If this blog appears more often critical of Obama, it is simply because he is the president and makes decisions and takes actions (or not) worthy of attention. Romney is just campaigning. I voted for Obama in 2008 and am deeply remorseful, especially over how he has failed on so many promises (close Gitmo) and expanded the drone wars to include the assassination of American Citizens without trial. I remain deeply conflicted on whether I should vote for a presidential candidate this year or not.

    I also love Bruce Springsteen, not in a romantic sticky way, but if anyone could draw me into that I’d probably go with Bruce. Bruce Springsteen wrote two of his more poignant songs about working life, The Ghost of Tom Joad (Rage Against the Machine offers a good, rough, angry version) and Youngstown, based on Dale Maharidgeand Michael Williamson’s work. Springsteen is the most relentless and prolific chronicler in popular culture of the plight of the working class, picking up the job from Dust Bowl singers like Woody Guthrie, and carrying the idea forward that America’s workers are resilient. Angry but ebullient, Springsteen echoes Maharidge and Williamson in believing that a new era will follow deindustrialization and that the men and women they write about will survive into it. For me, I am not as sure about the future, and that’s what my next book (called The People on the Bus, a Story of the #99 Percent) is about.

    Bruce supported Obama in 2008, and now has come out again for him. Bruce’s reasons– focusing mostly on social justice issues– are about the best-laid out “better to vote for Obama than to stay home” argument I’ve seen; well, the guy does have a way with words. I’ve also always respected Bruce for seeming to research his causes, and not just be some empty-headed celebrity who lends his name to whatever seems cool at the moment.

    So this is why I want to call out Bruce a bit over something he said at an Obama rally in Ohio on October 18. “I’m thankful GM is still making cars,” Springsteen joked. “What else would I write about? I’d have no job!”

    Bruce is of course referring to the $80 billion of tax payer money Obama handed to the auto industry. I want to call his attention to the fact that GM then turned around and shut down the Spring Hill Saturn plant after nineteen years of operation. The success we were told was that after GM agreed to restart the factory, many of those Spring Hill jobs were expected to go to Mexico but were able to remain in the United States only thanks to a deal that included a second-tier wage scale for new employees. About 700 older workers remained on layoff even as they hired new people at the lower wage. Pensions were cut, too. GM had a record profit of $7.6 billion last year. So tally that up: fewer jobs at lower wages, pensions cut, and GM still owes the taxpayers $25 billion while they pull in record profits. The deal is touted as a model for Ford and Chrysler.

    All on our backs. I might as well just write-in “Goldman Sachs” and leave out the middle man.

    I get the point Bruce: it could have been worse, in Spring Hill, at General Motors, in America. I just wish there was a candidate I could embrace in a sticky way, could support, rather than one that I could never vote for and one I am told is better than nobody. Jeez, I wish I could vote for Bruce.

    More? Daniel Ellsberg makes the same case as Obama the lesser evil.




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