Still Credible After All These Years
Hot Press, 1993-05-21, by: Eamonn McCann
Eamonn McCann Rediscovers His Faith In Bruce Springsteen
The Auguries, as they say, were not good. The night before the gig Channel 4 carried an edition of the Naked Sport series which focussed on the rising popularity of the National Basketball Association with US TV audiences. All down to brilliant marketing and slick presentation, explained a gallery of talking heads, projecting basketball as THE most exciting of all-American sports.
The point was illustrated with a clip from a game as a troop of leggy cheerleaders in shiny, skimpy red-and-white-and-blue outfits swirled and twirled and made semaphore patterns with what I believe are called pom-poms as they urged fans to new heights of what was passing for excitement, all to the belted-out, high amplified sound of Springsteen singing "Born in The USA". A sharp, sardonic, beautifully-structured song full of vivid imagery and with a wonderfully rousing and instantly memorable chorus about the way Vietnam sucked decency out of American life used here, PLAUSIBLY, as an advertising jingle for pushing patriotic schlock...
You could have been forgiven for believing that the industry automatically and inescapably grinds down all ideas into meaningless mush, and, really, that the sense of authenticity you've felt often from Springsteen has never amounted to more than a flimsy, sentimental fiction. And that the only sensible perspective to have on the gig was to check out whether, as a star, he can still cut the mustard. But what I found myself believing at the end of the evening was that I still believed in Bruce Springsteen.
He can still cut it, no problem. But it's the fact that he's still believable which is important, more important about Springsteen than about any other comparable case - precisely because credibility - in the sense of engagement with the real world in whcih his listeners live and a commitment to decent values and causes within it - has always been a vital element of his public persona. And it's a bit difficult to keep on believing in that stuff recently as the notion of rock stars as the high priesthood of a new moral order has increasingly been revealed as a stupid conceit....
He came on without any build-up or preliminary fanfare and went to work with a mainly acoustic series from "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town", last year's albums which didn't set the industry on fire. A fellow from the Indo who arrived at the interval asked "Has he done much of the old stuff?" and expressed exultant relief when told, no. "Good, I haven't missed much then..."
Well, it's all a matter of individual taste. What he'd missed was a set of maybe an hour from a guy with this wry, warm voice which he can use as a mournful drawl or a holler of joy and who brought his band on and gradually cranked up the volume through a sequence of songs not one of which is less than well-written or here given other than an apt, lovely performance. He ended with "My Hometown", a song to make you smile with pleasurable sadness and put your arms around a neighbor. I went for a lig-drink feeling good.
In the second half he tore the place apart, sent the crowd wild with excitement, electrified the stadium, swept the audience up on ever higher waves of exuberance, dug deep and came up with emotional magic....chose your own clich?s and you won't get it wrong. It was a great SHOW as good- time as rock gets.
The best songs he does are the most romantic in their portrayal of young blue-collar life. "The River", "Who'll Stop The Rain?", "Workin' On The Highway", "Born To Run", "Billy Jean", "Johnny 99", the characters presented commonly as victims of vast forces outside their comprehension, much less their control. There's something in what the Australian singer John Schumann has been quoted as saying, that Springsteen never really "puts his arse on the line", that his depiction of working-class struggle is "folksey" with no rough anger in it, that his work is too easily co-optable by the very interests he implies condemnation of for it to have any lasting political signficance.
And some of that could be felt at the RDS, sure enough. Here, too, "Born in The USA", seemed to be taken as an alternative US national anthem, to the extent that somebody in the body of the crowd was flamboyantly waving a Starry-striped flag to the sway of the beat. But even to a cynic who has been a long time on the road it didn't seem the right thing or the only possible thing to feel. Even as the context subverted the meaning of the songs, the performance subverted the cynicism.
It's not a big production. It doesn't dazzle with science or special effect. The video screens aren't used to any post-modern pretention but to give a better picture of what's happening on stage to fans who aren't near the front. There are no conjuring tricks, no pyrotechnics, no elaborate, pre-choreo-graphed routines, little use that I could detect even of backing tapes.
He still does all that stuff running from the ramps at one wing of the stage to the other, reaching down, touching hands, making grinning eye-contact with a score of people every minute, hoisting somebody up from the audience to dance with him centre-stage, introducing a Living Legend for a brief guest-spot and smiling triumphantly to the audience, delighted with the coup. Simple, direct, unmediated, real. He's dressed not for the part but as if not playing a part, expensively so- cool, it goes without saying, but in a style which wouldn't cause a rumpus on Henry Street on a Saturday afternoon.
He came on at 6:40, started into his stuff, broke for half an hour, ended at 10:45. The warmth of his voice, the appropriateness of the presentation, the energy and job communicated from the stage, the accessibility of it all, the deeply satisfying pleasure of sensing contact with the PERSON on stage - therein lay the beauty of the experience, and the beauty transcended all. He's credible because he's a credible PERFORMER.
Music doesn't have to have lasting political significance, and maybe can't. I was reminded of the story of Nat Hentoff chastising Louis Armstrong for singing "It;s a Wonderful World" when "You know that it's NOT a wonderful world, Louis", and Sachmo replied "Yeah, but it's a wonderful tune, and we need that". Or even more aptly, of the sentiment attributed by Gorky to Lenin after listening to Beethoven's "Apassionata". "Astonishing, superhuman music. What miracles people can do! But I can't listen often to music, it affects my nerves, makes we want to say kind stupidities and pat the heads of people who, living in this dirty hell, can create such beauty".
Springsteen ended with "It's Alright", which it is. And so is he.