Hard to Be a Saint
Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper, 2001-07-19, by: Gina Arnold
Bruce Springsteen's reunion tour tape reveals the downside of a career arc
LAST YEAR, due to excessive travelling, I managed to miss Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band reunion tour in more cities than you could shake a backstage pass at. When he was in the Bay Area, I was in New York, and vice versa. And although my love of Bruce Springsteen has diminished greatly since the days when I lined up overnight at the Stanford Shopping Center to get tickets to his Darkness tour, I felt kind of bad about it. This was the first Bruce show I'd missed since 1978 (which I attended as a toddler).
But in some ways I felt relief. Bruce Springsteen--and Fugazi--are the two acts for whom I have felt such intense reverence and love that when that love departed, it left me angry and depleted. No wonder that when I was in New York and some people invited me to road-trip up to Boston to see Springsteen, I turned them down flat. It was too damn dangerous. Too sad. I did feel a little guilty though, from a rock critic's standpoint, since it was such an important tour. Finally, last month, HBO broadcast the final E Street concert, and it can now be seen on video. It's a film of Bruce's Madison Square Garden show, the one that the New York Police Department protested because of his including the song "American Skin (41 Shots)" about the shooting of Amadou Diallo, and last week some friends and I rented it and watched it over pizza.
My friends are, like me, former Bruce fans who wanted to analyze where it was that Bruce had let us down. Because let us down he has--much more than his peers, like Neil Young and Tom Petty and the Rolling Stones--and yet it's so hard to say why. After all, he is still full of integrity and talent and all the things that made us love him in the first place. He hasn't done anything embarrassing (unless you include marrying that model, whom he soon divorced). And yet, to watch his HBO special is to see a 90-minute metaphor for the arc of artistic fallibility in action. It is, as Johnny Rotten says, "no fun, no fun at all."
ONE PROBLEM could just be the problem with filming live concerts in general. I for one am never comfortable with the genre, whether it's a Backstreet Boys special on NBC, the IMAX All Access film, or even a well-respected flick like Jonathan Demme's Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense. I don't like the way the cameras direct my eyes to places they don't necessarily want to go. I don't like the close-ups of faces, hands, instruments and audience. And of course, I don't like the way that when one is watching a film, one loses about three- fifths of the sensations of what's fun about live rock music. The whole stench of the situation is wrong. Sweat, smoke, lights, noise are all excised from the scene--and all that's left is a lot of overbright visuals.
My friend Teresa asked, "Isn't it nice to see him close-up?" But I thought, "No." I don't want to see these guys too clearly, especially when they're over 40, and the camera is jumping around trying to make it look like they're dancing when they're not. I actually took the opportunity to bitch to filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker (who has made numerous concert films, including one on Depeche Mode), and he described to me exactly what's wrong with live TV shots: "They tend to overstage things now. They're so worried it won't look as spectacular as it is, so the set is overdressed and overlit, and they use current editing styles to break away from everything. ... It's all just a collection of ways that are perceived as being modern and exciting, and they totally forget about the music."
Pennebaker said he had a sort of Marxian theory about it, as well: "The problem is that, the way they do it now, there's a whole lot of cameras and camera people in front, and then there's a control room with a whole lot of banks of TV sets in it, and management is sitting back there watching and pushing buttons as to which camera shot goes in where. So the camera people?the workers--may be artists with an actual artistic vision of what they're shooting, but they don't even know if they're on the air at any given time. It's not their vision, it's management's. So it's this funny dialectic in that management ends up being the aesthetic procurer--and they have no aesthetic perspective at all."
The HBO special suffered from all these problems and another one as well: the fact is, Bruce Springsteen hasn't really written a great song since 1985. The special is heavy on new ones- -"Youngstown," "Murder Incorporated" and the truly dire "American Skin (41 Shots)," which it ends with (incidentally, on the world's most sanctimonious note). The contrast between those numbers and his pre-'80s good ones--"Tenth Avenue Freeze-out," "Thunder Road," "Badlands," etc.--is just too extreme for me and my friends.
"American Skin (41 Shots)" is a failure on every level except intention, but as nice as it is that he made that gesture, when you gesticulate with thunky lyrics and a pained expression on your face, it kind of takes away the impact. And certainly Bruce and the E's doing a pretty lame Al Green medley didn't make up for the jolting recognition that his glory days are completely over.
OBVIOUSLY, MANY PEOPLE disagree with this opinion. But those people, who can be seen in the background of this special, must be people for whom music stopped mattering a long time ago, people who were blinded by the light and never got their sight back. To care about Bruce now, you'd have to have not bought a record by a new artist for over 20 years. I don't mean to dismiss him as a total wank. His 1996 Ghost of Tom Joad tour, which was acoustic, was interesting (even if that LP was horribly overrated), and even this E Street Band situation was a lot more scintillating live than many a younger rock band's effort.
I suppose in the end, my disappointment has a lot more to do with me than it does with him. It has to do with the way I loved him, as Cyrano de Bergerac loved Roxanne, "not wisely, but too well." There is a line beyond which one's love of rock stars should not cross. And not just me, but millions of Americans have unfortunately crossed that line with Bruce Springsteen.