I am back in New York City, a place I visited often in my 20s and early 30s, but haven't been to as often in recent years. It has probably been four years or more since I last wandered the streets of lower Manhattan. I've never thought of New York as one of my homes, but as I walk along the familiar streets and reacquaint myself with the Subway, it feels more comfortable than ever before. I haven't been aware of missing this place, and I am pleasantly surprised at how good it feels to be back.
I am here to see Bruce Springsteen on Broadway. The tickets were harder to come by than usual, and much more expensive. A good friend convinced me to spend $100 more than I was initially comfortable with, rightly pointing out that the cheapest tickets were likely to be entirely unavailable by the time we had a chance to buy, and we lucked out on a pair of tickets. With TicketMaster fees, we're talking $325 or so, much more than I've ever paid for a ticket to any entertainment. If I'm to be honest, I'm still not fully comfortable with the sheer expense involved. But I'm treating myself to this - today is my 40th birthday. I lived in NYC briefly as a young child and have my first memories from this city. Given the theme of the show, it's only appropriate that I return for this - there's nowhere I'd rather be today. I have a ticket in my pocket to see the Broadway show, and I feel lucky and privileged.
As a Bruce fan, I have some history here in the city. I've seen him live at Madison Square Garden a couple of times dating back to 2000. I saw the E street Band at Shea Stadium in '03. Once on holiday here as a teen in the '90s, I discovered some of my first bootleg CDs in the Village, including the "The Teenage Werewolf" a recording of the legendary Agora '78 show that incidentally took place in the year I was born. Can I find those old record stores? Are they even still here? I spend a few days in the city after the show, and some of my old haunts are indeed still there - welcoming me back like old friends, while others have disappeared. As it turns out, these themes of memory, time passing, old places from our past, change, loss, growing up and growing old, are among the key topics that Bruce will be addressing in his show.
I meet up with my good friend in the afternoon, we've been seeing Springsteen shows together for a decade now. We wander around a little, he takes me out to a nice dinner, and then we make our way to the Walter Kerr Theatre. As we step in from the cold, there couldn't be a bigger contrast between the crowd here and the ethnically diverse mass of humanity outside. Bruce's audience has never been demographically diverse, but looking around myself on the Orchestra level, I don't see a single person around me who isn't white. This is also easily the oldest crowd I've ever seen at a Bruce show. There are a couple of people in their 20s or 30s, but far fewer than usual in the post-Rising era, and I don't see the usual smattering of children and teens. The nature of this show has made it an exclusive performance for the a selected and privileged few, and that makes me just a little uncomfortable. I've been lucky enough to get into to exclusive shows before but there's something about Bruce Springsteen playing on Broadway that doesn't sit easily with me - it just seems unBrucelike somehow.
We're not far from Madison Square Garden, but the venue and atmosphere couldn't be more different. The crowd is just under a thousand and the venue is small and feels genuinely cramped, with a tiny merchandise booth squeezed in right next to a bar. Small windy staircases lead up to the mezzanine and balcony and the restrooms. I'm sitting in the last row of the orchestra, but I am close enough that I need neither binoculars nor video screens - this space is intimately small. The audience files into its seats, and the show starts on time.
Bruce comes onstage, and opens with a monologue. Having read his book twice, I recognize it at once. It is one of several times in the evening where he will recite passages almost word for word from his autobiography, and I must confess I'm not sure what to make of it. He's speaking a little too fast, as if he's nervous or trying to rush through - and I uneasily ask myself; "Is this going to work?" Is he basically going to just recite parts of his book and sing familiar songs? Is that it? Is this newest magic trick of his, much hyped and praised, but understandably controversial in fan circles, going to fizzle for me?
But then he goes into his first song of the night and it feels like a huge release. Damn, it sounds good - No it it feels good to hear him play again. I notice two things at once. How absolutely great the sound quality is (and I am not an audiophile). And just how much noise he is making solo on his acoustic guitar. Remember the way Darkness sounded on the Solo Acoustic Tour? The opening number is explosive and loud like that, but this time it is a joyful, giddy noise. A boisterous rumble. True to tradition, and the format of the evening, he stops singing and continues his monologue before launching back into the song and finishing the last verse. This is a trick he'll repeat several more time this evening, and it works well.
And so it goes on. Bruce tells well rehearsed stories, he shares his memories and experiences, including countless anecdotal details. He gives us access to his most personal memories of growing up, coming of age, and learning to live as an adult. Through sharing these stories, he creates an introspective and reflective mood in the listener.
Then once he has taken us deep into his life experience, and gotten us thinking about our own lives, our own hopes and ghosts, our own personal victories and defeats, he detonates a song. There are a few rarities in the setlist (I hear one song tonight that I haven't heard live before), but this isn't an audience of casual fans - the material here is as familiar to most of us as the backs of our hands. There are no brand new unreleased songs tonight. We know the words by heart, they have been parts of our lives for decades. But somehow, the spoken word segments give many of these familiar songs new relevancy, new life. The show works best at those moments when the stories about him manage to make the songs that follow feel like they're about me. Maybe more than they have been before, or at least in different ways. Old songs reveal new sides of themselves. Or more accurately, they reveal new things about myself to me, and thus become personalized in new ways.
This is a special kind of show that couldn't just work anywhere. Not only does it benefit from a small venue and a small crowd, but the formalized norms of Broadway lend themselves well to what Bruce is trying to do. People show up on time, they aren't constantly moving around to restock on hot dogs and beer. Everyone has a reserved seat. There is a little audience chatter, but much less than I'd expect at a similarly sized venue elsewhere. No one sings along loud enough to disrupt the show for me, there are no shouted song requests or request signs. It is an intimate evening of stories, wisdom, and music, where the spoken word and song blend organically.
Much has been made about the fact that this is "not an actual concert" but while that might be technically true, I wouldn't overemphasize this. Storytelling has been a characteristic part of Bruce's live show since the early years, and some of his most memorable live moments have been ones where a "stage rap" sets a song up for maximal impact. Consider Growin' Up, The River, and War from the Live 75-85 album. Or It's My Life from '76, Independence Day from '80, and Jesus Was an Only Son from '06. Now, imagine a live performance that is comprised of spoken word/song combinations like that, mostly solo (Patti joins him for harmonies on two songs), in front of a seated audience of just under a thousand. That's kind of what it is like. The show lasts about two hours 20 minutes, with no intermission and no true encore. He plays guitar and piano, and brings his harmonica out for a couple of numbers. Some of the songs are performed in arrangements noticeably different, though not radically so, from what we've heard before.
While this is not the occasion to sing along to your favorite songs, nor is it an "STFU" kind of evening. It is closer in overall tone and mood to a Devils & Dust show than to Christic '90. Bruce tells jokes and milks the audience's laughter again and again. My friend has seen the show once before, and confirms that many of these lighthearted comments have been added since the last performance he saw. I notice Patti reacting to one of Bruce's comments in a way that suggests it catches her by surprise. While the themes he addresses are often difficult and serious in nature, Bruce keeps things entertaining with a steady humorous patter. I am close to tears a few times, but far more often I find myself laughing and grinning.
There are moments where the show slips a little, and the second half of the night is a little less tight and well composed than the first. By the end he is performing songs back to back without spoken word segments in between, and compared to the first half of the show it feels a little rushed. As with the book, the emphasis is on the early years. I note that he doesn't talk directly about his tremendous struggles with depression, which was one of the big reveals in the last section of his memoirs.
He talks about many subjects - the kinds of things you'd expect Bruce Springsteen to talk about. There are no surprise revelations or unexpected themes. He sometimes recites passages from his book almost verbatim (which doesn't work as well for me), but more often he frees himself from his already-published words.
He shares his memories of his father and mother, growing up surrounded by God and the Catholic Church - these formative childhood experiences that have left their complicated legacy with him. He celebrates the opportunity of youth, when you are young enough to truly believe "these two lanes can take us anywhere". Patti joins him for a couple of songs about love and relationships, the two of them seeming very much at ease together. He talks of Vietnam, awkwardly meeting with veterans in the early '80s, remembering his own close brush with the draft board, and how he has made sense of the losses of old friends and the fact that he didn't go himself. He addresses the current State of the Nation, and without naming anyone he makes his deep concerns clear about the direction of the country he calls home. And he provides the only consolation and inspiration he can offer, which of course comes in the form of music.
Perhaps more than anything else, Bruce talks often and repeatedly of growing older, of mortality, and of the loss of family, friends, and loved ones. The huge significance of the people and places we remember from our past. By the end he observes that the older we get, the more we find ourselves "living with ghosts". There is a moment towards the end of the show that seems to be the emotional pinnacle of the night, where he appears to go into almost a trance for a moment - I've never seen anything like it, and it is utterly terrifyingly mesmerizing. All in all, incredibly powerful stuff.
The Broadway show strikes me as incredibly bold, in terms of how Bruce bares his heart and soul to a thousand fans, five nights a week for months on end. I would guess he finds these shows on some level personally cathartic. But he is also artistically on safe ground, in that the music is tried, tested, and well liked by his fans. He is doing something very special for a very small subset of his audience. This isn't what he should be doing for the rest of his career - there are more songs to write, larger crowds to perform to, and new fans to win over. Some have wondered if this is Bruce saying goodbye, but it doesn't seem that way to me at all. Rather, I see this as him taking stock of his life and work at a late point in his career; and delivering some of his best loved and most important songs in a way that is powerful, personal, and new. The Broadway show is an epic and glorious retrospective review of his life and music, and a chance for those in attendance to reconnect personally and intimately with old songs. It is a truly unique chapter in his long and storied career.