Bruce on Broadway

Bruce on Broadway

Bruce Springsteen at the Walter Kerr Theatre on Broadway. So many intimate moments, beautiful turns of phrase, poetic truths and, of course, the music, delivered in a totally new way, but still in that ragged, raspy baritone that is, almost impossibly, as powerful and controlled as ever as he nears 70. To my surprise, the songs I knew far less were just as moving as hearing an acoustic “Thunder Road” or a snarly, almost indistinguishable “Born In The USA.” Bruce took on different faces depending on where the light hit him as he sat at his piano or stood with his guitar at the lone microphone placed in the middle of the stage. Sometimes he looked all of his 68 years, like a man who might have believably done the hard labor he so often sings about. Other times projecting the kind of masculine sexuality that only a rocker or movie star can still possess at that age. (Pierce Brosnan was sitting one row over from me, smoldering in his seat at age 64 as if to prove my point.)

 
There were moments of youthful hope–Bruce remembering a feeling of joy and freedom as he lay in the bed of a truck driving away for good from his hometown of Freehold, NJ at age 19. And moments of wistfulness–Bruce in his sixties, lamenting those younger days, when life was a bunch of blank pages begging to be written on. There were moments of love–silence for the now-deceased Clarence Clemons after Bruce belted out “When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band” in “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” And, most of all, countless moments that made Bruce on Broadway a totally unique and separate experience from any anthem-filled stadium tour, where your body can’t help but move in response to the man and his band giving you three hours of good, American ROCK. This show called for stillness, silence and attention to every wrinkle in his face, every note delivered and every word chosen carefully and thoughtfully to tell the story of his life. 

 

Too much magic to speak to all of it, but a few notable standouts:

*Bruce, unamplified*
While telling a story of his first cross-country trip–all the way from Jersey to Big Sur with his bandmates in 1969–he described the vast expanse of the desert, the chance to view every kind and color of sunrise and sunset, and how, for the first time, he understood the true size and scope of the United States. The story led into a performance of “Promised Land,” the last verse of which was sung several steps in front of the mic, at the edge of the stage, as if to point to the intimacy of the venue and the significance of being able to hear him sing without any amplification at all. From making us feel the boundlessness of the American desert to reminding us of the confines of a 900-seat theatre, he was nodding to how special these small Broadway performances are.

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*Bruce, on war*
It’s long been known that “Born In The USA” is a protest song, not a patriotic ode to America, but if you weren’t already hip to that, this show would catch you up. Before playing it, Bruce talked about the song’s inspiration, author Ron Kovic and his book “Born On The Fourth Of July.” Bruce told of friends he lost in Vietnam and revealed that he and two bandmates all got called to the draft office the same day but managed to get out of getting drafted. There’s no joy in revealing their escape: “I sometimes wonder who went in my place, because somebody did,” he said. The performance itself was rough and gritty, growled instead of sung. All the emphasis was on the oft-unheard verses, while the well-known chorus was spat out like dirt, nearly devoid of melody altogether, so that not a soul in the house could’ve gotten caught up in its familiar notes and missed the message.


*Bruce, on math*
1+1=2 is life. You wake up (1), you go to work (1), you go to bed (2), and it starts all over. When you can find 1+1=3, that’s the sweet spot. So says Bruce of doing music with the E. Street Band and connecting with his fans. “When the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one and one equals three” he wrote in his book. Even minus the world being at its best (it’s clearly not), right now my life equation still reaches 3, so here’s hoping everyone feels the same, or one day will. 

 
*Bruce, on America*
The show is never overtly political, despite Bruce’s ruminations on Vetnam, but he did speak to the divisiveness and darkness haunting our country right now. He called upon MLK Jr’s famous quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” and spoke of driving out the “young men in torch-light parades calling on the ugliest ghosts of our past,” who we “battle for the soul of the nation.” All of that led to a driving, determined version of “The Rising” and a pointed, meaningful singing of “Long Walk Home,” with this line, sung clearly and with purpose:
“Your flag flyin’ over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone.
Who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t.” 
 
 
*Bruce, on fidelity*
A friend put “Brilliant Disguise” on a mix tape in high school and while I’ve listened to it and loved it ever since, I’ve sung along without every truly hearing the final verse. Bruce brought out his wife, Patti Scialfa, after telling of their first meeting. She was singing in a bar and the first words he ever heard her utter were from The Exciters, “Tell Him” — “I know something about love.” Talk about a magical meet-cute. After she joined him on stage to sing “Tougher Than The Rest,” they walked from the piano to the middle of the stage and he spoke of fidelity and love and how hard it is to take off your mask and let someone truly see you. The faith and trust to let someone know all of you, and then the love that lets you to choose to walk hand-in-hand with that person through life, knowing that your time is finite, knowing that you’re choosing to share this very short ride, giving up other partners and paths. With that in mind, the two–married for nearly 30 years–sang “Brilliant Disguise,” in which the singer wonders if the person he loves is showing her true self, then flips the script and admits she should be wondering the same of him. I heard it all so differently this time when the songs turns to feigned fidelity and Bruce pointedly delivered the final lines, about the eventual loss of love because fear didn’t allow the singer to have faith in it:
“Tonight our bed is cold
Lost in the darkness of our love
God have mercy on the man
Who doubts what he’s sure of”
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*Bruce, on his mother*
The most beautiful moment, a single second that most spoke to how special it is to see Bruce from 20 feet away, came when he sang “The Wish.” He’d just finished a lengthy tale of his father–the years of depression that went undiagnosed for too long, the many different jobs in factories, driving trucks, doing hard labor, and his endless push for a love that his father wouldn’t freely give him. “Those whose love we wanted but couldn’t get, we emulate” he said. He told of having to go in to retrieve his father from the local watering hole, a dazed look in the older man’s eyes, as if he didn’t even recognize the boy coming to pull him home. He followed the dark, moody tales of his father with a glowing discussion of his mother, who exemplifies love, warmth, family, pride in her work and all the things he didn’t get from his father. His father’s life gave him the characters for his songs and the eyes through which to see a working class world, but his mother’s ability to find joy in that same world is what allowed him to escape following his father’s path, instead mining the beauty in it so he could turn it into art for the rest of us.
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This line of “The Wish” is a particularly powerful one:
“If pa’s eyes were windows into a world so deadly and true
You couldn’t stop me from looking but you kept me from crawlin’ through.”
But this song isn’t about his father, it’s about his mom, and how much she loved (and still loves) to dance. He set up the song saying that even now at 92 when his mom hears music, her body starts to move. The crowd released a pained “Mmmm” when he added that she’s seven years into an Alzheimers diagnosis.

He sang this line straight the first time:
 “And if it’s a funny old world, mama, where a little boy’s wishes come true
Well I got a few in my pocket and a special one just for you
It ain’t no phone call on Sunday, flowers or a mother’s day card
It ain’t no house on a hill with a garden and a nice little yard
I got my hot rod down on Bond Street, I’m older but you’ll know me in a glance
We’ll find us a little rock ‘n roll bar and baby we’ll go out and dance”
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But the second time through, a long pause, his face crumpled a bit, and he sang a softer, sadder recitation of “I’m older but you’ll know me in a glance” — a reminder that the disease has likely robbed her (and him) of any instant (maybe even eventual) recollection. If you knew it was coming, you might have heard the pause and the slight change in his voice from the upper section of a giant stadium, but only at this show could you see his crumpling face, the slump in his shoulders, the sadness in his eyes. It was one of many special moments that left you feeling more human for having shared the moment with him, for him having welcomed you into it.
It was an amazing show, unlike anything I’ve seen before. I was crying throughout, but the good kind of tears, as I was simultaneously moved by the human condition, touched by music that I’ve carried along with me through different states, jobs and relationships, and endlessly grateful to be there as this big, bright star shined in such a small, intimate space.
In the show, Bruce calls his life’s work a “long and noisy prayer.” As someone who isn’t religious, listening to the music I love, being awash in its beauty and the gratitude I feel for it is the closest thing to a religious experience I ever get. So thanks to The Boss for blessing my ears and my heart with his prayers.

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