A 73 year old rocker and his equally old band are still playing close-to three hour shows, doubling the length and intensity of acts half their age. We’re in uncharted territory and few things illustrate it better than a live performance of “Jungleland” at Madison Square Garden.
Last Saturday, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band took the stage at Madison Square Garden for their first concert in the New York area in seven years. Bruce, himself, now rapidly approaching 74 years of age, was noticeably older and stiffer, marching around instead of gliding. This was not the same man who once did baseball slides with his guitar slung over his back, launched himself on the piano with abandon, crowd surfed, or my personal favorite, dipped all the way backward until his head practically touched the floor holding onto simply the microphone stand, nor can anyone his age still be expected to do those things. Some things must simply be lost to time, no matter who we are or how famous. Others, however, remain and are perhaps even stronger than ever, miraculous as that may sound when talking about an over the hill rockstar. The intensity of his and the band’s performance, his desire to please the crowd, the sheer amount of fun they are having, the ease with which he belts out the vocals, and his facility on the fretboard of his beat up guitar are all unchanged, perhaps even magnified given the years that have passed. Incredibly, he still maintains a desire to bring something new to the proceedings, different than he’s ever done before, including 5 songs from his most recent two albums. One, a Lionel Richie cover of the classic “Nightshift,” introduces an entirely new dimension to his vocal escapades, that of a “crooner,” defined as “a singer, typically a male one, who sings sentimental songs in a soft, low voice” according to Dictionary.com. This is a style that Bruce has certainly flirted with throughout this career, but the idea that he would be doing soulful covers of The Commodores a mere year ago would’ve been considered absurd, at least by this observer.
Overall, the band as a whole still plays as if there was something left to prove and “playing” is an understatement compared to other bands, their age or otherwise. The average concert these days is barely 90 minutes. Two hours is practically unheard of and I can count on one hand the number of performers that regularly exceed that mark: Dave Mathews, Phish, Billy Joel, and Rush before Neil Peart’s untimely death. Mr. Joel, still in the midst of a legendary residence at the Garden himself, comes closest. He is similar in age and regularly exceeds two hours and fifteen minutes, but with the benefit of remaining seated at the piano rather than strutting around the stage as if his life depended on it. Here, Springsteen is in uncharted territory with performances that continue to approach three hours without anything resembling an intermission or rarely even a slow song on this particular tour. It’s as if the dials were being turned up to twelve and set there for the duration to see who will be the last man standing in the arena. Can the band outlast the audience? The only thing passing for a break is a short acoustic song from his latest album with the band, aptly titled “Last Man Standing,” complete with a brief introduction. The rest is pure rock, barely a shout out to “New York City” and the band was literally and figuratively off to the races before another acoustic conclusion.
These races include a whirlwind tour of a body of work that keeps growing against all odds. Hence, “Ghosts,” by far the best of his recent rock song writing, sits seamlessly between the classic anthem “No Surrender” and the searing tightness of “Prove it All Night,” as though the band had been opening shows in that order for a decade or more. The Boss has long been known as one of the world’s best arena rockers and songwriters, and to some extent his remaining in top form should not be surprising, but apparently he’s still not satisfied that his lead guitar work remains under-appreciated, despite being a lead guitarist longer than he’s been either a singer or a songwriter. In fact, his “career” in music began when he was in high school as the guitarist for The Castiles. Back then, he would only sing one song, a cover of The Who’s classic “My Generation.” He did not take on additional singing duties until after high school in Steel Mill and other bands, but maintained his love for the guitar, playing lead on every album. Last year, he told Howard Stern, “I’m a good guitar player. My guitar playing is underrated, as a matter of fact,” and seems to think this tour is precisely the opportunity to prove his chops once and for all. The extended solos start early and often, coming far more frequently than on previous tours. After laying down the main solo to “Prove it All Night” with ease, Springsteen adds a faster, more vicious outro. Veterans of earlier tours will recognize the approach to the song, but the new outro remains tighter and more aggressive than previous incarnations with less back and forth between rhythm guitarist Steve Van Zandt and virtuoso fingerpicker Nils Lofgren. A few songs later, “Candy’s Room” featured the famous solo inspired by the late, great Jeff Beck. From there, he launched into “Kitty’s Back,” a raucous number from his second album that combines blaring horns with fancy pick work played through a high pitched guitar, creating an unmistakable counterpoint between the bassy main riff.
The highlights are too many to list here, but of particular interest to the New York audience, or likely any audience for that matter, was the return of “Jungleland” for the first time on the tour. To Springsteen fans, if not the public at large, “Jungleland” is a special song, one that fans believe captures his appeal in a sprawling 10 minutes or so. Part ballad, part anthem, part rocker, part soul song, “Jungleland” is difficult to pin down. Ostensibly, it’s a story of a doomed romance between the Magic Rat and the Barefoot Girl. The Rat is a boy from Jersey out and about in the big city, who “rolls up his pants” after meeting the Barefoot Girl “drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain.” Together, they “take a stab at romance,” though Springsteen makes it obvious their relationship is effectively doomed from the start. The world they live in is not a pleasant one, chased by the police, “maximum lawmen,” navigating an underworld of lost and forgotten souls, where kids “live just like shadows, always quiet, holding hands.” In an echo of The Great Gatsby, the entire world is lit by one giant Exxon sign, beneath which gangs assemble for the downtrodden kids to take their stand. Still, Springsteen finds beauty in it, however aching or painful, believing there’s an “opera out on the turnpike” and a “ballet being fought in an alley.” Music appears to be alive in this underworld, either literally or figuratively is unclear. Amid the gangs, payments of “secret” debts, fights, and cops, kids “flash guitars just like switchblades, Hustling for the record machines. The hungry and the hunted Explode into rock and roll bands That face off against each other out in the street.” For a time, it’s easy to believe that the gangs are really these rock and roll bands, such as Springsteen himself was once a part of, and the darker imagery is meant to illustrate the tight knit yet competitive nature of the musical community, but this interpretation comes crashing down for the final third of the song, again literally and figuratively.
Following a short, tight guitar solo, the music reaches a crescendo until Springsteen intones, “Just one look and a whisper, and they’re gone,” and suddenly the infamous wall of sound is replaced with the lonely wail of a saxophone. The story then returns to the Magic Rat and the Barefoot girl, holed up somewhere “beneath the city.” The Girl begs the Rat not to leave, somehow knowing he is doomed, but then surrenders to his wishes. “In the tunnels uptown, the Rat’s own dream guns him down As shots echo down them hallways in the night No one watches when the ambulance pulls away Or as the girl shuts out the bedroom light.” In the closing stanza, Springsteen returns to the world out large in a vision that’s darker than ever. Music is now stripped away, reduced to a “real death waltz Between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy,” highlighting the underlying dynamic of the song, between who is a criminal, who is a musician trying to get by, and what’s the difference between the two. Meanwhile, poets have arrived on the scene suggesting an even sparser atmosphere underlined by dominant strings for musical accompaniment, but they “don’t write nothing at all They just stand back and let it all be.” Even that, however, is too much for this world. When they finally “reach for the moment And try to make an honest stand” “they wind up wounded, not even dead, Tonight in Jungleland.” The music swells once more, but nothing near the wall of sound that dominated the middle third of the song, before fading out. Listening to “Jungleland” on the recorded version that concludes Springsteen’s breakthrough Born to Run album in 1975 is an experience, but performed live, it takes on a life of its own, especially at Madison Square Garden.
The sight of Bruce on stage makes it even more difficult to separate the different threads of the song, and it’s all too easy to imagine the autobiographical implications of a boy from New Jersey crossing the state line, flashing a guitar like a switchblade. Even more astounding is how well he can still sing it at 73. His voice is certainly rougher and a little more worn than when he was 25, but there is a renewed grittiness and passion to it belting out every single note as if it was his last, or he were in fact one of the poets fated to bleed out on the street. The music is something equally powerful and moving to behold, starting slow and building, blaring out into a classic rocker, and then fading into nothing with a mournful saxophone solo right before a final, desperate swell of sound that hangs in the arena like a fog. At the end, it feels like both the band and the audience have been on a journey, not entirely a pleasant one and yet there remains a defiance to it, frequent in Springsteen’s work. Most concerts would have ended there, but Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band refused to relent, unlike the Barefoot Girl. No sooner had “Jungleland” ended when “Thunder Road” began, taking the audience on yet another journey through defining track that transforms the mundane world of high school graduations and ordinary cars into the magical realm of “skeleton frames of burned out Chevrolets,” “haunting a dusty beach road.” Next, the house lights came up, illuminating thousands of fans on their feet in what has become a tradition for “Born to Run,” followed by “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight.” “Glory Days,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” and the acoustic finale, “I’ll See You in My Dreams.” If you lost count, that totals eight encores, as in more than half the number of songs played at most concerts, period. The totals are astounding: 27 songs, notching in a tad under three hours for a group composed of mainly septuagenarians, all of whom are already famous, fabulously wealthy by any standard, and should have absolutely nothing left to prove. Bruce and the band obviously disagree.
The next day, I told my wife I was having a hard time deciding what to make of the show overall. On the one hand, he and the band were obviously older, though having no less fun, hamming it up as ever and obviously thrilled to be back on stage before their adoring fans. On the other, if you were to play a song without telling me it was recorded the night before, I would not have been able to place it any closer than the late 1990s. To a large extent, it was like any Springsteen show I’d ever seen, the same as it ever was, but as Bruce himself makes clear, this timelessness they’ve tapped into, cannot continue. Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici are long dead. “Last Man Standing” presents Springsteen’s own thoughts on the fact that he is the only one left of his original bands. “Ghosts” is about how the spirits of the past crowd around the living the older one gets, and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” reflects on the only place these departed souls can be found on this Earth. The Springsteen era is not over, but the clock is clearly ticking and one has to wonder how much longer this can continue as it is. Assuming Bruce remains healthy, he will undoubtedly be doing something musically, but it’s impossible to believe marathon, hard-rocking, 27-song, three-hour shows are long for this world. Something truly magical and special is about to be lost, gone forever, captured in a recording, film, or photograph, but never to be experienced anew, in real time again. There’s a sadness there, lurking around the end of this tour or the next, but one cannot help but see the defiance as well. Springsteen doesn’t have to do this, but like his characters, he wants to and he will continue to pour his heart out on the stage until he simply can’t. Nobody knows when that will be, but at least we can enjoy the ride and acknowledge in the meantime, that the man has no equal or even anyone to compare him to at this point.
1 thought on “Bruce Springsteen has no equal or even an apt comparison”
You should send this to him. I’m sure it would mean a lot to him.
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