As I’m writing this, I hear that Bruce added ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad’ to his Broadway show, in protest at the inhumane treatment at US Borders. This was the first set change for 146 shows and was warmly received by the audience.
I look at my Twitter feed and learn that MSNBC newsreader Rachel Maddow broke down on air whilst describing the forcible separation of babies and young children from their migrant parents at the US-Mexico border and the use of ‘tender age shelters’ by officials of the Trump administration.
Making light of my own immigration ‘inconvenience’ in no way diminishes how I feel about this disgraceful treatment of families and children – or the subsequent inadequate statements by the Trump administration in the face of international condemnation.
‘And what is your reason for visiting the United States?’
Welcome to immigration at Newark Liberty Airport. Obvious irony alert in the name but let that pass. After two merciless hours in a queue, the question comes as a blessed relief. It’s the one I’ve been waiting for.
‘We’ve got tickets for Springsteen on Broadway,’ I gush.
‘Nice’, he says, almost smiling, whilst flicking through the pages of my passport. He alights on a page and looks up. Unsmiling.
‘Whydya go to Iran?’
I blurt ‘holiday’ at the same time as Tim says ‘business’ and for one fleeting moment I can see us being sent back on the next available flight. With the merest jerk of his head he tells us we’re off the hook, so we make a dash for The Promised Land of Manhattan before he changes his mind.
Since 3 October 2017, Bruce Springsteen has been engaged on a unique theatrical project, designed to show us, his fans, what he describes as his ‘magic trick.’ Namely, how his family background, life experiences (or lack of them) and some critical relationships have shaped his music and performing life. For Springsteen fans this is an irresistible proposition. It started with his memoir Born to Run, which I’ve already consumed and digested twice. Tramps like us just can’t get enough of this stuff.
Negotiating the challenges that come with fame and fortune, whilst also sustaining a healthy and satisfying personal and creative life, is Bruce Springsteen’s speciality. In the music business that’s not so much a magic trick, as a miracle. To hear the man himself reflect on his own story in intimate and frank terms is more than any fan could have hoped for. It’s a gift.
I recall seeing a video of a different live show some years ago where a member of the invited audience is clearly heard saying, ‘I love you Bruce.’ The response from the stage is swift.
‘But you don’t know me.’
It struck me at the time that it must be difficult to deal with blind adoration from total strangers without losing yourself along the way. It’s happened to plenty. Springsteen on Broadway seems to be the antidote to all that. On this stage, it’s Bruce the man, puncturing his own Mr Born to Run /Mr Thunder Road image whilst laughing at the guy who wrote those songs – the guy that couldn’t drive a car at the time and now lives ten minutes away from the town he grew up in.
Brilliant Disguise is one of two duets in the show that he sings with his wife Patti Scialfa, and while it’s essentially a song about revealing who we are to a partner, it could also stand for the relationship between fan and rock star.
It’s Bruce the megastar that emerges nightly from the stage door after the show to sign autographs, pose for photographs and wave to fans on the street. As we wait, we get a glimpse into the finely tuned machine that keeps the Springsteen on Broadway wheels turning – the assistants, the technicians, the security and the cars. By 10pm the drivers and minders are in position, headphones on, waiting for the call. Firm, but friendly security staff chat to us, whilst ensuring the traffic keeps moving past and no one steps out of their designated spot behind the barrier. We scan their faces for clues as to when He will appear.
‘He’s the Boss. He decides. No guarantees.’
Ticket holders from other shows walk by, bemused and it is unbelievable to us that they don’t know who we’re waiting for. Their reaction instantly ups the ante.
‘No? You’re kidding me! Springsteen comes out after the show? Really?
At 10.40pm exactly, the stage door opens on Bruce, the icon, pen in hand, ready and willing to sign books, albums, T-shirts – bare skin – if required. Plenty of lesser talents wouldn’t bother but he’s meticulous and now I’m just another crazy woman, thrusting my copy of Born to Run in his direction. I want to say something meaningful but so do twenty or thirty others alongside me and we must all sound the same to him. I’m overwhelmed and as he leaves his handwritten mark on my book I can only stammer pointless thanks. I’m clawing at his black leather jacket as he turns to wave at the crowd. I won’t ever forget this, but he will.
The next night is in stark contrast. When you enter the Walter Kerr, you are literally IN the theatre – there is no foyer and no bad seat in the house. One look at that centre mic, the piano off to the side and you know you won’t be straining to see the performer, that whatever this ticket cost, it’s going to be worth it.
Theatre is about illusion, suspension of disbelief and pretence, but these things will have no place in this presentation, though the conventions of theatre are observed.
We have a set of sorts, comprising a touring musician’s gear, stacked up in front of a stark brick wall. The script is selected sections from the pages of his Born to Run memoir, interspersed, illustrated and accompanied by musical performance, at the piano and at centre stage, on the guitar.
There are authentic characters, poetically and poignantly brought to life in the words and music. A red-faced father in a small-town bar, a mother in high heels walking proudly back from work with her young son, a black saxophonist, the biggest man you’ve ever seen, honoured in time-honoured style at the piano in 10th Avenue Freeze Out. Clarence, we learn, is waiting to be reunited with his bandleader in the next life.
There’s drama and conflict in the telling and there’s a tree, bookending the performance, one that we know mattered very much to a young boy and the famous man he became. The show is laugh out loud funny in places but mostly this is Bruce the man, in confessional, reflective and serious mood. It’s compelling and what he has to say about losing the people that matter in your life is both profound and comforting.
I’ve read most of his words in the book and found them deeply affecting but having the author in front of you, telling you, with pain in his voice, of young men from his town that he knew and admired who didn’t come back from Vietnam, is to absorb it for the first time. Then to witness Born in the USA as a howl of rage, a lament on lives lost and a country’s shame is unforgettable. It’s acoustic, but its loud, raw, the sound hits you like a punch and it’s the best version of the song I’ve ever heard.
I’ve never been a fan of Patti Scialfa’s solo voice, so when Bruce gets to the part of the show where he describes the moment he fell in love with her vocals, I really wanted to hear her sing the first line of Tell Him, rather than hear him describe it. A fleeting disappointment. I got over it.
Tougher than the Rest, now sung by life partners, rather than new lovers, appears to change its meaning. Now it’s not so much, I’m strong and can withstand all the difficulties we might face, but more, I’m a hard act to love in the long term. I’m the challenge. Bruce has written extensively about his battle with depression, which is hinted at in this show. This segment pays tribute to Patti’s supportive role through the dark times.
The latter portion of the show moves away from the chronology of the personal to the political here and now. Trump is not mentioned by name but we all know who he refers to and we cheer the oblique spoken criticism and his comment on Martin Luther King Jnr’s words, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.’
‘But I’ve lived long enough to know that arc doesn’t bend on its own. It needs all of us leaning on it, nudging it in the right direction.’
He lets A Long Walk Home, originally penned during the Bush administration, do the talking.
It’s this part of the show that comes back to me the next night. Walking back to our hotel we see a crowd gathering on the pavement near Times Square. Three police officers are verbally abusing a black guy. They accuse him of resisting arrest. His arms are being held behind his back, his face is inches from the pavement and the language is ugly. There are many witnesses. No one says anything. America is a great country, but it needs a conscience now, more than ever.
There’s a moment in every Bruce Springsteen show that is transformative. You’ve seen that moment on the face of the guy featured in the Dream Baby Dream video. The one that the camera stays on, as his lip quivers and his eyes fill. You know that feeling and here it comes with The Rising, a hymn to the tragedy of 9/11. I’ve only seen this performed by the full band. As an acoustic solo with Bruce repeating the ‘dream of life’ refrain like a ghostly echo, it is one of many highlights.
There’s more. Dancing in the Dark, as every fan knows, comes towards the end of the night, when Bruce pulls some lucky fan on stage to dance with the band. It’s joyful and hopeful and in this show, it mirrors how tenderly he spoke of his 93-year-old mother earlier in the evening, who despite dementia, hasn’t lost her desire to dance.
I’d heard that Bruce recites The Lord’s Prayer towards the end of the performance and I wasn’t sure how I would relate to that, but in the context of his childhood home and the Catholic upbringing that was ever-present around him, it seemed natural. Whatever we believe, the words are buried deep within most of us, which is why a life-affirming departure from the well-worn phrases has such impact. ‘Give us this day… just give us this day.’
The final song, Born to Run, and it had to be there, is a beautiful acoustic version, sung with maturity and gratitude. What a pity the call to respect the performer, and refrain from taking photographs until the curtain call was ignored. Most of the people around us took out ipads and iphones to capture it from the very first notes. My other gripe is with the people who cannot sit for more than an hour without a bathroom break! So annoying in a small theatre. You know there isn’t an interval. Go before you sit down!
In his summing up Bruce tells us that in his life’s work he hoped his ‘long and noisy prayer, his magic trick’ would ‘rock your very soul.’ It did, and it does. Long may it continue.