Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform onstage at SiriusXM’s 10th anniversary celebration at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York March 9, 2012. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri
This article is adapted from The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism From Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, coauthored by Eric Alterman, recently published by Viking.
When I caught Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in Philadelphia in late March, it was the eighth night of the band’s US and European tour, which would go on for another six or seven months. While the songs change with the release of new albums, like this year’s Wrecking Ball, the structure of the show has remained relatively constant for nearly three decades now. It is, as Springsteen told 60 Minutes, “part circus, dance party, political rally and big tent revival.” The sum of these parts forms an incomparably larger whole, one that has no equivalent in American life and culture.
During the course of a nearly three-hour show in Philadelphia, for instance, the 62-year-old performer:
§ shared two choruses of “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” with a frog-voiced little girl plucked from the audience;
§ allowed himself to be held aloft and passed from midway in the arena back to the stage by his fans, while lying on his back, singing;
§ played a rarely heard but much beloved song in response to a sign reading: Please play Thundercrack for my dad in Iraq;
§ gave a short speech on the political, social and psychological dangers of economic inequality, in which he suggested his audience focus not on “which side of the 99 percent you’re on but on which side of history you’re on”;
§ brought his “almost 90”-year-old mom, Adele Springsteen, onstage to dance.
Across town, the National Constitution Center on Independence Mall was hosting an exhibition titled “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen,” in which Springsteen’s old clothing, guitars, cars and lyric sheets were treated alternately as holy relics and fodder for scholarly studies—which for many fans and scholars, they are. Drummer “Mighty” Max Weinberg paid a visit to it after giving a lecture at the new National Museum of American Jewish History down the Mall, in which he spoke of his work in the band as his way “of living a life of tikkun olam.” (And if all this is a bit too much for you, then take heart in the cover of the alternative Philadelphia Weekly, on which Springsteen was pictured beneath a halo and above the headline, Enough Already.)
I could go on, but you get the point: each Springsteen concert is an event so unique in our cynicism-besotted culture that relatively sane people like yours truly keep going back for more, after 200 shows and counting. (This is not a lot by true fan standards, trust me.) In 2003 Springsteen decided, after more than thirty years of touring, to keep adding stadium show after stadium show at the Jersey Meadowlands until fans finally felt they got enough. He stopped at ten, selling 600,000 tickets—more than any one artist has ever sold in a single place anywhere, anytime, and he could have kept going.
It’s hard to find an analogue for Bruce Springsteen anywhere in American history. Musically, he is an amalgam of so many disparate influences it looks ridiculous to list them together. (Don’t believe me? OK, here goes: Elvis, Dylan, James Brown, Chuck Berry, Hank Williams, Woody Guthrie, Frank Sinatra, Sam & Dave, the Shirelles, King Curtis, the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Roy Orbison, Gary “U.S.” Bonds, the Sex Pistols, Pete Seeger, the Swinging Medallions, Sam Cooke, Smokey Robinson, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett…) But it is equally difficult to locate a proper political antecedent for Springsteen in American history. Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger are the obvious nominees, but the fact that they were associated with the Communist Party, as well as pretty orthodox folk singers, significantly limited their ability to be heard by many Americans. Springsteen, meanwhile, has managed to give voice to political values—what he calls “news with a beat”—that fall well leftward of the boundaries of mainstream political discourse.