Bruce Springsteen: Going Beyond

By: Tim Donnelly

Jersey Shore, USA

Bruce Springsteen by Danny Clinch
A week and half ago, despite the brutal cold, insulting wind and perpetual gray gloom in the Northeast, the news of Bruce Springsteen performing in support of then President Elect Barack Obama in front of the iconic and massive Lincoln Memorial, took me to Maui mentally.

Fast forward to a body and brain still stuck in my “Jersey in January” misery, but saved by the word an hour before the “We Are One” concert in Washington that a gospel choir was with Springsteen and his guitar. As a lifelong parishioner in the church of music, baptized in the Jersey Shore diocese, I faithfully believed and knew in my heart that a rock ‘n’ roll exorcism of the past eight years was going to be performed by the high priest of the people.

And that’s exactly what happened. The Boss did what he does, what he always does – he rises above and beyond the occasion. He delivered his message with the fervor that offered immediate salvation from eternal damnation, without exploitation of the circumstances or overt grandiosity. Not many people on this Earth can do that. Seriously.

He strode across the frosty marble of the monolith dedicated to “The Great Emancipator,” strumming his acoustic guitar with just purpose as flag adorned marble prop walls parted to reveal a massive red cloaked chorus consisting of multi-cultural female singers. “Come on up for the rising/ Come on up for the rising /Come on up for the rising tonight,” they sang until Springsteen’s voice overcame his guitar intro. “The Rising” has kept its urgency and call to duty after 9/11, taking on new meaning after Katrina and the election of President Obama.

Playing leader to his now swaying assemblage of back-up singers, the divine power of Springsteen’s lyrics and passion were perfect for the stunning environment and historical moment. Tears of joy, sadness and acceptance flowed from my eyes, igniting my soul and relieving eight years of tension all at once when they hit this verse:

Sky of blackness and sorrow (a dream of life)
Sky of love, sky of tears (a dream of life)
Sky of glory and sadness (a dream of life)
Sky of mercy, sky of fear (a dream of life)
Sky of memory and shadow (a dream of life)
Your burnin’ wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness (a dream of life)
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life (a dream of life)

Pete Seeger & Bruce Springsteen
We Are One/Inauguration concert by H. Grew
Springsteen finished the song without pomp, bowed appreciatively towards the choir and then genuflected towards where the incoming first family sat, smiled and waved, and then he simply walked off.

It wasn’t Bruce’s moment. It wasn’t Barack’s moment. It was Springsteen’s moment delivered to the elected leader of the free world, and those who saw it and heard it undoubtedly felt the soul purging power, whether they were in D.C. or not.

Springsteen ain’t no rock ‘n’ roll Jesus. He’s a mere mortal conduit for immortal things like love and hope, and being from an underdog place like Jersey, it just makes that fact even more impactful – a friggin’ miracle, really. To his credit, he still lives in the neighborhood (nicer house of course) and he really does care, about big things like D.C. to the little things like making sure a local high school marching band has uniforms. He cares and inspires others to go beyond.

So it’s not surprising that his new album, his 24th, is titled Working On A Dream (released January 27 on Columbia Records). At 59, he’s still true to his working musician roots, putting out two records in quick order (2007’s Magic) and touring steadily (Magic‘s ended in July 2008).

Bruce Springsteen has never genre-hopped for the sake of sales, only for the sake of curiosity or to pay homage. He hasn’t borrowed from the youngsters to stay current. He doesn’t have to or need to, because the kids, well, they still borrow from him. Springsteen ain’t no shape shifting reptilian nor is he Benjamin Button, nor is he an established artist that looks to his somewhat aging, increasingly formulaic peers for inspiration. In Springsteen and his E Street Band, maturity has brought forth spontaneity and flowing creativity, something usually reserved for naïve, aggressive youth. He takes chances on Working on a Dream, and most of the risks work. Even the songs that didn’t jibe the first few listens now garner a positive reaction in my head once I opened up to them.

Springsteen said he was inspired by making Magic and the “fun” he had on its tour. He wrote on the road, something he rarely had done before. This is part of what makes Working on a Dream so compelling, a fresh work generated without calculation or thought for acclamation.

“Outlaw Pete” is the eight minute opener, a tale about a mythic, horse riding lawbreaker who robbed a bank in his diapers and did time before he was six months old. A goofy premise perhaps, but the tune unfolds into a Sergio Leone epic with hairpin turns and wide bends. For a dude from Jersey, he sure can write a song about the long lost dreams of the American West. And to think that it’s Jon Bon Jovi who fancies himself as “The Jersey Cowboy.”

“Lucky Day” is pure E Street Band, with the bond of brothers coming out to let the world know that the Jersey boardwalk sound is still oak solid. Steve Van Zandt‘s playful vocals and the pitch perfect, rightfully utilized sax of Clarence Clemons are so friggin’ E Street it’s beautiful.

The title track was played acoustic at Obama rallies as a call to action. Now with the question of our next President settled and a full band backing Springsteen it’s a celebration of cause, complete with triumphant whistling.

Now to the tune that almost every pundit has trashed and the one that I absolutely love, the much lamented “The Queen of the Supermarket.” To most, it’s hokey with a very un-E Street string arrangement. The subject matter of falling in love in a grocery store with an employee has nauseated some. Me, I love it. I mean, how simple on a scale of relationships can you get? Looking for the beauty in anyone and everyone and taking a chance in reaching out to them is a great notion. I do believe that love can be found in aisle two next to the Drain-O. It’s anywhere you find it, right? Plus, on this theme song for the lonely he subtly drops the F-bomb towards the end.

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band by Danny Clinch
A year or so ago, Springsteen played a small benefit with Brian Wilson on the Jersey Shore, unannounced, of course, a night for the ages. It was ’60s/’70s Beach Boys in the vein of Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson not the Mike Love led Beach Boys featuring John Stamos on drums that the world reveres, and if “This Life” isn’t Springsteen’s homage to the lush harmonies and lavish production of the boy genius Brian then the Atlantic Ocean will flow in reverse tomorrow.

Springsteen’s tour for Devils and Dust a few years back brought out his raw blues side; so natural and haunting it should make Howlin’ Wolf and Little Walter grin in approval. “Good Eye,” track 7 on Dream, moans “I was standing by the river where the cold black water runs,” as a dirty harp looms dangerously over a swamp foot stomp. This is when you realize why they call him “The Boss.”

A lamp went out on E Street last year when multi-instrumentalist and original E Streeter Danny Federici died from melanoma cancer. While Springsteen has always been a gregarious showman, Federici was the silent but deadly short dude in the back, the troublemaker you least expected, especially within a gang that looked like the E Street Band back in the day. The Jersey Shore crew didn’t call him “The Phantom” without reason; in Jersey, nicknames are earned not bestowed.

“The Last Carnival” is a tribute to “The Phantom,” a man who slugged it out in college gyms and seaside bars working on an original sound and then took the trip to Mars, i.e. packing stadiums the world over. Danny Federici was the man who gave the world the kaleidoscope sound waves of “Wild Billy’s Circus Story” and “Sandy (Fourth of July Asbury Park)” – magical, mystical sounds that represent where this band comes from, how it came to be and what it will always be.

Bruce Springsteen by Danny Clinch
Before Working on a Dream came out, an old friend hit him up for a favor. Mickey Rourke asked for a song for a movie that for Rourke has become a life-imitating-art experience. In the critically lauded film The Wrestler, Rourke plays a broken man on the comeback trail, a battered soul that leads with his chin and wears his human frailties like bad tattoos. However, in the face of everything stacked against him, he still strives for redemption. Ya think Springsteen knows a couple dudes like this? He’s been writing about them his whole life, and “The Wrestler” is one of the simplest yet profoundly poetic songs he’s ever composed.

Working on a Dream is about rising to meet a moment and then going beyond it. It’s these moments from this record – “The Last Carnival,” “The Wrestler,” “Good Eye,” “Outlaw Pete,” “You’re My Lucky Day” and “Queen of the Supermarket” – that stay with you forever and feel new and comfortable every time you hear/relive them. Maybe it’s because Bruce Springsteen always sounds like Bruce Springsteen; he is who he is and he knows what he writes well. His formula is elementary: get to work and push your limits just a little bit further each time out.

So, the stage is set for Springsteen and the E Street Band this coming Super Bowl Sunday, a halftime show who knows how many millions or billions will witness, another chance for them to go beyond the moment. I don’t how Springsteen is gonna contain himself only doing twenty minutes. He’ll probably be in a room in the bowels of the stadium known as the “Big Sombrero” an hour before kick off, running the band through a sixteen minute version of “Tenth Ave. Freeze Out.”

Those who have never seen Springsteen in concert should know this: Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band are in the highest echelon of the greatest live performers of all time. While Trey was studying “The Boss” as a Jersey teen and The Grateful Dead were doing their three-plus-hour West Coast shuffle with 18 minute versions “Dark Star,” Bruce and The E Street Band were The East Coast muscle with a strong dose of Jersey hustle, ripping through 17 minute opuses full of jazz, soul horns and heavy rock guitar. This Sunday night, and many nights in the near future, we will get to witness and testify to a man and his band, going beyond.

Bruce Springsteen recently announced a huge world tour; dates available here.

And because “The River” is still one of the best songs ever:

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