When tickets for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band went on sale in December, I first hesitated. I’d seen Springsteen ten times over the years, starting with The River tour in 1981 at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena. I’d experienced the Born to Run tour twice at the Coliseum in 1985, and I once flew to Denver in 2003 to see him with my cousin Liz (getting an early plane back to L.A. to teach the next morning). He was now touring the same River album and ending the tour at the same Sports Arena—which is scheduled for demolition after this tour.
Got to go, I told myself, and I hit my computer and Ticketmaster the moment the tickets went on sale at 10 a.m. While it took a half hour to finally get seats, the moment I tried to pay for them, I received an error message. There was no one to call. I lost out. The place sold out shortly thereafter. When tickets for a second show went on sale a few days later, I tried the phone line as well as the computer, and captured two blocks of six tickets. Thus eleven friends and I went last night.
There’s something much different seeing him perform live versus listening to his live shows on Sirius XM radio, I realized last night. What’s missing is the audience. When he sings “Thunder Road,” for instance, so is most of the audience, pumping their collective hands in the air at certain points. When he does “Dancing in the Dark,” most of the audience dances. While he’s often introduced his band much like a gospel minister, suggesting his concerts are a spiritual experience, they are a spiritual experience. His shows often reflect the best of the human condition, the human touch.
In The River, a song that caught me off-guard last night was "Point Blank," which has a narrator reflecting on a lost love, "You wake up and you're dyin'/ you don't even know what from." It was one of the softer songs that had a real punch. Springsteen appeared as lost as the character he sang about. The lighting was dramatic, from the side, and the screens near the stage showed him from two different angles, quite cinematic.
The words themselves offered a little story, something he's known for. I once obsessed over the song, playing it many times over in a row. Last night it became new again.
Few entertainers can be as intimate, especially in a setting like the Sports Arena, which holds over 16,000. He not only often plays right on the edge of the stage, but also last night he took his wireless microphone right into the sea of people in front of him, shaking hands, singing, not missing a beat. From deep into the audience on the floor, while performing “Hungry Heart,” he crowd-surfed, and countless palms and fingers like centipede legs slowly carried him back to the stage where Jake Clemons, the saxophonist who replaced his late uncle, Clarence, pulled Bruce upward while blasting with his sax.
This contrasts incredibly the recent Donald Trump rallies where Trump incites violence against protesters, saying that in the good ol’ days, protesters would get beat up. Thanks to such talk, violence has erupted at his rallies, and his recent Chicago meeting had to be called off for worries of mayhem. Trump suggests we need a fascist for a leader.
Springsteen leads us another way. The last time I saw him, in 2012, he began his concert with the song “Badlands.” For many of us, we were still feeling economic hard times, and it was as if I heard the opening lyrics for the first time:
Light's out tonight
Trouble in the heartland
Got a head-on collision
Smashin' in my guts, man
I'm caught in a crossfire
I don't understand
The audience around me had felt and understood the words, too, and we sang and shouted with him, venting the anger we harbored. Yes, we could “wake up in the night/with a fear so real”—yet in that gathering, no one sucker-punched anyone. No violence. Rather, near the end of the song, we had the same notion as the narrator “that it ain’t no sin/to be glad you’re alive.”
In last night’s set, in the supercharged series of songs that came after the twenty-one tunes from The River, he brought back “Badlands,” but this time, the song seemed upbeat, happy, everyone pumping their hands into the air each time the word “Badlands” came up, showing the sense of aliveness and gladness throughout.
The same love-of-the-moment worked its way through such songs as “Backstreets,” “The Rising,” “Thunder Road,” and “Shout.” He and his seven bandmates played for three and a half hours nonstop.
The whole night essentially looked at the river of life. After all, when he created The River album, it was a younger man’s examination of becoming an adult, exploring love, loss, family, marriage, and more. Yet, now, in revisiting it, he’s adding an older man’s touch to it. After all, two of his bandmates have died in recent years. In fact, with last night’s “Dancing in the Dark,” he brought on stage the daughters of Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, danced with them, and let them play tambourines for several more songs. In "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," the screens gave a series of shots of Clemons and Federici.
I’m reminded of mythologist Joseph Campbell, who said his study of religion and storytelling across human time and cultures led him to believe one thing: “Follow your bliss.” Bliss is the sense of seeking truth, a kind of Eastern notion. As he explained it in The Power of Myth, “If you follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you’re living…. Wherever you are, if you are following your bliss, you are enjoying refreshment, that life within you, all the time.”
Springsteen has followed that bliss, remaining true to it. Other rock legends have been sidelined with addictions and scandals, but Springsteen has kept in shape as well as kept exploring. Like many of us, he’s had huge disappointments, divorce, and depression. When he was much younger, in a contract dispute, he felt the sense his career had crashed just as it started. Still, he kept pushing. Each album has brought him to new places, new insights.
That’s what drives me to see him, frankly. He shows the way for all artists: keep looking, keep working, keep exploring. He’s still going strong at sixty-six. His youth wasn’t that long ago.
Before I wrote novels and plays, I was a journalist and reviewer (plays and books). I blogged on Red Room for five years before moving here.