An American story: The joys of “Springsteen on Broadway”

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Springsteen is my hero. I’ll say it unabashedly to anyone I meet. I also inform them that they need two things to truly understand the boss. One is to listen to his album “The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle,” and two, is to listen to the box set “Tracks” as soon as possible.

“Tracks,” with its previously unreleased material, speaks to the depth and sheer power of Bruce’s songwriting. It still blows my mind that songs like “Thundercrack” and “Santa Ana” never made it on to one of his albums. As a songwriter and performer myself, I would thank the gods to have written such freewheeling and hard-hitting tracks (If you’re there Bruce, please inform the Gods of my most profound wish).

For Springsteen these are throwaways, though – demos, outtakes, and b-sides from a long and illustrious career spent blazing through everything from jazz-infused rock epics to full-scale arena rock. Maybe they didn’t fit the mood of the record, or perhaps he just didn’t think they were very good. Regardless, The Boss trampled on, leaving rabid fans to bootleg his unreleased tracks and dig up more pieces of the Springsteen legend. We all just want to possess another little bit of that rock and roll glory that he represents.

As his live concerts achieved legendary status and his output found new, subtler expressions, Springsteen’s balls-to-the-wall energy and youthful vigor continued to inspire millions to escape their own small towns and find out what freedom means to them. Freedom, or the idea of it, is an insatiable emotion. Our whole country is built on the nebulous idea, and if any rock and roller is the poster child for it, it’s Bruce Springsteen.

Springsteen’s story is ripe for documentation. The masses (us, the timid ones that compromised on our dreams) want to hear stories about those who tested the edges of reality, who lived fully with a heart wide open and discovered true freedom (or a freedom we at least perceive them to have found).

That’s the reason “Springsteen on Broadway” is such a revelation. Spending over a year playing five days a week in front of a theater crowd, Bruce has presented us with a dramatic retelling of his life, complete with a colorful scenes from his childhood and… Equipped with only an acoustic guitar and a piano, he growls out his glorious tale, oscillating between song and story in his raspy timbre. It’s all the personality and gusto we’ve come to expect from Springsteen, making for a performance experience no music lover should miss.

The release of the “Springsteen on Broadway” album coincides with the release of the Netflix documentary film concerning the string of performances. What we see in the film is something rare for fans of Springsteen, which is an intimate, up-close experience with the man and his music. Instead of the arena or the stadium, flashing lights and big saxophone solos, we get The Boss on a small stage, telling us his tale like the wizened, old storyteller he has become.

For me, there are moments missing on “Springsteen on Broadway” I would have loved to see. But with a discography as thick as a Webster’s dictionary, The Boss had to pick and choose, and this is what we ended up with. Most of the “Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle,” arguably Springsteen’s best album, is absent here. What we get are songs that tie in to pivotal moments of his story, from opener “Growing Up” to big rock hits like “Born to Run,” which catapulted him to stardom all those years ago.

Throughout the documentary and accompanying album, Springsteen takes us through the whole story, from being a wide-eyed, green-bean-hating kid watching his rock and roll hero Elvis Presley on television all the way to leaving his hometown and finding stardom over the ensuing decades.

To enjoy “Springsteen on Broadway,” you have to accept that this is a scripted, theatrical tone to this. It is isn’t a one-time confessional, but a well-thought-out, biographical monologue from one of the most iconic rock stars of his generation. At times his speeches are lyrical, at other moments hammy, but through it all entertaining and educational. It’s no surprising that Springsteen shows storytelling prowess up there, being candid about his own puffed-up mythology (like how he wrote about factories and racing cars, but had never stepped inside an industrial building and barely knew how to drive). There’s something life-affirming about the whole affair, even when it’s all dressed up in layers of Springsteen’s gusto. That’s the point – it was Bruce’s rabid imagination, his lust for life and never-say-die willingness to chase his dreams, that got him where he was. Even if he lacked experience or any realistic hopes in his world, he filled it with a joie de vivre that shone brightly. That was Springsteen’s magic, and his secret.

Ultimately “Springsteen on Broadway” sheds light on another side of Springsteen. His ability to command an audience with only a guitar and his colorful personality. Apart from the bombastic sounds of saxophone and electric guitars amid the lights of an screaming arena full of fans, he stands naked and exposed before the crowd, attempting to explain the happenings of the last 40 years. It’s not a foreign Springsteen, though, it’s that same man who, with a beanie tipped over his eyes, asked a bewildered crowd at the Hammersmith Odeon in London “So, how’s things going over here in England and stuff, eh? Alright?” before chuckling to himself.

The way he talks about Clarence Clemons, his saxophone player who passed away in 2011, makes you reflect on your own friendships. It also makes you want to take your own story all the way to the end, to love fiercely and truly and discover a reason to exist, one that helps you abide the fear and loathing on the cold dark mornings. Discovering that thing was at the core of Springsteen’s journey, as he says at the beginning of the show:

“All you had to do to get a taste of it, was to risk being your true self.”

For Bruce, his true self is reflected in his deepest relationships. His duet with his wife Patti Scialfa is truly heartwarming. “Tougher than the Rest” has never felt so emotionally vulnerable as it has in this performance. Their voices joining together on the song feels like a testament to the hard road of relationships, of willing to expose yourself to another person, to rip off your mask and let yourself be seen. Much of the show, in the end, is about Springsteen’s relationships, with his mother, his father, Clarence, and his wife. With “Springsteen on Broadway,” Bruce has presented his story as an archetypal tale of living and loving deeply, of forgiveness and striving towards your deepest hopes and dreams, even when there is hardly a prayer.

Near the end of his performance, he professes this to the audience:

“I always thought I was a typical American, and so I fought my whole life, and I studied, and I played, and I worked, cause I wanted to hear and I wanted to know the whole American story.”

Springsteen has become that storyteller that has told a tale at the heart of America. He has rocked our souls and inspired millions to live with joy. Music, as he admits during the show, reminds us of the best of ourselves, and Springsteen, with his “magic trick,” has done just that.

 

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