Springsteen on Broadway
Artist: Bruce Springsteen
Recording: Springsteen on Broadway
Label: Columbia Records
★★★★★ (5/5 stars)
“Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.” It was the opening set of Bruce Springsteen’s run of shows at New York’s Bottom Line in the summer of 1975, the early show on August 13, and those of us who were lucky enough to get into the packed room were ready for him and his band to tear the roof off. Which they would. But first, he sat down at the piano and played, solo, “Thunder Road” from his new album, Born to Run, and it was like a statement of intent, an overture. The song contained all his themes: escape, restlessness, ambition, romance. “You know just what I’m here for,” he told Mary. He knew what the stakes were, and no artist was more ready to seize opportunity. Over the decades, “Thunder Road” became something else in concert; from the first notes on harmonica, the audiences knew what was expected of them, the collective ritual they were a part of, and while there was something fun and familiar about being in those crowds, it was as though the song, and others, had gotten away from its author.
This year, Springsteen reclaimed it. His show at the Walter Kerr Theater, currently wrapping up its run, but preserved for posterity on Netflix and Columbia Records, is a lot of things: a memory play, a summing-up, a philosophical lecture, a memorial, a collection of highlights from his vast catalog. Springsteen is, and was from the start, a spellbinding narrator—his shows were filled with emotional, beautifully detailed soliloquies—and Springsteen on Broadway turned out to be an ideal vehicle to fuse autobiography and fifteen or so important songs that illuminate his stories. Sometimes, the songs and stories overlap, the music continuing, underscoring, reflecting. What struck me about the show was what a relief it was to sit in a rapt, attentive audience, to hear songs like “Thunder Road”—it’s the show’s first key turning point—“The Promised Land,” “Born in the U.S.A.,” and “Born to Run” absent the bellows of guys who stomp up the aisles during the slow songs to get more beer. The play (let’s call it that) gives Springsteen the chance to do what he can’t (or won’t) do with the E Street Band, to do what Bob Dylan does: deconstruct familiar songs, snatch them back, throw the audience a curve. There is no singing along.
Springsteen cops to being something of a fraud, someone who couldn’t drive a car, who never worked a nine-to-five job or set foot in a factory. But did anyone ever take him literally? He’s an artist, skilled in the art of self-invention and self-mythologizing, and exceedingly skilled at making every person watching him feel an intimate connection. There was a pact he made with us, way back, that he would to the best of his considerable ability guard our dreams and visions, express our doubts and desires, have a sense of honor and responsibility. He will prove it all night. His love will not let us down. He would drive all night just to buy you some shoes. You could count on him. Of course, there are ways in which “Bruce Springsteen” is an invention, like Ziggy Stardust, the Idea of a Rock Star, and one other thing Springsteen on Broadway does is acknowledge that. The guy who didn’t have a driver’s license, soon after a cross-country road trip where he had to take the wheel, wrote “Racing in the Street.” That’s how good he is, he tells us, and he’s right.
“Listen,” T-Bone Burnett once said, “the story of the United States is this: One kid, without anything, walks out of his house, down the road, with nothing but a guitar and conquers the world.” That’s Springsteen’s story, in which that guitar plays an important role. He remembers seeing Elvis with a guitar on TV, briefly taking lessons, getting a guitar from his mother, sitting at the feet of a local guitar hero, studying him. “I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk,” he boasts in “Thunder Road,” and that’s his ticket to ride. He could have called his theatrical debut anything. He could have just called it Springsteen. Or maybe The Big Man Cometh. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he was thinking of the Drifters’ song “On Broadway” (by Leiber & Stoller and Mann & Weil), where Broadway is the Promised Land, and the odds of success are daunting. But the singer has a secret weapon to silence the doubters. “They’re dead wrong, I know they are/’Cause I can play this here guitar.” What else could young Bruce have done? How else would he have gotten out of his nowhere town? The triumph of Springsteen on Broadway is the long-awaited sequel to the Drifters’ tale of determination.
Springsteen on Broadway is about the bonds we make. Between children and parents, friends. Between performer and audience. When I first saw him, I was in my early 20s, just starting out as a rock writer, and he was not much older. It was around the time of The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and, like a lot of rock writers, I had an instant affinity with what he was up to; it seemed as though we had the same record collection, and that he would blow away a lot of the dust settling on rock in the early ’70s. There is no artist I’ve seen live more often, over the past 45 years, even through his stumbles and bad decisions. He calls what he does a “magic trick” (is it a coincidence that the only 21st century Springsteen album I admire unreservedly is called Magic?), and that’s surely part of it. It’s also a circus act—with the Seeger Sessions Band he did “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”—and a communal ceremony. From the start, he asked for our trust. It’s there in “Thunder Road”: climb in, this is going to be an exciting ride. Near the end of Springsteen on Broadway, he sings “The Land of Hope and Dreams,” a song he introduced when he brought the E Street Band back together at the end of the 1990s, and the song makes the same promise that “Thunder Road” does. Get on board, and “faith will be rewarded.” You leave the theater, where the neon lights are bright, and feel renewed, hopeful, inspired. That has always been his greatest trick.