An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a lyric to the song "Born to Run." The line is from "Thunder Road." This version has been corrected.
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He's the One
"It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go," Bruce conceded of "Dancing in the Dark" years later. "And probably a little farther."
Indeed. I wish he'd never play it again.
It was during the second leg of the "Born in the USA" tour that Bruce did the unforgivable. By then, the album had sold millions of copies and spawned seven Top 10 singles. Bruce was everywhere. Images of his rear end in front of a draped American flag were the 1980s equivalent of the Farrah Fawcett poster that had hung in every American boy's bedroom the previous decade. The whole nation, it seemed, was pumping its fist to the title track.
So, instead of playing in 18,000-seat basketball arenas, Bruce moved his concerts to football stadiums that held three times that -- or more. The first was at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., on Jan. 26, 1985.
I was outraged. Bruce had always talked about rock-and-roll as "a promise." To me, a three-hour Bruce concert was that promise delivered. He fed off the fans, and the fans fed off him. The result was a magical, shared experience that shattered the imaginary wall separating performer and audience. Had Bruce forgotten that promise? How could he interact with fans who were a football field away? It was as if Bruce had suddenly morphed into a rock god with an ego as big as a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float.
I boycotted the Carrier Dome show, as I did the one at RFK Stadium and every other stadium on the tour. There was a line I refused to cross in this relationship, and Bruce had found it. All I could do was hope that this phase would pass. Surely he'd get his fill of mass adulation. He'd realize his mistake. I would simply wait him out.
My indignation was forgotten, of course, when Bruce released his next album. In February 1988, I celebrated by driving to the opening night of the "Tunnel of Love" tour in Worcester, Mass. Dozens of Bruce faithful jammed the sidewalk in front of the Centrum basketball arena on a bitterly cold night, huddled around tape decks blasting scratchy recordings of old concerts as we waited for the doors to open. Fans without tickets haggled with scalpers, wads of cash in hand. Fans with tickets hustled for better seats, dying to get closer to the stage. Every few minutes shouts of "BROOCE!" rang out.
And local TV crews chronicled it all, interviewing fans about the miles they'd driven, the price they'd paid for tickets and the number of concerts they'd attended, as if we were all part of some cult.
I was desperate to love the show, having waited nearly three years for a new record. But once inside, I didn't like the looks of it. The stage was set with a park bench and ticket booth manned by a member of Bruce's road crew dressed like a carnival barker. When the lights dimmed, Bruce strode out and bought a "ticket" as cheesy organ music played. Then he launched into the title track, "Tunnel of Love."
The routine was the same the next night, as was the set list, violating an unstated principle of a Bruce show: the promise of spontaneity. I went to a third show, in Chapel Hill, N.C. It was the same again, opening more like a Carol Burnett skit than a concert. The song choices rarely varied; the banter between songs felt scripted. I didn't bother going again on that tour. For the first time in my life, three Bruce shows was enough.
A pattern was beginning to emerge: Bruce shattered my faith. I swore off him. And then he found a way to redeem himself -- like a boyfriend who had strayed but insisted it didn't mean anything.
He did it with the release of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" in 1995, a haunting acoustic record that alienated as many fans as "Born in the USA" had converted. The songs were as far from anthems as you could get. They were word-perfect short stories about castoffs from all walks of American life -- an ex-convict, a laid-off steelworker, a Mexican immigrant. Rendered with minimal melody, they were almost painful to listen to -- as bleak as skeletons bleached by the sun. Whether it was a conscious rejection of fame, I'm not sure. But I was enthralled. Bruce had come back down to earth and was writing in a singular voice again. And I was worshiping anew from a pew in Nashville's 2,300-seat Ryman Auditorium during Bruce's solo tour to promote the record.
More so than the records, Bruce's concerts had usually managed to rekindle any lapsed fervor on my part. And the ticket price had always felt a small amount to pay every few years to renew my faith, reclaim my youth and see old friends whose hearts beat in time with mine.
Then came Oct. 4, 2003. That was the day that, in a grievous error of judgment, I lifted my boycott of stadium shows. It was my birthday. And it was the final night of the "The Rising" tour, which was rumored to be the last for the aging E Street Band.
I had a spot in a cordoned-off area in front of the stage at Shea Stadium and was grateful for it. But the sound was like mud. Bob Dylan joined the band for an encore, but he was halfway through "Highway 61" before I could even identify the song. If it wasn't the worst Bruce show I ever saw, it was surely the most hollow. Something ended that night. I hadn't been true to my principles. Nor had he.
By this time, my disillusionment went beyond the betrayal that stadium shows represented. I had come to doubt the songs themselves. The lyrics were what moved me most about Bruce's music for so many years. But the truth was, they rarely did anymore.
Every record has always had a clunker or two. I winced as early as 1980 over the cotton-candy sentiment of "Crush on You." But more clunkers seem to find their way to Bruce's CDs these days, like "Mary's Place," in which Bruce declares, "We're gonna have a party!" Or "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," in which Bruce vows to "chase the clouds away." The low point came in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2005. A close friend and I had taken a trip to celebrate her birthday, and someone e-mailed her an MP3 of the title track from Bruce's upcoming record, "Devils & Dust," which hadn't yet been released. We perched over the laptop as if it were Aladdin's lamp, waiting for the magical song to come out. But after the first few couplets, my heart sank. It was atonal and a lyrical mush, recycling familiar phrases that weren't particularly original to start with: "I feel a dirty wind blowing . . . I'm just trying to survive ..." I bought the CD when it came out, but never bothered to unwrap the cellophane.
It pains me to say it, but I think Bruce needs a thesaurus. Better still, an editor -- someone bold enough to send back his first drafts and tell him he can do better. There are several at The Washington Post. Maybe I could recommend one. Failing that, I'd like to propose a list of words he can't use anymore: "gypsy," "biker," "devil," "angel," "highway," "road" and "river," for starters. He has plowed this terrain enough.
Maybe the larger problem is success. Where, exactly, does the working-man's poet turn for material when his every need is met? Bruce mocked the conundrum a decade ago in his unreleased song "I'm Turning Into Elvis (and There's Nothing I Can Do)," whose lyrics are well known among hard-core fans. As transcribed by the fanzine LuckyTown:
Well he came to me last night in a dream looking just like he did in '57/He said, "Son, that guitar is a wonderful thing, but it can be the living devil's friend/On the other hand there's sex-starved women, millions of dollars, and anything you want to do."/I'm turning into Elvis and there's nothing I can do.
Yet for all Bruce's shortcomings, I'm hard-pressed to name a rock star who has handled fame better and does more, both privately and publicly, for the causes he believes in -- whether hunger, veterans' issues, human rights, or the hope championed by Barack Obama during his presidential bid. His decision to perform at the Lincoln Memorial the week of Obama's inauguration was Bruce at his best.
So how, just two weeks later, could he headline the Bridgestone Super Bowl XLIII Halftime Show? Is Bruce trying to make me go away? If so, I'd rather he take out a restraining order than pimp his music.
I could hardly stomach the 90-second preview that aired on "Sunday Night Football" during halftime of November's Redskins-Cowboy game, touted as the "studio premiere" of Bruce's new title track, "Working on a Dream." It was soul-crushing-- an inane decision to set a Bruce song (a title track, no less) to slow-motion footage of football players bashing into one another, their splats and crunches and locker-room rants obscuring the lyrics. Did Bruce approve this? The question was too painful to contemplate. What purpose did it serve, other than to acknowledge that "Working on a Dream" isn't music at all -- certainly not music that leaps out of the radio and grabs you. It's background noise -- at best a jingle that makes a catchy backdrop for something with an entirely different purpose.
Still, I'll buy Bruce's new CD, though I doubt I'll be playing "Working on a Dream" over and over until I fall asleep. I won't be reading the lyrics of the songs more than once or twice. And at the end of the first half of the Super Bowl, when the NFL players trudge into the locker room, I'm cutting off my TV.
Bruce is turning 60 this year. I'm getting older, too, but I'm determined to wait him out. This phase will pass.
Until then, I can't watch.
In addition to covering tennis, motorsports and Georgetown basketball at The Post, Liz Clarke is the author of "One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation." She can be reached at email@example.com.