The Electricity of Springsteen
By Richard Harrington,
This article was originally published Aug. 6, 1985.
At 7:42 last night an ebullient Bruce Springsteen sprinted on to the huge stage at RFK Stadium, positioned himself in front of a huge American flag and counted off the opening measures of “Born in the U.S.A.,” the centerpiece song and title of the album that catapulted him to rock messiahdom over the last year.
Springsteen delivered his edgy saga of a returning Vietnam veteran, complete with its catalogue of shattered promises, in a rough-hewn performance redeemed at each verse’s end by the catch phrase that has come to be his credo:
“Born in the U.S.A. . . . I’m a cool rockin’ daddy . . . born in the U.S.A.”
Exactly the sentiments of the 54,000 fans who greeted the song and the singer with a cascade of “Bruuuuuuuuces,” a sea of raised fists (which would punctuate just about every song for the rest of the night), and a full-throated massed choir that defined the instant community that is at the heart of every Bruce Springsteen concert.
As he has done time and again in the decade between Newsweek covers, Springsteen immediately renewed the emotional contract that exists between him and the only audience that matters, the one he is playing to that particular night. For more than three hours, that impassioned performance connected his own faith in rock ‘n’ roll with that of his fans, a spirit that salvaged even his bleakest material.
Trafficking in ecstatic rock ‘n’ roll, Springsteen drained spirits only to reinfuse them through that instant communion central to his performance. “Glory Days,” a wry remembrance of better times than these, provoked its own glorious daze of calls and responses, and sometimes the Boss let his fans sing introductory verses.
And when he closed the show with his now-ancient anthem of possibility, “Born to Run,” Springsteen seemed as spent as his audience. Which didn’t stop him from a lengthy encore of rock ‘n’ roll oldies or a revival of an old favorite, “Rosalita.”
As Springsteen moved through 15 songs in the first half, and an equal number in the second, upping the emotional ante on one tune, the good-time spirit on the next, the night became a celebration of hope anchored in harsh realities, a position poles apart from the self-centered escapist esthetic of most modern pop.
Looking almost awkwardly athletic — as muscular in fact as the music itself — Springsteen personified the importance of being earnest. He may be reluctant and uncomfortable in his new role as America’s rocks populi, but his emotional commitment to and deep identification with America’s working class seems both genuine and deeply felt.
That made songs like “Johnny 99” and “Atlantic City,” both about workers laid off and driven to crimes by debts “no honest man can pay,” not only believable but instructive. Yet if Springsteen’s “Badlands” are even harsher eight years down the road, that song’s key line reflects the singer’s resilience: “I believe in the faith that can save me.”
By the time Springsteen got to Jimmy Cliff’s “Trapped,” another anthem of defiance, enough night had fallen for the two giant video screens on either side of the stage to kick into action, which immediately made him larger than life. That’s apparently what his fans wanted, because the show picked up an extra fraction of energy from that point and never flagged again.
In song after song, New Jersey’s favorite son pitted expectations against reality, mapped out the distance between dream and daylight, examined the shattering impact when those dreams are not just deferred but ended.
Still, whether it was the angry frustration of a new song like “Seeds,” a hard rocker verging on metal, or the litany of loss informing tunes like “The River,” “Johnny 99” or “My Hometown,” Springsteen always came back with a song of hope like “Dancing in the Dark,” “Out in the Streets” or “Born to Run,” each offering the distinct promise of release.
Sometimes the songs’ energies were release enough, like the raw rockabilly fervor of “Working on a Highway,” the jaunty raunch of “Darlington County,” or inspirational reminders like “Hungry Heart,” “The Promised Land” and “Thunder Road.”
Springsteen has become rock’s version of the Great Communicator, even if his patriotic positioning is tinged in irony and rooted in an entirely different consciousness than the president’s.
Like Reagan, Springsteen relies on anecdotes (his introduction to the wrenching “My Hometown” and a delightful cover of “I Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,” no doubt inspired by his recent marriage). He also relishes vignettes that celebrate the everyday heroisms of ordinary citizens. Springsteen invests home, family and work with their traditional importance and lives out those implications, most obviously and most publicly in his own work.
And again like Reagan, Springsteen seems nostalgic for a more innocent time, though he suspects it will never return. In “My Hometown” he notes the decimation and decay that have changed his old working-class neighborhood to the point that he can recognize neither it nor himself.
Yet even when those key concerns are addressed in desultory observations, Springsteen seems to be saying the hope must never die.
In “Dancing in the Dark,” where Springsteen picked a partner out of the audience (just like the video) he points out that “you can’t start a fire without a spark” and that seems to be the most enduring message in his music.
A Springsteen concert is a study in orchestrated climaxes centered around guitar player Nils Lofgren and saxophonist Clarence Clemons and punctuated by Max Weinberg’s Odin-like percussion. No one is better at juxtaposing the defiant optimism and boisterous energies of rock ‘n’ roll with the gritty realism of the social observer -- Woody Guthrie via Phil Spector. Springsteen’s grim news bulletins often travel on raucous rails, but they seem to be delivering not only a new audience, but an expanded awareness about blue collar issues, much as Live Aid did for hunger.
Springsteen still celebrates the good-time romanticism that once centered on cars and girls (in that order), but his tendency is to chilly observations about the hard times that have driven the darkness from the edge of town to its very heart.
His work, like his myths, has always been shaped by his live performance. Sweating, straining, he gives everything to his audience, and they respond in equal measure. The 12,000 people on RFK’s infield spent the entire night standing and dancing on their chairs; had anyone pulled those chairs away there’s a good chance they wouldn’t have come down to earth till show’s end.
Despite Tina Turner’s protestation, rock does need another hero and Springsteen seems to fit the bill. He may not ride a white horse — more likely he’ll be driving a pink Cadillac and sitting on a cushion of conviction -- but for now he is living up to his own expectations, no one else’s.
On stage, dressed in funky jeans and a vest that revealed a shape America would be proud to be in, Springsteen humanized his own myth, coming across as a regular Everyguy. He is the common man, singing about the common man, to the comman man. The only adjustment he has made at this point is accommodation to size, certainly not to spirit or integrity. That subtlety may be lost on the new fans, but it’s reassuring to his older, loyal constituency.
The Bruce Springsteen who rocked RFK stadium last night was the same sincere, directed performer who has maintained both a hungry heart and a faith in the power of rock ‘n’ roll. As he sang at one point, “We made a promise, we swore we’d always remember, no retreat, no surrender.” For Bruce Springsteen, that is not just a promise; it is a premise for a better future.