I saw Springsteen and his mighty E Street Band last week, here in Washington, on a night when I needed to feel young. (Who doesn’t need to feel young these days?) And whenever I see a Springsteen show, I feel like I’m hearing music for the first time — music, and all the wonderful things that come with it.
A Springsteen concert is a celebration of community. There’s an intimacy associated with seeing those seated near you in complete abandon, and that intimacy fosters friendliness. Last week’s show offered a new spin on this familiar theme: I happened to meet the guy seated next to me a few days earlier when I sold him a couple of my extra tickets. He arrived during the third song, and we greeted each other as if we were old friends. It’s odd, but there was more warmth between us than I have with any of my neighbors. Springsteen brings people together.
Many different kinds of people. There are the veterans, who share stories of their favorite concerts in anticipation that what will happen on that stage in a few minutes will top what they’ve seen before. There are the skeptical first-timers — five songs in, and they are always mesmerized, stunned, in awe of the fact that all the hype they’ve heard for many years wasn’t hype after all. But my favorite are the kids, often with their parents — a generational handoff. My unborn son has been to two shows already.
We live in a fragmented society. People feel isolated. Many feel invisible. Springsteen is aware of this, and he explicitly tries to combat it with his concerts. For a few hours, any trace of loneliness vanishes. A Springsteen show is a balm.
The community created at a Springsteen concert is, in part, sacramental. (Springsteen himself used this word in a 2005 documentary, albeit sheepishly, to describe his music.) From the “Badlands” chant to sharing his guitar with the audience during “Born to Run” to the crowd taking the first verse of “Hungry Heart” to the very frequent audience call-and-response — Springsteen uses action and participation ritualistically, sacramentally: as a means to create fellowship and confer grace.
A Springsteen concert is a celebration of life. First, the show is a blast. So much of it is just pure fun, pure joy. (That I’m not spending many words on the fun shouldn’t underweight its importance.) And there are the songs, which cover the gamut of lived experience: fun, lust, fathers and sons, racial division, renewal and rebirth, duty, longing, fatherhood, marriage, murder, desperation, anger, mothers-in-law and more. Springsteen songs are about more than chasing the girl.
The characters in a four-minute song are often as developed as those in 200-page novels. Sean Penn based his 1991 film “The Indian Runner” on Springsteen’s “Highway Patrolman.” Springsteen stepped into the shoes of a man dying of AIDS, and won an Academy Award for it.
But more important than the range of content and quality of execution, Springsteen’s songs celebrate the grandeur and importance of ordinary life. Getting up and going to your job is an act of great heroism. A father and a son sitting around a kitchen table late at night commands the drama of an ancient myth. An anthem about friendship and camaraderie reminds one of Henry V at Agincourt. Rolling Stone wrote that “Backstreets” — a song about friendship and betrayal — “begins with music so stately, so heartbreaking, that it might be the prelude to a rock & roll version of The Iliad.”
The truth is that life is grand and life is important. Every day, we are all faced with choosing between angels and demons. For a Catholic like me, the stakes are as high as they come — the product of those countless, daily choices influences where I’ll spend eternity. It is important to be reminded of the majesty, romance and enormity of daily life. One of Springsteen’s great gifts is expressing the epic drama of the mundane in popular art. His concerts are shaped by this gift.
Springsteen the performer is a role model. There’s not a drop of gas left in the tank when he’s done performing. He is dead serious about his job on that stage. There is something refreshing and deeply admirable about a man of his stature and wealth working so hard for his audience. Apart from all the rest, a Springsteen concert is an experience simply because of the energy, effort, devotion and dedication of the man himself.
That’s all well and good. But the reason I keep going back is simple: redemption, the unapologetic embrace of the need for it and the possibility of it. Springsteen’s music looks reality squarely in the face, recognizes that life is cruel and unfair, that this world is fallen, that we are all sinners and that we are all broken, sometimes significantly so. But we are alive. We can get up off the mat. We can defy the world. We can hope. We are not alone. Faith is powerful. Things might be better tomorrow. There’s always another chance, waiting just a bit further down the road.
What better message could there be for the world today?