Reborn in the USA

Bruce Springsteen finds new stories to tell.

          "All you folks with old favorites you wanna hear can just relax," Bruce Springsteen told the crowd with a good-natured laugh midway through his Northrup Auditorium show last Thursday. "Because I ain't gonna play 'em." In fact Springsteen did include 10 older songs in his two-hour-plus, 22-song set, including breathtaking, drastically refigured versions of "Born in the USA" and "Promised Land"; the real point was that no one had better remind him of the guy who sang those songs in years past.

          There's a sense of discovery in the shows on the Ghost of Tom Joad tour on more than one level. It's in the stories that the new songs have to tell about America's growing expendable class, a caste of invisibles whose inner lives Springsteen manages to reach down and make as real as the listener's own. It's a shocking thing to encounter; it puts one face to face with all the energy currently spent on forgetting. The songs contain an implied demand on behalf of the discarded workers and immigrant children he sings about--see me, and then decide what you must do--and it's hard to know what, if anything, Springsteen's audience makes of that demand.

          But one thing's for sure: The Minneapolis performance gave them no place to hide from it. In contrast to the show he played in Normal, Illinois, a couple of nights before, when Springsteen seemed to be feeling his way through the early part of the set, he hit the stage with a furious intensity and never let up. Now that's just the sort of thing people say about Springsteen all the time, and usually with cause, but this was different from any of the 20 or so other times I've seen him. I can imagine more theatrical performances, or ones in which the song selection might please you or me more according to our prejudices, but I can't imagine Bruce Springsteen or anyone else being more thoroughly engaged in each moment, more committed to the integrity of every syllable, every beat, every breath, than he was that night. It reminded me of stories told down through the years about Dylan touring the British Isles in 1966, cupping his hands and singing into the microphone with an intensity and a clarity of purpose that could not really be described. Or so the story went; I thought it was probably a little exaggerated.

          Or maybe not. What Springsteen did in Minneapolis, and what he seems to be doing on this new leg of the Tom Joad tour, is more than a matter of the preeminent live performer of his generation refining his craft, though he's doing that too; it's also a question of what Springsteen is looking for in the songs, and what he and his audience can find. When I first saw Springsteen 18 years ago, I was struck by how much seemed to be at stake in each performance, how deep he was willing to plunge into the music. One result was that the same songs could become very different songs on different nights and as the years went on. The narrator of "Racing in the Street" was a man who held onto as much sense of promise as he could by returning to the drag strips he'd ruled as a younger man; some nights he turned out to be just another ghost, and some nights, abetted by Roy Bittan's piano, he was a hero of sorts for staying alive at all.

          Springsteen worked a more deliberate transformation on "Born to Run" during his Tunnel of Love tour in 1988, turning it into an acoustic ballad that seemed suddenly more about the longing for permanence than a celebration of change. He caught some hell from old fans, but by then the character of his live performances had tilted a little, and moments like that were an exception. Starting sometime in 1985--when Born in the USA ceased to be a hit record and became a mass-cult myth, and the tour moved from arenas into stadiums--something seemed to be wrung out of Springsteen's performances. It wasn't that they were bad shows; they weren't. And it wasn't for want of his trying. But the very scale of what was happening augured against the small moment, the poignant surprise: They were no longer big enough to register on radar (or Diamond Vision, as the case may be). Everything about the Born in the USA phenomenon cried out for the anthemic gesture, and Springsteen obliged.

          It must have been a heady time, but where did one go from there? In the years that followed he released a live box, made one great studio record and two very good ones, and did a couple of tours, breaking with the E Street Band after the first. But in those eight years or so it never seemed entirely clear what he or his audience made of his direction. And it lent a certain tentativeness to many of the live shows of that era. The questions that hung over a Bruce Springsteen performance in those days had a little less to do with the music than before, and a little more to do with what it meant to be Bruce Springsteen after Born in the USA.

          The burden of the performances on the current tour is different; it rests entirely on the music. It's rare to see a popular artist step back this way, to try and shed the trappings of identity without disavowing his past work or his audience. Prince did exactly that in 1988 with his Lovesexy tour, but quickly lost his nerve when it bombed in the States; to my ears, apart from a few wonderful singles, he's scarcely been heard from again. One could say Dylan has done it, too, though I'd argue he did it best with his last two albums of old standards, and not with his many live reworkings of his own songs through the years, a move that always seemed more cantankerous than curious on his part.

          I'm not sure anyone has ever slipped the noose as masterfully as Springsteen is doing it, at least for this moment. What's saved him is his faith in the integrity of the music and his conviction that it can give up something more if one doesn't abandon that faith. And it does. On Thursday night "Born in the USA" became a fully realized blues, its narrator now an older man at once resigned and utterly unreconciled. "Reason to Believe" resounded with the fury of an Old Testament prophecy; "The Promised Land" soaked up another 20 years of experience without blinking. "Across the Border," which closed the main set, meant one thing on the Tom Joad record, where the music around it ensured that one could only hear its will to persevere with a sense of foreboding; live, it seemed to be one of the loveliest and certainly one of the most generous pieces of music I'd ever heard.

          Tom Joad is the best music Springsteen has made in a long time, one of his two or three best records. He's once again found stories to tell that matter, to him and to an audience. And if it's hard to know exactly what that audience will make of them, it's hard to know exactly what Springsteen will make of them, either. But the signs are intriguing. The yarns he told between songs at the Minneapolis show went a long way toward collapsing the distance between his mostly white middle class audience and the people in the music; something about the performance seemed to collapse some of the distance between the public Springsteen and the private man, too. Would it be crazy to think that Bruce Springsteen at 47 is in a place as germinal and full of promise as when he made Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town? It looks that way to me.

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