I've always been enamored with Bruce Springtseen without really knowing why. As a kid I knew that my dad liked him, so my affection for 'The Boss' was more inherited than deliberate. In fact, I never really listened to his music until my late 20's. Nevertheless, I got acquainted with Bruce early on: many a night my dad would put on the Born in the U.S.A. record as we brawled with Toys-R-Us boxing gloves. The piano/synth/snare of the record's opening track was like a Pavlovian cue to pump of the testosterone and protect my jaw. By the time we got to "Working on the Highway" (track #4) the gloves would be off and I was either dancing to its swingin' beat or sprawled out on the floor in exhaustion. At an early age, then, I experienced what Springsteen's music was always about: the sacred dance of life.
Last Friday night (Aug. 24) my wife and I went to see Bruce Springsteen at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. Having previously seen The Boss on the Magic tour I was stoked for another great show, especially since I'm a big fan of the new album Wrecking Ball. Not only that, but the E-Street Band had apparently set the bar even higher on the current tour and was putting on a must-see show. Back in April my friend Rich saw them in Buffalo and had compared the show to a kind of revival; almost "church-like." It was just one of those things that I would have to see for myself.
And see it I did. On Friday night The Boss exceeded my expectations. The concert was supposed to start at 8:30 but the E-Street Band's love for their craft had 'em on stage and rockin' at 8:15! By the time we walked in at 8:25 the train was already 3 songs in - and it never stopped. Aside from the breaks between songs, the E-Street train never stopped for break or intermission until the show finally ended at 11:45. (That's three and a half hours for those of you keeping score at home) And it didn't matter that we were sitting in the nosebleed seats; in fact, it was fascinating to take it all in from such a perspective. (So go and buy some last minute cheap seats to the show in your city!) Even if you aren't a fan of Springsteen's music, it's damn near impossible not to appreciate the live performance that he and the band bring to town. Indeed, it is often the experience of seeing The Boss live that turns people on to his music.
So what is it that makes Springsteen's concerts so good? What is it that causes some people to describe it as a "spiritual" experience? In my opinion, it is because Bruce Springsteen has an incredible knack for tapping into the depth of what it means to be human. It is not because Springsteen tries to make his shows "spiritual," it's because he tries to make his shows genuinely human. Whereas some rock concerts are synthetically designed to manipulate and cause an experience (think 80's hair bands like KISS), Springsteen's show is simply what-you-see-is-what-you-get: a stage full of normal, hard working musicians ready to give you everything they've got. There's no pyrotechnics or special effects (though there is concert lighting, it is minimal in comparison to what we're used to today), it's just calloused fingers, honest lyrics, and big hearts... and sweat, lots of sweat.
It seems fairly clear that for Springsteen there is no divide between the sacred and the secular. Indeed, it is the sacredness of everyday life - the gift of a new day, working a job, young romance, a place to call home, coming of age, and the drama of relationships - that merits reflection and celebration. It's the stuff of everyday life that invites us to sing and dance. That's why I believe people find Springsteen's music/concerts so enthralling. The Boss reminds us that to be human is to experience love, loss, hope, pain, struggle, surprise, comfort, and so on.
One of the best examples of this came during the song "My City of Ruins." As the song began Bruce introduced the band as having "old faces" and "new faces." He then looked out to the crowd and surveyed the "old and young faces," adding, "But we're here tonight for the same reason, on the same mission!" This is a community event, he seemed to be saying, and everyone is welcome. He then pointed out that our community was even bigger than what we could see: we were "living with ghosts." Springsteen was surely referring to former band members Clarence Clemons (1942-2011) and Danny Federici (1950-2008). Yet Springsteen was also referring to every other ghost present that night. It wasn't just about the E-Street Band members, it was about this particular aspect of human life, and we could all relate. Springsteen was modeling what it means to be human: to embrace the death of loved ones, to remember them, to cry, and to sing. This, I believe, is why such an event is perceived as being "spiritual." It is because it is a deep embrace of our humanity, not a synthetic escape from it.
All of this reminds me of the central tenet of Christianity: the divine became human. The Incarnation informs us that the "spiritual" is not to be found in other-worldly escapes but in the earthly, earthy stuff of everyday life. "The kingdom of God is among you," said Jesus to his disciples. Not because we're all demigods with the the self-sufficiency to experience the divine, but because the Spirit of God is with us (Immanuel). The Spirit of God, in which "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28), is what sustains our everyday humanity. Springsteen, I believe, simply reminds us that our humanity is the locus of the spiritual.
Sometimes he does it in a subtle way like in "The Rising" and "Sunny Day." In such feel good songs the whole crowd is compelled to sing nonsense lyrics together (sha la la's & na na na's). In this we're reminded that sometimes it feels good to sing just because we can. There's an old proverb that birds don't sing to be heard but because they have a song. The Boss helps us remember that humans have a song too (and it doesn't have to be recorded, produced, and played on the radio to be worth singing). There's something deep down in our gut that wants to get out to sing - and sometimes all you need is a melody and some repetitive vowel sounds. What is exactly happening when thousands of people are happily screaming "Sha la la" is beyond me. I'll leave that one to the phenomenologists. But something tells me its deeply human - and deeply spiritual.
Other times Bruce makes it clear that the Spirit that is among us. In "Spirit in the Night" he interrogated the audience: "Can you feel the spirit?!? I said, Can you feel the spirit tonight?!?!" to which the Rogers Centre erupted with cheer. The point is not that the E-Street Band brings the Spirit with them, but that the Spirit is already with us in the dramas of life. As Springsteen sang the story of summer love and characters dancing like "spirits in the night," we all joined in the dance and felt the Spirit within the dramas of our own lives.
By the 'end' of the show the band had played for over two hours. They 'concluded' with "Land of Hope and Dreams" (which should be sung in Christian churches IMHO) and walked off stage to the roar of the crowd. After a mere 20 seconds or so the band returned to proclaim their vitality with the song "We Are Alive," the last track off Wrecking Ball. Springsteen followed this with two of his biggest hits: "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run."
Now, most concerts start when the lights go down and end when the lights go up. But when the lights go up on Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band, the party is just getting started. As "Born to Run" thundered into the driving drum beat and heroic guitar riff, the house lights in the Rogers Centre slowly bloomed. By the second verse we could see all of the other "tramps" in the arena as clear as day. Turning up the house lights was yet another attempt to take us deeper into the real, the present, the "here" - not to some incorporeal escape. The point yet again was to experience the community of people here and now: look at all the other people who came to see this show at the Rogers Centre! Look at your neighbors and share the moment, this is the locus of the Spirit.
Turning up the lights during the encore has become a recurring trend at Springteen's shows nowadays. In addition to fostering community among the fans, the lights communicate a connection between the E-Street Band and the fans. It's never just about The Boss or the band. It's about what happens when we all come together. Bruce makes it clear throughout the show that he would be nothing without the audience. He needs the audience as much as the audience needs him.
As the applause thundered after "Born to Run" people began to exit (people who didn't know what they signed up for!). But before they could get to the exits Bruce screamed his gutsy "1-2-3-4!" and we were swept into another 40 minutes of classics like "10th Avenue Freeze Out," "Rosalita," "Dancing in the Dark," and the final song, "Glory Days."
Somewhere in there (I think after "10th Ave Freeze Out") the E-Street Band broke into a 20-minute jam session of The Beatles' classic "Twist and Shout." My initial reaction was disappointment because I wasn't there to hear one of the most overplayed (and repetitive) Beatles tunes, I was there to hear The Boss! But then it occurred to me that I was hearing The Boss. And the E-Street Band. This was still The Boss, just channeling through a different melody. This was the music that made Bruce Springsteen. In fact, this was in many ways a more personal sharing of himself than other songs. I could see the youth and the passion as he danced and thrust about the stage. This music - this rock n' roll - was the beast that created Springsteen. "This is where I came from," he seemed to say, "and this is all I ever wanted to do: twist and shout!" No longer were we at a concert. We were teenagers dancing in our bedrooms. We were dancing idiots embracing a forgotten art from our childhood. We were just there, in the moment, sharing, dancing, being human.
I couldn't help but laugh as we all danced. We weren't so much "dancing in the dark," but dancing in the light - literally. Dancing in the light of the Spirit of Life; in that light where we not only see our human neighbors, but we find each other dancing to the same rhythms, to those sacred songs of life.
Listen to Springsteen's keynote address at the South-by-Southwest festival. In it The Boss shares his personal journey with music and some ideas on the meaning and future of music.
Check out: The Gospel According to Bruce Springsteen by Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz. Explore Springsteen's view on the human drama of life via his lyrics from his first record up through Magic. Symynkywicz discusses Bruce's history and what was happening in his life during each record. A fun and easy read.