Music: Yes He Can

On stage, Bruce Springsteen kills cynicism and replaces it with hope

Mar 19, 2008 at 2:06 pm
C. Matthew Hamby

Do you remember your first concert experience? Unfortunately, I do, though I've been able to get past it with therapy.

Coming of age in the late '70s and early '80s, my buddies and I carpooled our way to Riverfront Coliseum downtown to see Boston, that year's new sensation. After the smoke and dry ice cleared, lighters flashed, joints flared, "Peace of Mind" was played by rote, and one whole hour crept by, the show was over. This was it? Even a 16-year-old knows when he's been cheated.

This was the era of Corporate Rock (maybe that describes every era?) when bands like Journey, REO Speedwagon, Foreigner, etc., swarmed down like carrion and showed us what it means to rock. That is if Rock means generic mediocrity, flashy sets, Rock Star posing and clich/s run amuck. It was a rough way to start my obsession and love with music, I admit.

Luckily for my sake, my frustration with that music scene soon ended. It wasn't Punk that saved me (like every other cultural import, that came a little later to the Midwest). No, it was a Rock & Roll, gospel-fevered, soul-shaking revival disguised as a Rock band: introducing Mr. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, barnstorming their way through the Queen City on The River tour.

Let me put it this way: Before that epic show, I was not even a fan, and afterward I was a fervent believer not just in Bruce but in music and its inspirational possibilities. Three hours and 45 minutes of call-and-response testifying, sweaty stomping, dancing in the aisles, house-light partying, emotion-pouring and balls-out rocking will do that to a person. We emptied out onto Second Street, exhausted but ecstatic. I had to wring out my clothes I was so wet. And hoarse from shouting.

Looking back, I have to say that in a not-so-small way that experience changed my life. Some people get that kind of juice from religion, but growing up Catholic on the West Side, I only felt bored in church. Not many things in life can give you a sustained adrenaline rush flushed through with communal spirit, the transcendent feeling that life is meant to be lived right now and that it could be good. Bruce could, though. And still can.

Maybe it's not so strange that Springsteen still brings out extreme reactions in people. From his marathon shows to his persona, he is a bit over-the-top, almost too good to be true. Few people feel lukewarm toward him you either inhale his brand of Kool-Aid in crazy gulps and swear by your loyalty to him or you have never forgiven him for becoming a household name with Born in the USA and leaving his cult behind to embrace the world. Or worse, maybe you never quite "got" the whole Bruce phenomenon at all.

I'm always suspect of friends who aren't Springsteen fans. There is a dividing line in the parking lot. Because what that translates to me is you don't believe music can be transformative, can change whole perspectives, if not lives. If you've ever seen Bruce in concert, you know that's his goal, nothing less. He inspires as if his life depends on it. His shows can actually spoil other concerts for you, they're that potent.

He used to call himself a "prisoner of Rock & Roll" as he leapt off the speakers and dropped to his knees in encores (borrowing a few moves from James Brown) right before he was dragged off the stage only to run back on for another raucous round. And you believed him. When you witness his off-the-charts, wholehearted commitment, it makes you question your own ethics and values, whether to music, to a job or to a lover. Am I giving all I can? What more can I do?

In our cynical age of irony and insincerity, passion has become a rare commodity. We prefer to detach ourselves from experience and revel in our cool quotient. Unlike Bob Dylan or Neil Young, a few of his only peers, Springsteen has rarely been the hip artist since the '70s. That's why it's common to see parents bringing their kids (or vice-versa) to his shows to trigger the conversion. You have to start somewhere. And that usually does it.

Maybe more than any other star in Rock history, Bruce eliminates the distance between the performer and the audience. It's easy to feel he really is one of us, despite his talent and bank account. And no one has more fun at one of his shows than Bruce himself with his illegal grin and exuberance, he possesses the uncanny gift of making you glad you're alive.

Bruce still releases great records and some not-so-great ones. He's still one of our best songwriters. For my money, Magic is his finest release since the '80s. It's cohesive without being slick, has a handful of great songs and, best yet, Springsteen's gritty soul breathes through the whole project. His previous release, The Rising, on the other hand, despite good intentions connected to 9/11, felt overproduced and bombastic, a familiar criticism of his lesser work and much of his '90s output.

Truth be told, though, Springsteen's worth will be measured in decades to come by his legendary charisma and prowess onstage. Blend the best bits of Dylan and Elvis, and he's not far off. I've seen him at least once every tour since I was a teenager long ago, and I'm here to tell you there still isn't anyone like him even at 59 years old.

To put it in Cincinnati terms, he's Charlie Hustle with a guitar, but with a whole lot more heart and honesty than our own homegrown, blue-collar hero. Who else could make you believe in these words: "So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore/Show a little faith, there's magic in the night again and again." ©

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play U.S. Bank Arena Saturday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.