I saw rock and roll’s past on Friday night, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.
Okay, okay, before I start getting all Jim Walsh doing Jon Landau, let me explain. Rock and roll has really been kind of bumming me out lately. For the last couple of years, I’ve lost interest. Haven’t been going to a lot of shows. Haven’t been buying many albums. Haven’t even been listening to old albums that I used to love. I’ve actually been listening to a lot of rap—the most exciting record I’ve bought in the last twelve months was Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury. And I couldn’t really put my finger on why I would rather listen to two former gangstas rap about grinding crack in Virginia Beach than, say, a husband and wife from Montreal singing about bad dreams.
And then I read “A Paler Shade of White,” an essay in The New Yorker by Sasha Frere-Jones, that tried to explain “how indie rock lost its soul.” It’s all over the net—the echo chambers are reverberating with rock dorks who buy it or don’t. I think Frere-Jones made some good points: that indie rock, or white rock and roll in general, has become an over-careful, over-sensitive, bass-less, sex-less, and even senseless popular music. Frere-Jones laments the end of “musical miscegenation” that the PC era has wrought, where bands like Wilco put out albums like Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, full of “embarrassing poetry laid over plodding rhythms.”
A part of me thought, “Damn, Sasha, that’s harsh.” But most of me was jealous I hadn’t written the essay first. “A Paler Shade of White” laid out what I loved about gangsta rap and how I was feeling about rock. I would even go Frere-Jones one further: I listen to rap because it’s funny. These guys are joking about horrible stuff going on in the street with a sense of humor; it’s like a musical Colbert Report in a way. For all their glock-brandishing and ho-callin’, these street niggas understand irony. I mean, rock and roll used to be funnier, right? And it doesn’t have to be that novelty, Barenaked Ladies kind of funny. Listen to Dylan. Listen to the Sex Pistols. Jeez, listen to Soul Asylum.
Okay, sorry I made you wait this long for a Springsteen review, but my point is, last night, when I was scalping a ticket in front of the Xcel for $120 to see the seventh Springsteen show in my lifetime, I’ve probably never been less excited to see him. My resentful feelings towards rock and roll had calcified to the point where I was dreading the seriousness of Springsteen, all his passionate earnestness. I loved his last album, his 9/11 album, The Rising—I bought it the day it came out. But I downloaded Springsteen’s newest LP, Magic, yesterday, only a few hours before the show.
He started with one of the new songs, “Radio Nowhere”—which I really didn’t find ironic until right now, at this point in the essay. It sounds very Springsteen—it would fit on The River, maybe even Darkness—but I guess I haven’t spent enough time with the song or the album to figure out what he was talking about. Then the E Street Band fired up the next song, “No Surrender,” and, uh, well, I started crying. (Easy there. Not like bawling. Man tears, okay?)
Look, I swear I’m not some middle-aged divorced dude that suppresses all his sadness and then starts blubbering when he hears “Thunder Road,” but here was The Boss, forcing out these lyrics about “a war outside these walls”—I mean, the man’s carotid artery is visibly strained as he pulls these songs out from somewhere south of his heart—and he’s doing this in front of a big, barnstorming, 1960s-style R&B band with drums, bass, a sax, a piano and three guitars, and yeah, maybe it wasn’t cracking me up the way Jay Z’s braggadocio does, but I was definitely feeling it. It made me think about my father, and how hard he worked, and it made me think about the fight that I had with my girlfriend the night before, and how hard and bloody and sweet life is, how catholic the experience of living is. All the Springsteen staples.
Unlike a lot of the rock and roll out there, Bruce Springsteen always has something to say. He wasn’t as preachy as I’ve seen him in the past (and I’ve never minded that, actually, because Bruce preaches like James Brown in The Blues Brothers—it’s infotainment), but he still talked and sang about what’s right and wrong with this country. His new stuff, like his old stuff, deals with the fact that we make war but not much else, the way we’ve been played by our leadership, the sad results of that, and about how most men and women have to get up in the morning, no matter what’s on Fox News or CNN.
I’m not going to break down the set list like Springsteen Nation loves to do (go to backstreets.com for that), but in the middle of the two-hour set, he did play one of my favorite songs, “Incident on 57th Street,” a super old song off 1973’s The Wild, The Innocent and The E Street Shuffle. It’s about Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane running the gauntlet of NYC’s pimps and pushers “with bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat up old Buick but dressed just like dynamite.” It’s a sprawling seven-minute story-song with a lot of flow, but without much of a hook. It would fit in perfectly on a Wu Tang record. Who said Springsteen ain’t gangsta?