Bruce Springsteen: Storytellers


“Tell me I can’t cry because my mascara is going to run,” I pleaded.
“You can’t cry because your mascara is going to run, and you’re going to be on television in a few hours,” the boyfriend kindly offered.

It was Monday afternoon at 3:15pm. We are at the Molly Pitcher Inn in Red Bank, New Jersey, and have just walked out of the conference room in which VH-1 was handing out tickets to the lucky attendees of the Bruce Springsteen Storytellers broadcast.

I am sitting on a lavishly upholstered bench and hyperventilating, hovering somewhere between panic attack and freakout. I’d known since Thursday that we were in the door, but it wasn’t until I actually held the tickets in my hands that the reality of everything finally sunk in. I never do this. I never freak out until I’m in my seat or in front of the stage. Tonight, however, that reaction would belong to the boyfriend, who went into speechless shock when we took our seats. “When do I wake up?” he finally asked after a few minutes.

The brand-new Two River Theater is tiny: legal capacity is 352. There weren’t many more people than that in the audience. They removed the last row of seats (or weren’t allowed to use them yet) and had the sound crew up there, along with what looked like the Sony VIP’s. There were also some rows of chairs on the stage, behind Bruce; allegedly these were supposed to be for people in a younger demographic and were classified as “bleacher seats” but ended up being rows of folding chairs. There were monitors facing them so they could hear just fine, and at least half of them had a view of Bruce at the piano I would have gladly traded places with them for.

Our seats were in the house proper, left side. When we walked in and sat down, there were cameras on tripods on both corners of the stage. This meant that there would be a tripod in front of our seats. Not long before the broadcast began, the tripods were suddenly removed and the cameramen hand-held everything. I think we would have been fine but it was certainly stunning to have this utterly unobstructed view of Bruce Springsteen literally feet away.

The setlist consisted of eight songs (remember, this is for a one hour broadcast that will probably in total end up with 46 minutes of actual program time). I know, eight songs seems like nothing, but imagine the feeling of Bruce Springsteen playing a private concert in your living room. Eight songs would seem like an eternity, especially if he decided he didn’t like how they came out and played them more than once.

Devils and Dust: I liked this song live a lot better than I did studio, but the boyfriend felt the opposite way. Bruce used this song to outline what I called “Advanced Songwriting 101,” in which he took the song apart line by line, but it wasn’t so much an explication of the song as it was an explanation of how he writes a song and how a song comes together for him. He puts a lot of stock in a title, somehow a good title makes everything click for him (significant to me because I feel the same way). Line by line, what role each element was playing, tradeoffs made, symbolism, the tie between the melody and the lyrics and its role in not only propelling the song but creating tension and feeling. “Did I know all of this when I was writing the song? No! Did I feel all of this when I was writing the song? Yes.”

Blinded By the Light: Here we realized that the night was likely going to be a smaller version of Somerville, based on the song choice and what he was saying. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, go read this article and then come back here.) He had to be quicker than he was in Somerville (time constraints), and there were some lines that could have been grouped under the “self-explanatory” category he’s fond of using that he chose not to (do I need to draw you a picture? No, I don’t think so). It was hard not to sing along, but he encouraged us to do so at the end for the “I was blinded” refrain. Talked about burning up the rhyming dictionary, the mention of Manfred Mann and how this was his only number one hit.

Brilliant Disguise: This was an obvious choice, and I was glad to see Patti come out to join Bruce for it. Here, the explanation preceded the song, Bruce talking about how some people might feel that it was a song about betrayal, but that it was more about questioning. Here is when he began to discuss the issue that I felt was nothing short of a completely jaw-dropping revelation: the disarming, matter-of-fact acknowledgement of the differences between “Bruce Springsteen” and bruce springsteen. The latter gentleman used to favor strip clubs back in the good old, pre-lap dance days (these are his words, not mine; I’m having a little trouble with this); but “Bruce Springsteen” could never be caught dead at such an establishment. He then related running into a couple outside of such a place (leading me to think for a sinking few seconds we would waste precious time on “Pilgrim In The Temple of Love,” and then common sense set in), and how they said, “Bruce! You’re not supposed to be here!” And his response was a highly amusing, quasi-existential subterfuge about the differences between the two people and how “Bruce” didn’t even know that bruce was there at that moment.

This was, of course, the perfect moment for Mrs. Springsteen to make her entrance, and I would have loved to have heard their off-mic conversation when she walked onstage. And I am struck, yet again, by how much love there is between the two of them, it is glowing and visible and undeniable.

Nebraska: He played this one twice; immediately upon finishing the first version, he stopped and said that he was going to play it again: “They told me I could do it over if I wanted to.” The explanation was almost identical to Somerville, except that he didn’t discuss the point that I feel is so critical about this song in particular – his role in taking his audience to places they might not normally find themselves. Considering that there are people in the fanbase that think Bruce was “wrong” to have written about the Starkweather killings, it’s not a small point. (Later, driving home and analyzing the show, the boyfriend offered that he wished this one hadn’t made the setlist, that it was a fine song but he didn’t like the music. I offered Bruce’s point from his commentary about “Devils and Dust” and that maybe we weren’t supposed to like the music.)

Jesus Was an Only Son: Moving to the piano (“Oh, the possibilities,” murmured the boyfriend, salivating). This is a new song from Devils and Dust. As soon as it finished, I said, “Gosh, I wish he’d decide he didn’t like how that one went because I don’t think I got it all” and sure enough, one more time. I don’t want to turn this into a D&D review based on two songs but I will say that I wasn’t that impressed. Sure, it’s The Greatest Story Ever Told but – as Bruce himself said later, if you don’t push yourself into the song, then it’s just flat. I thought the explanation about the song and what was behind it, writing about Jesus as a son, from his mother’s perspective, and how that relates to his feelings about his growing teenage sons was fantastic, given the role that the father-son dynamic has played as a theme and a catalyst in Bruce’s work, but if a song needs that much of an explanation every time to make it a good song, then it might not be isn’t all that good.

It did, however, lead me to consider how Bruce’s work may change in perspective over the next few years. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to look at the ages of his sons and to realize that he’s got to be thinking: “They’re leaving home soon. Did i do a good job? Will they be okay? Did i give them what they needed to become good people?” It’s logical that he’ll be wanting to explore that, but likely it’s going to be less “Adam raised a Cain”and more along the lines of “Jesus”.

Waiting on a Sunny Day: “Sometimes the reason you write a song is so you can hear an audience sing it back at you” is what we heard about Bruce’s relationship to the pop tradition at Somerville, and once again, he talked about that tonight — except here, he spoke lovingly of wanting to sing like Smokey Robinson (and actually attempted that legendary falsetto for a heart-stopping 30 seconds).

The Rising: Another do-over. I am not sure I was fond of the arrangement of this one, especially compared to how it was performed in Somerville. But given the do-over, I’m not sure Bruce was all that thrilled with it either. For me, the arrangement was too passive, and not driving enough. It was interesting to hear the line-by-line on this one because he saw it as far more general as we as fans interpreted the song, and how there was even significance in the “li-li-li”‘s.

Thunder Road: Another one he had to play twice, struggling with the piano outro a bit, but my god, I could have sat there and listened to him play it all night. This was, without a doubt, the moment of a lifetime for a Springsteen fan. In my humble opinion, “Thunder Road” is the mother of all Springsteen songs. In Somerville, the quote was that “Thunder Road” represented the moment when everything seemed possible. Here, Bruce expanded on that theme, line by line, summating with the thought that “This was my invitation to the world.” Driving home later, the boyfriend (for whom this is #1) said, “It’s his invitation to everything about rock and roll” and I replied, “No. It’s his invitation to EVERYTHING.” The invitation, the themes of freedom and liberation and escape and life and living and seizing the moment and attempting the impossible, he touched on all of it in his comments. I was so overwhelmed by what he was saying that it is hard for me now to recall it with any precision whatsoever, but I do know that it was a vicious battle inside to not start weeping openly.

This is probably a good time to talk about the audience. While everyone was on their best behavior, I did want to kill the inconsiderate Neanderthal behind me that felt the need to say something OUT LOUD DURING THE PERFORMANCE about the fact that Bruce clearly sang “sways” and not “waves”. I will quote the boyfriend here, since he says it better than I do: “Oh my god. IT DOESN’T MATTER. It does not change the song, the performance or the image of Mary walking across the porch one iota whatsoever whether it is sways or waves. I will personally kill anyone who asks that question with my bare hands.” Springsteen fans: get over it. There is no issue more irrelevant in Springsteen fandom than this one, except maybe whether “Terry” in “Backstreets” is male or female, and of course, why Bruce has a song called “My Lover Man”.

::getting off of soapbox::

The Q&A: many people are up in arms over this “lost opportunity” so I guess I must be one of the only people on the planet who (despite the Backstreets contest) had zero expectations from anything related to MTV Networks to provide an environment in which real fans would get to ask the real questions. I do not think that the questions asked were as horrible as many of my colleagues there that night did, but I also didn’t expect them to be good so I didn’t much care. I did think it was hysterical that Bruce said, “You know, we’ve done this before [Somerville] and one night was great, but the other one, as my kids would say, totally sucked.” (I hope that anyone who asked one of the asinine questions at Somerville night two feels appropriately humiliated; however, I doubt it). Anyway, so a commercial music television outlet fucked up fan-based questions. In further news, Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead.

I don’t know that I am more pragmatic, or realistic, or if it’s simply a matter that I’m so astounded to have access to things like this that I find no joy or interest in picking it apart. This was a commercial production for television, after all, so I didn’t imagine for half a second that Bruce would walk onstage and say, “Okay, so let me explain exactly how I wrote ‘Meeting Across The River.’ One afternoon, I was listening to a movie playing in another room, and I heard a random line of dialogue: ‘Hey, Eddie, can you lend me a few bucks?’ Suddenly, I had the whole story running through my head. I picked up my notebook and started writing the song, it just kind of came out the way it’s written, not many changes. What’s that? Did I then just sit down and start writing ‘Jungleland’? No, that came much later. When did I decide to connect the two as a song suite? It was kind of complicated and I’m not sure I remember exactly. Wait, let me get my cell phone and see if Stevie remembers more than I do.”

You know what, part of me says, in our fucking dreams. And then the other part of me says, no, actually, I don’t think I want to know everything. Or I want to know a lot about how he works, but I don’t necessarily need or want it down to that kind of granular detail. And, I don’t know that he could actually do it even if he tried, we are talking an extensive, prolific body of work stretching back 30 years and he may not remember what the catalysts were. I am also probably far more interested in this detail than many people, given that I am a writer (disclaimer: oh, write it yourself) and listening to him talk about how he does his job is encouraging and inspirational on an almost religious level.

There is a certain truth to the fact that if you take art apart too much (if you even can) then it starts to lose its magic. Bruce tried to make that point both at the beginning and at the end of the evening: that talking about music is like talking about sex. He laughed when he said it, but it’s really the same issue at the heart: music is about magic and the divine and the inexplicable. I walked out of the theater Monday night feeling like, for a second, that I had gotten a little bit closer to all of that.