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I have only, only seen Bruce Springsteen live three times, and all of them since I have lived here in Vancouver. I discovered Springsteen when I was fifteen, through a friend who had a copy of Darkness on the Edge of Town – my own first album was The River, although by 1980 I had bought all there were, and even found a bootleg – but I lived on the Canadian east coast and didn’t really have the means or the access to find my way to a concert back then. Springsteen was in the distance. Like so many, though, I know I felt as if his raw, fiercely lyrical and driven songs both belonged and spoke directly to me. One of my finest possessions was and still is a small, cheap mirror I won playing whack-a-mole at the Nova Scotia provincial exhibition in the summer of 1980; it has a brownish screen print of Springsteen’s headshot from the cover art of Darkness on its reflecting surface. You can check your look in the mirror, and have Bruce himself look back at you. As you. It changes your clothes, your hair, your face, and lets you remake yourself temporarily in his image.
(“I check my look in the mirror.”)
The concert last night at Rogers Arena in Vancouver was pretty tremendous for me. Springsteen at one point admitted into the mike that he was getting to be “an old man,” but his energy, his commitment to the music, or better to the event of that music never flagged or wavered. His songs, as tenacious anthems calling for renewal, express a vital need to keep going, and draw their energy in performance from a committed, fully engaged crowd that wants to share in what he famously and romantically, no doubt about it, calls a last-chance power drive. His audience desires him, and desires what he desires – buoyed up on waves of all that faith, that hope, those dreams. His lyrics seem to have become over the years increasingly pious or religious, often in Wrecking Ball, for instance, as he acknowledges his musical and cultural indebtedness to African-American traditions and idioms, but his music was always overflowing with religiosity, a form of belief that sometimes seemed even to turn back on itself: “I believe in the faith . . . .” Of course, he’s singing not about any one American religious tradition, but about music itself as participant belief, about forging communities in and through song, as we sing and clap and shout and woah-woah along with him. You need to be there to experience it.
(I snapped this shot of the stage just as the lights surged;
I think they were playing “Streets of Fire.”)
This immediacy is undoubtedly better experienced in the mosh-pit near the stage. This past year, Springsteen appears to have been even more inclined to ford out into his audience, shaking hands and high-fiving his way through the crowds – “in the crowd I feel at home” he sings in “Out in the Street.” But he has also taken to body surfing, which he did last night early in the show, during the third number, “Hungry Heart.” Like so many others, it’s a song about recovering desire after loss, but as people’s “strong hands” (as he puts it) pass him bodily overhead, supine in the arms of a multitude of strangers, that desire soon converts into contact. What people want most is to touch him, to feel just a little of his humanity, his human touch.
(Springsteen with overhead screen.)
Our own seats, however, were high up in the nose-bleeds. Our closest contact with him could only be virtual, through his image projected on huge screens suspended over the stage. These monitors are a ubiquitous feature of any stadium-sized rock concert, letting everybody see what’s happening far off and loud down there. And they work: my memories of this, and all, of his concerts are of seeing him close up, of proximity not distance. The screens are a version of social media in situ, of concert YouTube videos being put up for everyone to take in in the immediate present. They function, I think, a lot like my Springsteen mirror, as a kind of overlay, but they work as virtual surfaces, as image, in a way that’s very particular to Springsteen, to the experience of him. His concerts have become not rituals of counter-culture or rock’n’roll rebellion, but of shared community – they’re all-ages, family affairs. Last night, he pulled a girl who looked about 12 or 13 on stage to sing “Waiting on a Sunny Day,” and he danced the “Courtney Cox” coda of “Dancing in the Dark” with an 80 year old woman. Springsteen sings for everybody, becomes everybody. A key moment in the concert happened during “Born to Run,” when they had turned the house lights up as they do whenever they play it; after the saxophone and guitar solos, when the music is surging in a kind of chaotic miasma, Springsteen – his iconic, wood-grained Fender Stratocaster strapped on – leaned out over the lip of the walk way, and let the crowd strum his guitar. A welter of wild, arrhythmic fingers stroked at his instrument, making it growl, twang and hum: a feedback antiphon. The screens over the stage caught and projected this moment of flailing hands up close; the whole stadium roared. The music became, in that passing moment, not an illusion of the virtual, but a noisy, shared promise, a human bond. For real.