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State of The Union: The Boss

Growing up in my household it wasn’t really cool to like Bruce Springsteen. My household was made up counter culture ideology, intellectual elitism, refined pop culture pundits and the music we listened to was reflective of that. Think David Bowie, Talking Heads, Pink Floyd, Lou Reed and Brian Eno. All good music to be certain but a far cry away from the raw everyman quality that Springsteen sings about. Even when I got into the Grateful Dead in my mid teenage years my parents initially decried it as sloppy, dirty and aggressively un-hip.

I remember when I was around 12 years old my parents, at the behest of Chris Blackwell, took me to see the Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band “Born in the USA” tour at the LA Coliseum. I was too young to really understand what was going on and only appreciated the sprinkles of the MTV era hits that were played in the midst of a four hour (!!) concert. Even so for Christmas a year later I asked for the Springsteen “Live 75-85” box set and cherished it during my youth.

The stark and literal pictures that Bruce painted with his lyrics seemed like another world to me during those years. I really had no exposure to the working class or the blue collar American Dream that was apparently not made good on. I blame no one for that, we each our exposed to the reality we’re part of and other ways of life can seem so far away unless we actively go out and seek them.

Nils, Bruce and Steven holding it down on 4/27/12 in Los Angeles. (Thanks to Backstreets.com for the photo)

Bruce wrote about things that I really knew nothing about (and might still not). Even the pictures that Bruce’s sang about in the sentimental songs felt like this quaint mystical world that I only saw in movies, “The screen door slams Marys dress sways, Like a vision she dances across the porch, As the radio plays…”

Somehow, somewhere deep inside of me I grew up longing for the simple romanticism that a Bruce Springsteen fan had towards the world, love and life. The Grateful Dead, without question, helped to simplify my palette of the American ethic. “Truckin” was almost a song that you could hear Bruce Springsteen sing.

All of this is to say, I have no idea how I became such a huge Bruce Springsteen fan. And this is a very round about way of writing a review on two of the best concerts that I’ve ever seen in my life.

I’ve faithfully gone to see the last three Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band tours each time taking careful note that I’m witnessing one of the greatest communions that rock and roll has to offer. There really isn’t a more vibrant example of the Church of Rock and Roll happening in full effect. The relationship between the band and the audience is direct, every fan in the arena feels part of the experience. And last weeks shows at the LA Sports Arena were no exception.

With Clarence Clemons being gone The Boss did the right thing by not trying to replace him. Instead, the E-Street band is much less a rock n’ roll band than it is a 17 piece rock, circus, soul revue that’s inspiration can be traced back to the early 60s soul movement. Bruce seems to alternate between being a front man, a preacher, a guitar player and an all around ring leader. Somehow, how I don’t know, he’s managed to craft a band that can alternate between playing intricate rock and roll songs that require melodic precision that only a 5 piece band can hit and other times a rousing celebratory pentecostal church growl where all 17 members are contributing to a wall of sound.

For 3 straight hours Bruce takes you through his version of America. Themes ranging from the rousing hope and idealism in “Born to Run” to the painful wake up call that is the American Dream that can be found in “Wrecking Ball” and “City of Ruins”. Nothing is off limits for Bruce – and he panders to no one. If you come to an E-Street Band show wanting nothing but classic hits you’re going to leave disappointed because it’s truly not a nostalgia show. For a band that’s been doing this for 35 years that idea is almost impossible to get your head around. An E-Street band show in 2012 is oddly relevant and current. Some of the stories are old, and some are new. And when they play the new songs you really don’t mind. It’s part of the 3 hour story that’s being told and they work in context. Sure, you might leave being upset that they didn’t play “Thunder Road” but an E-Street Band show is about the sum of it’s parts. On any given night in a particular city you’re guaranteed to get your own unique story. That’s what you come for.

On April 26th when Bruce and company took the stage in LA the first thing that I noticed, of course, was that Clarence Clemons isn’t on stage and he ain’t gonna be on stage either. The spiritual rock of the band is no longer physically present and his spirit is all that’s left. For all the right reasons Bruce made the decision to keep on going and by doing that the spirit that was Clemons has lifted this band to an even higher calling. There is no practical or material reason why Bruce Springsteen needs to keep doing this. The love and passion that’s on display every night is palpable and inspiring.

If I’m Paul McCartney, The Eagles, Van Morrison or The Rolling Stones I am nothing short of embarrassed by the integrity and passion that Bruce still displays night after night. With a 17 piece E-Street Band in tow, the best seat in the house costs no more than $100. That’s right, $100. The aforementioned acts have a top tier ticket price that is sometimes over $400 face value. Add to that Bruce plays for 3 hours a night.

After the Friday show at the LA Sports Arena my friend Dana said “It’s not who else plays for 3 hours, it’s who else WANTS to play for 3 hours??” Do you really think Don Henley goes out there every night and says “I want to give back to the fans, play for 3 hours at a price that they can afford.” Hell no. He’s in it for the money first and foremost and that is obvious if you’ve been to a recent Eagles concert. To be fair, the problem also lies within the fans who buy all of those overpriced tickets and thus create that demand in the marketplace. Bruce, could go that route easily. His tours could double their revenue no problem yet he stays true to everything he’s sang out about for the last 35 years.

It pains me to take a negative tone with so many artists who have also contributed greatly to the pantheon of rock and roll with such substance. However, it remains painful that so many of our once great heroes are spending their swan song years doing what they do for all the wrong reasons. It’s an urgent cultural tragedy that the great musical heroes of the counter culture now hold events that only the 1% can afford. It’s the ultimate fuck you to the original impetus of the movement and solidifies a “if you can’t beat them join them” attitude. No Rolling Stones, Eagles or even Neil Young (last tour price was $250) show should cost more than $100. It makes the great words of Allen Ginsberg ring true “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness” – in this case substitute for the word “greed”.

It’s easy for me to sit back and be a Monday morning quarterback and to critique decisions like this. Put in the same situation I can only hope that I’d follow the cues of Bruce Springsteen and not that of the others. I thank God with every fiber in my body that there is still a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band around today to inspire, provoke, rouse and to lead by example.

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