I've been a Bruce Springsteen fan for years, but I perhaps didn't understand his music completely, fully, and utterly until I saw him recently in concert on April 15th in Los Angeles.
I'd seen him in concert eight times previously, starting in 1984 at the Los Angeles Sports Arena. He'd always delivered great concerts. Some fans in line last year when I saw him in Anaheim told me how they'd seen him over forty and sixty times. They seemed to adore him as if he were a spiritual leader. I saw him as a poet who believed utterly in what he sang. I could empathize and rock out, but never had he spoken to me so personally as this week.
That's because of the state of the union. Sure, I'd been a poor college student when I first heard his music, and my first jobs--a salesman in the camera department at The Denver in Denver, a stock clerk in a camera store in Hollywood, a tile salesman at Color Tile in Woodland Hills--were no more glorious, even duller, than most of his characters in his songs, and while I had sympathy, I didn't always identify myself in his narratives.
I did identify, however, with his passion and commitment to his art, and I've set myself to be as honest and driven as Springsteen in the stories I write. He didn't set out to get rich at what he does, but to follow his bliss. As Dave Marsh writes in Two Hearts, a biography, "What really distinguished Springsteen was that he wanted desperately to communicate--something he believed counted, that would make a difference in the lives of those who experienced it, including himself. Invest yourself in that way and the world will beat a path to your door."
That's exactly what I've aimed to do in every short story I write and most recently in my novel The Brightest Moon of the Century. Springsteen has always found the truth in people's lives and has rendered those lives into song. I've set truths into fiction. Story truth is emotional truth.
Before I returned again to the Sports Arena this year, I sent in a check to the state for a tax bill that Ann and I could barely afford. This was because my spring semester classes had been unexpectedly cut at USC after enrollment suffered. We cut back expenses immediately and saved enough for our taxes. Then in April, I heard from USC that I'd have no fall or spring classes next year, either. I'd offered challenging fiction classes, and my students excelled, but the budget was the budget. "Thanks for your enthusiasm," said the email from the director.
I thought maybe I could make up for the loss at CalArts, where I hoped to get another class teaching story to animators. Some of my students have made important differences at Pixar and other animation companies. All have become better storytellers. When the new program director called with what I hoped was good news, he said all three of my fall classes were being cancelled.
"But they're required classes," I said. I was told they were no longer required. CalArts had to cut a million dollars in expenses, and many adjunct faculty were being "let go." I imagined myself as a balloon, drifting to another valley. I'd been at CalArts twenty-two years.
Add to this my cousin Peter had been set to move to Chicago for a brand new marketing job. He and his wife Karin had packed up their house in New Jersey, unable to sell it or rent it, and the mover was coming the next day, when Peter's new boss said he had some news. The company looked like it was headed for the dumpster. While they would still pay Peter for his move, and even pay him for at least three months, nothing could be guaranteed after that. Peter decided to not take the job. He'd already been unemployed for six months.
Add to that my neighbor Jody had lost her sales job. She's been sending out resumes for two months. Thus, when Springsteen started off he concert with "Badlands," every syllable had new meaning for me:
Trouble in the heartland,
Got a head on collision,
Smashing in my guts, man.
I'm caught in a cross fire,
That I don't understand.
The next song, too, "Darkness at the Edge of Town," shot right into my synapses. I heard of "lives on the line where dreams are found and lost" as well as "wanting things that can only be found / In the darkness on the edge of town."
The third song, "Outlaw Pete," the first piece on Springsteen's new album Working on a Dream, had seemed hokey to me on first listening, but I'd heard him on Sixty Minutes explain that some songs work better in concert than on an album, and this was certainly the case. The song's refrain "Can you hear me?" seems to be my refrain in my darkest moments.
As much as Springsteen might identify a problem and a feeling, he also offers hope. What makes "Badlands" work so well, in fact, is the turn toward the end where he says what he believes in, including:
I believe in the love that you gave me,
I believe in the hope that can save me,
I believe in the faith
and I pray, that someday it may raise me--above these badlands.
The pinnacle for the first half of the concert was "The Ghost of Tom Joad," where the lyrics set up what Springsteen had seen before I did:
Highway patrol choppers comin' up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin' round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Tommy Morello of Rage Against the Machine joined Springsteen and the band onstage as he did last year in Anaheim and played a wailing, squealing, yearning, burning--blazing--spiritual guitar solo that offered in itself the pain and hope of Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.
With all that in our blood, the second half of the concert delivered on his and our sense of being present in the moment to enjoy what we have. Springsteen's smile kept coming to his face as if he knew these adoring fans were not a given but an honor. He stepped often to the front of the stage to shake hands with people. At one point he walked right into the crowd. I thought he might be swallowed up, never to be seen again, but he emerged energized.
Some audience members near the front held signs with song titles they wanted to hear, and he reached out and collected a number of them. As the band offered its own harmonic chant made up of a few chords, Springsteen spread the signs on the ground and then held one aloft for his band members to see: "Raise Your Hand"--not a Springsteen song but one by Eddie Floyd that he's covered.
The next song came the same way, with him holding up a sign for "Spirit in the Night," which became a long rendition with Springsteen asking the audience at one point, "Can you feel the spirit?" and everyone cheered and thundered "yes." He held out his microphone to a boy of perhaps ten to sing the refrain. Many of his songs had this give-and-take with the audience.
More spirit came in the hands of keyboardist Roy Brittan playing an extended piano solo on "Racing in the Streets," reminding me how every single one of the musicians in the E Street Band are masters.
With his anthem song, "Born to Run," all the lights came on for the audience to see each other as they sang the words along with Springsteen. People jammed their fists into the air for the words "Baby, we were born to run" as if despite life ripping the bones from their backs, damn it, they were going to live.
I left the arena with my friend Gordon and my cousin Elisabeth--she'd flown in from Denver for the concert--feeling great, focused on things I had: friends, love, and a few new classes to teach at Santa Monica College come the fall. I felt raised above the badlands.
Set List, April 15, 2009
Los Angeles, California
Darkness On The Edge Of Town
Out In The Street
Working on A Dream
The Ghost Of Tom Joad
I'm Going Down
Raise Your Hand
Spirit In The Night
Waiting On A Sunny Day
Racing In The Streets
Kingdom Of Days
Born To Run
Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out
Land Of Hope And Dreams
To get a glimpse of Springsteen's point of view, read his journal of what it was like to perform at the Super Bowl this year here: http://www.brucespringsteen.net/news/superbowljournal.html
To read the Los Angeles Times' account of the same concert I went to, read it here: http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/la-et-springsteen-review17-2009apr17,0,2446897.story
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