The greatest rock and roll prognosticators of January 1973 probably would never have guessed how Bruce Springsteen was going to spend October 2017 through mid-December 2018. Of course, music scribes of that era were rarely prone to consider the potential scope of their fields of interest because that land was just being planted with bouquets of Berry, blankets of Beatles, rivers of Rolling Stones, avalanches of Animals, and dozens of Dylans crawling up from the depths just waiting for their chances to make themselves known. Bruce Springsteen was one of those new Dylans. He took the stage with a heavy mix of Van Morrison mysticism, Dylan-esque poetry, and a saxophone-based, guitar-driven rock with a Phil Spector-esque wall of sound that established an undeniable voice. For at least the first 12 years of his career, Springsteen was the beginning and end, the alpha omega, the promise of honoring rock and roll past and establishing testosterone-fueled posturing that managed to balance Marlon Brando level danger with the James Dean vulnerability of a rebel who will never find his cause.
Springsteen on Broadway is a slightly extended version of the legend’s 14-month one-man show at the Walter Kerr Theater. (“Long Time Comin'” and “Ghost of Tom Joad” take the place of duets originally sung with his wife Patti Scialfa.) It’s a tightly scripted presentation of nine songs wrapped in monologues. More often than not the stories and music blend into each other, which might test the patience of those who simply want the music. Anybody who is still with Springsteen after so many years, or got on during the 1980’s (“Born in the USA,”) or the immediate wake of 9/11 (“The Rising”), understands that the stories have always been there, whether with a full band and a stadium crammed with overeager acolytes, or here on this recording. Listen to the evocative introduction to “My Hometown,” where Springsteen preaches from the piano about his “heartbreaking town of Freehold, New Jersey” and try not to go back there with him. It’s the second track, after the great opener “Growin’ Up”, where he sets the foundation for his legend.
It’s in the opening that Springsteen addresses what has always been at the core of those who have doubted his legitimacy. He’s spent a career writing about factories but he’s never worked in them. He’s never worked five days a week until this very moment, on that stage, telling his story. The humorous story of having to retrieve his father from a random bar is followed by a still chilling rendition of 1982’s “My Father’s House”. The voice is a little higher, more dramatic. A lonesome harmonica opens the tale and drifts between verses. Where the doom of the studio version seemed determined to keep us in that dream, here he allows us a way out. Springsteen explains in the midst of the song:
“All we know about manhood is what we have learned and seen from our fathers, and my father was my hero and my greatest foe.”
The intimacy here can be overwhelming if the listener isn’t careful. It’s all about building up resistance and understanding that if there is the darkness of a depressed father, it will be met and balanced by the optimism of a wonderful mother. “You need to have hatred in your heart to get to the top where I am,” Springsteen jokes as he introduces “The Wish”. He notes that she’s 93, seven years into Alzheimer’s, but dancing is in her spirit. It’s rare to hear a 69-year-old man so openly speak about issues with his father and connections with his mother. Reading them in his 2016 autobiography Born to Run was one way to experience these recollections, and while that book served its purpose, pulling them from that context into a theatrical performance makes more sense.
The question might still be gnawing on listeners and fans who want more, who demand a connection with what their hero gave them during pivotal times in their lives. Springsteen doesn’t ignore the touchstones. Disc One ends with a story of escape as a prelude to “Thunder Road”. It’s 1970. His parents have left New Jersey and his life is in front of him “Like a blank page just laying there, daring you to write in it.” In the story before “The Promised Land”, Springsteen and his band at the time see no way out but to leave New Jersey in order to get discovered. He admits that at 21, with his pals on their journey across the country, he had never driven a car. There’s a bit of a jaunty beat to this new version of “Promised Land”. The chords are clear, sound full, and potential limitless.
Political Springsteen has often been the fork in the road where the casual listener who grew up with his work from the 1970s on starts to drift away. Those who cringed at his shilling for John Kerry or Barack Obama seem to have forgotten that progressive idealism had always been in his work, whether it was forged in the foundation of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land” or Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom”, it was always there. A humorous story sets a prelude for a fierce blues-tinged steel guitar forged “Born in the USA”, one of the most misunderstood and misappropriated songs in his catalog. It takes two minutes to get to the vocals, and when he sings, it’s acapella until a brief moment in the end. Re-interpretation is the key, and it’s hard to again think of this song as a singalong anthem. This is followed by the happy “magic” of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”, the birth of the E Street Band, and we’re back in the land of this music and “the reason why true rock and roll and true rock and roll bands will never die”, even as he mourns his lost comrades (in particular here Clarence Clemons) and the fact that none of this will ever really be recaptured.
Romantic Springsteen surfaces with “Tougher Than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise”, duets with his wife Patti Scialfa. She is heard here as a duet partner and acoustic guitar accompanist on songs that remind the listener that Springsteen’s canon has never really been easy. These love songs are structured like lonesome country duets on grand piano, played after hours where the only people listening are the after-hours cleaning crew. It’s interesting that the latter is included as one of the duets. “Trust in a relationship’s a fragile thing,” he notes, and the fear comes through loud and clear. Emotions rise to the surface in the story that serves as the prelude to “Long Time Comin'”, and the listener hears it loud and clear. “We are ghosts or we are ancestors in our children’s lives,” Springsteen notes. He reconciles with his father and becomes a father for the first time.
“The Ghost of Tom Joad” and “The Rising” are prefaced by stories about the purpose of concerts, faith in American Democracy, and songs in general. The politics are subdued. He speaks of “righteous passion alive in the service of something good”, and there’s no need to name names. The problems are there, “broken families on the border and hate-filled marches on American streets”. The songs don’t need and are not given spoken embellishments. They’re just more vital and dangerous. “The Rising” is one of two selections here not prefaced by a story, and his re-shaping of it here is so much stronger than how it first appeared as the title track to the 2002 album with the E Street Band. Where there it seemed overproduced and intrusive, here it’s younger and surprisingly more hopeful than how it first surfaced in the immediate wake of post-9/11 America.
“Dancing in the Dark” is another song so deeply stained (and arguably ruined) in its original overproduced sound from 1984’s Born in the USA that only gets stronger here. He prefaces it by thanking us for staying with him this long, and he calls back to his mother’s love of dancing before launching into this tale of frustration now turned triumphant. Afterward, he launches right into “Land of Hope and Dreams” and we hear the cycle nearly completed. It’s a song about trains filled with saints and sinners, losers and winners, whores and gamblers. We’ve heard it all before, the idea of a glory train or a peace train or a love train, from artists as disparate as Woody Guthrie, Cat Stevens, and the O’Jay’s. It’s folk music at its most rousing and ecstatic, fusing gospel promise with earthly realities, and Springsteen’s is another car in this gloriously long and noble train.
“Born to Run”, the understandable final song in this two-disc set, is prefaced by another story about traveling back to his hometown. His favorite tree is gone, and he feels shattered. While there were elements about his memoir that could have been trimmed without losing its essence, and while the tendency to pontificate has always been at the core of Springsteen’s style, we have stayed with him this long and Springsteen on Broadway pays off. “We sing for our blood and for our people because that’s all we have at the end of the day,” he notes. Where this might be the essence of cornball nostalgia in other hands, Springsteen’s willingness to be vulnerable and work within the obvious limited space of this theater makes these stories and the songs powerful. Stay through to the end, and that dramatic heartbeat percussion he adds as the story fades away. This character is leaving in order to be born again, and the effect is thrilling.
How do we reconcile the sins of rock and roll with the faith if Sunday morning services? This has been the question since Elvis first appropriated “race” music and merged it with rockabilly and sold it to a white audience. Some might cringe when Springsteen recites the Lord’s Prayer, that staple of Catholic school education, in the midst of a final story before launching into a song about death traps, suicide raps, and getting out while we’re young, but they’ll be missing the point. This is, as its title suggests, a theater performance. The stadium shows were theatrical, but that’s not the Springsteen we’re getting this time.
This is the Springsteen fully owning the myth of the working class hero, wearing the uniform of his father, (The little heartbeat percussion in the song’s final moments is fantastic.) It’s unlikely the rock writer scribes of 1973 (among them such legends as Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, and Springsteen’s future manager Jon Landau) could have seen this coming four and a half decades later, and that’s what makes Springsteen on Broadway so miraculous. It’s about the stories. It’s about buying a ticket for this train ride and staying until the final stop. Eliminate the monologues when you make your own mix of this two-CD set, but do so at your own risk and understand you’re really only getting half the story.