What can I say about Bruce Springsteen? I grapple and grapple with him, constantly attempting to reconcile his mythic place as the voice of some sort of American ideal with his increasingly tepid and tame work in the 1990s. Granted, Lucky Town and Human Touch do not tell the whole story — “Streets of Philadelphia”, “Dead Man Walking”, “Secret Garden”, as well as some tracks from The Ghost of Tom Joad have been gripping and impressive. They display a wiser, older, more reflective Bruce that has grown up along with his fans. Even if he sometimes gets drowned in a wash of synthesizers or lame country folk slide guitars, I cling to these bright spots. In fact, I will always defend Bruce Springsteen because of a sense of honor and dignity that I learned from, well, Bruce Springsteen albums like The Wild, The Innocent, The E Street Shuffle, Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, Nebraska, and Born in the USA.
The felt-need to defend Bruce has also been excited by the general hostility felt towards my hero. He seems horribly anachronistic and corny. All my friends seem to think that all Springsteen is about is “Hungry Heart” and “Dancing in the Dark”. They don’t realize he a poet, a preacher, a visionary of delicate and gripping beauty. They don’t realize that there is probably no greater rock song in the world than “Thunder Road” (I write that in all honesty and earnestness). This hostility, however, is not limited to my ignorant friends (god bless them!) — critics have adopted him as their straw man as well. In a recent Village Voice review of Bruce’s latest live album, Live in New York City (“Used Cars,” April 4, 2001), Todd Kristel admitted that he did not hear the new album, attend the concerts the record is based on, or even watch the HBO concert special: all this “would only interfere with appreciating his greatness as an American icon.” Kristel has immediately written Bruce off as hackneyed, overblown, and past his time. All of us who continue to praise him are living in the past, in awe of his greatness. Kristel, however, does not have the tact or perception to actually face up to Bruce, to take him on his own terms, to actually listen to the album. The truth is Bruce is an “American icon” and therefore deserves more than this nasty diatribe in Village Voice which is beginning to look more and more like a scandal sheet filled with cheap shots and low blows.
That is not to say that this album is very good. Columbia has really dropped the ball on documenting what has been an enthralling and inspiring set of shows during the E Street Band’s two-year reunion tours. The main offense is sucking all the life and vitality out of a Bruce Springsteen show on these two discs. There is none of Bruce’s usual banter with the crowd — the songs come flying by you with no break to feel the humanness of the live performance. While they have included Bruce’s hilarious and electrifying rock and roll fable/band introduction during an extended middle section of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (clocking in at over 16 minutes!), they neglected to include the customary rock and roll jams that characterize the second and third hours of Bruce’s marathon shows. The most glaring omission is “Light of Day”, a classic rocker that Bruce usually extends into a rousing gospel incantation summoning up the ghosts of rock and roll past, exclaiming, “Elvis is in the building!!!” With this release Columbia has given the impression that a Bruce show is a well-ordered, tame, perfunctory high school pops concert. They have somehow not realized that the greatness of the E Street Band is that they are the greatest garage band in the world. Seeing Bruce is like going to a high school party and seeing a band that can thrill your soul with the spontaneity and grandeur of pure rock and roll.
The album also has no continuity. After track 10 on the first CD, the music fades out and “Born to Run” suddenly blasts in. Anyone who knows Springsteen knows that he does not play “Born to Run” until at least the first encore. This “bonus” track is just pasted there. It is an amazingly disconcerting red herring for anyone who has ever been to a Springsteen show. The rest of the “bonus” tracks follow after the ‘end’ of the concert on the second CD, again throwing off any sense that you are listening to a concert as it is happening. A Springsteen show is an organic whole and to shuffle around the tracks like Columbia has done is to break up that whole for no reason other than to fit a three-hour-plus concert onto two CDs. While they may have gotten in most of the tracks, they have certainly left out the flavor that makes seeing Bruce seeing Bruce.
The reason most of us Springsteen fans will buy the album is to finally have on disc his two new songs, “Land of Hopes and Dreams” and “American Skin (41 Shots)”, the infamous anti-NYPD Amidu Diallo tribute. “Land of Hopes and Dreams” is a captivating, Whitmanesque vision of the unity and all-encompassing nature of Springsteen’s American dream. Echoing the democratic idealism of such great Americans as Whitman, Guthrie, Lincoln, and Martin Luther King, Jr., Springsteen envisions a mythic train carrying us all to the promised land: “This train carries saints and sinners,” he sings, “this train carries losers and winners.” “American Skin” is positively haunting-low moody synth tones set the tone as each of the band members chants “Forty-one shots,” slowly and solemnly. The song is a powerful and harrowing diatribe against racism and police abuse. It is sometimes heavy-handed and explicit (“Is it a gun, it is a knife, Is it a wallet, this is your life”) and sometimes elusive and poetic (“41 shots . . . and we’ll take that ride, ‘cross this bloody river, to the other side”). More than anything, “American Skin” proves that Springsteen is a powerful, vital, representative voice in American music — he is ensconced and enveloped in the world we live in. Just as he celebrated working-class desire in Born to Run and explored small-town trouble in Born in the USA, on “American Skin” Springsteen exposes the harsh reality of the inner city — the horror, the prejudice, the tragedy. While it may be a bit melodramatic (as in the verse where a mother pleads with her son to always be polite when an officer stops him), its intentions are noble and distinctively ‘Bruce’ — real people dealing with real problems, mythologized and represented in rock and roll.
Because of the greatness of “American Skin”, it is such a shame this is such a lackluster live album. If they were going to suck the life out of a Springsteen show, why not just give a collection of performances from the 1999-2000 tours, ala the wonderful 1975-1985 box-set, making no claims at representing one show? For my money, I’d rather pick up the “Red Headed Birthday Party” (July 29, 1999) bootleg where you can hear the E Street Band tearing through such rockers as “Red Headed Woman”, “Give the Girl a Kiss”, “Working on the Highway”, and of course, “Light of Day”. More than that, you could also hear Bruce’s poignant and funny tribute to his hometown, “Freehold”. My point is that Live in New York City is a mish-mosh — it gives a bit of a straight concert, a bit of old favorites and bonus tracks, never really making up its mind. Does this give Todd Kristel license to bash Bruce? I certainly don’t think so. Does his review give me the right to bash him on Bruce’s behalf? I certainly think so. Despite its faults, this CD still documents a Bruce Springsteen concert, which automatically puts it on a pedestal of morality and passion towering above all sniveling and shortsighted attacks.