I’m not going to review the show. Plenty of other people have done that. And anyway, Springsteen is his own measuring stick. By any reasonable standard, all the shows are good shows. There’s probably no one else in rock and roll – and certainly no one else in his generation – who pours it all out night after night, playing at absurd lengths, drawing on a catalog that seems infinite at this point. Not only is he liable to play anything he has ever written (the Kansas City show opened with “Ricky Wants a Man of Her Own,” a non-album obscurity from 1977 that had never been played live), he now seems intent on playing everything anyone has ever written, as evidenced by Sunday night’s seat-of-the-pants covers of songs by Bobby Womack, the Drifters, and John Fogerty.
Some nights are better than others, and it sounds like Saturday in St. Louis was about as good as it gets (I knew I should have gone). And if Kansas City seemed ramshackle and rote by comparison, I must remind myself that we saw an unprecedented lead vocal by drummer Max Weinberg (he took the Ringo role on “Boys,” a Shirelles tune that the Beatles recorded in 1963); a tender, nearly heartbreaking reading of “Sandy” that was dedicated to the memory of Danny Federici; and ferocious romps through chestnuts like “Spirit in the Night” and “Rosalita.” Add in spirited takes on several newer songs that reaffirm Bruce’s relevance as a creative force, and any complaints about the set list, the sound, or Mr. Springsteen’s punctuality (the 7:30 show got underway at 8:51), seem trivial.
What has struck me in the hours since the show is how Springsteen is a singular figure in music, an artist with mass appeal and a cult audience, one who draws both casual fans and fanatics who follow him with a religious fervor. Beforehand, while awaiting the lottery that would determine which 450 people got into the pit in front of the stage, we met folks who had flown in from all over the country. We saw people with posters bearing requests (one boy who couldn’t have been more than fifteen wanted to hear “Prove It All Night” with the 1978 intro; now that’s specific). Afterwards, we talked to a man who has been to sixty-one Springsteen shows. On this tour. (Lifetime total: 332 - let that sink in.) Less than twelve hours after the house lights came up, a thread on the Backstreets.com message board discussing the night’s events had reached sixty-two pages.
For these people, nothing could be better than to hear a song’s premiere or to tell friends that they were there the night Max sang (or better yet, that it was their request that made it happen). They’re glad to be woven into the tapestry of Springsteen’s career, to be a footnote in E Street history. And though I find that level of devotion a little disconcerting (I may be obsessive, but you’re crazy), I understand the impulse.
But for everyone like that, there’s someone who just wants to hear “Thunder Road.” By Monday afternoon, I had discovered that four couples from my neighborhood had been at the show. They are mostly casual fans catching their first Springsteen show ever, or the first in twenty years. And they’re as disappointed at hearing “Cynthia” as the die-hards are thrilled. It took up five minutes that could have been devoted to a song they knew and loved. At the school bus stop on Monday morning, a woman who had been there said that she and her husband had to leave before Springsteen played “Born in the U.S.A.” When I told her that he didn’t play it at all, her look was sheer incredulity. How could he not play that?
There are eight million stories in the naked city, and 16,000 sets of expectations at a Bruce Springsteen show. In the comments following the review on the Kansas City Star website, attendees groused about the start time, the song choices, and the sound, while others reflexively jumped to the Boss’s defense, unable to imagine that anyone could have been disappointed.
Attempting to meet everyone’s expectations is a futile exercise, and Springsteen didn’t even try. At the end of a long tour, it’s clear that he’s feeling the freedom to please himself, and experiencing some wide-eyed joy that you wouldn’t expect from someone who has been on the job for nearly four decades. The old songs were played with abandon, the new ones with purpose, and all with an intensity that never lagged through a 190-minute set.
From my perch, the show was wild and wistful, cathartic and melancholy. There were moments of sheer transcendence (“Promised Land” never fails to lift me up), and a suspicion that a chapter is closing. Phantom Dan is already gone, and I wonder whether Clarence Clemons could withstand the rigors of another lengthy tour. He’s sixty-six years old, and clearly is in some physical distress; even walking across the stage was difficult. Could the E Street Band go on without both its senior member and Bruce’s most famous on-stage foil? Can you imagine someone else playing the sax break in “Born to Run”?
If this was it, I’m glad I was there. And if it wasn’t, I’m glad for that, too. No rock and roller has ever meant more to me. I can’t begin to understand how the serious fans feel.