Springsteen: On and Off Broadway

Good news of a kind today — Broadway re-opens with the resumption of Springsteen on Broadway at the St. James Theatre.

Normally I write about artists on their birthdays….which makes it problematic when I am very much not a fan of the artist, as in this case. By certain lights, I ought to love Bruce Springsteen (b. 1949). I am from the working class. I love many of the artists who influenced him. Two of my closest high school friends were bonkers over him. Consequently, I heard his first seven albums until they were coming out of my ears when I was in high school, and I heard quite a bit of his next couple as he was still at his record-selling peak through the ’80s. And my friends and I shared so many obsessions and enthusiasms. Um, that’s why we were friends. So I have expended (some might say, wasted) excessive amounts of mental energy trying to suss out why he doesn’t click for me. All I can do is sort of grope my way towards an answer.

Springsteen pretty much makes me cringe with mortification on behalf of the entire working class. Whatever he’s supposed to represent to so many people eludes me, in spite of the fact that my father was a Teamster and my mother a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which you’d think ought to make me more receptive to his voice. But it doesn’t. I find his body of work to be all about people at the bottom wallowing in their own hopelessness. And musically I find him inferior to the artists he emulates and tries to associate himself with. I feel like I would need a lobotomy to ever truly enjoy him.

Part of it is that I feel that he is overly lionized. People worship him. There’s that stupid Jon Landau quote about him being “the future of rock and roll”. To me, he has always been “the PAST of rock and roll”, symbolic of the fact that rock and roll was over. PUNK was the future of rock and roll. Or Hip Hop. Springsteen has always sounded to me like rock and roll ossified, diluted and diminished. Unlike, say, the Beatles or Bob Dylan, or dozens of others I could name, truly, I don’t percieve any way in which Springsteen consumed the rock and pop of his day, digested it, and then radiated something NEW and MORE. What he does sounds like LESS. There are echoes of Dylan and Phil Spector and so forth but what is HE? I find his chord progressions and melodies facile and predictable, his voice weaker than the soul singers he presumably seeks to emulate. And to the extent there is a “there” there, the things he writes about are depressing and uninteresting to me. It’s as though Arthur Penn had made Bonnie and Clyde without the bluegrass or humor or glamour, just some sad sacks driving around in stolen cars and occasionally robbing enough money from decent people to afford gas, food and lodging. The absence of humor, by the way, is a major omission. Of course, I’m not going to warm up to someone who’s not funny. And, contrary to the feeling of the masses, of both the left and right, a commendable message does not an artist make. I think many people embrace him for his sentiments more than for how he expresses them. That’s its own kind of philistinism.

Let me adjust where this is going. I don’t hate Springsteen categorically. This is to say, as I said at the top, that I am “not a fan”. That is meant literally. Not a fanatic about him. My favorite tune of his classic era was “Hungry Heart” (1980). I just love the way it sounds, especially the keyboard and the background singers, it’s a full, rich sound, strictly as a pop song. It was the first time I became aware of him, although my girlfriend later made me aware of the seven year old song “Born to Run” around the same time. I had never even heard of it ’til then. I also liked songs he wrote, strictly pop songs, that were recorded by other people: Manfred Mann’s 1977 cover of “Blinded by the Light”, as well as “Because the Night”, a 1978 hit for Patti Smith, who co-wrote it, and “Fire”, a #2 hit for the Pointer Sisters. But as a general rule, I was not into the E Street Band, that bar band thing, or his LPs.

I grew marginally more interested when he became inspired in the folk music of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and others and became one of the few potent national voices against the direction Reagan was taking the country in. I actually owned Nebraska (1982) and listened to it, although I found it too bleak and musically crabbed, much more so than the music Guthrie made. (There was much that was celebratory and humorous and cheerful about Woody Guthrie — he wasn’t just a poet but also an entertainer. He wasn’t there to be a downer — he was aware that if you were going to listen to his messages you had to be induced to listen). Born in the U.S.A. (1984) restored the entertainment component, and I was impressed by the fact that Springsteen had been influenced by Nevins’ and Commager’s Pocket History of the United States. I like most of the album on a track-by-track basis, but there is much musically that I don’t care for, as well, and I resented the degree to which the record was shoved down everybody’s throats for years on end. And I was not at all into his image, which was so much emulated at the time. Then, as now, I was inspired by the counterculture in its more anti-social incarnations, from beatniks to hippies to punks. Some buff dude with a baseball cap, work boots and a cowboy bandana — it didn’t speak to me at all. That’s a rock star? Looks like the roadie! (I know that’s the point. I said it doesn’t SPEAK to me. I’m interested in nonconformism, not guys who look like everybody else).

One thing that DID make Springsteen unique, and made him stand out among rock and pop artists, was his extended patter and storytelling. One heard it on live recordings and bootlegs and concert video footage. He expanded the ordinary song introductions sometimes to epic length, drawing his concerts out to four hour affairs. And these pieces of writing, whether pre-prepared or improvised, were often moving and unique. And interestingly, they go with his strength as a writer as I see it, which I’m sure no one will agree with, which is that he is PROSAIC. It’s one reason I react badly to his songs. People call him a poet, and I don’t see him that way at all. One time a friend referred to the words of one his songs as “poetry” and I said, “Nah, that’s not poetry, it’s photography”. He is descriptive, like a journalist or an essayist. But he does not play with words, he does not get off on the sound of words, and to my mind that is what great poets and lyricists do. That’s not Springsteen’s bag at all. He tells stories. Sure, I’ll go with, “he’s a balladeer”, but even at that he seems to lack the singalong gifts of even those anonymous folk balladeers of bygone times. He puts pictures in your head, but words, not so much.

Now we come to a minor controversy of the Twitterverse since Springsteen first came to Broadway in 2017: “Is it theatre?” or, another question entirely “Does it belong on Broadway?” In spite of my antipathy to the music of the so-called Boss, my answer to both questions is an unqualified “yes”. And if yours is “no”, go bury your brain in a shoe box. Is what he does a conventional Broadway integrated book musical? Well, clearly not. Do you think that’s all that belongs on Broadway? Surely you know about Judy Garland’s legendary shows at the Palace? Surely you know that they consisted of: songs and patter. Surely you know there have been one man magic shows, ventriloquism shows, drag shows on Broadway? Surely, you know that they have concerts at Radio City Music Hall? (Which may well have been a better venue for Springsteen’s show, but perhaps he wanted to make a point here). And whether it’s on Broadway or not, surely VAUDEVILLE is theatre. I’ll fight anyone who says it isn’t to the death. And a staple of any vaudeville show is: singers and patter. And if you sneer at Springsteen because he is a “folk” artist and not “sophisticated” in some kind of tin pan alley way, um , fuck you?

Thus, my complicated position — Springsteen is far from my favorite recording artist, but he absolutely deserves to be on Broadway. I hope the producers continue to sell a zillion tickets. His presence there is a sign of vitality in more ways than one.

For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,