The Boss is back
Bruce Springsteen keeps his promise to Belfast this weekend with a sell-out concert at the Odyssey Arena. Longtime fan and BBC broadcaster Stuart Bailie examines why The Boss is in a league of his own
It is the closing days of August, 1975 and finally, I'm ready for Bruce Springsteen. I've just started to read the music papers and they are full of stories about this guy. He's from New Jersey and they say he's the very spirit of rock 'n' roll. He may even be the future for music as we know it. Blimey. My pal Jamie is so excited that he joins the Britannia Music Club on the promise that he can get a bunch of free albums as an introductory offer. Top of the list is Born To Run.
The package arrives a week later, smelling of fresh cardboard, minted vinyl and printer's ink. The senses are fired up before we even get this awesome piece of plastic on to the turntable. And while it revs up, we examine the front of the sleeve. It's Bruce himself, with his odd surname, his leather jacket and a blonde Fender Telecaster. You flip the cover over and find that he's leaning on the shoulder of a guy called Clarence Clemons, immaculate in a black Fedora, leather pants and a well buffed saxophone.
And that's the pair of them, blaring their way across Thunder Road and a suite of songs that will obsess us over the coming months. The music reminds us kids of tunes we heard in our parents' old collections at the back of the radiogram. We even make the connection to stagey movies like West Side Story. Yes, there's drama in the Springsteen music, ill-matched lovers and racy assignations in the dark. The songs keep threatening to close him down, but invariably the singer finds an escape and he's roaring off again.
Every week, we read more stories about Bruce in the music papers. Some writers are getting tired of all the praise and the record company's hard sell. But by the end of the year, the guy has given his all at the Hammersmith Odeon, London, while the Christmas polls are full of praise for Springsteen and another relative newcomer in a woolly hat, Bob Marley.
He was the great convincer in 1975, and he's doing a similar job in 2007. On both occasions, America has been a busted concept, harmed by war, dirty politics and an economy on the slide. The first time around, Bruce had to pull his people out of the doldrums of Vietnam and Watergate. This time, the territory is just as severe. Maybe it's even more challenging since we've become wise to media spin and flakey rock stars. Yet this artist has produced an album called Magic. He's still singing like a young man and Clarence Clemons is in the groove again, playing with those other redoubtables in the E Street Band.
For his long-standing fans, this is a tremendous thrill. Many acts from the time of Born To Run have stalled, faded or expired. For others, the audience has dwindled and the music is sounding arthritic. That's the natural churn of pop careers. Yet Bruce has found another of his periodic surges. He sounds sure of his voice and his music. The man is sincere, a quality that's often regarded with embarrassment.
On Radio Nowhere the author is speeding through the dark, looking for a decent song on his satellite tuner, some way to connect to his fellow listeners. The rest of the record is a kind of answer to that issue. If the music's not out there, then he'll just have to provide it himself.
Bruce will be playing a stack of these new songs at the Odyssey tomorrow evening. Recent live shows have featured as many as eight of them, spliced alongside familiar tunes. The E Street Band are evidently delighted to be on stage as they haven't been on the Springsteen firm since The Rising in 2002. They've even been playing Santa Claus Is Coming To Town with gusto.
We certainly can't complain that we've been watching the same old Bruce set, every year. When he played Dublin on the Devils And Dust tour, he was solo and intimate, musing on the election defeat of John Kerry and signing off with a beautiful rendition of the Suicide tune Dream Baby Dream. That was followed by the Seeger Sessions album and the astonishing scenes at the Odyssey last year, when the guy was sounding out the chimes of freedom and leading his gospel-jazz confederation with delight.
The dustbowl blues have given way to the Iraq-inspired storylines of Devil's Arcade and Last To Die. Bruce is voicing discontent at a time when his countrymen are still sore at the Dixie Chicks for their apparently unpatriotic remarks about the president. So it's not an easy ride, and when Bruce signs his concerts off with American Land, with a lyric written by a Slovakian steelworker, praising a nation of possibilities, he's hardly making light of it.
So we'll cheer for the likes of She's The One and Thunder Road, and the memory of that breakthrough record from 32 years ago, when Bruce tried to create the story of a summer night's adventure in New York. But half-way into the concert we'll also salute a new song that reaches over the decades. It sounds like The Boss in a timeless moment, full of street-corner soul and saxophone riffs.
That said, Living In The Future is a love story set amongst gunpowder skies and political mismanagement. The singer knows the world has become vicious and mistrustful, but Springsteen won't let up. He's still a believer. His Magic tour is based on the notion that America has an ideal, something that hasn't been utterly lost. And the least he can do is to create an energy that summons up some of that feeling.
It may seem like a small gesture in a world gone awry. Whatever, Bruce can still make a case for the rapture of music and the dignity of the humble citizen. He's doing his best.
Bruce Springsteen plays the Odyssey Arena tomorrow night. Stuart Bailie presents The A-Z of Bruce Springsteen on BBC Radio Ulster tonight at 10pm.