David E. Nantais
Bruce Springsteen plays the Motor City
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Some call Bruce Springsteen “The Boss” but on Nov. 13, during a performance with the E Street Band in Detroit, he was working for the audience. (His national tour ended in Buffalo on Nov. 22.) The third song of the almost three-hour set, an energy-infused version of “Johnny 99” from the “Nebraska” album, could not have been more poignant, with its description of auto plants closing and the desperation that attends an economic recession. While many in the Detroit audience were likely feeling the pinch of these hard times, Springsteen paused to solicit help for a popular local non-profit, Focus Hope. This grand gesture reminded the crowd that there are those who barely scrape by, even during times of plenty, and who could never afford to attend one of his shows.

Many distinguished scholars have written about Springsteen, from Andrew Greeley’s discussion of his “Catholic imagination” to Robert Coles’ collected testimonials on what average Americans feel about his songs. What makes a Springsteen show great is the way it serves as a clarion call to wake up, embrace life and have fun! This is not musical escapism—no one is denying the suffering felt by so many, least of all Springsteen, who has been writing about the plight of the average worker for three decades. But he has a striking ability to make a 20,000-seat arena feel intimate, as though the show were meant for each individual present. The Boss is on a mission: to give the audience three hours of enjoyment and the permission to forget the depressing news headlines.

Springsteen has experienced a creative renaissance since 9/11, when he felt compelled to write new material in response to the national tragedy. Ever since, he has attempted to snap us out of our anger, desire for revenge and the general malaise brought on by a bad economy. 

Springsteen suffered some geographic disorientation at the beginning of the show in Detroit, shouting “Hello Ohio!” to the crowd multiple times before his longtime sideman and guitarist Steve Van Zandt reminded him where he was playing. Apologetic, he quickly made up for the gaffe by playing local-audience favorites, including Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man” and the fun set-list staple, “Detroit Medley.” After this, all was forgiven and the audience fed the band the burst of adrenaline it needed for its performance to explode. 

This was my seventh Springsteen concert since 1988 and I can say that the energy level of the performances has never decreased. Springsteen exhibits few signs that he is a 60-year-old man. He wears a small brace on his right hand, most likely to stave off developing carpal-tunnel syndrome from years of pounding on guitar strings with unbridled fury. If you have ever seen a Springsteen show up close, you know how much of himself he spills onto the stage. He frequently spits to clear his throat, and after about six songs there is a steady stream of sweat dripping off of his arms and fingers. After the show a roadie must have to mop up the evidence of Springsteen’s physical sacrifice for his fans.

Bruce does not save himself simply for big venues like Madison Square Garden. He pours himself out as much in Des Moines as in New York City. He literally throws himself into the audience and surfs the crowd, trusting that they will carry him safely back to the stage. This is a connection that few entertainers can build, much less sustain for 35 years. He urges the crowd to take part in the festivities, allowing them to sing the first verse of “Hungry Heart” or the “Show a little faith” line in “Thunder Road.” These moments are not contrived—they are tributes to songs that Springsteen realizes have transcended even him as author. They are not his songs, they are our songs, and that’s all right with him.

While Springsteen never forgets that he is putting on a show, sometimes his performance can seem like an ego-building exercise. Yes, he is a selfless entertainer, giving all he has to the audience and pushing the E Street Band to do the same. Yet no one, including the band at times, knows what song is coming next. The Boss calls out songs at will and the band is expected to be ready to play—a display of command that Springsteen seems to relish.

For the last dozen shows or so on this recent tour Springsteen played some of his albums in their entirety. This was a gift to fans who have followed the band for decades, but it was also a tribute to the rock album as an art form at a time of digitized music when singles are consumed with little context. Listening to Bruce and band perform the album “Born to Run,” one can hear how the songs blend into one another, musically and lyrically. The album is to be appreciated as a whole, not as a disparate collection of a few singles and some filler tunes. It was composed by a 20-something young man just coming into his own as a musician and a citizen of the world, wrestling with themes and questions that would infuse his songs for decades to come. It is part autobiography, part longing for love, part story of summers past and a desire for youth to continue forever.        

The final song of the night was “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher,” made famous 40 years ago by Detroit crooner Jackie Wilson, and one Bruce has been playing often on this tour. The “your” in the title could refer to a lover, or to the audience, or to that which lifts our spirits when houses are foreclosing on our blocks, jobs are being lost and life dreams are being deferred. For me, it referred to Springsteen and the love he shows to his fans. I left with my spirit feeling higher than it has in a long time.

David E. Nantais, director of the Leadership Development Institute at the University of Detroit Mercy, has written frequently for America about young adults.

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