“I sometimes wonder who went in my place,” says Bruce Springsteen at the close of the monologue that precedes ‘Born In The USA’ on this album of recordings from his recent stint on Broadway. He’s talking about how he avoided the draft, avoided being sent to fight a pointless war in Vietnam in which at least three friends of his, all musicians, died needlessly, and about how his visit to a veterans’ rehabilitation centre in California impressed on him not just the futility of war in general but America’s inadequate response to its casualties. This long narrative is followed by a stark, slide guitar-driven blues that serves as an introduction to the song itself, rendered here as equally bleak and largely unaccompanied. It is, I think, the definitive version of Springsteen’s powerful anti-war song, and it is the stand-out track on this unusual album. “I sometimes wonder who went in my place,” he says. “’cos somebody did.”
The first time I ever saw Bruce Springsteen, on 15 January, 1974, at the Mosque Theatre in Richmond, Virginia, I was intrigued and delighted by his custom of spinning a yarn between songs. It became harder to do as the crowds grew bigger but he persevered, even at Wembley Stadium, in July 1985, when as a prelude to ‘Can’t Help Falling In Love’ he told us all about how he once climbed over the wall of Graceland in a futile bid to confront Elvis. This yarn spinning reached its logical conclusion in the shows at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre where for six nights a week from October, 2017, Bruce played to an audience just shy of 1,000, closing the run only last month. It was, he says, the only time in his life he’s held down a steady job.
Much of the talk is scripted and taken from his autobiography which I reviewed here on Just Backdated a couple of years ago* but that in no way detracts from the power of his oratory. In fact, because the book is a tour-de-force of expressive, heart-on-sleeve prose, it probably makes it better. Bruce has got his timing down pat, hesitating in just the right places, stalling to let something profound sink in and every now and then letting loose on a poetic stream of loquacious eloquence that sounds a bit like the rather wordy tracks on his first two albums.
The ratio of talk to song is about 60/40, with some songs intersected by chat, and the audience hang on to his every word to the extent that, forgive me, you can hear a pin drop. Bruce’s way with words is such that he can switch from well-judged humour, most of it self-depreciative, to something far more reflective, a sharing of his life-lessons in the form of wistful anecdotes that are never less than sincere. Then again, he calls himself a fraud. “I made it all up,” he admits after explaining that he’s never even seen the inside of a factory, let alone worked in one, and yet it’s all he’s ever written about. In this regard, he’s not afraid to poke fun at himself, especially the blue-collar, down on your luck, always driving somewhere, clichés that pattern so many of his songs. Then he’ll flip in a second to a recollection that brought about some deeper, occasionally philosophical, understanding of life that his own spectacular career has taught him.
There’s plenty about his family, his upbringing in New Jersey and about his E Street Band, especially the two fallen members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons. Dad the unfulfilled deterrent gets a big cameo, as does mum the nurturer. He’s joined on stage by his wife Patti Scialfa for a couple of songs from Tunnel Of Love, his underrated 1987 album of broken dreams, and they harmonise together beautifully, as you would expect. He demonstrates that he’s a better piano player than most would take him for and also a terrific rhythm guitarist, with the strumming on ‘Dancing In The Dark’ so energised that the audience recognise this and break out into spontaneous applause as it morphs into ‘Land Of Hope And Dreams’, one of only two of the 17 songs not prefaced by a monologue.
The two-CD set closes, perhaps inevitably, with ‘Born To Run’, its long soliloquy winding through his disappointment at how a big old tree near his home in Freehold, NJ, had been felled and closing in a meditation on the Lord’s Prayer with a sincere wish that his audience can discover for themselves the health, wealth and happiness with which he has been blessed. The song itself is performed as powerfully as is possible without a band behind him – another example of furious, Townshend-style strumming – but towards the end Bruce brings the tempo and volume down to a fade-out as he taps his guitar on the beat and lets the harmonic from its ringing open strings bring the evening to an end.
Earlier, of course, he’d pointed out that even ‘Born To Run’ was a fake because nowadays he lives a ten-minute drive from where he grew up. “Born to come back,” he says. “Who’d have bought that shit?”