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Bruce Springsteen Returns: Joins Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne For Christic Benefit

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The fun halted with a heart-stopping version of "My Father's House," which Springsteen prefaced with a wrenching description of how, "three or four times a week," late at night, by himself, he used to drive past the houses in which he grew up with his parents. Concerned, he consulted a psychiatrist, who explained that "something went wrong" in those houses, something broke down, and that Springsteen was driven to return to the scene in a desperate, compulsive effort to "make it right." "But," the psychiatrist concluded, "you can't." The song ends: "My father's house shines hard and bright/It stands like a beacon calling me in the night/Calling and calling so cold and alone/Shining across this dark highway where our sins lie unatoned."

The degree to which Springsteen's tangled feelings about his parents have been reactivated – possibly by his having a child of his own – was evident the following night, when he replaced "My Father's House" with "The Wish," a poignant song about his mother. "If pa's eyes were windows into a world so deadly and true," he sang, accompanying himself on guitar. "You couldn't stop me from looking, but you kept me from crawling through." While Springsteen's struggle with his tormented feelings about his father fuels his greatest art – "My Father's House" is, significantly, a far more compelling song than "The Wish" – his feelings about his mother account for the sweeter, more vulnerable aspects of his personality.

On Friday night, Springsteen moved over to the piano after "My Father's House" for "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." Despite the raw energy of Springsteen's R&B-flavored rendition, that song – along with the spellbinding, introspective version of "Thunder Road" he performed later, also at the piano – essentially served as an elegy for the E Street Band. Hearing Springsteen belt out a line like "When the change was made uptown/And the Big Man joined the band" as he sat alone on the large, dark stage was a powerful moment. "I'm all alone, I'm on my own," he sang. "And I can't find my way home."

Brilliant, spare versions of "Atlantic City" and "Nebraska" framed Friday night's biggest surprise: the rarely performed "Wild Billy's Circus Story," from The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. A new song called "When the Lights Go Out" – about deception, corruption of spirit and the darker elements within us – followed "Nebraska." "Thunder Road" – which Springsteen stopped midsong because he forgot the lyrics, shaking his head and saying, "I knew this would happen" – came next, and a stunning, mournful "My Hometown," performed on piano, closed the set proper.

For his encore, Springsteen played a new song at the piano, a stirring ballad called "Real World," which he co-wrote with E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan and dedicated on Saturday night to Patti Scialfa, who was backstage with their new baby, Evan James. A bracing, hymnlike love song, "Real World" is about abandoning fairy-tale fantasies and accepting the limits and delights of the possible. "Ain't no church bells ringing, ain't no flags unfurled," sang the man whose storybook marriage ended bitterly and whose most popular tour became an orgy of flag-waving. "Just me, you and the love we're bringing into the real world."

Jackson Browne and Bonnie Raitt – whose opening sets were strong but, unfortunately, entirely overwhelmed by Springsteen's performance – then joined Springsteen for a rousing cover of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited." The trio alternated lead vocals and harmonized on the choruses. Browne's driving acoustic rhythm guitar – Springsteen played harmonica and Raitt rattled a tambourine – turned Dylan's blackly humorous tale of profit frenzy and war fever into an insinuating boogie workout With Browne playing piano, Springsteen playing acoustic guitar and Bonnie Raitt playing slide guitar, the night ended with a feeling rendition of Ry Cooder's "Across the Borderline." A song about Central and South American immigrants who come to Texas to find a "broken promised land," it provided a touching multicultural complement to the domestic dislocation of Springsteen's "My Hometown."

On Saturday night, in addition to substituting "The Wish" for "My Father's House," Springsteen deleted "Wild Billy's Circus Story" and "Atlantic City" and added "State Trooper," a stately, dignified reading of "Tougher Than the Rest" and a new song called "Soul Driver." Taken together, the two shows – beginning with a "Brilliant Disguise" and ending in the "Real World" – demonstrated that Springsteen's ability to seize the moment onstage and make palpable the meaning of potent emotional and social issues has not at all diminished. He continues to look deep inside himself and find a world there, a world we can enter to learn a bit about how a life proceeds, to learn a bit about ourselves and our own world.

"I built a shrine in my heart/It wasn't pretty to see/Made out of fool's gold, memory and tears cried," Springsteen sang in "Real World." "Well, now I'm heading over the rise." It's a necessary trip, and with as much conviction as ever, he's taking us along with him.

This story is from the January 10, 1991 issue of Rolling Stone.


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