Bruce Springsteen's American Gospel

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Still, on a recent tuesday afternoon, it's clear that Asbury Park needs considerable tending to. A half-mile swath of beach hosts — and this is a generous estimate — about thirty sunbathers. The closest, a homeless woman, absently fills the back of her shorts with sand. Shuttered motels line the main drag, along with a shuttered club called Moving Violations, and there's a billboard on the edge of town proclaiming GOD'S LIGHT OF LOVE IS STILL DESTROYING THE DARKNESS. Below, a smaller italic addendum reads, EVEN IN ASBURY PARK!

And yet, there's a sort of magical feel to the place, thanks, perhaps, to the sheer amount of abandoned history. The boardwalk — its wood weathered gray — is bookended by grand old art-deco palaces. To the south, the long-empty casino sits like a dried-out bee's nest, with its shattered window facade and gutted interior. On the opposite end, the gorgeous Asbury Park Convention Hall remains dilapidated but functional. One of its functions in recent years has been as a rehearsal space for Springsteen and the E Street Band. This afternoon, the parking area houses the E Street fleet: a half-dozen SUVs, a couple of BMWs and Springsteen's Corvette.

"I saw my first big concert here," notes Springsteen, who shows up for practice in jeans and a black T-shirt. A backpack stuffed with sheet music is slung over his shoulder. "It was the Who, Herman's Hermits and the Blues Magoos. The Blues Magoos opened, then it was the Who, and Herman's Hermits headlined! This was before people here really knew about the Who. Nobody knew they were going to smash their instruments. I must've been fifteen. I saw Janis Joplin here, and the Doors, too, their first time around. I sat right over there." He nods at a bank of empty seats, house left, before joining the band onstage. As he chats with Van Zandt, Patti Scialfa strolls up the ramp and tickles the back of his neck, then grabs her guitar.

And then one of the tightest, most tireless bands of the past twenty-five years begins to work through a set. They start with "The Rising." Live, the new songs sound huge and untethered. You immediately notice the amount of control on the record, and also, as the songs begin to accumulate, the number of recurring images. There is, of course, smoke, fire, darkness, all of which possess certain mythic qualities. But other words recur as well. Touch. Skin. Hugs. Kisses. The best gospel songs are often only a word or two away from being great love songs — many times quite dirty love songs — all you have to do is replace the word Lord with my baby. Likewise, Springsteen's songs on The Rising are suggestive. The opening track, "Lonesome Day," works perfectly well, for instance, as a breakup song.

The setting couldn't be more unfrilled: The house lights are up, with the rope ladders and ribbed underbelly of the stage clearly visible. The house itself remains empty except for a handful of techs, a camera crew and someone's Dalmatian, which has been padding around the main floor. Still, the band tears into the songs with a thrilled abandon. During the audience-participation section of "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," Springsteen stops singing and holds his microphone out to the empty house, while saxophonist Clarence Clemons coaxes invisible audience members to stand. "How ya doin' out there?" Springsteen asks with a smirk, then points his mike again. Later, during "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out," a classic song about an overweening desire to make it, he grins broadly and shimmies across the stage.

After two hours, the band retires to a backroom for dinner. Drummer Max Weinberg, on hiatus from his day job as Conan O'Brien's bandleader, is sitting at the end of a long table with a red-and-white checkered cloth, talking up a tension-relieving pillow he's just ordered from the Sharper Image catalog. Springsteen ambles over with a bowl of salad and grilled fish, shaking his head as he overhears this last bit. "These are the topics of conversation backstage now," he says with a sigh. "Swedish pillows."

"They're great pillows," Weinberg insists. "I'll turn you on to them."

Scialfa, a willowy redhead who is wearing a black tank top and pants and is working on a bowl of mussels, mentions that she, too, saw the Doors in this very building, at the same show as her husband, though they didn't know each other then. "I just wanted to be Jim Morrison," she says.

"I saw Jefferson Airplane here," Weinberg says. "Procul Harum."

"I saw that show!" Springsteen exclaims happily.

"I was there, too," Scialfa says.

"I remember a Hullabaloo Club concert here," Springsteen says. "It was the first black light I'd ever seen. I walked in and couldn't figure out what happened to my shirt!" A few minutes later, he continues, without much of a segue, "You know, my kids used to burst into tears when they saw Steve Van Zandt."

Scialfa snorts out a laugh. "You couldn't wait to introduce that!" she says. "They were babies." She shrugs. "And he looked like a pirate." Springsteen and Scialfa have never been on the road without their kids. "This tour," she says, "they begged, wept, 'Please don't make us go!' It is isolating. Plus, who wants to watch their parents?"

Soon, it is time to return to the stage. The most powerful moment comes a few songs in, when Springsteen sits at the piano to perform "My City of Ruins," while the band looks on silently. He sings, "Now there's tears on the pillow, darlin', where we slept/And you took my heart when you left/Without your sweet kiss, my soul is lost, my friend/Tell me, how do I begin again?"

Springsteen still remembers the moment he realized that he needed to make this album. It was a few days after September 11th, and he was leaving the beach. A man drove by, rolled his window down and yelled, "We need ya!" Then he rolled his window up and kept going. "And I thought, 'Well, I've probably been a part of this guy's life for a while,' " Springsteen says. "And people wanna see other people they know, they wanna be around things they're familiar with. So he may need to see me right about now. That made me sense, like, 'Oh, I have a job to do.' Our band, hopefully, we were built to be there when the chips are down. That was part of the idea of the band, to provide support. The most fundamental thing I hear from fans, constantly, is, 'Man, you got me through' — whatever it might be. 'My divorce. My graduation. My high school. This part of my life, that part.' " Bruce Springsteen chuckles once more. "And I usually wanna say back, 'Well, you know, you guys got me through quite a bit yourselves!' " Then he laughs again, this time much louder.

This story is from the August 22nd, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.

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