The audience consists of his sound crew, his sax player's wife and son and a couple dozen ushers and security guards. But that doesn't stop Bruce Springsteen, who's turning in an extraordinary performance at the Omni, in Atlanta. He's in the middle of a late-afternoon sound check – not one of the marathon sound checks for which Springsteen used to be known but an hour-long chance to refresh his music by playing oldies or current favorites or whatever pops into his head.
Springsteen stands in the middle of the huge white stage in jeans and a long-sleeved white shirt, laughing as he tries to piece together half-remembered lyrics, joking when a band member tosses out the rif from a familiar oldie and muttering, "Okay, what next?" when he finishes a tune. It's a country and folk set: the Everly Brothers, Hank Williams and some lesser-known choices. Some songs fizzle out after a verse or two; every so often, though, Springsteen and the band instinctively craft a full-bodied arrangement, grab a song and claim it as their own.
That happens during "Across the Borderline," a six-year-old song by Ry Cooder, John Hiatt and Jim Dickinson from the movie The Border. A plaintive lament about Mexicans in search of an American paradise, the song is one of Bruce's current passions: one person in Springsteen's entourage says he's driven everyone crazy playing it in the van.
So when Springsteen sings its opening lines, the members of the band quickly latch on to the slow groove; they've heard this one before. Guitarist Nils Lofgren picks up a slide and adds an aching counterpoint to Springsteen's vocals. By the first chorus, this has become a performance to break hearts: "When you reach the broken promised land/Every dream slips through your hand/And you'll know that it's too late to change your mind/Cause you've paid the price to come so far/Just to wind up where you are/And you're still just across the borderline."*
Like the best of Springsteen's own music, this is a song with a deep sense of consequences. Not only do its lines about shattered dreams and broken promises recall his songs, but the song seems to speak directly to the experience of a man who dreamed of becoming a rock star, then became the biggest; who found himself feeling isolated and empty and fought that by reassessing his work, then by turning to his marriage; who at age thirty-eight has set aside his fervent belief that rock & roll can save you in favor of the more sober idea that love might save you – if you work at it hard and long enough.
"I guess I used to think that rock could save you," he says later. "I don't believe it can anymore. It can do a lot. It's certainly done a lot for me – gave me focus and direction and energy and purpose. I suppose, when I was a kid, it was your best friend: your new 45, man, that was your best buddy.
"But as you get older, you realize that it is not enough. Music alone – you can take some shelter there, and you can find some comfort and happiness, you can dance, you can slow-dance with your girl, but you can't hide in it. And it is so seductive that you want to hide in it. And then if you get in the position of somebody like me, where you can if you want to, you really can."
He stops himself. "Well, you think you can, anyway. In the end you really can't, because no matter who you are, whether it's me or Elvis or Michael Jackson, in the end you really can't. You can use all your powers to isolate yourself, to surround yourself with luxury, to intoxicate yourself in any particular fashion that you so desire. But it just starts eating you away inside, because there is something you get from engagement with people, from a connection with a person, that you just cannot get anyplace else. I suppose I had a moment where I kinda crashed into that idea, before I was married....
"It's just confusing. Even the type of connection you can make in your show, which is enormous, you can't live there. You have three hours onstage, and then you got the other twenty-one. You may know exactly what you're doing in those three hours, but you better figure out what you're gonna do in them other twenty-one, because you can't book yourself around the clock."
"The first thing I did," Springsteen says, "was make everyone stand in a different place." It was the first day of rehearsals for the Tunnel of Love Express, and he knew it was time for a show that would be drastically different from the stadium-rock blowouts that had followed his album Bom in the U.S.A. – especially since those shows had themselves been similar to the acclaimed concerts he'd been doing ever since he started playing large arenas in 1978.
So he moved the members of the E Street Band out of the places most of them had occupied onstage for the past thirteen years: drummer Max Weinberg moved to the side; pianist Roy Bittan and keyboardist Dan Federici traded places; so did guitarist Nils Lofgren and bassist Garry Tallent; sax man Clarence Clemons shifted from Bruce's right to his left; and singer Patti Scialfa picked up a guitar, moved into Clarence's old position and became Springsteen's new onstage foil. A horn section recruited from the New Jersey bar band La Bamba and the Hubcaps took up the rear. Springsteen had tried this once before – at the beginning of the rehearsals for the Born in the U.S.A. tour-but back then, he says, the band "flipped."
This time the musicians, who knew that their boss had considered a solo acoustic tour, quickly adjusted to the change. Springsteen knew what he didn't want – "I made a little list of stuff I couldn't imagine playing," he says – but when manager Jon Landau said it was time to start booking the tour, he didn't know what he wanted. "I said, 'I don't know if I have a set,' " says Springsteen with a laugh. "Jon said, 'Well, you know, that's your job, you've been doing it a long time, you do it good, so it'll happen.' So I took his word for it."
Two and a half months later, when he takes the stage of the Omni, Springsteen has a show. It rocks almost as much as his past concerts, but it's also far more intimate: where his last tour, which played some huge outdoor stadiums, explored the ideas of community and society, this tour, which is limited to indoor arenas, focuses on desire, commitment and family. The first set is part relationship songs from the Tunnel of Love album. It's part B sides and outtakes: "Be True" and "Roulette" were both recorded for The River. (Springsteen now says, "Both of those songs should have been on The River, and I'm sure they would have been better than a couple other things that we threw on there.") And at the end of the set are a couple of barn burners from the Born in the U.S.A. tour. Songs that have served as longtime Springsteen staples are missing, for the most part replaced by music that is hard, dark and almost claustrophobic: each gentle, nostalgic moment is shattered by colder, more fearful songs.
Near the end of the set, pianist Roy Bittan plays a pastoral melody, and Springsteen steps to the mike. The monologue he delivers, ostensibly about the unmarried mother who's the central character in "Spare Parts," could just as easily deal with a rock & roll star who's determined to do something different.
"The past is a funny thing," he says, as the crowd quiets down and Bittan plays softly. "The past is something that seems to bind us all together with memory and experience. And it's also something, I guess, that can drag you down and hold you back as you get stuck in old dreams that just break your heart over and over again when they don't come true."
A brutal version of "Spare Parts" follows, then an angry "War" – no introduction needed, what with Ronald Reagan's troops sitting in Honduras – and finally, just before intermission, "Born in the U.S.A." Three years ago, this song was the hard-fought call to arms that began virtually all of Springsteen's shows; now, coming at the end of a set that dwells on devastating personal and social struggles, it lacks any suggestion of the patriotism that some people insisted on reading into it on the last tour. Musically as exultant as ever, "Born in the U.S.A." suddenly hits home as an agonized, brutal modern-day blues.
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