"The incredible thing is that the people who created this music — the inventors of an entire half-century-old movement — are still around, alive and performing," Bruce Springsteen says, sitting backstage at New York's Madison Square Garden, in a tiny dressing room just big enough for two chairs, a small round table and a clothes rack of identical gray shirts and grainy-black jeans. "People forget," he declares with a preacher's fervor, "that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, right now, is a living history."
It is late in the afternoon on October 29th, and Springsteen is explaining why it is an honor, a thrill and his obligation to be here. Tonight, he and the E Street Band will close the first of the 25th Anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concerts, following sets by Crosby, Stills and Nash, Paul Simon, Simon and Garfunkel, and Stevie Wonder, finally sending the ecstatic Garden audience home at 1:30 a.m. with Jackie Wilson's "(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher." Springsteen will be back on October 30th too, joining second-night headliners U2 for a pair of explosive cameos.
But right now, Springsteen is recovering from a soundcheck that was a show in itself. For two hours, he traded outraged verses on Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Fortunate Son" with the composer, John Fogerty, and showed off his rarely heard inner Sinatra as he and Billy Joel duetted on Joel's "New York State of Mind." Springsteen also testified with Sam Moore of the Stax soul duo Sam and Dave, charged through the Clash's "London Calling" with Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and conducted the E Street Band like a Phil Spector session orchestra for Darlene Love, the powerhouse voice on many of Spector's great Sixties productions. As she and Springsteen walked offstage, Love told him, "I haven't sung in front of a Wall of Sound for a long time."
It was an all-hits essential-history dance party; Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau, describes the previous day's rehearsal at SIR studios as "40 years of music in four hours." It is also a model of the peaks and crossroads that mark the best collaborations at both concerts: the sighing harmonies of Bonnie Raitt with CSN; Jeff Beck's Chicago-blues cutting contest with Buddy Guy; Metallica's heavy history lessons with Lou Reed and Ray Davies; Mick Jagger's raging, howling harmonies with Bono on the U2 ballad "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of"; Springsteen's own U2 moment, sharing choruses and resolve with Bono on "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For."
"Really, these performers are jewels," Springsteen says, speaking in a low growl to preserve his voice for showtime. "And it's fun for our band, because we get to hear them the way I want to hear them. If I went to see Sam, I would want to see him with a band like mine." In fact, that night, after he and Moore roar through "Soul Man," Springsteen tells the crowd that much of what he knows about bandleading he learned at Sam and Dave club gigs in Fort Dix, New Jersey.
"Everything passes," Springsteen goes on. "I regret that when I was young, having had the opportunity, I didn't see Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters live, at a time when they were close to their prime. So to have these voices here, in the shape that they're in…"
He shakes his head in awe. "In a perfect world, they would be in this kind of setting on a nightly basis. The world isn't set up like that. But tonight, there's an opportunity. And," he adds with a big grin, "we get to be the house band."
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