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Rocking My Life Away: Springsteen, Harper, Pearl Jam

Springsteen, Harper, Pearl Jam come alive

April 25, 2001 12:00 AM ET

The live double-disc sets released recently by Bruce Springsteen and Ben Harper -- and the truly mad onslaught of six dozen live Pearl Jam albums over the last half year -- all brought to mind something Steve Van Zandt said to me when I interviewed him last summer. I asked him about the emotions that drove Springsteen and the E Street Band during their long reunion tour, and Steve said, "What we're communicating is community, is unity, is solidarity. Maybe it reminds us of something we should be reminded about." He went on to say that ordinarily, "you can't say these things in popular music. It's not fashionable. It's too cynical a world." He hesitated a beat, and then added, "But we can say it."

That really struck me. Van Zandt meant that the E Street Band -- through age, experience, the accumulated cultural power of Springsteen's songs and a genuine concern for social betterment -- had not only earned the right to make a statement about community, but had a kind of responsibility to do so. That all powerfully comes through over and over again on Live From New York City -- in "My Love Will Not Let You Down," "Prove It All Night," "Two Hearts" and the beautiful new song "Land of Hope and Dreams."

But I also feel the impulses Van Zandt talks about, that desire to affirm connection and community, pulsing in Ben Harper's Live From Mars. Harper reaches into the deepest wellsprings of American blues and folk music to create songs that communicate across all racial, generational and gender divides. It's a politically correct cliché these days to talk about art that "celebrates diversity." What I like about Harper, though, is that he doesn't celebrate diversity -- he just ignores it. It's as if he simply can't see the differences between people and styles of music.

Not that there's an ounce of cheap sentimentality in his performances on Live From Mars. Songs like "Excuse Me Mr." and "Like a King," for example, demonstrate that he is all too aware of the vicious racism that poisons our society. But his music -- from the inspirational "I'll Rise" to the smiling "Mama's Got a Girlfriend Now" -- sets a compelling example of how to combat and transcend the corrosive attitudes that set people apart. He's equally comfortable covering Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" and Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." And the arc of his career to date shows how even in this age of pre-packaged, cross-marketed success it's still possible to attract a sizable audience without radio hits and clever videos, simply on the strength of your talent and the force of your vision. And the ecstatic crowd responses on Live From Mars suggest that Harper's audience, far from having one eye peeled to spot the next happening trend, is with him to stay.

As for Pearl Jam, it astonishes me that the band's decision to release live CDs from all the dates on its last tour hasn't excited more commentary -- and more praise. Talk about "Got Live If You Want It"! Quite apart from the excellence of the music on the smattering of discs I've heard, the band seems to be setting out to define another way of doing business at a time when the mainstream music industry is interested in nothing but sales. The conventional wisdom of the music business is that a band must release a studio album no more frequently than every two or three years so that the record company can market it with military-style precision. The order of the singles, the timing of the videos, the choice of magazine covers and television appearances -- all that is relentlessly executed with the sole purpose of maximizing sales. If a live album is to be released at all, it's just a holiday season grab for dollars or a tour souvenir -- nothing to really be taken seriously. That business approach works fine for a while, but ultimately it burns the audience out, and leaves people bored and jaded, eager to move on to some new, equally well-marketed thrill.

Following the example of the Grateful Dead, however, Pearl Jam are proving that you can satisfy your fans by giving them more, not less. Rather than doling out one perfectly exploited single after another to promote an album to death, Pearl Jam, going to characteristic extremes, have let the group's most rabid fans set the standard for how much of the band's music should be available -- in a word, everything.

People can make fun of it or even, unbelievably, search for ulterior motives in what the band has done. But it seems to me that Pearl Jam have set out, in their own way, to defeat cynicism and the corporate forces that prefer creating mindless consumers to engaging in a genuine exchange with real fans. When I hear Pearl Jam perform Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling in Love" in Memphis, I hear a band that is mindful of where it's playing and excited to honor the sources of the music it loves. And willing to have some spontaneous fun with its fans.

Giving everything to your audience is a great rock & roll gesture of community. And whether, in their different ways, it's Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Ben Harper or Pearl Jam, it reminds me, as Steve Van Zandt said, of something that maybe we all need and deserve to be reminded of.

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