Happy Birthday, Bruce Springsteen: 70 Years of Proving It All Night
Here’s a birthday toast to Bruce Springsteen, who turns 70 today. He’s spent his sixties experimenting with crazy ideas he’d never tried before — his one-man Broadway show, his memoir Born to Run, his SoCal cowboy excursion Western Stars, dropped just a few months ago as a total surprise, with a film version set to hit theaters in October. But he also spent the decade perfecting the things he does better than anyone ever — like raising the roof in places they don’t even have roofs. No other rock star’s ever aced his sixties like this. And no other rock star has hit the seventies on such a creative roll. All those clichés about how artists fade away with age? He’s done to those clichés what the racket boys did to the Chicken Man’s house.
Just a few days after he turned 60, 10 years ago, I went to see Springsteen at New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, where he played his best album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, songs full of hard promises he’s carried on keeping. He was at top strength — but he topped himself at the same stadium in August 2016, in three of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen. He opened the first night with “New York City Serenade,” never a personal fave of mine, but 17 or 18 minutes later, my central nervous system was in Wounded and Not Even Dead mode. The song went on for freaking ever. Just exalting. I was way up in the nosebleed seats watching the sun set purple over the NYC skyline as he destroyed me with this song. Three marathon shows in a row, 12 hours total, all kicking off with “New York City Serenade.”
The third night, he spent the first couple hours doing pre–Born to Run songs. When I hit the men’s room during “Kitty’s Back,” I eavesdropped as a handful of old-timers, strangers, talked about how many years they’d waited for this night. A guy at the sink said, “I’ve been seeing him in Jersey since 1973, but tonight is the best ever.” At one point, my Rolling Stone guru and ultimate Springsteen sensei Andy Greene leaned over and said, “He’s been playing for two hours and he’s only up to 1975. What if he just keeps going until tomorrow night?” Hours later, I crawled back home to Brooklyn, and fell asleep at dawn to the clank of garbage trucks on my street, humming to myself, “Listen to the junkman.” Springsteen has made it his life’s work to make moments like this happen.
That summer he published one of the best rock memoirs ever, Born to Run, finding a whole new voice to spin a tale we all thought we already knew by heart. Who knew he and Little Steven got thrown out of Disneyland because his do-rag violated their dress code? Or that the first time he earned his son Evan’s respect was when he took him to see Against Me and the bassist showed off his tattoos — including a whole verse of “Badlands” inked on his arm? As Springsteen notes in the book, “My kids didn’t know ‘Badlands’ from matzoh ball soup.”
He scored an even bigger surprise with Springsteen on Broadway, which seemed like the wrong idea — this man playing the same set list every night? The same scripted stage banter? But he didn’t just prove it could be done — he made it look easy, which is why other rock stars will be ripping it off permanently from now on. “We live amongst ghosts, always trying to reach us from that shadow world, and they’re with us every step of the way,” Springsteen said in his show. In so many ways, his recent experiments have been “ghost stories,” as he’s said onstage so many times — learning to live with the kind of hungry ghosts who won’t leave you alone.
He’s always had an old-school respect for decades — he’s taken pains to make each of his decades symbolize a different era. Just a couple of days before he turned 30, in September 1979, he closed out his twenties with his performance at the “No Nukes” benefit shows in NYC. The No Nukes film opened in the summer of 1980 — it’s not a well-remembered rock flick these days, because most of it isn’t very good, but it was a sensation at the time, because it was the first glimpse many of us got of Springsteen onstage. He steals the show at the end, doing “The River,” which hadn’t even been released yet. (The album hit three months later, in October.) It’s hard to describe how it felt to be a little kid sitting in that movie theater, surrounded by strangers yelling “Bruuuuuce!” at the screen, politely waiting through a long mellow run of Doobies, Crosbys, Stillses, Nashes, Brownes, etc.
Until the moment when Springsteen finally shuffles onstage and mumbles, “This is called ‘The River.’ This is … uh … this is new.” He plays that harmonica intro. And you hear the whole theater singing along by the second chorus, even though none of us had heard the song before.
It was more than Springsteen stepping up on behalf of a worthy cause. It was him taking a look around right before his big move from arenas to stadiums, from superstar to megastar — the first time he allowed his live recordings to be released. He just released his full No Nukes set in December 2018, and it’s still a stunner — a hungry young rocker gearing up for his thirties by mourning the twenties his sister and brother-in-law never got to have. But imagine how it sounded to kids in suburban malls who’d never seen an actual rock concert, yet heard pieces of themselves in this downbound train of a song. Then he blows into “Thunder Road” and “Quarter to Three.” The only time I’d heard the audience make such a joyful racket in a movie theater was when Han Solo rescued Luke at the end of Star Wars — same mall, same cinema, maybe even the same screen, three summers earlier.
Yet after his blockbuster thirties — The River, Nebraska, Born in the U.S.A., Tunnel of Love, damn — all he wanted was to give it up. As he told Rolling Stone in 1992, “I just felt kind of ‘Bruced’ out. I was like, ‘Whoa, enough of that.’ You end up creating this sort of icon, and eventually it oppresses you.” He fired the E Street Band, like Prospero breaking his wand at the end of The Tempest. He moved to Hollywood, the last place his fans pictured him, as far from “The River” as he could run. For his whole forties, it looked like he’d retired, with new music that felt out of touch with his past or anyone’s present, letting his audience get split down the middle by Eddie Vedder and Garth Brooks.
As we all found out later, he just needed a break to find himself as a family man and build the private life he’d missed out on before. He told Rolling Stone’s late, great James Henke he liked L.A. because “you’re pretty much left to go your own way. Me in New Jersey, on the other hand, was like Santa Claus at the North Pole.” He knew exactly how his fans would react to these words — it was his version of John Lennon’s “I don’t believe in Beatles.”
But right on schedule, just as he was facing his fifties, he had a revelation that it was time to go back east. Like so many revelations, this one involved Joni Mitchell. One night in 1998, he saw an ad in the paper for a triple bill in San Jose featuring Joni, Bob Dylan, and Van Morrison. He took his 72-year-old mom — and when he saw what a blast she had, along with the rest of the crowd, he realized it was time to get the band back together, just in time for his Hall of Fame induction. Loads of us fans watched the March 1999 ceremony on VH1 for old times’ sake, hoping for a nostalgia fix at best. Instead, the band got up there and played an instant-classic version of “The Promised Land.” And man, that was all she wrote. For his fiftieth birthday, he got his union card, his band, his touring schedule and his songwriting mojo back.
In Born to Run, he writes frankly about how he spent much of his sixties struggling with depression. “I was crushed between sixty and sixty-two, good for a year and out again from sixty-four,” Springsteen writes. “The only thing that would lift the burden was one-hundred-plus on two wheels or other distressing things.” He went to therapy and learned to cope without “my trustiest form of self-medication, touring.” But he kept refining his onstage art, after the deaths of his bandmates Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici. He found a way to honor his absent friends, making the roll call part of the ritual, saying, “If you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here.” When he began doing “Wrecking Ball” live, people heard it as a farewell to the Meadowlands Stadium he’d ruled for so many years. But inevitably, it became a song for mourning the ghosts he was learning to carry around with him.
In his Broadway show, he boasts about how much of his youthful image he just made up as a con job. “I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud. So am I. 1972, I wasn’t any race-car driving rebel; I wasn’t any street punk. I was a guitar player.” As he admits, he couldn’t even drive a car. When my illustrious colleague Brian Hiatt published his definitive Bruce Springsteen: The Stories Behind the Songs earlier this year, the most shocking revelation for me was that Mr. Thunder Road was totally bluffing on the automotive details. His greatest song, “Racing in the Street,” is about a car that doesn’t exist — fuelie heads don’t fit on a 396. (It should have been a 283.) Springteen just shrugged. “I write about ‘em and ride ‘em. I don’t have to fix ‘em.”
You can fake it when it comes to cars, and you can fake it about girls, too. But ghosts, they call your bluff. And in a way, all the projects of his sixties — the book, the show, archival digs like The Promise or Live at the Roxy 1975, the new songs — they’re all about living with spirits in the night. As he says at the end of Springsteen on Broadway, “The soul is a stubborn thing. Doesn’t dissipate so quickly. Souls remain. They remain here in the air, in empty space, in dusty roots, in sidewalks that I knew every single inch of like I knew my own body, as a child, and in the songs that we sing. That is why we sing. We sing for our blood and for our people, because that’s all we have at the end of the day: each other. Maybe that’s what I’m looking for when I go down there. I just want to commune with the old spirits, stand in their presence, feel their hands on me. One more time.”
Springsteen has spent recent years looking for new ways to make peace with those ghosts, in his songs and in his stories. At this point, nobody knows for sure what he’s got up his sleeve next. When he left Broadway, he said, “Our closing is bittersweet but more adventures await down the road. I’ll see you there.” So here’s to the first 70 years of the Bruce Springsteen saga. And here’s to the next 10 years. All we know about his future is that he’ll keep on proving it all night — one all-night at a time.
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