Saturday, November 3, 2012

Blinded By The Light

Provin' it all night
A few weeks ago, I went to see the fella on the right and his E Street Band play, for the first time ever.  Yes, the first time.

I finally saw Bruce Springsteen live.  At very close proximity - that's my shot, taken from "the pit."  Now, you may suppose you know how the rest of this is going to read.  But no, I didn't get religion.  I didn't "see rock and roll's future."  Something a little more remarkable happened... I found a little piece of me that I'd lost track of.

I first heard Bruce Springsteen's music in what must have been 1979.  Tony and Branko were playing the hell out of Darkness On The Edge Of Town, in that summer when we started driving around lookin' for nothin' to do.  I already knew I liked rock music harder and faster, bluesy, more guitar driven, melodramatic and explosive.  Springsteen was kinda different.  Lots of piano and organ, - saxophone! - and no showy guitar solos, but the cat brought genuine intensity to his music.  Significantly, the man was a real storyteller, using lyrics as sledgehammers, every line painting a concrete picture that dissolved into the next in cascades of emotion.  Not a word wasted.  I was already finding myself writing things, snippets, lyrics in some form... and Bruce became an immediate influence on my style.  The River came out, and in the face of new wave, skinny jeans, and British people who for some perverse reason loved reggae, I really did think the guy was the last best hope for what rock was "supposed" to be.

That's when it all started to change.

Rock was getting louder and hairier and faster.  Bruce released Nebraska.  Yeah, I didn't get it.  I get it now, but not then.  Not when I was 19 years old and wanting to turn everything up, dress up, go out dancin'.  New wave started to find its pop legs.  MTV exploded.  The freaks came out at night.  And then Bruce came back with Born In The USA, his shot at the heavyweight championship.

He won the belt, but he lost me in the transition.  It's a pop record.  It was totally misunderstood, by the frat boys who didn't listen to lyrics, who sang "Born In The USA" like it was the "America, Fuck Yeah!" of the time, who didn't realize how pathetic the story of "Glory Days" actually is and turned it into a beer commercial in their heads.  But Bruce became a massive rock star, married an actress, later made a divorce album with lots of synthesizers on it... broke up the E Street Band.  I still didn't get it.  And the guitar players were getting more awesome sounding all the time.  So while deep down I still loved the music that Springsteen used to make, I put all that away... for over twenty years.

And in all that time, I had never seen Bruce live.  Of course I'd heard the legends about three, four, six hour shows... yeah right... but he rocketed from cult status to playing stadiums, at a time when there was no place in Ottawa to play.  In the 80s, no one came to Ottawa.  All the best shows I saw were in Montreal or Toronto.  So by the time Bruce got the E Street Band back on the road in the late 90s, it wasn't something I was along for the ride for anymore.  And a lot of that was my fault.  The hair had been cut, the illusion had been used, I had begun to see through what was left of any rock and roll dreams.

Because it was never about rock and roll anyway.

It's 2012, and I'm older now, still runnin' against the wind, and Mike and Mark and Gail said come see Springsteen with us.  Because he plays Ottawa now, we've got a stadium and I don't have to go on the road.  They've seen him many times... prior to the show they're adding up how many times collectively and it totals well over thirty... and this is my first time.  You can find probably eight million Springsteen reviews on the internet.  That's not what this is about.

Because I wasn't expecting him to still be The Champ.  And he is.  Bruce is the most comfortable artist I've ever seen on stage.  The man is fully in his skin.  I've always wanted to see an artist and a band change up the setlist every night.  Decide on a whim what the next song is going to be.  Tell someone in the front row, "you know what, that's a good song and I'm gonna play it just for you", send the whole band offstage and just do it by himself.  Play new songs I've never heard before and they're absolutely great, they stand up with the best things he wrote thirty-five years ago.  I saw a rock show with absolutely no rock convention, no rock bullshit, no rock ego.  Who else turns all the house lights up for the last forty-five minutes, so you can look into all the eyes of the people around you who you don't know, and realize that you're all sharing a little Christmas morning together?

What makes the legend is the uncontrovertible generosity of spirit that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band bring to the stage.

The very greatest have it.  My idol Carlos Santana has it (though I never got close enough to see it in his eyes - I saw Santana at Bluesfest from a distance of about 300 yards); young Aussie troubador John Butler has it.  And legions of rock "greats" don't.  The very best artists realize that the experience of a live show is about you, not them.  And this is what I've been missing, in the last twenty years of wondering why rock and roll had to die.

Because it was never about rock and roll anyway.

Once upon a time I played in a band.  I was the singer.  It was a great band, and I was privileged to play with those guys.  And all I wanted to do was sing with them.  Just being a part of it onstage was the most fun I've ever had.  I'm not a great talent.  I can sing a little, I can stay in tune most of the time and remember words and get the job done, but I know what magic voices are and I don't have one.  So sometimes someone might say "you were good tonight" or "you guys were great" and I always made sure to say "I'm glad you enjoyed yourself" because that's what it was all about.  If someone else has a good time with the music, that's what the job is and you got it done. 
The most repugnant thing I ever heard... we were breaking in a new drummer, and the guy had a terrible attitude.  We were practicing for a gig, and this Carl jackass starts going off about how he hates the people who come to bars, all they want to do is drink, request crap songs, and they don't respect him or us.  So I'm staring at this jerk, wondering why even play music for other people you profess to hate?  Never spoke to him after that.  Left the band soon after that.  It was just another brick in the wall.

Life goes on.  Things happen to you.  And events take you away from rock and roll.  But it was never about rock and roll anyway.  It doesn't matter what kind of music it is, because you'll find it in jazz, you'll find it in gospel, you'll find it it blues and reggae and klezmer and polka and even country - not new country but old country - and you'll even find it in techno, believe it or not.  It's the generosity of spirit in the shared experience, that makes music worth having. 

I'd seen too much that lacked that spirit.  And I'd forgotten where that part of my soul came from.  And the truth was revealed to me once again, by the heavyweight champion.

Thanks, Bruce.  I won't forget this time.

I'm done now.