The fact that Bruce Springsteen is currently in Los Angeles playing three shows devoted to a 36-year-old album in an arena slated for demolition could be considered a sign of a lot of things.
For instance, a sign that Springsteen has jumped on the nostalgia gravy train. Or that his presence at the soon-to-be-demolished Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena is the last gasp for the dying beast that is arena rock, which has been thoroughly supplanted by pop, hip-hop and country at the center of the pop-culture menu.
Or, if you believe an astonishingly mean-spirited recent article in the National Review, that Springsteen’s appearance in a near-defunct arena is even politically appropriate. Criticizing Donald Trump by savaging the depressed working-class communities that support him, conservative columnist Kevin Williamson wrote, “The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. Forget all your cheap theatrical Bruce Springsteen crap.”
So what are these shows? The last hurrah for a dying genre, a trip down memory lane, a soundtrack for losers?
Or, maybe, one hell of a rock show that blows away thoughts of nostalgia and says things about how we live now even as it celebrates a work from three decades ago?
Me, I’d opt for that last one. But then, I’m biased.
Confession time: Tuesday night’s Sports Arena show was my 99th Springsteen concert. Thursday’s will be my 100th. I first saw a 24-year-old Bruce opening for Dr. John in front of a sparse crowd at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in the summer of 1974, two months after I became an instant, passionate fan the first time I heard his album “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.”
I saw him once in 1974, twice in ’75, three times in ’76, four times in ’78, 14 times on the original tour that followed the release of “The River” in 1980 and ’81 …
I’m even visible in the front row of the DVD that accompanies the recent “River” box set, which was filmed at a November 1980 show in Tempe, AZ. (I’m the guy with the beard by Bruce’s left boot, below.)
In 1985, I wrote a story called “Confessions of a Springsteen Fanatic” that ran on the front page of the Washington Post’s Style section; that was back when my fanaticism was a mixture of pride at spotting him early on and dismay at having to share him with all the Brucie-come-latelies who’d been snapping up “Born in the U.S.A.”
And through 42 years of concerts in 10 states, through 18 albums and a good number of conversations with the man, Springsteen has provided me with many of the most exhilarating, profound moments I’ve experienced from popular music; if I go to one of his concerts and I don’t have goosebumps much of the time, one of us isn’t doing it right.
But that rarely happens: When my wife, who’s seen a paltry 68 Bruce shows, asked me how many of my 99 I didn’t think were great, I could only come up with five.
The current tour, though, worried me, with its promise that he and the E Street Band would play “The River” album in sequence every night. I’ve never before walked into a Bruce show knowing the first 22 songs he’ll perform, and the order in which he’ll perform them: the curtain-raising outtake “Meet Me in the City,” then the 20-song “River” album, then “Badlands” to begin another 90 minutes of hits and favorites. The prospect made me uneasy.
After all, when Springsteen first toured behind “The River,” the kind of music he played was considered mainstream rock; now, pop and hip-hop is the mainstream and Springsteen is off to the edge somewhere. In this less hospitable cultural environment, wouldn’t it make it even harder for him to feel as if he’s still got something to say when he’s trotting out an old warhorse every night?
But it’s hard to stay uneasy when Bruce Springsteen is on a concert stage — and if arena rock is dying, then the man is dancing on its grave with enough inexhaustible abandon to bring it back to life in front of 15,000 people a night.
Back in 1975, one of the keys to Springsteen’s music was that at a time when popular music was starting to fragment, he acted as if rock was a unifying cultural force to be reckoned with, a way to find and build community and chronicle the journey of his and other lives. And 40 years burning down that road, he still does that.
It turns out that even at the age of 25 (“Born to Run”) or 30 (“The River”), Springsteen was making music that could absorb the passage of time. “Thunder Road,” from the “Born to Run” album, is my favorite song by anybody ever, and long ago I figured out that its key isn’t the bravado of “it’s a town full of losers and I’m pulling out of here to win,” but the uncertainty of “so you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.”
No, we ain’t that young anymore — at least, I ain’t, and Bruce ain’t, and most of the crowd at the Sports Arena this week ain’t. And even as “Thunder Road” grows richer and more rueful with the passage of time, so do the songs from “The River” count the years and measure the space between youthful exuberance and weary reflection.
The album, said Springsteen near the end of its closing song, is about the ticking clock that accompanies all our lives — so hearing it 36 years later, particularly for those of us who were there the first time around, only emphasizes how many ticks have already gone by. That’s not nostalgia, that’s immediacy.
And no, it has nothing to do with celebrating or romanticizing the environment that led to Donald Trump. Springsteen does not make any political statements on this tour, but the world of “The River” — an inclusive community of love and fear and faith and tears and humor and death and friendship and generosity and rock ‘n’ roll — is an unspoken rebuke to today’s politics of division. So is the plea he makes every night from the stage on behalf of a local food bank set up to feed the poorest citizens.
After 99 shows, this is still where I want to be when he’s in town — and if that means I’m also dancing on the grave of arena rock, so be it. As I write this, Springsteen has two more shows at the Sports Arena, Thursday and Saturday nights. I’ll be there, for Nos. 100 and 101.
To borrow a phrase that Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau used for the title of a book of his reviews in 1972 (he borrowed the phrase from Van Morrison), it’s too late to stop now.
Too late for Bruce, for me and for rock ‘n’ roll.