Bruce Springsteen Hits Hollywood, Proves There’s a Lot of Life in Aging Rock Stars

The same week he appeared on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and a biopic landed at Disney, the Boss delivered a roof-shaking celebration that was also a meditation on loss

Bruce Springsteen Kia Forum
Bruce Springsteen performing at the Kia Forum on April 4 (Getty Images)

I need to start this story with a memory.

In 1988, back in the days when I mostly wrote about rock ‘n’ roll, I went to Long Island to see Bruce Springsteen play the Nassau Coliseum. Fellow Rolling Stone writer Mikal Gilmore and I were sitting in the front row of the risers on one side of the stage, and Bruce spotted us during the encores and gave a little wave. (We’d both spent time with him recently doing stories.) Then he went back to the microphone, yelled, “This one’s for all the aging rock critics out there!” and hit the opening riff of his ode to passing time, “Glory Days.”  

For the record, I was only 33 at the time, and Mikal was a couple of years older. I suppose we technically qualified as aging rock critics because we weren’t getting younger, and it was a kick to get any kind of dedication. But “aging?” Really?  And this week, 36 years later, I unavoidably thought back to that night while I was at the Kia Forum in Los Angeles watching a 74-year-old Springsteen rip through that same song.

So hey, Bruce: This one’s for all the aging rock stars out there!

But you know what? An aging rock star can be a beautiful thing. Springsteen’s two shows at the Kia Forum in Los Angeles in early April got me thinking about the kind of concertgoing experience I seem to be having frequently these days – one in which a performer I’ve been listening to for years uses the concert stage not simply to play the hits, but to explore the whole idea of loss and, let’s say, maturity.

When I heard about a Washington Post op-ed piece titled “Take it from me: See your music heroes before it’s too late” in late March, I figured somebody else might have noticed that, too. I was mistaken. The piece, from a conservative pundit who usually writes about politics, turned out to be a notably dumb one that listed more than 130 acts the guy had seen or wanted to see, without saying anything interesting or insightful about any of them.

Mind you, seeing your musical heroes before it’s too late is a good idea, provided you don’t sit there checking the setlists against your mental checklist of the greatest hits you want to hear. But really, the valuable experiences are ones with artists who recognize that both they and their fans have been on a journey that has lasted decades, leaving all of us older, wearier and maybe even wiser in the process.  

Last month, for example, the wonderful artist, musician and filmmaker Laurie Anderson played the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles, with the highlight of the show coming when she played “Junior Dad,” a wrenching song from the much-maligned album by Anderson’s late husband, Lou Reed, and the hard-rock band Metallica. Anderson’s band transformed Metallica’s music into something gentler and spookier, while Reed’s disembodied voice sang “Would you come to me / If I was half drowning / An arm above the last wave” as a ghostly image of his face appeared on the backdrop. The song, which settles around the phrase “age withered and changed him,” was Anderson looking back at Reed looking back, taking layers of loss and turning them into a work of terrible beauty.

At the Forum last fall, Peter Gabriel put on a visually dazzling show that focused on rich new songs about loss and mortality. “When you get to my sort of age,” he said, “you either run away from mortality or you jump into it and try and live life to the full.” (The Washington Post writer, for the record, hated that show because Gabriel didn’t play enough old songs.)  

Bob Dylan, meanwhile, is performing some of his quietest but most mesmerizing shows, based largely on an album, “Rough and Rowdy Ways,” that might be summed up by the lyric “I sleep with life and death in the same bed” from his song “I Contain Multitudes.” Even Tom Jones, the gyrating Welshman who you’d expect to play the smashes, responded to a hip injury by belting out songs from his past and from the recent album “Surrounded by Time” while seated on a stool, with between-song stories turning the show into an unexpectedly moving career travelogue in which the music was driven by the memories and the audience could measure the years since we’d first heard, say, “It’s Not Unusual.”

Springsteen didn’t do that kind of show at the Forum; he’d already done it on stage with “Springsteen on Broadway” for 267 shows mostly in 2017 and 2018. He came to L.A. at a time when you might expect some glee: He’s back on the road after sitting out a few months because of a peptic ulcer; his wife, Patti Scialfa, was on hand for a couple of songs each night; and this was happening in the same week he appeared on “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and the same week that writer-director Scott Cooper’s “Deliver Me From Nowhere,” a movie in which Jeremy Allen White will play Springsteen as he wrote and recorded his haunting 1982 album “Nebraska,” got a deal with Disney/20th Century. 

(Springsteen opened the second Forum concert with a supercharged and extremely rare performance of “Open All Night,” a song from “Nebraska” and a likely nod to Cooper, who was in the audience.)

And much of the Forum shows – particularly the second show on Sunday night, which had a goofiness and giddiness that got a little lost in a muddy sound mix and ragged vocals on Thursday’s opening night – were textbook illustrations of Peter Gabriel’s line about embracing mortality and living life fully.

But along with the roof-shaking celebration, touchstones sprinkled throughout the set and occasional comments from the stage helped turn a rock ‘n’ roll celebration into a deep meditation on, as Springsteen said, “what’s been lost and what remains.” The recent song “Ghosts” comes early in every show and is true to its title: “I turn up the volume, let the spirits be my guide / Meet you brother and sister on the other side.” “Wrecking Ball” may have been inspired by an old New Jersey stadium about to be torn down, but that has never been what the defiant song is really about, while “I’ll See You in My Dreams” ends each show with a gentle benediction.

And then there were the moments where the subtext became explicit. A few years ago, Springsteen used his song “My City of Ruins,” originally written for the decaying New Jersey town of Asbury Park, to salute Clarence Clemons and Dan Federici, two members of his E Street Band who have died. But now he uses it for a “roll call” in which he introduces the band before asking, “Are we missing anybody?” Then he answers the question himself:  

“There are a lot of us out there that are missing somebody special. Now I don’t know where we go when all of this is over, but I know what remains. And the only thing I can guarantee tonight if that if you’re here, and we’re here, then those that are missing are here with us. If you’re here and we’re here, then they are here.”

With those anchors, and with the one-two punch of “Last Man Standing” and “Backstreets” turning into a tribute to the teenage friend whose death had made Springsteen the only living member of his first high-school band, the rest of the set took on a reflective air even when it rocked like mad. A song like “Spirit in the Night,” more than 50 years old, is now less the chronicle of a wild Saturday night than a fond recollection from a hazily romanticized past. The night was quite deliberately full of all kinds of ghosts, a celebration that never ignored the loss that comes with time.

In his 2016 autobiography, “Born to Run,” Springsteen called his legendary concerts “fiction, theater, a creation; it isn’t reality.” That description no doubt applies to current show as well, but real life and real loss does intrude, and the show is better for it.  

In that way, it had echoes of Laurie Anderson, of Peter Gabriel, of Bob Dylan, of Tom Jones and no doubt others. (Even the Rolling Stones may have to face mortality on their upcoming “Hackney Diamonds” tour, which starts later this month and will be their biggest tour since the death of drummer Charlie Watts.)

And yeah, about three hours into the show, Springsteen did “Glory Days,” 36 years and six days after dedicating the joyously rueful song (“Time slips away and leaves you with nothing, mister, but boring stories of glory days”) to a pair of, um, aging rock critics.

This time, there was no dedication but it went out to, let’s be honest, an arena full of aging rock fans, who dutifully sang along when Bruce pointed the microphone our way to supply the final four words of the line, “I hope when I get old I don’t sit around thinking about it / But I probably will.”

The song suggests that Springsteen knew age would catch up with all of us back when he wrote it 40 years ago. It has caught up with him in some visible ways: How he moves on stage now, in the wake of the ulcer and the postponements, is not how he used to move. But that’s almost fitting, because he is one of a valuable array of performers who can simultaneously rock in the face of loss while also feeling every inch of that loss.

Great music can be a way to shed the years and to take stock of them. And the artist who can do both are the ones who are truly providing a reason to see your heroes before it’s too late.

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