Get up every morning at the sound of the bellAmong the handful of songs that Bruce Springsteen likes to open his full-band concerts with, this is perhaps the strongest. When he kicked off his show with it last night at the Rose Garden, I flashed for a minute on the show that I attended under an inflatable dome at Santa Clara University more than 31 years ago. Same opener, same electricity, and with just a couple of exceptions, the same band.
Get to work late and boss man's givin' you hell
'Til you're out on a midnight run
Losin' your heart to a beautiful one
And it feels right
As you lock up the house
Turn out the lights
And step out into the night
Both Bruce and his audience, including myself, are a little different now. I was 22 years old at that time; he was 27. Back then, we had unlimited adrenaline, and we were showing off how it worked. Since then, we've turned a corner, and now the point of the show is to tap into the reserves of that kid stuff, pushing it until it comes blasting out through the thick pile of reality that's accumulated in the decades since.
Bruce is a little wider, and balder, than he was even six years ago when he last visited Portland with his band. Our kids are growing up -- in his case, almost to the age at which he started writing and singing his own songs about rebellion, and the shortcomings of the old folks' world. "How does it feel to see Bruce get older?" the Mrs. asked me early in the show. "About the same as looking in the mirror," I said. "You gotta go with it."
Springsteen is going with it quite well. He has had complete control of his career for decades, and today he has the luxury of tremendous artistic freedom. He can channel Woody Guthrie if he likes, knock out airy pop songs, mount a huge Pete Seeger tribute effort, or put out an album of Irish jigs. Money, which was never the point, now is not even close to being an issue. But staying on top of the music world and in front of adoring crowds will always be there. As Bruce himself has noted (and sang last night), "Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/And a king ain't satisfied 'til he rules everything."
It's ironic how the music industry, whose unwritten rules were once hostile to a guy like Bruce, is now in the palm of his hand. In the old days, a performer made money by selling records; concert tours barely broke even, existing only to support record sales. Now it's more or less the other way around. Sales of CDs are dead forever, and even single-song downloads are nothing to bank on over the long term. The way you make money as a band these days is on the road.
Which, of course, is the Springsteen specialty. He can sell at least 10,000 seats in any major city -- and often multiples of that -- with no promoter weasels and absolutely no advertising. He basically puts on the show himself, and the fans figure it all out by word of mouth. On the back of an envelope, I'd bet he makes between a half-million and a million a night, after all expenses but before taxes. The band members get paid a low five figures a week, which when you think about it is a nice living over a year. A hundred nights on the road for Bruce is $100 million.
That said, at this stage in a long and storied career, there are some challenges. One such has dogged Bruce for 20 years now, and that's how to deal with the hype. Since he appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek the same week in 1975, he's always had to live up to a larger-than-life image. When the machinery of stardom has made you such an icon, it brings out extreme reactions in people. If somebody doesn't like Bruce, usually they really don't like him. He has admitted that he himself became "Bruced out" after the monster promotion of the album "Born in the U.S.A." in the '80s. Sure, it was a fine record, but it didn't stop the earth on its axis, the way Columbia Records kept telling you that it did.
New material always rolls out of an aging star under a cloud of suspicion. Sinatra, Dylan, Stevie Wonder -- most of the greats have gone through it. When one's early work is studded with classic gems, it's hard for anything that's just plain very good to stand up next to it. The smash hits are accordingly few in the later years, although years down the road, some of the later stuff may hold up quite well. As Joni Mitchell once observed from a stage, "Nobody ever told Van Gogh, 'Paint A Starry Night again, man!'"
Another quandary after 40 years of performing is picking a concert set list out of what has become a huge catalog of songs. When I first caught up to Bruce in the mid-'70s, he wanted to play three-hour concerts, but he had only around two hours of original material. So he'd cover "Quarter to Three," "Raise Your Hand," or "Devil with a Blue Dress On" -- taking them all to a higher level. Nowadays he's got a big enough body of work that he could do a dozen shows, with all original material, and never repeat a song. And so he faces Bob Seger's problem: "What to leave in? What to leave out?"
Last night's selections were an interesting lot. As expected, the band played almost all of the current album, "Magic," and those numbers were mostly new to me. (Sacrilegiously, I hadn't even listened to the whole album before the show, although I have a copy in my hand at this writing.) The melodies were nothing new, but the lyrics were as thought-provoking, or fun, or both, as ever. Lots of folks in the crowd were quite familiar with the new songs, singing along both with and without prompting from the stage.
The choices from among the older stuff were particularly good. There were four from "Born to Run," a surprising four from "Darkness on the Edge of Town," two from "The Rising," and only one from "Born in the U.S.A." There was also a souped-up shuffle version of "Reason to Believe," from the haunting downer folk album "Nebraska."
But for long-time Bruce aficionados, the highlight of the night was a pair of songs from the very first Bruce album ever, "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J." These were "For You" and "Lost in the Flood." Wordy, Dylanesque Bruce at his best, before anybody knew who he was, before Max Weinberg and Steve Van Zandt even, a kid with a head full of ideas and two hands full of Fender guitar.
And now the whiz-bang gang from uptown, they're shootin' up the streetI can see how Bruce would be going all the way back to that at this point in his life. I've been going back to Cortland Street myself lately. What happened three months ago is worth keeping track of, but what happened 40 years ago are mysteries that need to be contemplated and savored.
That cat from the Bronx starts lettin' loose
But he gets blown right off his feet
And some kid comes blastin' round the corner
But a cop puts him right away
He lays on the street holding his leg screaming something in Spanish
Still breathing when I walked away
When "Lost in the Flood" finished, I told the Mrs.: "We can go home now. Bruce played 'Lost in the Flood.'" Certainly we had received our money's worth at that point, but of course we stayed until the show was over.
It never fails. You leave a Bruce concert exhausted but energized at the same time. The next day, you walk around on a different plane. You're on to something that most other people aren't. You feel as though you've been privy to matters beyond the petty details of everyday life. And there's a guy walking around just behind you through that life, reminding you to try to live out the ideals and dreams.
So what if now it's an older guy's voice you're hearing, in your good ear? You gotta go with it.
UPDATE, 3/30, 9:02 p.m.: Readers point out that Springsteen in fact does have a concert promoter these days -- a national, publicly traded pack of weasels called Live Nation. I'm not saying "Bruuuuuuce" -- I'm booing.
I still think he makes half a mil to a mil per show.