Thursday, March 3, 2016

No Retreat, No Surrender: Learning Life's Big Lessons from Bruce Springsteen's Live Show

Bruce Springsteen's The River was the first album I ever owned on vinyl. As a record collector, I'm still something of a novice. I got started in the summer of 2014, after my brother got my wife and me a turntable for our wedding. By that time, though, I'd already had The River in my possession for over a year. In April 2013, when I was serving as Arts & Entertainment editor for my college newspaper, one of my writers surprised me with a used copy of The River as a gift. For him, I imagine the gift was too perfect to pass up: as with everyone in my life, my fellow editors and writers at Western Michigan University's Western Herald were well aware of my love for Bruce Springsteen. So when this particular writer went shopping for Record Store Day and found a Springsteen LP, he grabbed it for me as something of a "bon voyage" gift. (I graduated and moved on from the paper just a few weeks later.)

Looking back, that gift feels nearly prophetic to me—even if it was probably almost random for him. My friend had thought of me when he'd seen a Springsteen album in a used record shop. But the album he'd gotten me was arguably the perfect one for the occasion. Sure, Born to Run would have been more celebratory, and The Wild, The Innocent—which I wrote about, passionately, just days before I received my diploma—would have fit the almost-summertime mood better. But in Springsteen's catalog, The River is really the album where the characters come into adulthood. As I wrote in April 2013, Born to Run "nailed the redemptive escapism of youth" and The Wild, The Innocent was "a record for the moment before that escapism feels necessary." Darkness on the Edge of Town, meanwhile, found Springsteen's characters mired in the realization that the American Dream isn't always what it's cracked up to be, but with plenty youthful romance, exuberance, resilience, and angst left to burn. The River is the first record where matters of adulthood are the core point of focus.

Bruce put it a bit different when he stopped at Louisville's KFC Yum! Center on Sunday night, for the 13th stop of his second tour in support of the 1980 LP. "I wanted to make a big record, a record that felt like life," he said. "I wanted the record to contain fun, dancing, laughter, jokes, good comradeship, love, faith, sex, lonely nights, and of course, teardrops." He also said that the record was about choosing your partner, choosing your work, and making life worthwhile. In other words, while Bruce may have sang about "Growin' Up" four LPs previous to this one, The River is where he really allowed his characters to grow up. How fitting, then, that my first graduation gift and my first piece of vinyl was a record about moving into the real world and reckoning with all of the joys and heartbreaks that entails.

When I first saw Springsteen live, in 2009, I was still just embarking upon my college career. That was the year that Born to Run really came to mean the world to me. It was my "end of high school" album, a record that connected perfectly with all of the hopes, dreams, and optimism I had in my heart at the time. Seeing the E Street Band play that whole record front to back that November, just a week before my 19th birthday, was life affirming. It made me dream that much bigger about my hopes for some sort of career in music. It made me love music that much deeper, from the moment I shouted "Show a little faith, there's magic in the night" with thousands upon thousands of other fans. It made me cherish how my brother and I had found incredible bonding experiences like this one by going to concerts and sharing our love for the bands and artists whose music meant the most to us.

In a way, each time I've seen Springsteen has aligned perfectly with a different moment in my life. That first concert was the perfect Springsteen live show experience for a teenager who was just falling in love with the world and all of its promise. When I saw him again in the spring of 2012, there was still a lot of hope there, but things had changed. The E Street Band had lost Clarence Clemons, a presence too big to ever replace, and while the show that spring was still life affirming, it reached that note of uplift differently. Instead of celebrating a classic album, the band was celebrating their fallen brother. The messages were clear: cherish the moments you have with your loved ones; make the most of your time here; don't waste your life with people or things that don't make your heart feel full.

At the time, those were all messages that I needed to hear. The spring of 2012 was a crossroads in my life. The first time I saw Springsteen, I was the picture of optimistic youth: one week left as an 18-year-old, in the midst of a great first semester at college, and thinking my music major was going to someday carry me to some big stages of my own. Fast forward two and a half years and I was 21, disenchanted with college, and pretty certain that any dreams I'd had about performing music for a living were just that: dreams. The music school had let me down and screwed me over, and I wasn't sure I wanted to be at that university at all anymore—let alone majoring in something as utterly useless as classical voice. When the Springsteen date came up that April and my brother asked if I could make the show, the text I sent him in response said everything: "Well, I think I have a choir concert that weekend, but they can go fuck themselves: I'm not missing Springsteen."

The show was on a Thursday night, and it reminded me in the first 30 minutes just how powerful music could be. I did make it to the aforementioned choir concert on Sunday—albeit, with my voice blown out from screaming along to Springsteen songs for three hours a few nights before. But being with those people and performing music in such a dry, mathematical, passionless environment forced me to take the message of Bruce's show to heart. For every minute of Thursday's concert, you could tell that everyone on stage was playing for something higher: for Clarence; for Danny Federici; for lost friends and loved ones not in the E Street Band, but a part of the mythology they'd been spinning for 40 years. For every minute of Sunday's choir concert, I felt nothing. I was wasting my time on something that didn't make my heart feel full, at least not anymore, and I wasn't about to disregard the advice of my idol. Making music should be a safe haven, and when it wasn't anymore, it was time for me to go.

How can one person teach you so many lessons about life, even if you never meet them personally? How can a collection of songs and a guy up on a stage have such a massive impact on your life? These questions I pondered as I stood on the floor of the KFC Yum! Center on Sunday night, waiting for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band to take the stage. It had been almost four years since I'd seen them last, and my world had changed so much since then. I'd shifted my career focus; I'd graduated from college; I'd moved away from my home state and moved back again; I'd said goodbye to friends as we scattered across the country; I'd gotten a brief, brief taste of how bad life can feel when you're working a job that seems hopeless; I'd found my way into a work path I could feel proud of; I'd gotten married; I'd reckoned with the death of a loved one; I'd started writing songs of my own; I'd bought a house. In short, I'd grown up. I'd reached that mysterious frontier of adulthood that you can only really recognize when you take a moment to compare your life to how things used to be.

But for all of the things that change, others stay the same. One thing that will never change is how much the music of Bruce Springsteen means to me, and for every minute of the three and a half hours he played in Louisville on Sunday night, I was thankful for that fact. His 2009 show had inspired me to push harder for my dreams; his 2012 show had helped me realize when it was time to let them go. Sunday's show made me see that, while I let go of some dreams, I got to keep the most important ones. I got to make a life with someone I love. I got to keep my family close. I figured out a way to make a living and be comfortable and happy.

Listening to the E Street Band put the 20 songs from The River through their paces gave me a better sense of how lucky I am to have the life I have. That record is about adulthood, but it's also about people: about the people who got their dreams and the people that didn't, and perhaps most of all, about the people who adjusted their dreams as time went along. Born to Run was the fantasy; Darkness on the Edge of Town was the gritty nightmare; The River is reality. It's celebratory one minute and brutally crushing the next, as we all know life can be. But it's also defiant and resilient, a record about how, no matter how bad things get, there's (almost) always a light at the end of the tunnel. For every guy who ends up out on that lonesome highway in a stolen car, wishing to get caught, there's 10, 20, 100 others out there driving all night to see the girls they love. For every wreck on the highway of life, there's a thousand teenagers out in the street making romantic proclamations like "two hearts are better than one" and "little girl, I wanna marry you" outside the windows of their crushes.

Over time, my feelings on The River have shifted possibly more than with any other Springsteen record. At first, when I was delving into the catalog, I left The River alone, finding it too daunting to tackle after Born to Run, Darkness, and Born in the U.S.A.—not to mention Bruce's shinier latter day work. Once I'd finally taken time to listen and unpack the songs, I fell in love with The River but still wondered if it might have made a better single-disc affair. I figured that if Bruce had trimmed the record to it's best songs—which, at the time, I mostly deemed to be the slower, sadder, more serious cuts—it could have been his best record. Song-for-song, I might have been right: a 10 song record that includes "Independence Day," "The River," "Point Blank," "Stolen Car," "The Price You Pay," "Drive All Night," "Wreck on the Highway" and a few others could certainly stand up there with Born to Run in terms of wall-to-wall perfect material.

But that record would miss the point of what makes The River great. The songs would all be amazing, but the record itself would be too harrowing; too sad; too isolating. The sad songs are the soul of The River, but the mirthful rock songs are the heart. They're what makes this record "as big as life," and that fact was on full display on Sunday night. Sure, my favorite moments of the set were probably still the slow songs. I got choked up during "The River"; I was entranced by "Point Blank"; I felt my soul lifting heavenward during "The Price You Pay" and "Drive All Night." But hearing those songs alongside the stirring mission statement of "The Ties That Bind," the riotous block party of "Sherry Darling," or the loud crowd sing along on blistering bar band rockers like "Two Hearts" and "Crush on You" sold The River for me in a new way. Some nights, life is defined by heartbreak or family strife or fears of fading away. Other nights, it's about nothing more than drinking at a bar with your friends. Few albums encompass both sides of the coin quite like Springsteen's fifth.

I'm already at 2,000 words on this long, rambling piece and I haven't even encapsulated all of the amazing things about this concert, so let's go to bullet points for the big finish. Here are just a few memories from Sunday's show that I will never forget.
  • Showing up way too early, missing out on the front pit lottery by less than 50 people, but still ending up at the very front of the general admission section, less than 50 feet from the stage.
  • Being witnesses for the wedding of two people who got married on the concert floor, just so they could say that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played their reception.
  • Knowing within the first two minutes of "Meet Me in the City" that the long road trip from Michigan had been worth it to be in attendance.
  • Shaking Bruce Springsteen's hand (!) when he walked by our spot during "Hungry Heart."
  • Seeing all of the E Street players at the top of their games, with specific notices for: Jake Clemons nailing his uncle's sax solos with newfound charisma; Nils Lofgren slaying the guitar solo during "Because the Night"; the Mighty Max Weinberg doing things at the drum kit that my non-percussionist mind can't even comprehend; Roy Bittan playing a piano solo ahead of "Point Blank" that was instilled with both a regal grace and a palpable sense of dread.
  • Getting to scream the line "We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school" with my arm around my brother—probably the most apt lyric in the English language to describe our relationship.
  • Shredding anything that was left of my vocal cords during a visceral, off-the-cuff rendition of "Born in the USA."
  • Once again hearing all-time favorites like "Thunder Road," "Badlands," "Born to Run," and "Rosalita," sneaking glances back at the area towering around me and seeing every single person singing in unison.
  • Ending the night on the bittersweet "Bobby Jean," the 35th song of the set, to officially make the Louisville show the longest of the tour so far.
Look, there will never be a better live act than Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. No one can match his passion, his mirth, his spontaneity, or his sheer stamina. This guy is 66 years old and he's be taking his shows past the 200-minute mark consistently every single night of this tour. It took me two to three days to recover just from having been in the audience. My voice was still a little groggy yesterday. How can a human being do what the Boss does up on that stage and not collapse from sheer exhaustion? This question is surely one of the great mysteries of the universe, but here's a non-mystery: The River tour is the year's must-see concert event and if you can get tickets, you should.

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