Springsteen on Broadway just finished an extended residency at the Walter Kerr Theater in NYC. It was remarkable, with 236 sellout performances and some tickets being scalped for $6000+. The residency grossed $113,058,952.00 – not bad for basically a solo act. The show was not a purely musical performance, but rather an autobiographical monologue/musical montage (although it did have 15 songs) through the life of one of America’s true rock ‘n’ roll legends. To be able to pull off such a run, it clearly demonstrates that the nation’s love affair with Bruce Springsteen continues unabated.
I did not attend any of the performances in New York. But Netflix is currently streaming one of the one-man shows (well, Patti Scialfa came out for a song or two, but didn’t really say anything to the crowd). It’s one of the weird times where the TV show is probably a better deal than the live performance – since it’s not really a musical performance, the show captures the spoken-word dialogue and has multiple camera angles/closeups to make it intimate as it is brought vividly into your home. And if you have a modern flat screen TV with any size, coupled with a sound bar or external speakers, it’s a pretty great experience. Superior to the live performance? Nah, let’s not go that far, but you do avoid standing in line for the dirty bathroom with the unflushed toilet, paying $20 bucks for a drink, having a testy interaction with the person next to you who keeps fidgeting with a crinkly cellophane candy wrapper during the show, and having to deal with the vagaries of NYC.
I’ve been a Springsteen fan since the early 70s. I can still remember the cover story on Time magazine after Born to Run came out. But that was his third album. I was in his orbit from album one (thanks to my brother). I’ve seen him perform live many times, most recently a 4 four hour masterpiece at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey (check the archives for a review of that show). I really like Bruce, but not everything he has done, and I’ve come and gone with many of his later albums – sometimes I bought them, sometimes I didn’t, and sometimes I didn’t even pay attention. I guess that makes me a fan, but not a lover of all things Bruce.
Why do I like him? Multiple reasons. He has a deep catalog of songs that include some that are American rock masterpieces and that spoke to me as I went through phases of my life. As just one example, Born to Run is a true rock ‘n’ roll anthem to the restlessness of youth and the power of the idea that there is something better out there if you just leave home and venture forth. I felt that tug back in the day. His live performances are majestic rock ‘n’ roll revivals that make you believe in the power and spirit of rock music. The E Street Band is one of the best rock bands of all time. And his sheer love and passion about his art are super compelling. To be able to strut, rock, and connect with an audience night after night, and to do so during lengthy 3 hour+ performances, is simply super-human. And he has done it for decades. Kids, this is how you rock 'n' roll:
But not all is likeable, proving his humanness to all. Bruce has an ego that can be off-putting at times. For instance, in this show, he talks about basically inventing the Jersey Shore music scene but then later describes some who came before him, his adopting and emulating their performances at the Stone Pony, and him imitating their moves and grooves for incorporation into his own act. Ummm, Bruce, who invented who? And as we all know, a scene is not one performer – a scene has multiple acts that capitalize on a bit of luck and fortune that comes from having a nucleus of talents that all burst on the spot simultaneously and are fed by the same short-lived happenstance of fate. Bruce also has a tendency to become too political and preachy for my taste – just play music, dude. And his live performances, while still marvelous, have suffered from his fading voice, which is painful to watch during the Springsteen on Broadway performance.
It’s this combination of much more good than bad that really makes most fans connect with Bruce. He has put himself out there in the most intimate and vulnerable way so that there is no denying how freakin’ human he is. His exploration of his emotions and feelings and his unique way of describing them as he goes through life, well, it’s poetic in a sense and pure rock ‘n’ roll in another. And (get ready to swell with pride here), his music is an exemplar of the American rock story. Can you imagine a European singing about racing hot rod cars in the street, and using that as a metaphor for describing life's struggles in general? Me, either. Bruce is, in short, a National Treasure.
All of this is an introduction to my thoughts on Springsteen on Broadway. Here are some short bursts of things I took away from the show:
1. It was better to catch this on Netflix than live.And much less expensive.
2. It was too long.I watched it in two sittings and was still squirming at the end.
3. Bruce looks great for a guy pushing 70 – he is fit, thin, moves about with ease, has a face that has aged but doesn’t look like it’s had too much work, and he still has plenty of hair (albeit clearly colored).In a word, he looks and appears as an authentic rocker.He has pride in his rough cut appearance.And it works.
4. His insights into the writing of some of his particularly great songs were really interesting and added depth to the understanding of where he was coming from as an artist.I don’t think they did anything to take away from my own feelings, emotions and relationships with those songs.I like the background that he gave on how they were conceived – it was descriptive and interesting.
5. He has some deep daddy issues that explain a lot of his darker side.Bruce misses his deceased father a lot, but seems to have missed out on a better relationship with his dad when he was alive.
6. But his joy and verve for life came from his mom.His descriptions of his mother’s role in his life is just pure love and admiration.It was poignant and heartfelt.
7. He is, at heart, a rock ‘n’ roller, but not one that veered off into the b.s. drug fueled lifestyle associated with rock.He remains capable and thoughtful – RELEVANT – today, and he has been throughout his many decades of being in the spotlight.Try to understand how remarkable that achievement is and appreciate it.
8. He is still too preachy.
9. The show was too long. Did I say that already?Yes, but it’s worth saying again.
10. Bruce is honest about his life.In his youth, he sang about getting away from home, chasing that dream out into the night somewhere else.In his adulthood, he came back to where he came from and cherishes his upbringing and the familiarity and comfort of home and family.
11. Bruce may have aged well, but his voice has faded. Badly. During the performances of his songs, he spoke the lyrics more than he sang them, the lyrics were pushed out too fast, and his vocal range is now severely limited. Never a great singer to begin with, his voice had a character and quality to it that added to the songs and their authenticity. Now, it’s sometimes painful to hear him, and the change in vocal ability detracts from the memory of the song in your head.
12. The song performances were, sorry to say, mostly fair and in some instances, outright bad.I love Thunder Road – it could perhaps be my favorite Springsteen song – and I’ve seen it performed many times live and on taped performances.His version of it during Springsteen on Broadway was the worst version of it I have ever seen.And it wasn’t even close. Here's the real deal:
13. He talked about Clarence Clemons during the show – it was a loving tribute – but barely mentioned other E Streeter’s. I had heard that Bobbie Jean was written as a going away song when SVZ left the band, which, if true, means that there is a deep and abiding affection between these guys.But he didn’t merit much mention.
14. I’ll miss Bruce when he is gone.I won’t miss fans yelling “Bruuuuuuuce” after each song.Yeah, it was kind of cool in the 70s to hear that sound, which played on the sound of a “boo,” but put it to bed already.The irony and humor died about 30 years ago.
15. I’m glad I saw this on Netflix rather than paying to see it live.I totally agree with its 3 star (out of 5) review by Netflix viewers.
16. There should be a Bruce exhibit in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History. He is pure Americana. And his expressions of his American experience are worthy. But please use video of his full E Street Band live performances and leave Springsteen on Broadway in the archives.
Time for me to take a breath. After all, this was just a TV show.
Nonetheless, it brought to mind all the ins and outs of my own unique relationship with a rocker who has been on the national scene since the early 70s. I don’t know if I’ve told this story on BRP before, but here goes. I went to Virginia Tech. When the 2007 massacre happened there, with 32 killed and 17 injured by a mentally deranged student murderer, it was personally shocking. This was the campus where I had spent four years, formed myself into an adult, established life-long relationships with key people in my life, and where I have many fond and deep memories. And it happened in a very rural setting deep in the majestic and peaceful Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. The massacre was a VIOLATION of all of that. It cut. And driving to work a day or two after, I heard Lonesome Day on the radio. That song was from Springsteen’s post 9-11 album, which explores much of the same ground of rage, disbelief, despair, and outrage, but also optimism, determination, vigilance and steadfastness, that I was going through. I subsequently pulled out that CD and listened to it a few times in the coming weeks, and it helped. I’ll never get a chance to thank Bruce for that, but I’ll remain grateful to him for helping me out during darker days.
With that, my work here is done for today. I wrote this on a train going from Philly to New York, and rolling through Springsteen’s New Jersey. It was fitting. But we’re almost at Penn Station and I’ve rambled on too long and not very well. Thanks, as always, for listening to me. I love you guys.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.