By Carson Starkey
Bruce Springsteen is the greatest live musical performer of our time, and he is probably (according to experts like Carson Starkey) the greatest live performer in the history of popular music. Other experts (those associated with the above mentioned Carson Starkey) will go so far as to say that Bruce Springsteen is also the greatest songwriter in the history of popular music, better than Paul Simon and Bob Dylan because his music has remained more socially relevant. Feel free to claim that lots of other individuals or bands held the live performer crown prior to Springsteen hitting his stride of widespread public notoriety in the mid-1970s. James Brown, Bob Dylan, The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Aretha Franklin, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, Chuck Berry, or Little Richard in the formative years of rock n’roll/soul/R and B…or David Bowie, Jim Morrison/The Doors, Queen, Michael Jackson, or Van Morrison in the fully professionalized era of popular music post-1970s…all reasonable counter suggestions. You might assert that Beyonce, The Black Keys, Taylor Swift, Prince, Dave Grohl/The Foo Fighters, Muse, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, or Katy Perry are the most magnificent to see live in our contemporary era of music. This list isn’t exhaustive, and all I’m shooting for here is generalized fairness and broad consideration for alternatives. I concede simply that many great live performers have come before Springsteen, many have risen during his career, and many more will come after him.
My point is that nobody except Bruce Springsteen, past or present, sprints across stages for 3 to 4 hours unencumbered by set/encore breaks, crowd surfs, takes spontaneous fan requests for both covers or her/his songs, dances with fans onstage, sings songs with massive word counts and elaborate verses at maximum intensity, delivers aggressively political speeches during shows, campaigns for presidential candidates, and always (if he chooses to do so) draws six digit crowds…all at the age of sixty-six. Springsteen bestrides the planet, unrivaled as the last great Titan of rock, drenched in cartoonish, hyperbolic, genuine, patriotic, masculine magnificence. There may be a better live performer than Bruce Springsteen in the same way that advanced extraterrestrial life forms may inhabit other parts of the universe. We lack evidence to substantiate both theories.
I’m obligated to explain why Springsteen fans harbor such deep, quasi-religious passion for the Bard of Asbury Park. The technical elements of breathtaking live music are important, but ask the legions of Boss enthusiasts about what motivates them to shriek along to “Thunder Road” between uncontrollable fits of sobbing, and they will tell you that they feel immeasurable political connections to the music. At a time in our country when both major parties cater exclusively to wealthy kleptocrats, it’s only natural that Jane and John Stagnant Wages feel compelled to express their love for a musician that speaks to their pains, hopes, and dreams.
I realize that I’m not the first person in human history to write about the mystical, healing powers of The Great American Road Trip, or the first person in human history to discover the music of Bruce Springsteen. I feel compelled to write about my recent three city expedition (Chicago, Minneapolis-Saint Paul, and Milwaukee) following Springsteen’s current tour (“The River”) because we live in a time of profound cynicism about what’s possible, socioeconomically, politically, and culturally. I want to contribute to a reversal of that immense sadness. I don’t have all of the answers about how to feel better regarding the future, and I won’t claim that any musician has those answers in this piece. Instead, I will assert here that if you want to start feeling better, or at least less crushed by pessimism, about what we can achieve as a society, the music of Bruce Springsteen is a worthwhile vessel for getting started on any journey towards productive, realistic optimism…but only after you transition through a spectrum of powerful, unsettling emotions.
I’ll get around to discussing the more complex reactions to the Springsteen road trip experience in the next three parts of this series, but I want to leave you with a sentiment that I believe captures what Bruce Springsteen wants for his fans, and for Americans writ large, when they listen to his lyrics. He wants you to be as emotionally invested in the political process as you are in live music. He wants you to make political choices with the same sense of dire seriousness as you make choices about concert tickets. Think about that the next time you’re screaming along to “The Promised Land” with tears streaming down you cheeks and all four windows rolled down. I’ll see you again soon, traveling on the road with greatness, searching for The Promised Land, and feeling everything with the utmost ferocity. If anybody needs to reach me, I’ll be listening to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” in its entirety, gazing at a sunset, and consuming a union-made beer.
The dogs on main street howl,
’cause they understand,
If I could take one moment into my hands
Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man,
And I believe in a promised land!