The Second Coming Of Bruce


Bruce Springsteen plays the Capital Centre in Landover today and Wednesday. The dates of the concerts were incorrect in a story that appeared in Sunday's Arts & Entertainment section.

The Sun regrets the errors.

In an interview with the English music magazine Q a few months ago, Bruce Springsteen was explaining why, after almost two decades of struggle and success, he felt it necessary to break up the E St. Band. "The way I look at it is," he said, "I get paid to write a new song, and I can't keep rewriting the old stuff."

A good analogy, except for one thing: An awful lot of his fans really would prefer that he keep rewriting the old stuff.

It isn't an unusual situation. These days, rock and roll is full of stars whose glory days are gone, but whose audience remains eager to hear those old songs again. Some accept the situation as the price of longevity, and simply resign themselves to a career built around oldies. Others opt for the illusion of vitality, delivering new albums that stress stuff similar to (though rarely as exciting as) the music that made them famous in the first place.

Bruce Springsteen wants to take a different course. Instead of nostalgia, what he wants is reinvention -- a chance to reshape his sound and image so that they reflect who he is today, not who he was 15 years ago. He wants to trade the legacy of "Born in the U.S.A." for the luxury of being born again artistically.

But will his fans let him?

Forget the doubts over his commercial viability and the articles asking whether his audience has become Bored in the U.S.A. Springsteen-mania has hardly run its course, as ought to be clear to anyone who has tried to score tickets for his current tour (both Monday's and Tuesday's shows at the Capital Centre have been sold out for weeks).

Yet despite what has been written about the loyalty of his audience, the fact is that what many of these fans cherish has more to do with Springsteen the Myth than with Springsteen the man. Their "Boss" is an average guy from Jersey whose work stands for freedom and fidelity, a vision built around the purity of love, the promise of the open road, and the power of rock and roll.

Many of these qualities can be found in the real Springsteen, of course. But there's no way a millionaire rock star can be just an "average guy" -- just as no "average guy" ever has to cope with things like industry expectations, media scrutiny and fan pressure.

Even so, some Springsteenians feel very much betrayed by the ways in which his private life has swung closer to rock star reality than Jersey-guy fantasy. It isn't just the matter of his divorce, or the dismissal of the E St. Band; these fans get testy over even the slightest deviation from the Myth.

For instance, even though Springsteen started his U.S. tour at the Brendan Byrne Arena in a show of loyalty to his New Jersey faithful, he wound up getting booed during the first show for having mentioned his move to Los Angeles. Obviously, tramps like him shouldn't run so far.

To his credit, Springsteen understands that this sort of myth-mongering is a normal by-product of fame. Even better, he recognizes that having his fans find the cracks in the myth is part of the process that will eventually free him. As he told Q, "Whatever your recent image is, there are elements that are part of who you are and part of your personality, but a lot of it is just some sort of collective imagining. . . . It can end up being confining, and so the best thing to do is have all the holes poked in it."

Talking openly about it has so far been a part of the process for Springsteen -- laughing in Rolling Stone, for instance, that his being in New Jersey "was like being Santa Claus at the North Pole. . . . It's like you're a bit of a figment of a lot of other people's imaginations." He has even made joking comments from the stage about the less-than-chart-busting sales of his current albums, "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town."

Where he really gets to the heart of the matter, however, is in his music. As a recording artist, Springsteen has always been obsessed with the importance of narrative. Part of the reason he takes so long when making these albums is that he won't settle for something that merely collects a group of songs; there has to be a sense of story behind those melodies, some reflection of who he is and what he has to say.

That's why he keeps describing his last album, 1987's "Tunnel of Love," as an attempt to "reintroduce" himself as a songwriter. This was more than a matter of moving from the mythic to the personal on the lyric sheet; Springsteen's sound was going though some equally important changes.

"Tunnel of Love" was essentially a solo album, but what's noteworthy about it isn't that Springsteen is covering most of the parts himself, but that the songs -- in particular, tunes like "Brilliant Disguise," "Two Faces" and "Tunnel of Love" -- bear almost no trace of the E St. sound. Musically, it was as if the chapter in his career that had opened with "Born to Run" was finally being brought to a close.

In that sense, the Boss had no choice but to lay off the E Streeters. Great as it was, the E St. Band was not unlike those big-finned Cadillacs Springsteen used to write about -- elegant and powerful, but obviously dated.

Sure, Springsteen could have ridden that sound a little longer, touring on the oldies while recording rewrites of "Thunder Road" and its ilk. Rock and roll is full of stars who have taken that route.

But the fact is that the music would no longer have meant the same meaning -- either for him or for his audience. And though there were no doubt plenty of fans who wouldn't have minded trading relevance for the comforts of nostalgia, Springsteen clearly doesn't want to spend the rest of his life singing about that particular set of glory days. And frankly, I'm glad.

It isn't that "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" strike me as being particularly great albums; to be honest, I barely listen to either. Nor do I find that Springsteen's home-and-hearth songs have any more relevance to my life than most of the stuff I listen to.

But after hearing what he can do with this new band of his, I'm more excited about seeing him in concert than I have been in years. For one thing, this new band really knows how to groove, giving his music a soulfulness it has never had in the past. For instance, the live arrangement they use on "57 Channels (And Nothin' On)" ignores the neo-rockabilly of the recorded version, going instead for a wah-wah-fueled funk treatment that not only refocuses the melody line, but gives the message more bite.

At the same time, this crew can also rock. Listen to them rip through the likes of "Glory Days" or "Born In the U.S.A.," and not only will you not miss the familiar rumble of the E St. sound, but you'll find yourself hearing highlights you never knew the songs had. (A few colleagues have even gone so far as to claim that this is the first band Springsteen has had that could make "Born to Run" work onstage).

Mostly, though, what this band does is make the music relevant and exciting again. Whether it's a function of the rhythm section's funk chops, or just a reflection of the way the back-up singers' gospel-style harmonies help Springsteen open up his own vocal approach, I couldn't say. All I know is that it works, and I want to hear more.

Isn't that enough?

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