In the house of Bruce

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW YORK -- Past the woeful boomers with their signs ("Need two tickets" and other heart-breaking messages), into a frightening soup of golfing buddies, pregnant 40-year-olds and middle-aging Ivy Leaguers with aching joints. Some guy is picking a fight with a fellow down front and gestures obscenely. Another guy with bifocals fiddles with an illegal tape recorder and sticks a spaghetti mess of sprung tape into a pocket. From somewhere comes a surprising whiff of marijuana.

What am I doing here behind the stage at Madison Square Garden on July 1 surrounded by the clueless, the suburban, the sports-injured? Fortunately, I can claim the only possible, logical excuse: I'm with family to see the last performance of Bruce Springsteen's epic reunion tour with the E Street Band. To do that, you must put up with a lot of white noise. But as I've discovered at earlier Bruce shows, it's always worth it.

Besides, it's a waste of time and hypocritical to play the snob here at Bruce's existential rock and roll church, where parishioners, no matter how alien, live for today and punch the clock tomorrow. Vamping through "Light of Day," the Boss will soon say that he can't promise you life everlasting, but he can promise you "life right now."

And like any good missionary, he's preaching to the golfers as well as the gofers, and anyone else who wants to listen, for that matter. We're all equal in Bruce's eyes.

Never mind the wildly incongruous sight of thousands of yuppies punching the air with their fists while Bruce belts the angry "Badlands," a song of frustration and defiance. It "ain't no sin to be glad you're alive," no matter who you are, how rich or poor. When Bruce sings, such distinctions dissolve anyway.

And lest we forget, Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa are themselves landed gentry, said to be fond of horseback riding on their New Jersey property. (To benefit the U.S. Olympic equestrian team, Patti recently auctioned off a guitar of her husband's, an instrument she claimed he had rubbed with his naked body. The guitar yielded $10,000.)

Somehow, through it all, Bruce, 50, remains a working-class hero, still sexy and shaking in his tight black jeans after all these years.

Secular preacher

The tour, which began in Europe 15 months ago and opened a year ago in the United States at the Continental Airlines Arena, has given Bruce's most ardent devotees a reason to live online. There they constantly exchange rumors, set lists and intelligence. (Check out www.greasylake.org and the Springsteen shrine at www.nj.com/ springsteen to get the full extent of their mania.)

For me, the tour was an opportunity to ponder my fellow Jersey native's genius and try to pinpoint its source. What does he do that no other rocker can? It has something to do with the lessons he imparts; not just through his songs, but through the example of both his public life and -- I'd like to think -- his personal life.

Springsteen is a secular preacher with an uncanny and unabashedly corny ability to celebrate life's elemental pleasures. His humor, music and on-stage demeanor strip away Puritan taboos without advocating total debauchery. He's basically a clean-cut, born-in-the-USA guy who believes a good life, love and sex are part of our birthright. Name another rock star who can joke about masturbation or talk about intimacy with his wife without sounding dirty.

And how many rock stars can reconcile this "life is good" message with tragic ballads like "The River" and "Atlantic City"? In Springsteen's world, dreams explode more frequently than they come true.

His music reflects a full embrace of the American character. In his melodies and operatic arrangements, we hear gospel and rhythm and blues, as well as pure white pop, a little Hendrix crossed with Aaron Copland, and, as always, a huge salute to Dylan. In his lyrics, we smell the tang and tar of the Jersey shore as well as the bleak blacktops of shell-shocked cities. Springsteen's empathic, consummately American gift slices through human differences to a common heart -- even though his audience is exclusively and perplexingly white.

("Where are all my Negroes at?" asked Village Voice columnist Greg Tate after attending a Springsteen concert last year. "Why aren't there more black people out here screaming Bruuuuce like Dolly Earshatterer to the rear of my right lobe?")

Hanging with the guys

The tour that brought the E Street Band and Springsteen together after a 12-year separation suggests a renewed determination to live the life he sings, and sing the life he lives. Certainly, the E Street Band members are persuasive characters in his lucrative passion play, but they are also his friends.

The E Streeters, among them "Sopranos" star Steve Van Zandt, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, hyper-elf Nils Lofgren and late-night TV drummer Max Weinberg, were not strapped for cash before returning to the fold, but after this tour they are set for life.

There's more to it than big bucks. Extending his hand to the band seemed to be an act of contrition on Springsteen's part after years of willful distance. Bruce wasn't just exploiting a sure thing, he genuinely wanted to hang with the guys again.

The day after the show, I met a twenty- or thirtysomething New York musician who grew up with punk rock. Her path didn't automatically point to Bruce. But while some of her musician friends think Bruce is a hack, she adores him and can sing verbatim his oldest, most rambling treasures. How to describe her admiration? His music is about family and community, she said, trying to put her finger on his broad emotional appeal.

For his final night, Springsteen appeared sentimental and a little tired. The concert (28 songs in all) stretched to 3: hours, the longest he had played on this tour. His three young kids were on hand at the side of the stage.

Whatever hissing his controversial "American Skin (41 Shots)" may have received was lost in a roar of approval for the new song, which revolves around the 1999 fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York. Springsteen also sang three other new songs, keeping the year-old show fresh and suggesting the possibility of a post-tour album to go with a planned concert video.

Lesson for the faithful

That last night, there were, of course, plenty of anthems -- "Born to Run," "Badlands" and "Out in the Street" among them. As the night wound down, Bruce seemed to grow more emotional. For an encore, he took the stage alone at the piano to play "The Promise," a somewhat obscure piece "for the aficionados." As the final chords trailed off, band members reappeared on stage and applauded their leader.

As he has throughout the tour, Springsteen then launched into one of his most beautiful new songs, "Land of Hope and Dreams," a Woody Guthrie-esque song of community and redemption. His buddy Van Zandt played mandolin.

As the song ended, the band shuffled around the stage exchanging hugs. Springsteen had one more he wanted to sing, but first plugged the New York charity Food for Survival.

"Faith don't mean nothing if you don't put it into action," he implored the crowd.

Then came "Blood Brothers," with a new concluding verse written, it seems, for the night:

Now I'm out here on this road

Alone on this road tonight

[I] close my eyes and feel so many friends around me

In the early evening light

And the miles we have come

And the battles won and lost

Are just so many roads traveled

So many rivers crossed

Springsteen summoned most of the band to hold hands (somewhat awkwardly) and sing the final words together.

It was over: "We'll be seeing ya," he hollered before walking down the steps at the back of the stage.

Even if he doesn't return on another tour, Springsteen has provided the tools for our acceptance. He didn't promise life everlasting, but life right now.

It is a lesson for the faithful: This -- tonight, right now -- should be enough.

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