Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Prodigal Boss






If Elvis is Jesus (as I blasphemously argued last month), then Bruce Springsteen is the Prodigal Son.

It is indisputable that The Boss is more beloved in his home region than any other American rock star. If you live in or near New Jersey, you know many people who are as passionate about Bruce as Green Bayers are about the Packers. They have seen 15 rock concerts in the last decade – and 14 were Bruce shows (the 15th was Southside Johnny at the Stone Pony). The only CDs they have purchased in the last 10 years are The Rising and Magic. They have Bruce coffee table books. They scan Bruce web sites like Backstreets and Greasy Lake for set lists. They bring newborns to the concert like it was a church revival. The announcement of a Bruce tour is greeted with the ecstasy of a papal visit, and elaborate ticket-grabbing schemes are devised.

This sort of passionate intensity for a musician is unusual, at least for 40- and 50-something suburbanites. It is usually seen only in teenagers and Deadheads. How does one explain this?

Mainly, of course, it's the music. None of this is possible if the music didn't deeply touch the core of a large number of music fans. And when I say "the music", I also refer to its live form. Bruce has been one of the most consistently entertaining live acts for decades. He connects with his audience, he's funny, he seems to be having a blast, and he plays for hours. On stage and in the studio, Bruce Springsteen embodies both the Rock Star and the Regular Guy more than any other musician in rock history.

And as my buddy Windex points out, Bruce is one of the rare rockers who is still making good music late in life. The Rising and Magic may not be as good as Born to Run or Darkness, but they're a helluva lot better than Face the Promise or The Naked Ride Home.

But frankly, that's not enough of an explanation for me. I believe that the passion that exists today is far greater than it would have been if Bruce hadn't, like the Prodigal Son, left New Jersey...and then returned.


The Parable of the Boss
Let's pick up our story in the mid-80's. Bruce is at the height of his popularity. He originally made it big in '75 with Born to Run and a historic 10-night run at The Bottom Line in New York City. He even appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week.

But Born in the USA, released in 1984, put him in the stratosphere. Some stats (yes, you can always count on stats at FreeTime!): From 1973 to 1983, Bruce had exactly one Top Ten hit (Hungry Heart topped out at #5). Born in the USA alone had seven Top Ten hits. His previous six albums sold a combined 19 million records;. USA sold 15 million on its own. His live album, released in '86, sold another 13 million copies. (These are all U.S. figures).

Bruce Springsteen was on top of the world, and he was New Jersey's favorite son.


"the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country"
And then, it seemed, he started to change. True Bruce fans, of course, were already uncomfortable with his new popularity, the way any group of early fans is ambivalent when their favorite artist finds a huge mainstream audience. But now Bruce was big time.

He married (and promptly divorced) a beautiful young actress. Then he left New Jersey. And he didn't just go anywhere...he went to the anti-Jersey...Hollywood. He started spending quality time with movie stars, contributing songs to movie sound tracks.

And worst of all, he...he...he... he broke up the E Street Band.

He hooked up with some L.A. session musicians and made a couple of mediocre albums (Lucky Town and Human Touch). He then went on tour with these imposters, doing a set heavy on new music. Instead of Thunder Road or Jungleland, he closed each show with Light of Day, a song he wrote for a Michael J. Fox movie. When he did his old stuff, it was either radically re-worked or featured someone who was clearly NOT Clarence Clemons doing the sax solo. His new wife, Patty Scialfa, was a Jersey girl, which was a good thing, but her prominence in the concerts was Yoko-esque. He did a poorly received MTV Unplugged appearance (and album), with "E Street ringers focusing on Bruce's 'solo' material ... well, we won't go there." (Entertainment Weekly)

His Jersey fans weren't happy. In fact, his Meadowlands shows weren't even sold out until show time. Can you imagine that today?

He followed that, in 1995, with the Ghost of Tom Joad tour, in support of the folk album of the same name. This tour, in small arenas, again featured lots of new stuff and dramatically re-worked versions of old songs.
As my buddy Gombo, a lifelong fan, put it, "I just assumed that the old Bruce, the 3-hour concert with the E Street Band, with Backstreets and Rosalita and Night, was gone forever."


"so he got up and went to his father"
But he wasn't gone forever. After that tour, he moved back to New Jersey. In 1998, he released Tracks, featuring dozens of old songs, mostly with the E Stret Band. And in 1999, he he brought the band back together, and went on the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band Reunion tour.

This was the old Bruce. He played Born to Run and Thunder Road and Tenth Avenue Freezout. He shared a mike with Little Steven and Clarence roared on his sax.

In 2002 he released The Rising, the first studio album with the E Street Band in 18 years. The Rising may be the most powerful work of art inspired by September 11, an event that hit hardest at the place he was from (more New Jerseyans died on 9/11 than New Yorkers).

The Boss was back.

"get the fatted calf and kill it"

My point - and I do have one - is this: the passion of the modern Bruce fan, at least in New Jersey and its environs, would never have reached its heightened pitch, if he hadn't abandoned them for so long. If Bruce hadn't broken up the band and moved to Hollywood, they would not have killed the fatted calf for him.

As the father of the Prodigal Son said to his other son, "But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found."


Extra
  1. It was only in researching this that I discovered Bruce recorded an album called "The Prodigal Son" in 1972, but never released it. Details are here.
  2. My bet is that the single lowest point for passionate Bruce fans during the bad time was this calamity... (turn down your speakers if you're at work)

5 comments:

Clarence said...

Nicely summarized Mr. Chamomile. It is unfortunate that Bruce has a following of loyal fans who he continually turns to in order to pad his and the E-Streeter wallets. He charges top dollar and play 15 nights in a row near his house, probably to the same people every night. In addition, he tries coming off as this working class kid from Freehold ruminating about Asbury Park or some other ****hole while he resides in Rumson, Beverly Hills or some other upper crust area of America. While he is putting on his trademark black tattered jeans on his daughter is mastering her equestrian skills at some upper crust horse farm. Give me a break. Bruce was good, but the year was 1981. For me, I've tired of his 41 shots politics and washboard and spoons Seeger music.

Stoner 23 said...

All right come clean....you are not a big Bruce fan. Is that safe to say? The history review is on the money but you do not cover the "why".

First off, remember, trust the art not the artist. Bruce could be the biggest asshole you would never hang out with...who knows.... but his music is always welcomed.

It was never just a good riff (although it was), it was never just rock & roll (although it was)there were lyrics and meaning. Lyrics that portrayed someone just like yourself. Someone trying to figure out what this ride was all about. Plain and simple people relate to his songs. His songs became the backdrop (the sound track if you will) to their lives. Songs of sorrow, songs of hope. Songs of unwavering determination. Each a story told with great imagery. His work questions, condemns and exhonerates the trials of life. Now, does he think of all this bullshit when he writes a song...probably not. Are all his songs great deep pieces...no way (but they are fun!). But now over some forty years, he can honestly look back and say he did some pretty amazing work during all the phases of his life and ours.

Magic Rat said...

While Keatang's theory may apply to a few, I don't think it applies to the masses. The masses, of course, are the fans aged about 35-55, with jobs, kids, mortgages and minivans. Springsteen's popularity today is unusual for a performer his age, and he does have a strong fan base in New Jersey. However, I don't think his stint in California has anything to do with it.
Rather than start with the 80's, as Keatang does, I think you have to understand the early days. Springsteen graduated high school in 1968 (I think) and immediately started his music career. It took him 6 years to get a record contract and another 7 before he released a song that got widespread radio play. While he was extremely popular with the music critics, overall he remained obscure..... except to the people that saw him play live. For years, he put on live shows in small clubs that left his fans awestruck. Before he was The Boss, he was known as the "King of the Bar Bands", not necessarily a complement if your goal is to hit it big. So his popularity grew by word of mouth, not by mass radio play. (In my case, my big sister turned me on to Born to Run when I was about 12.) Being a fan back in the 70's was like being in on a secret. You couldn't help sharing it with others and knew that sooner or later the secret would be out, and somehow it just wouldn't be the same. Born in the USA was the point at which the secret was out. And yes, longtime fans were a little bit disappointed with his enormous popularity even though he was still putting on the best live performance Rock and Roll had to offer.
I think the Bruce Mania of the mid 80's was too much even for him. The celebrity marriage failed miserably. He released a depressing album and he ran off to California to get away from himself. In LA, he was just another celebrity, not THE celebrity. What did the typical NJ fan do during this time? We shrugged our shoulders and moved on. We got married and had kids and bought minivans. Yes, pretended to like Lucky Town but it sure did seem like the Springsteen experience was over.
The question then is, would Bruce be any more or less popular today had he never moved away? The answer can be found in the music, both recorded and live. The typical fan has little interest for Springsteen singing folk music. (If the fan base was as hysterically devoted as Keatang makes it sound, he would have been singing "When The Saints Go Marching In" in sold out stadiums, not small arenas.) And we really don't want to be preached to about the political issues of the day.*** But we love going to concerts with the full E Street band. Why? It's fun-nothing more, nothing less. When your life is filled with business meetings and soccer games and dance recitals, getting a sitter for the night and going to a loud rock concert makes you feel young again. And since he never mails it in, and always mixes up his song selection, you can do it over and over with out it getting stale. Adding to the interest level is the knowledge that we really are now approaching the end of the line. The average age of the band members is creeping into the upper 50's, and you can't help but get the feeling, as a fan, that each concert you see may be your last.

Getting back to the Prodigal Son analogy, I throw this question out: Does the father love the prodigal son more because he went away, or does he love him the same, and is just happy to have him back?

***I'm always amused when a fan complains that Bruce has "gone political", as if this is something new. Bruce has always been political, and has always been preachy in concert. When the average age of his fan base was 19, he could say anything and get cheered. (Don't agree? Listen to the live album). Now that the average age of the fan base is 50 and paying property taxes up the wazoo, no one wants to hear about it. So just for the record, we've changed, not him.

Magic Rat said...

While Keatang's theory may apply to a few, I don't think it applies to the masses. The masses, of course, are the fans aged about 35-55, with jobs, kids, mortgages and minivans. Springsteen's popularity today is unusual for a performer his age, and he does have a strong fan base in New Jersey. However, I don't think his stint in California has anything to do with it.
Rather than start with the 80's, as Keatang does, I think you have to understand the early days. Springsteen graduated high school in 1968 (I think) and immediately started his music career. It took him 6 years to get a record contract and another 7 before he released a song that got widespread radio play. While he was extremely popular with the music critics, overall he remained obscure..... except to the people that saw him play live. For years, he put on live shows in small clubs that left his fans awestruck. Before he was The Boss, he was known as the "King of the Bar Bands", not necessarily a complement if your goal is to hit it big. So his popularity grew by word of mouth, not by mass radio play. (In my case, my big sister turned me on to Born to Run when I was about 12.) Being a fan back in the 70's was like being in on a secret. You couldn't help sharing it with others and knew that sooner or later the secret would be out, and somehow it just wouldn't be the same. Born in the USA was the point at which the secret was out. And yes, longtime fans were a little bit disappointed with his enormous popularity even though he was still putting on the best live performance Rock and Roll had to offer.
I think the Bruce Mania of the mid 80's was too much even for him. The celebrity marriage failed miserably. He released a depressing album and he ran off to California to get away from himself. In LA, he was just another celebrity, not THE celebrity. What did the typical NJ fan do during this time? We shrugged our shoulders and moved on. We got married and had kids and bought minivans. Yes, pretended to like Lucky Town but it sure did seem like the Springsteen experience was over.
The question then is, would Bruce be any more or less popular today had he never moved away? The answer can be found in the music, both recorded and live. The typical fan has little interest for Springsteen singing folk music. (If the fan base was as hysterically devoted as Keatang makes it sound, he would have been singing "When The Saints Go Marching In" in sold out stadiums, not small arenas.) And we really don't want to be preached to about the political issues of the day.*** But we love going to concerts with the full E Street band. Why? It's fun-nothing more, nothing less. When your life is filled with business meetings and soccer games and dance recitals, getting a sitter for the night and going to a loud rock concert makes you feel young again. And since he never mails it in, and always mixes up his song selection, you can do it over and over with out it getting stale. Adding to the interest level is the knowledge that we really are now approaching the end of the line. The average age of the band members is creeping into the upper 50's, and you can't help but get the feeling, as a fan, that each concert you see may be your last.

Getting back to the Prodigal Son analogy, I throw this question out: Does the father love the prodigal son more because he went away, or does he love him the same, and is just happy to have him back?

***I'm always amused when a fan complains that Bruce has "gone political", as if this is something new. Bruce has always been political, and has always been preachy in concert. When the average age of his fan base was 19, he could say anything and get cheered. (Don't agree? Listen to the live album). Now that the average age of the fan base is 50 and paying property taxes up the wazoo, no one wants to hear about it. So just for the record, we've changed, not him.

Anonymous said...

wow, that video is something else. I don't know whether to thank you or punish you for pointing it out.

This is a jersey thing, though, right, the whole Boss business? I mean, great performer, no question, and some classic rock-and-roll songs (none of them recent), but I suspect there are plenty of folks like me who think Bruce can't really ever go home again...

RR