A man I know, a friend of a friend, has fallen in love with ayahuasca, the hallucinogen used in tribal ceremonies in South America. Every so often he heads off to the rainforest, where he joins a retreat and purges his soul. He returns to London, and explains that he feels as though his self, his emotions, have been taken apart and reconfigured – as if he has become someone new.
Every two or three years I get the same sensation, usually after standing in some huge open space among a vast crowd of people. That feeling doesn’t emerge immediately; but in the days following a Bruce Springsteen show with the E Street Band, I feel fragile, naked. I feel as though I’ve been through some particularly intense and epic therapy session, as though parts of my psyche I was not conscious of have been prodded into life. I feel like someone new.
I’ve written about Springsteen before, several times (though never interviewed him; he’s my Moby Dick interview subject). And each time I feel as though I’ve said all I need to say. And then I see him perform again, and once again I have to talk about the experience, because Springsteen shows do the most important thing music can do: not compel you to list B-sides and producers, or dissect guitar tones and mixes, but feel. Make you feel overwhelmingly alive.
I saw two shows last weekend, one in Coventry on Friday evening, then the Wembley Stadium gig on Sunday. Both times I was in the pit at the front of stage, the place of maximum impact, and where I didn’t experience the sound problems many at Wembley complained about. (I’m sorry, I didn’t have to queue for hours to get in to the pit, which I know will make me undeserving and less of a fan to some – though I’ve seen Springsteen often enough from vast distances to know he can have the same effect on me from afar.)
What’s odd, perhaps, about my adoration of Springsteen is that I am not, by the standards of the people who moan about the predictability of his ever-changing setlists on the fansites, anything approaching a hardcore fan. I own all the albums up to and including Tunnel of Love; I have most but not all of the albums since the E Street reunion; there are three live sets; and there are the big box sets, Tracks, The Promise and The Ties That Bind and the three-CD Essential compilation. Of those, I barely listen to the first two albums he made and I haven’t dug the recent albums out much since they were released. The albums I return to are the stretch from Born to Run to Tunnel of Love, plus the box sets and the live albums. And even on those, on each of those, there are tracks I really don’t care for much. And on the tracks I love, there are sonic choices I hate, sounds I can’t stand.
And yet Bruce Springsteen is the rock musician I am most compelled by, the one who seems to reach into the heart of me. The songs that inspire my devotion come from that Born to Run-Tunnel of Love stretch, and especially from Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. I think it’s to do with being middle aged and being grimly aware that existence is a series of compromises, and that if life has a purpose then it is in finding the moments of hope and joy amid the disappointments and troubles. It’s about balancing freedom and obligation. It’s about separating the moments of truth from the lies that life tells us. Which is, pretty much, what most of my favourite Springsteen songs from those two albums are about, to varying degrees – The Promised Land, Badlands, Racing in the Street, Stolen Car, a handful of others.
These are complicated emotions. Even The Promised Land and Badlands, where they are couched in fist-punching terms (“Mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man / And I believe in a promised land” and “We’ll keep pushin’ till its understood / And these badlands start treating us good), are staggeringly bleak songs. When he plays The Promised Land live, the last five lines of the song – no matter that I know they are coming – rip me to shreds, summoning up the image of hope as a twister that will “blow everything down”, hope as not just a force of resurrection, but of destruction, something that can harm as well as heal, as it comes to “blow away the dreams that tear you apart / Blow away the dreams that break your heart / Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted”.
(It’s no coincidence that both The Promised Land and The River make the explicit link between dreams and lies, a thought that for all its simplicity is a very confrontational idea for pop music: it takes courage to admit your daydreams are just lies that will never come true. Generations of popular culture have insisted you must follow your dream. Springsteen says, yes, you should do that. But you’ll almost certainly be lost and betrayed, and at worst you’ll be crushed. For the great purveyor of joy, that’s a bitter pill to serve.)
It’s the complications that make the shows so different from the other artists I will go to see again and again. With Ezra Furman there’s the uncertainty over whether the show will be a highwire act, or a simple high. With the Hold Steady, there’s the simple power of joy. With the 1975 there’s the promise of a dazzling production. With Springsteen, though, you know that every show will be as consistent as the last, but in a completely different way, and at a level no one else seems able to attain.
The Promised Land and Badlands are two of the moments in a Springsteen show when I know my eyes will prick with tears. So, too, for different reasons, are Waitin’ on a Sunny Day and Dancing in the Dark, the two numbers where people are plucked out of the audience – though there’s nothing uncomplicated about my emotions then, I simply find the sight of the joy of the people chosen to be so overwhelming that I can’t help but respond.
But there’s always some point where my eyes don’t just prick, where I find myself suddenly weeping, full-on. And I never know when that moment will come. Partly that’s because Springsteen changes his sets so much from night to night that you can’t be sure what will be played (of the 33 songs played at Wembley, only 19 had been played at Coventry. There is no other artist playing stadiums who will alter their setlist, taking requests from the crowd, like that). And partly it’s because I can never know which song will capture the particular shade of emotion I am feeling at a given moment.
At Wembley, the tears came when he played Tougher Than the Rest, from 1987’s Tunnel of Love album. It’s hardly original to say that Springsteen creates a community, but it’s true. At Coventry, I shared the experience with my 15-year-old daughter, her first Springsteen show, and during Darlington County, he sang the line “Little girl, you’re so young and pretty” at her from six feet away. (We’ll leave aside the issue of a 66-year-old man singing those lines to a 15-year-old; suffice to say I was gobsmacked, while she reacted the way only a 15-year-old can: with an expression that said, “Evs, old man.”) When he duetted with his wife Patti Scialfa on Tougher Than the Rest – a song ostensibly about a Saturday night hook-up but whose sombre tone goes rather deeper than that, into the difficulties of being in love as a grown-up, when hearts and flowers are prone to bruise and wilt – I wanted my wife to be there. I wanted to share one lyric with her: “The road is dark / And it’s a thin, thin line / But I want you to know I’ll walk it for you anytime.” I learned afterwards that Springsteen and Scialfa’s silver wedding anniversary fell just three days after the Wembley show.
I can understand people who just don’t like Springsteen. I was well into my 30s before I could even tolerate much of his music, let alone adore it. And for a first-time attender, a Springsteen show can be a little like attending a meeting of some religious sect – intriguing at first, then slightly terrifying as you realise quite how long it’s going to last. But once the rhythms of the night seep into your soul – as you understand how you are going to be swept up, then brought down, then lifted again; as you come to understand your part in the liturgy – it becomes hard to resist.
A Springsteen show makes you turn both inward and outward. He demands you connect with the world and look to yourself. He makes you feel like the best version of yourself. Now, a week on from the first of the shows, I no longer feel so drained and fragile. I just want to ride the rollercoaster all over again.
This article was written by Michael Hann, for theguardian.com on Friday 10th June 2016 15.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010