The announcement of his residency at New York’s Walter Kerr theatre caused an immediate stampede for tickets, but the notion of Bruce Springsteen on Broadway seemed a strange one. He rose to fame as a purveyor of honest, bar-band rock, devoid of the ponderous flim-flam, elevated self-importance and glittery excess to which other 70s musicians were partial; a trustworthy teller of gritty truths about blue-collar America; a true believer in the primal power of rock’n’roll. He’s a very odd fit among the razzle-dazzle of the Great White Way’s other current musical offerings: Phantom of the Opera, Chicago, The Cher Show and Frozen.
Or perhaps not. Virtually the first thing you hear on this 150-minute live recording is Springsteen slyly informing his audience that he’s exactly what fans think he’s not: phoney. “I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud – so am I … I’ve never held an honest job in my entire life … never worked nine-to-five … I’ve never seen the inside of a factory and yet it’s all I’ve ever written about. Standing before you is a man who has become wildly and absurdly successful writing about something of which he had absolutely no experience. I made it all up.”
Should anyone think that Springsteen on Broadway is a stark, purgative exercise in stripping away decades of accumulated mythology, it’s worth noting that Springsteen follows this confession with a description of seeing Elvis on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s so epic in its mythologising that it brings to mind Nick Cave’s Tupelo, a song that depicts Presley’s birth as an awesome, terrifying supernatural event from the pages of the Old Testament. This contrast sets the tone for the whole enterprise. Springsteen on Broadway is a really charming album – charming enough, in fact, to convince a Boss agnostic that there’s more to the man than they might previously have thought – and its charm rests on Springsteen’s alternating conflicting desires to let light in on what he calls “the magic trick”, and suggest that it might really be magic after all.
We learn that Bruce Springsteen is as much a contrived character as Ziggy Stardust – a stadium-filling exaggeration of Springsteen’s troubled factory-worker father – and that we should be wary of treating what he says as gospel: “I’m Mr Born to Run … New Jersey is a death-trap, listen to my lyrics … I currently live 10 minutes from my home town.” But we also learn that the man behind said character truly believes all the hokey stuff he yells at those packed stadiums about just being a prisoner of rock’n’roll, a belief occasionally expressed in terms so earnest they would make Bono blush: “Bands come in search of lightning and thunder … a communion of souls … true rock’n’roll will never die.” Nor, unlike a lot of performers who have created a character to inhabit on stage, is Springsteen a man much crippled by self-doubt: “Before me, there was no Jersey Shore. Jersey almighty, I fuckin’ invented it.”
Its charm is aided by the fact that, while clearly scripted, the between-song monologues – which occasionally last three or four times as long as the song they’re introducing – are filled with striking, writerly imagery: his lengthy description of being sent into his local bar as child to fetch his dad home is a funny, telling short story in itself. If the monologues occasionally overshadow the material they’re meant to support, more often the stripped-back acoustic performances alone cast his songs in fresh light. Denuded of the E Street Band’s post-Phil Spector blare, Thunder Road sounds dark and desperate rather than cathartic. Born in the USA undergoes the most dramatic transformation: it starts out as – of all things – a Within You Without You-esque faux-raga, then turns into desolate a cappella blues. Its triumphal original incarnation became perhaps the most widely misunderstood song in rock history. Here, there’s absolutely no doubt what Springsteen was driving at all along.
Perhaps understandably, given its history, Born in the USA is preceded by a very lengthy explanation of its genesis. This is one of a handful of moments where, in recorded form at least, you start to wish he’d get on with it.
It’s not the only point where Springsteen on Broadway hits the standard problem with live albums as a poor substitute for actually being there. The appearance of his wife and musical collaborator Patti Scialfa was widely reported as an emotional highlight of the Broadway shows. Here, it doesn’t seem that way: her voice sounds beautiful harmonising on Tougher Than the Rest, but some atmospheric impact has clearly been lost in the transition from stage to tape. Most of the time, however, the cocktail of homespun wisdom, frankness and blatant yarn-spinning is genuinely enthralling, a portrait of the rock star as a complex, conflicted 69-year-old man.
This week Alexis listened to
Confidence Man – Santa’s Comin’ Down the Chimney
A useful corrective to the already nerve-jangling sound of Wonderful Christmastime and Do They Know It’s Christmas blaring out everywhere: a minimal, funky 80s house-inspired bit of festive cool.
• This review was originally published on 6 December and removed for breaking an embargo.