It may not come as a shock to you that my dealings with arena rock have been, well... limited. By the time I'd reached the point of adolescence in which I was able to see live music, my brain had already been joyfully soiled by 80s college radio (which leaned heavily on noise, post-punk, and other sonic extremities) and the kind of hip-hop tracks that were heard late at night on a few of New York's commercial FM outlets. Looking back on that time with some historical perspective, it's not surprising that the sentiment of most mainstream rock music did little for me because I'd pre-tooled myself to avoid identifying with it at nearly any cost. As many of my contemporaries would reveal in their more advanced years, I was a young man who lacked a clear sense of self-identity, but who was willing to define himself by existing in opposition to what everyone else seemed to be into. Granted, it's not an especially academic lifestyle approach, nor is it something that I'm particularly proud of today. Exene Cervenka summed up the sentiment behind it pretty well when she said: "Don't tell me what to like. I like whatever isn't in the movies."
Thus began my wholesale rejection of nearly everything that's now featured on those irritating VH-1 specials in which the cultural pablum of relatively recent history (z-grade hair metal, late 80s assembly line pop, the Police Academy film franchise) is regularly exalted to deity-like status. Yet I consider it no small amount of good fortune that the left-field interests of my teens never precluded my becoming an unapologetic fan of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, whom I was fortunate enough to catch last week on the last night of a three night stand at New Jersey's Meadowlands arena. Reconciling my WFMU-bred sense of cultural elitism with the visceral thrill of screaming "Born to Run" along with 60 billion cubic tons of the local Jersey genepool is as much an exercise in self-therapy as it is a simple expression of the pure blast the evening turned out to be. There's a pretty big leap between turning it on and turning it out, and my July 31st was like a guided tour of only the finest extremes. Truth be told, I'm still buzzing on the residual vapors...
Hoping to partake in as much of the associated pre-show activities that Bruce fans are known to promulgate, my wife and I made every effort to arrive early enough to soak up the parking lot tailgate scene. Any concerns about taking the wrong exit off the NJ Turnpike quickly abated when we realized that following any of the numerous pickup trucks being used to haul pop-up tents, beach chairs, and full sized gas grills would safely guide us to our eventual destination. 20 bucks later, with the car safely stowed, we were able to survey the immediate sampling of the local population we'd just dropped ourselves into the midst of: plenty of mid-30s peers, smatterings of college and high school kids (slugging back the accordant Lynchburg Lemonades from plastic water bottles), and the seemingly predominant quotient of families with kids and in some cases older generations in tow. Not that I was expecting on-stage beheadings or being showered with sacrificial goat blood, but in 2008, attending a Bruce Springsteen show is quite a PG-rated experience, and I needed to periodically remind myself that we were ostensibly at a rock concert and not the state fair.
The advertised showtime was 7:30, but by the time we found our seats in the upper decks of the stadium, it quickly became apparent that things wouldn't get rolling until much, much later. As we learned, experienced fans know that nothing happens before the sun sinks below the horizon, but our concert-going experience was further delayed by a massive accident which apparently postponed the arrival of a few critical band members, if not The Man himself. With throbbing hindquarters from the cramped seating, and our tolerance for $8 beers seriously depleted by 9:30, the sudden announcement of impending stage activity (the sound of a calliope playing "The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze") brought all 55,000 attendees to their feet in a split second with fists held mightily aloft, and cheers and screams erupting from every set of lungs in the house.
Discussions of the actual music played at any live event are difficult, and not really necessary for proper appreciation of the overall experience. Nevertheless, I'd been keeping tabs on this particular tour's constantly evolving setlist over on Bruce's website, and was thrilled to see that he was pulling out so many songs I never imagined he'd still be playing this many years into his career. I was also beyond excited to hear songs from his new album ("Magic"), which I've repeatedly called the best and most inspiring aggro-rock record to cross my desk in years. None of Bruce's studio albums have ever earned fave status with me (that honor belongs to 1986's epic, 10-year spanning live album box set), and that's a fact that may have positively tweaked the evening in my favor; With most of my Boss-related sentiments being forever associated to the live versions of tunes from early classics like The River and Darkness on the Edge of Town, the songs he played from that era were delivered in exactly the manner I first loved them.
Buttressed by the sound of screaming thousands.
Of the three Meadowlands shows, I definitely lucked out in seeing the one that wound up featuring the highest number of personal favorites. Within the first hour, the band wheeled out terminal classics like "Prove it All Night", "Tenth Avenue Freeze Out", "Two Hearts", and "Spirit in the Night", as well as Magic's brilliant lead off track: "Radio Nowhere". The effect was nothing short of electrifying. As the dear friend who hooked us up with the tickets for this show astutely pointed out over on her blog, Bruce's wild stage moves and frenetic delivery "would have decommissioned a man half his age". I can't even imagine where I'd want to be buried if I were to run at top speed, leap into the air, land on my knees, and slide across a stage while playing guitar, yet at 59, Springsteen makes such advanced maneuvers look like mere tomfoolery. (Apparently not one to be upstaged, longtime E Street axeman (and former Jonesville Station guest!) Nils Lofgren pulled out a bona fide mid-guitar-solo aerial somersault (YouTube) during the extended jam of "Because the Night".)
While on one level, it's impossible to deny the hokey gimmickry of such behavior, it did get me thinking of the rewards and expectations that I ascribe to music of varying stripes and levels of popularity. I come from the generation that espoused the virtues of destroying the boundaries between a performer and his/her audience, and in many cases, this has succeeded for me as a fan and for some of the more dubious characters I have dared to call "musicians". But Bruce Springsteen is nothing like that. An arena rock show in East Rutherford isn't the same thing as seeing Dead Meadow at Maxwell's or a Todd P showcase at a festering squat somewhere in Bushwick. A Bruce Springsteen concert is, in a very palpable sense, showbusiness, and I'm comfortable gleaning whatever I choose to from such an experience. In fact, after some careful consideration, I discovered that I actually want a barrier between myself and the music in such cases. I want a a really big barrier, where $8 beers and $35 t-shirts are happily consumed by me, my wife, drunk teenagers, bikers with Captain America helmets covering viper's nests of grey dreadlocks, pot-bellied guys cruising around on motorized coolers, and suburban soccer moms sporting carefully ironed "Vote Obama" t-shirts. Finding oneself in the center of a human aggregator where Springsteen appreciation is the common variable turned out to be very good at reminding me of where I truly come from. And through the lens of anyone's favorite Bruce song, that place and those people whom I once defined myself against can suddenly seem a whole lot... different.
The set went on for two and a half additional hours, which were no less exhilarating than the first. "Candy's Room" utterly destroyed, as did "Badlands" and "The Rising". At around the midway point, Bruce began collecting the homemade signs inscribed with song requests that crowdmembers standing directly in front of the stage had created, and zipped through a few of them. The highlight was an absolutely devastating rendition of "Incident on 57th Street", which in my most ham-fisted radio moment ever, was the final song I played on my last official show on WPRB. Things wrapped up with a crystalline rendition of "Jersey Girl" (Bruce joked "Here I come, Tom" as he began strumming the song's opening notes) and then erupted into "Rosalita" for a fitting conclusion to what was easily the best and most poignant large-scale concert I've ever attended. The incredible momentum of this production inspired me to set aside my more arcane interests just long enough to venture into the only known territory beyond the nosebleed section.... Airborne, baby. Air-----BORNE! From such a glorious altitude, this place doesn't look as bad as I sometimes make it out to be, and therein lies the essence of being a true son of Jersey.