Wednesday 21 March 2018

'The older you get, the more it means'

Bruce Springsteen with his Corvette in 1978
Bruce Springsteen with his Corvette in 1978

July 28, 2013, and Bruce Springsteen is closing the European leg of the 'Wrecking Ball' tour in the slightly unlikely surroundings of Nowlan Park, Kilkenny.

It's the fifth of five dates in Ireland, which for once avoided Dublin in favour of some less-visited spots - Thomond Park in Limerick, Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork, the King's Hall Arena in Belfast and two nights in Kilkenny.

Before closing the concert and tour with a solo acoustic rendering of 'This Hard Land', Springsteen spoke briefly to thank the fans, his band, his crew, remarking that he had been making music for a living for 50 years. "I feel like I just started, man! I got another 50 in me. The older you get, the more it means..."

This weekend, Springsteen returns, playing two shows in Croke Park.

They will be his largest Irish gigs since his first, in Slane Castle 31 years ago, when a crowd estimated at up to 100,000 took in the 'Born in the USA' tour.

Back then, he was one of the biggest stars on the planet, with a monster album and a string of hit singles putting him right up there with Madonna, Michael Jackson and Prince.

In terms of sales he's now far from the dominant force he was back then, but constant touring and a loyal fan base have kept him near the top of the tour-earning charts.

And in recent years his commercial appeal in this country has been obvious, with multiple Irish dates on every tour in the past decade. Some think he's gone to the well too often. Judging by ticket sales for Croke Park, the fans seem to disagree.

So how does this 66-year-old still pull in the crowds? And why do the Irish in particular continue to see him as The Boss?

I should perhaps mention that on this topic I am not unbiased. I am a Springsteen fan, and have been since I first saw him at Slane all those years ago.

I've seen him perform 30 times (by Sunday it'll be 32), I've interviewed him twice - I even went to visit Freehold and Asbury Park, New Jersey, where he grew up.

Some of my relatives think this borders on obsession; I'd prefer to just call it a hobby.

Part of the reason for Springsteen's continuing appeal is that he keeps making great music - and music that matters.

2002's 'The Rising' addressed the impact and implications of 9/11. Two albums with very different styles, but similar messages, dealt with the US invasion of Iraq and what that meant: 'Devils and Dust' (2005) and 'Magic' (2007). And 'Wrecking Ball' in 2012 presented a visceral reaction to the economic downturn and its effects. That theme, and the Irish musical influence on several tracks, presumably explains why the album and the tour seemed to have a particular resonance in this country.

Admittedly, not every recent Springsteen album is a triumph, but even a relatively humdrum collection will always contain some gems. Overall, he remains an interesting and innovative artist, well worth keeping up with.

The other factor in his enduring appeal is his continuing prowess as a live performer.

On the current tour, shows regularly break the three-and-a-half hour mark - without an interval. Not bad for a pensioner.

And those shows are full of energy - crowd-surfing, knee slides, wading into the audience to accept fans' song request signs.

The current tour is ostensibly marking the 35th anniversary of the release of the double album 'The River'. A box set of 'The River' was issued before Christmas, with a remastered album, out-takes, and a DVD of a concert from the original tour.

Springsteen decided to do a few shows, in just a couple of US cities. That quickly grew into a much larger US tour, now a European leg, and more stadium shows to follow in the States. Presumably he was enjoying it enough, or making enough money, to make it worthwhile.

The US shows featured the 20 songs off 'The River' played in sequence, but here in Europe he's mixing it up more, featuring some of those songs at each show, but not in order.

This brings back the element of surprise that is such an important part of a Springsteen show - and hopefully we'll get a few surprises this weekend.

There is also, of course, the issue of Springsteen's political activism, which really began during the original 'River' tour when he played a benefit show for Vietnam Veterans.

That connection led him to write 'Born in the USA', a bitter critique of the way veterans were treated, famously misinterpreted by Ronald Reagan as a tub-thumping patriotic anthem.

Since then, as well as campaigning for the Democratic candidate in the last three presidential elections, Springsteen has supported various causes, some of them not popular at the time.

In the nineties he wrote the song 'Philadelphia' about AIDS, and last month he cancelled a concert in North Carolina in protest at laws which he viewed as anti-LGBT.

He has spoken up for the rights of immigrants, on albums like 'The Ghost of Tom Joad' and songs like 'American Land'. And the 'Wrecking Ball' album was inspired by the recession and the apparent immunity of those who cause d that crash, "whose crimes have gone unpunished now, who walk the streets as free men now".

Such stances are deeply unpopular among Republicans in the United States, and some urge Springsteen to just "shut up and sing". But have they really been listening to his work if his politics came as a surprise to them?

And what about the Irish connection?

Springsteen famously has Irish roots - as well as Italian, and the smattering of Dutch that gave him his surname.

He has acknowledged the importance of that background, of how common it was in New Jersey for Italian women to marry Irish men, like his parents and his parents-in-law.

On stage, he sometimes talks about the struggle within his character between what he sees as the buoyant Italian optimism of his mother and the dour Irish pessimism of his father.

When I interviewed him in 2007, before his 'Magic' show in Belfast, he said he felt something change in his connection with the Irish audience from the time of his 2005 'Devils and Dust' show in the Point.

"I felt some deepening of the connection here, and then when we came back with the Sessions Band… this was just such a perfect place for us to play that music, you know, because it has so much Celtic influence in it."

His three Seeger Sessions shows in what was then called the Point in November 2006 yielded a DVD which Springsteen described as "one of the best things we ever put out on film".

Those shows were certainly a lot of fun, as Bruce reinterpreted his back catalogue through the lens of folk music, with a heavy Irish influence. And it made Ireland, as he put it, "another very special place for us".

So what about me? 31 years burning down the road, the 17-year old who went to Slane would hardly recognise himself. For starters, I'm fatter, greyer, and considerably more wrinkled than I was back then.

But I also have three decades of experience behind me, of life, relationships, work - all the things that Springsteen sings about.

So while I may not be as vigorous in my participation in this weekend's shows as I was way back then, perhaps I now appreciate the depth of his songwriting more.

As he says himself: "The older you get, the more it means."

Irish Independent

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