Miami Steve’s guitar ripped open the unholy Washington, DC night. This September evening’s show had begun. In the city where false bravado passes for politics and compassion is a weakness, Springsteen and his E Street Band jumped full bore into the song “Prove It All Night.” Then for the next three and a half hours, the band proceeded to prove exactly why their frontman is known as the hardest working man in rock and roll. The newer songs from the Wrecking Ball disc played that night from the Wrecking Ball disc sounded as seasoned as the rendition of “Blinded By the Light” from the E Street Band’s very first album, Greetings from Asbury Park. Likewise, the older tunes sounded as fresh as the new. And that’s not hyperbole.
Sometimes a rock concert is a political testament. Sometimes it is a Dionysian festival. Sometimes it’s a means of living or recalling a wonderful and wasted youth. Sometimes, though, a rock and roll show is just a rock and roll show. In other words, just pure entertainment. In the hands of Springsteen and his band, that is always more than enough. Composed of suburban kids and middle aged folks, the crowd at Nationals Park represented a reasonable cross section of white America. Before the show began, my sister, her friend and I engaged a Baltimore couple at a nearby bar in a conversation about the teachers’ strike in Chicago. Nobody in the conversation wanted them to back down. At the table behind us, four heavy set young men tried to convince a woman wearing an Obama t-shirt that the current governor of New Jersey was a good guy. I don’t think they succeeded. A college-age kid with a crewcut sported a Reagan-Bush ’84 t-shirt. I had to say something, but before I ripped into him about what I thought of Reagan, he smiled and told me he wore the shirt as a joke. And to provoke a reaction. The only great communicator he knew about was Bruce Springsteen.
The last time I saw Springsteen in DC was in 1975. Born to Run was just about ready to hit the record stores. Bruce was long haired and skinny and reefer smoke filled the air above the Carter Barron theatre the night I went. Bruce is no longer longhaired or skinny and the smell of reefer in DC’s Nationals ballpark was barely present this time around. I was one of the few longhairs. Then again, appearances change and you can’t blame us middle-aged folks for not having hair any more. Rock and roll is not about style; it’s about soul. Springsteen and his band deliver better than almost anyone else in the business. They certainly do so more consistently and with less ornamentation. They don’t need fancy fireworks or dry ice. Instead, they depend on rock and roll’s very essence: guitars, a good rhythm section and emotion.
The band’s catalog has expanded substantially since that long ago night in 1975, chronicling lives and the nation. The concert this time was primarily a night of hits, including the aforementioned “Prove It All Night”, ” Racing in the Streets”, “ Badlands”, and “The Promised Land,” from one of Bruce’s darker albums, the 1978 Darkness on the Edge of Town. Lyrically, these songs tell the tale of a working class malaise that politicians of every stripe cannot address, much less heal. It is a malaise that can cause men and women to commit desperate acts, like that described in Nebraska’s, “Johnny 99.” Because the political and economic reality is so despairing, it is the more private experiences in life that become important. They shine through the darkness. Songs played that night expressing this included a version of “Born to Run” and a thrilling take on “She’s the One”—perhaps the best paean to lust and love ever written by Bruce.
I don’t know if it was a general Friday evening ennui after a week of work, or an audience unfamiliar with the concept of a rock concert and the controlled madness a good one contains, but it took until well into the second hour of the show before the energy from the crowd of 60,000 came close to equaling that which had been blasting from the stage since that first note of “Prove It All Night.” There were some somber moments—like when the band played the desperate but vaguely optimistic song of a man out of work just trying to support his family: Wrecking Ball’s “Jack of All Trades.” Every person in the audience who had ever wondered how they were going to pay their rent or make their car payment knew that song from the inside out. Other songs, like “Shackled and Drawn” (also from Wrecking Ball), and Born In the USA’s “Darlington County,” defy the despair of their lyrics with music that is nothing short of celebratory. So, I found myself dancing to “Darlington County’s” story of two young men off to pick up some girls and party, with one of them ending up “handcuffed to the bumper of a state trooper’s Ford.” Likewise, the song “Shackled and Drawn” had the crowd clapping its hands and moving their feet to lyrics that delineate a life where the working person never gets ahead and the banker grows fat. Life in capitalist America. Might as well dance, right?
I’m not a fan of rock concerts that take place in stadiums. The distance between the performers and the audience is often too great or the sound dissipates before it reaches the cheap seats. Indeed, I don’t even like the idea of assigned seats. Somehow, though Springsteen and the E Street Band not only shorten that distance between the band and the crowd, they occasionally eliminate it all together. The show I attended in Washington DC had many of these latter moments. They made it all worthwhile. I would definitely do it again.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.