Forty-three years have passed since a former music critic named Jon Landau famously wrote, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen” in a May 1974 issue of Boston’s The Real Paper.” In the decades that have ensued, Springsteen, with the backing of his crack E Street Band and Landau, who, became the Jersey rocker’s manager in 1978, made good on that prediction. In 2016, Springsteen and the E Street band had the No. 2 tour for the year, behind only Beyonce, earning more than $255 million, according to Billboard Boxscore, and, at the age of 67, playing four-hour-plus shows, some of the longest of his career.
Springsteen has nothing left to prove on the concert stage, or in the recording studio. So, it’s not surprising that his restless artistic spirit has led him to new proving grounds. Last fall, he published his memoir, Born to Run, a New York Times bestseller that, in addition to chronicling his rise to rock stardom, provided a surprisingly frank account of growing up with a father who suffered from mental illness, as well as his own struggle with depression.
And since Oct. 3, he has been taking the stage of the Walter Kerr Theater, where five nights a week through Feb. 3, he is starring in Springsteen on Broadway, a one-man show — although his wife Patti Scialfa shows up for a couple numbers — that he has written and directed himself. The production, which Springsteen told the Times, sprang from a Jan. 12 performance he gave at the White House as a parting gift from President Obama to 250 of his staffers, is a combination of music and words, most of them distilled, sometimes word for word, from his memoir.
For devout fans who saw him early in his career or collected and traded live bootleg albums of his ‘70s concerts at small clubs like New York’s Bottom Line and Philadelphia’s The Main Point, the allure wasn’t just the music. In addition to his electric performances, Springsteen was a captivating and often very funny storyteller, who in the middle of “Growin’ Up” would segue into a tale about his father’s grousing over his “goddamned guitar,” or during an interlude in “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” recount the dramatic night that his late saxophonist Clarence Clemons first sat in with the band. (The true tale involved a Nor’easter ripping a nightclub door from its hinges as Clemons opened it.)
As his catalog of songs and the crowds clamoring to hear their personal favorites grew and grew, Springsteen increasingly stuck to the music; so the chance to see him in a 960-seat theater, delving into the moments that shaped his life and pairing those stories with songs that complement them is as captivating as it sounds. Even the cheap seats are close, and years of singing to fans in the upper reaches of sports stadiums have made Springsteen’s voice a potent force. Broadway decorum also insures that there are no knuckleheads shouting “Play ‘Rosalita’!” or waving cellphones in your field of vision.
On the night I saw the show, Springsteen walked onstage in a black shirt, black jeans and boots. Now 68, he looks grizzled and remarkably free of Dad bod. He began the show by dipping into the foreword from his memoir in which answers the question, “How do you do it?” (A Teleprompter was set up, but it’s unclear whether Springsteen needed it.) The responses included, not necessarily in this order: “DNA,” “natural ability,” “study of craft,” “balls” — that one’s not in the book — a “naked desire for fame,” “attention,” “sex” and oh yeah….”a buck.” It got the first of many laughs that night, not all of which were intentional. When Springsteen mentioned the Stone Pony — the Asbury Park nightclub where he has made many surprise appearances — during one of his monologues, a cheer rose up in the audience. “Not that great,” he replied. And when, during his performance of “Dancing in the Dark.” the crowd began to clap along, he told the crowd, “I’ll handle it myself.”
And he did, for two hours, Springsteen held the crowd rapt with a monologue — sometimes spoken in the sing-song evangelist-style rap that he adopts between numbers at his concerts — and music that largely dealt with one of the larger themes of his work: the bonds formed through family, community and bands.
He paired a description of growing up on Randolph Street in Freehold, New Jersey with “Growin’ Up,” and described watching transfixed as Elvis Presley gyrated on the Ed Sullivan Show. “A rock ‘n’ roll genie…had been let out of the bottle and he told us that if you were born in the USA my fellow citizens these feelings, these freedoms, this fun was your birthright — and I believed,” Springsteen said. He talked about leaving home, evading Vietnam, which segued into a steely blues version of “Born in the USA,” and his friendship with Clarence Clemons, which came with a spirited version of “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” A passing mention of the torch-bearing white supremacists who rioted in Charlottesville, Va, was the only reference to the tumultuous political landscape of today.
Virtually all of the songs that Springsteen played were staples of his live shows, but performed before a hushed audience in the sanctity of a Broadway theater and enhanced with his observations and recollections, they resonated with deeper clarity and meaning. Who knew that “Dancing in the Dark” — the closest that Springsteen has come to writing a disco song — could sound so compelling played on just an acoustic guitar.
Since this is Springsteen’s theatrical debut, as both a performer and a director, he can be forgiven for a clunky transition or two and for not recognizing that writing that crackles on the printed page can sound florid or overworked when transferred wholesale to a script. The Vietnam segment, in which he recounts dodging the draft and, later, befriending paraplegic war veteran Ron Kovic, the author of Born on the Fourth of July, does not easily fit into the arc of the show. Given the emphasis on family bonds, a segment on parenthood would have fit in better, perhaps paired with “Living Proof,” one of the best songs written about becoming a father.
When Springsteen on Broadway connects though, it really connects: the monologue and the music coalescing into something that is powerfully evocative. Particularly transcendent is an extended moment fairly early in the show when Springsteen elegiacally talks about his late father’s blue-collar life and being sent by his mother to fetch him at his dad’s “don’t ever fuck with me while I’m here” space,” the local bar. From there, he segued into the spare and mournful “My Father’s House” from his Nebraska album, before taking up the subject of his mother. “She goes to work, she does not miss a day, she is never sick, she is never down, she never complains,” Springsteen said, quoting from his memoir. “Work does not appear to be a burden for her but a source of energy and pleasure.”
He then took his guitar and began to play “The Wish,” an outtake that never made it onto one of his studio releases, but was included on Tracks, a box set of outtakes that he released in 1998. “The Wish” is Springsteen’s tribute to his mother’s unflagging spirit during a tough marriage and hard times. It includes the verse:
If pa’s eyes were windows into a world so deadly and true
You couldn’t stop me from looking but you kept me from crawlin’ through
And if it’s a funny old world, mama, where a little boy’s wishes come true
Well I got a few in my pocket and a special one just for you
By the time, Springsteen got to that last line, the handkerchiefs were out and quiet snuffling could be heard throughout the Walter Kerr. With this one-two punch of spoken words and spare music, he had revealed the darkness and the light in his DNA — the nature and the nurturing that produced an indefatigable, restless artist, who continues to stake out new territory in the service of rock ‘n’ roll.