Saturday, September 23, 2017

Philly flashback: Springsteen at 50

From left, Nils Lofgren, Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt on stage in 1999 during the E Street Band's reunion tour.

(Bruce Springsteen celebrates his 68th birthday today. This piece originally appeared in the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger Sept. 29, 1999)

One thing about Bruce Springsteen – you always knew he would go the distance.

Taking the stage at the Spectrum in Philadelphia Friday night, one day after turning 50, Springsteen let it be known in no uncertain terms how he felt about that particular milestone. He opened the show with "Growin' Up," a tune from his very first album, written and recorded when he was 22.

But almost before the final notes of the song had faded, he was counting off another - standing center stage, Fender guitar in hand, his reunited E Street Band behind him. It was "No Surrender," his 1984 anthem of friendship and the redemptive power of rock 'n' roll.

By the time the band kicked into the third song, a fierce "Prove It All Night," it was clear that the song order was far from haphazard. Springsteen was making a statement. And when he sang the lines "We swore blood brothers against the wind/Now I'm ready to grow young again" from "No Surrender," you knew he meant them.

(Below, Springsteen's handwritten setlist from the 9/24/99 show)

Touring with the E Streeters for the first time in 11 years, Springsteen has a lot to celebrate. He's outlived his idol, Elvis Presley, and avoided most of the pitfalls that await middle-aged rock 'n' rollers. At 50, he has a stable marriage, children, a band composed of old friends and a loyal fan following that allows him to sell out arenas across the country without a new album or any significant radio airplay.

After kicking off the U.S. leg of his tour this summer with 15 shows at the Continental Airlines Arena, he and the band are now slowly making their way around the rest of the country, most recently with a six-night stand in Philadelphia, one of the first hotbeds of Springsteen-mania (he has dates in Chicago today and tomorrow, then moves on to Phoenix and points west).

Much of Springsteen's status as a rock icon stems from his reputation as a live performer. In the 1970s and '80s, Springsteen's marathon shows took on almost legendary proportions (a New Year's Eve performance at the Nassau Coliseum in 1980 clocked in at almost four hours). He would literally have to be dragged from the stage, as if reluctant to leave until every last drop of sweat had been wrung from his body. Watching video footage of Springsteen during that period, one is struck by the look of fierce joy on his face as he raced across the stage, tore into a guitar solo or clambered up a wobbly column of speakers to get closer to the audience.

Springsteen at 50 isn't quite the maniacal stage presence he once was. His knee-slide into the arms of saxophonist Clarence Clemons during the final triumphant notes of "Thunder Road" is now a slow walk. But in Philadelphia last week, he was doing a fairly convincing imitation of someone half his age, climbing atop Roy Bittan's piano, grinding out faux Ricky Martin dance moves, playing guitar as if possessed and general tearing through a non-stop, three-hour show with more energy and stamina than seemed humanly possible.

Saturday night at Philadelphia's First Union Center, the last show of the stand, he tossed his microphone to Bittan and did an impromptu somersault across the floor during the final number, "Raise Your Hand."

While the Springsteen who celebrated his 30th birthday on stage at Madison Square Garden in 1979 seemed edgy and unpredictable (at one point he tossed a birthday cake that had been placed on stage into the audience), the one at the Spectrum Friday night was joyous. During the band introductions in the middle of "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," he took the opportunity to sing "Happy Birthday to Me," and fearlessly leaped into the crowd during the next song, "Working on the Highway."

For the final number, he went all the way back to the beginning: "Blinded by the Light," song one, side one from his first album, 1973's "Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J."

That Springsteen is still capable of living his rock n' roll dreams without becoming a parody of himself is heartening. For his long-time fans, especially those who grew up in New Jersey, he was always more than just another rocker. He was one of us. Though the Garden State has since gained a certain cache in popular culture, it was far from the Promised Land when Springsteen burst onto the national scene in the early '70s with his tales of seaside romance and backstreet drama. Back then, New Jersey was the butt of 1,000 jokes, portrayed as either mind-numbing suburbia or a post-industrial wasteland of turnpikes and toxic waste sites.

But Springsteen invested New Jersey's boardwalks and highways with a romantic, almost mythic, presence - though he never shied away from depicting the economic and social realities he grew up with either. Most of all, he made it clear that life in New Jersey - and particularly at the Jersey Shore was something wholly different from life in New York or Philadelphia, the geographic neighbors with which it was most closely associated.

He hasn't strayed far from those roots either. For generations of Jersey-born performers and artists before him, the emphasis was always on getting out and finding another, perhaps more conducive, place to flourish. Frank Sinatra, at the height of his fame, didn't make a habit of returning to Hoboken to make surprise appearances at local clubs. Neptune native Jack Nicholson didn't often sing the praises of Monmouth County once he embraced Hollywood.

Springsteen was different. Not only did his songs evoke familiar places, but he often returned physically to those places himself. Except for a brief period of living in Los Angeles in the early '90s, he has always called New Jersey home. These days he spends most of his time at a farm in rural Colts Neck, only a few minutes drive from Freehold, the town where he grew up.

Likewise, of all Springsteen's tours, this is perhaps the one most rooted in a sense of history, of place. It opened in March with two warm-up performances at Convention Hall, the crumbling 3,000-seat venue on the boardwalk in Asbury Park, the town where Springsteen got his start. During his stand at Philadelphia's First Union Center, he found room for a single gig at the neighboring Spectrum, the venue where he had played his first full arena show back in 1976 (a booking at Madison Square Garden didn't come for another two years).

But while this tour could have been just a nostalgic reprise of greatest hits (and threatened to be at first), it's turned into something else along the way. It celebrates the past but is still rooted firmly in the moment. Rather than just a victory lap, it feels like a culmination. And not having a new album to promote has given Springsteen the freedom to throw open the songbook and unearth tunes he hasn't played in 20 years or more. The difference is that the band is playing them better than ever, with a skill and intensity honed by their years apart.

As a result, these shows also have the sweet tang of last days, the final run. Springsteen is 50, Clemons is nearly 60. The band members now have families and lives that don't necessarily revolve around rock n' roll 24-7.

Drummer Max Weinberg has a regular gig as bandleader on "Late Night with Conan O'Brien." Guitarist Steve Van Zandt exercises his acting chops on HBO's "The Sopranos." Singer Patti Scialfa is Springsteen's wife and the mother of his three children. Though the tour will probably continue well into next year, it's unlikely it will ever be repeated.

In the meantime, of course, Springsteen is still offering one last chance to make it real, for both his fans, his bandmates, and most importantly, himself. It's a challenge made manifest in the one newly written song he's been performing, the as-yet-unrecorded anthem "Land of Hope and Dreams." Played with an almost gospel fervor, the song is both a challenge and a reassurance, a call to arms and a cry of faith:

"Well, I will provide for you
And I'll stand by your side
You'll need a good companion
For this part of the ride
Leave behind your sorrows
Let this day be the last
Tomorrow there'll be sunny skies
And all this darkness past.
Big wheels rolling through fields where sunlight streams
Meet me in a land of hope and dreams"

(Below, audio of the entire 9/24/99 Spectrum show.)

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