With the benediction, “Till we meet again,” the Boss and his band strode off the temporary stage at New York City’s Shea Stadium, the final moment of a wondrous 14-month tour, leaving 50,000 celebrants drained, exalted and impervious to the unseasonable cold. The delirious throng now knew what the almost 3 million who had attended the tour’s other 119 shows in 82 cities around the world knew: there is still nothing like a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert.
In a cynical, fragmented, battered era, the 54-year-old Springsteen and his troupe of New Jersey boyhood friends and family took it as their righteous duty to squeeze three-plus hours of blood, sweat and rock ‘n’ roll energy out of themselves and their audience until there was nothing left to give.
At every show Bruce and the band proved their belief that it’s not too late: rock ‘n’ roll can still inspire, can still unite any number of strangers on the strength of rhythm, melody, the sting of an electric guitar, and the faith that, in the words of the Springsteen classic “Thunder Road,” even now there is “magic in the night.”
It is only fitting that the tour — which nearly broke the North American record of $121 million set by the Rolling Stones in ’94 — would end with three final triumphant shows in New York, just across the river from his New Jersey home. Springsteen’s latest album, the Grammy-winning “The Rising”, was born of his intensely personal reaction to the horror of September 11, 2001, as he, like the city, fought through despair and desolation to find love and hope on the other side.
How apt as well that Bob Dylan would appear during the first encore at Shea Saturday night to perform “Highway 61 Revisited” with the band: over 30 years ago a folkish Bruce Springsteen was signed by legendary talent scout and producer John Hammond (Billie Holiday, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Stevie Ray Vaughan) at Columbia Records to be the “next Bob Dylan.”
On Springsteen’s first album, the semi-autobiographical “Greetings From Asbury Park,” he took the Dylan label literally, tossing out enigmatic hipster phrasing and rapid-fire allusions in a promising but inconsistent manner. But just months later in ’73, Springsteen’s poetic urban beatnik persona found profoundly moving and durable expression in his first masterpiece, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.”
With no idea whatsoever who he was, I saw Bruce and the original E Street Band open for English blues-rockers Wishbone Ash in Cleveland that year. In what could have hardly been a less compatible pairing, Springsteen — in a T-shirt, jeans and short hair — and his charismatic band converted a crowd of Anglophile longhaired hard-rock fans in platform shoes to his early swinging, ’50s R&B-based sound with classics like “Kitty’s Back,” “E Street Shuffle,” “Spirits In the Night,” “Blinded By the Light,” the rousing young-rocker-makes-good story “Rosalita,” and the wise, wistful “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).” Wow.
A year later, with Springsteen headlining outside of his home turf for the first time on the strength of the landmark single “Born to Run,” I witnessed the band at full intensity: a 4-1/2 hour insane marathon of delirious jubilation, which made Jon Landau’s famous remark that he had “seen the future of rock ‘n’ roll and it was Bruce Springsteen” seem an understatement. A year after that, in 1975, Springsteen and the band released the album that matched the hype inspired by the single. “Born to Run” was a panoramic view of summer across the New York/New Jersey metro area, capturing forever the raging energy at the moment between adolescence and adulthood, the poignancy of dreams, and the magic of place.
Next came “Darkness On the Edge of Town,” Springsteen’s autumnal answer to the summery “Born To Run.” The most telling moment is a pair of lines from “The Promised Land”:
“Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man And I believe in the promised land”
While accepting the responsibility and limitations of adulthood, Springsteen clings to the ideal of a land where, through steadfast faith and determination, dreams can come true — not necessarily will come true, but can. While diminished from the open-ended vistas of “Born To Run,” the narrower vision of “Darkness” is compelling for its stubborn idealism in the face of realism.
In 1980 they put out “The River,” a phenomenal two-record set that confirmed Springsteen’s greatness as an artist and proved the E Street Band to be one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll units of all time. “The River” has the scope and particularity of a great novel and just plain rocks.
With “Born In the U.S.A.” in ’84, the band’s last studio album together before “The Rising” 18 years later, Springsteen and E Street finally achieved sales to match their superstar status on the strength of tough populist anthems, great pop songs, and the misunderstood title track, an anti-war song appropriated to the cause of jingoism. With the success came inevitable backlash, tensions, and in ’89, a lengthy disbandment not reversed until ten years later.
Over the years I have seen the Bruce and the E Street Band many times, in settings growing from clubs to halls to arenas to stadiums, and I have always felt they — now Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt (a.k.a. “Silvio” on “The Sopranos”), Nils Lofgren, Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent, Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan, and Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa — were playing specifically to me, speaking directly to my needs, inviting me to join a celebration that has only grown deeper and wider with time.
Eric Olsen is the editor of Blogcritics.org and a frequent contributor to MSNBC.com.