Sara Krulwich/New York Times
NEW YORK — It was the fall of 1974, and I was a 19-year-old sophomore at UMass Amherst in jubilant possession of two front-row tickets to a concert in Springfield by a young rock ’n’ roller named Bruce Springsteen.
He had captured my imagination like no performer ever had. All summer I’d been wearing out his two records, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.’’ and “The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle.’’ I would blast “Kitty’s Back’’ and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)’’ from the stereo to get pumped up while I bench-pressed weights in my parents’ basement. In the heartsore aftermath of a painful breakup, I found in the melancholy goodbye-to-innocence of “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)’’ a perfect match for my mood. It was far from the last time Springsteen would provide inspiration or consolation over the next four decades.
All I needed that October was someone to accompany me to the concert. But to my astonishment there were no takers on my dormitory floor. None. “That Jersey greaser?’’ sneered one friend.
So I was alone that night in Springfield — except that you’re never really alone at a Bruce Springsteen concert, as I would learn then and be reminded every time I saw him over the subsequent decades. While the impossibly dynamic figure onstage barreled through song after adrenalized song with the E Street Band, performing maybe 15 feet away from me, I was swept up in the ecstatic communion Springsteen invariably creates among his audience. The man just has a way of making you feel (to borrow a line) that it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.
Last Saturday night, I was in the audience for a very different Springsteen show. The shadow of mortality fell pronouncedly across this one. It’s laced with self-deprecating humor and warmth, but overall “Springsteen on Broadway’’ is a somber, introspective, and ultimately transcendent evening of songs, stories, and ruminations, performed solo by Springsteen on guitar or piano, except for two numbers on which he’s joined by wife Patti Scialfa. At one point, he pays tribute to a veritable roll-call of the dead, including Clarence Clemons, the saxophonist who contributed immeasurably to the Springsteen sound, and Springsteen’s father, with whom the singer had a tormented relationship.
Though he looks in great shape, Springsteen is 68 now. Turns out he’s no more immune to time and age than the rest of us. “Springsteen on Broadway’’ feels like a summing-up. Not a farewell by any means, but definitely a testament, as was his 2016 memoir, “Born to Run.’’
I was four rows back in the Walter Kerr Theatre, the best seat I’d had at a Springsteen show since ’74. (Tickets became a lot harder to come by when “Born to Run’’ was released in 1975.) When he came out onstage, attired in a dark T-shirt and dark jeans, with a guitar slung around his neck, I felt a sudden surge of emotion. Thoughts of all this guy had meant to me for so long rushed into my mind. As he stood there facing us, while the crowd hollered “Bruuuuuce!,’’ I pulled myself together, embarrassed by the lump in my throat. I’m a critic, dammit!
But this is still likely to be the least objective review I’ve ever written.
On the surface, I’ve got nothing in common with Springsteen. He grew up in gritty Freehold, N.J.; I grew up in the Boston suburbs of Framingham and Ashland. There was nothing mean about my streets. But he has always spoken to and for lost souls, and who among us doesn’t feel lost from time to time?
For the two-hour “Springsteen on Broadway,’’ written and directed by Springsteen and performed on a stark, warehouse-like set, the songs have been stripped down, slowed down, and generally reworked in ways designed to make us consider them anew.
He performed the once-anthemic “Born in the USA’’ in near-darkness as a slashing blues song that left no doubt (though there never should have been any) that it’s fundamentally a protest song. He made the post-9/11 “The Rising’’ even more prayerful and incantatory, performing it in a city where the Sept. 11 attacks happened. His rendition of “Dancing in the Dark’’ exposed the loneliness, yearning, and alienation at the heart of what he’s usually delivered in concert at a good-times tempo (“There’s something happening somewhere/Baby I just know that there is’’).
Throughout the show, my present-tense experience of the performance kept alternating with my memories of moments in my life for which he had provided the soundtrack.
During one monologue, just before he launched into “Thunder Road,’’ Springsteen recounted his exhilaration when he pulled out of Freehold for good. He described the experience of leaving a place when you’re young as the best feeling in the world. I thought back to the summer of 1975, when I dropped out of college and hitchhiked to California, where I lived for a while, all in search of some of the adventure and freedom and even danger I heard in Springsteen’s songs.
“I miss the beauty of that blank page and its endless possibility,’’ he said Saturday night, and I nodded my head. Yep, exactly.
When he quoted a line from “Factory,’’ a song on his 1978 album “Darkness on the Edge of Town,’’ I thought about a different line from that song. It was one that often echoed in my brain at the end of my shift on the General Motors assembly line in Framingham, where from 1978 to 1980 I had worked full time with a bunch of guys who were infinitely tougher than I was, and who didn’t have a college degree to fall back on like I did, and whose seething anger was sometimes palpable: “End of the day, factory whistle cries/Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes/And you just better believe, boy/Somebody’s gonna get hurt tonight/It’s the working, the working, just the working life.’’
I’ll freely grant that there have been times when I’ve strained to make a Springsteen connection out of what is nothing more than a coincidence. That’s what fans do, right? So when he sang “My Hometown’’ Saturday, from 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.,’’ I again savored the line “I’m 35, we got a boy of our own now’’ for the same reason I always have: My son, Matt, was born when I was 35. My wife, Carol, and I made sure that Springsteen’s music was part of the soundtrack for family car rides with Matt and our daughter, Christine.
There was nothing coincidental about the Springsteen connection on the day in 1986 when I got the call from the Globe telling me I’d been hired. It was something I’d been dreaming of for a very long time. As with so many other times of my life, there was only one singer I wanted — needed — to hear at that moment. So as I drove to the Connecticut newspaper where I then worked, I popped in a tape of “Born to Run’’ and turned it up as loud as it would go. Then my exultation was complete.
During Saturday night’s performance, Springsteen tried to explain what he set out to do all those years ago. “I wanted to know the whole American story . . . and to be able to tell it well,’’ he said. “I hope I’ve been a good traveling companion.’’
You have, Bruce. The best.
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