Most artists are not honest about the level of artifice that goes into their carefully constructed public image. But Bruce Springsteen is not most artists. Never has been.
Still, “Springsteen on Broadway’’ is an unusually forthright act of self-demystification for a musical legend, especially one who counts among his passionate fans some who still cling to the belief there’s not much daylight between Springsteen and the hardscrabble characters he writes about.
Having now arrived, somehow, at the cusp of 70, Springsteen seems determined to separate the person from the persona and show us where the songs came from, as well as what he calls the “magic trick’’ at the root of his creativity. So in “Springsteen on Broadway,’’ he pulls back the curtain and takes us deep into the life that shaped the career, while reminding us that there is a difference between the two. Recorded for a two-CD, 2½-hour live album due to be released Friday on Columbia Records, “Springsteen on Broadway’’ was also filmed for a Netflix special that launches early Sunday morning, hours after his autobiographical stage show wraps up its lengthy, sold-out run at New York’s Walter Kerr Theatre.
Broadway was one of the last unconquered territories for Springsteen, who’s been part of the cultural fabric now for well over four decades, writing songs that cut to deep places in the heart and performing them in concert with an electricity few can rival. Behind the craft and showmanship lies an intuitive, bone-deep, Steinbeck-like sense of the country that has always been his truest, greatest subject.
That tortured embrace of his troubled nation runs through “Springsteen on Broadway” ’s blend of stories, acoustic versions of his songs, and ruminations that are lyrical and vernacular by turns. Some of this ground was covered in “Born to Run,’’ his 2016 memoir. That book, along with all his other records, will suffice for casual fans. But for others who want to fully understand this complicated man, there is significant value to hearing and seeing him tell his stories and put his songs in context, especially given that he has always been as much storyteller as songwriter and singer. (That familiar sandpapery voice now bears unmistakable traces of all those years and all those miles, making it sound gentler, more wistful.)
Because the show registers as an attempt to understand his own life and times, Springsteen’s tone and expression say as much as his words do when he talks about trying to understand the father with whom he had a storm-tossed relationship, the man he calls “my hero and my greatest foe,’’ whose depression “I was too young and stupid to understand’’; or about the inspiration he drew from the pride with which his mother, a legal secretary, carried herself at the office and around Freehold, N.J., and the love of dancing that she passed on to her son and that persists even in the face of her long battle with Alzheimer’s; or about the magical, “one plus one equals three’’ relationship he had with the incandescent Clarence Clemons, saxophonist for the E Street Band; or what the separation of immigrant children at the border says about the threat to what the nation stands for at its best.
As he performs his old songs, Springsteen seems to be searching for new meanings, or at least new layers. His version of “The Promised Land’’ is meditative and largely devoid of the original’s furious defiance. “Thunder Road,’’ too, now has the retrospective quality of an adventure distantly recalled rather than one lived in the present tense. But he turns “Born in the USA’’ into a spare, slashing, and relentless blend of blues and protest song. In “My Hometown,’’ he sounds like a cross between Woody Guthrie and Tom Waits.
As if he’s intent on heeding Montaigne’s advice (“We must remove the mask’’) Springsteen begins the show by telling the audience: “I come from a boardwalk town where everything is tinged with a bit of fraud. So am I.’’ Chronologically speaking, it fits that the first song he performs is “Growin’ Up,’’ from his debut album, but this time you sense that Springsteen wants you to listen hard to the song’s opening line: “I stood stone-like at midnight/Suspended in my masquerade . . .’’ Even when he talks about falling in love with his wife, Patti Scialfa, and describes the challenge we all face in trusting someone, the idea of being masked surfaces. “I don’t want to see my real self,’’ he says. “Why would anyone else want to?’’
He confesses that he was never the street desperado and hot-rodder his early 1970s albums like “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.’’ and “The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle’’ suggested he was. In fact, he was just a “guitar player’’ who didn’t even know how to drive. He was not, in fact, “Born to Run,’’ but “born to stay.’’ He says ruefully: “I currently live 10 minutes from my hometown.’’
But we know, and he does too, that that is only part of the story. Whatever the distance between image and actuality, Springsteen always told the truth to us about the things that mattered. In “Springsteen on Broadway,’’ that truthfulness adds up to an honest self-portrait.
Don Aucoin can be reached at email@example.com.