“We are such stuff,
as dreams are made on.”
“I was thinking,
about a series of dreams.”
“You gotta follow that dream,
wherever that dream may lead you.”
Anaheim. Fantasy Land. A place for the young to dream, and a place that kicked out Bruce Springsteen years ago because he and his pals looked like hoodlums and not dreamers. As if Anaheim had some corner on the dream market.
And so I am here in Anaheim after 37 years of watching this man spin dreams in the form of songs, one after another, which emanate from the darkness that he and all of us must pass through.
He is, after all is said and done, the realist who understands his own darkness and his own pain, and from this he arises to make connections to light, with heart and soul and music that is transcendent.
He walks on stage, and unlike any other rock star I can think of, he asks: “Are you ready to be transformed?”
Is he kidding? Does he really think he has the power of transformation? But we’ve been here before, and we believe. We are ready, and he launches into “Land of Hope and Dreams” bringing his own burning passion to the song. It’s almost too much for me to bear, for right from the start he embraces all the saints and sinners, all the living and the dead, all the pain and heartache, and places everything in the all encompassing soul that will deliver us from our misery, our heartache, and lead us to a land of dreams, where faith will be rewarded. The joy, the exultation has already begun and we’re only one song into a three hour and twenty-five minute show.
These dreams don’t come without nightmares.
Nothing is easy here, and so he launches into “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Streets of Fire” back to back. These are songs of deep pain, where a father and son face off with the “same hot blood” running through their veins and the son “inherits the sins, inherits the flames.” The guitars screech, the anger rises until those flames become streets of fire, where “you don’t care anymore” and you end up walking “with angles who have no place.”
It’s loud, it’s damning. It’s relentless.
A pleasant little pop song, “Hungry Heart’s” music belies its core where love, abandonment and “wrong turns” seep into one’s soul. Yet, there’s Bruce out in the middle stage smiling and grasping hands before asking the audience if they’re strong enough to hold him up as he crowd surfs back to the main stage. Even in times of separation, he searches for connections. And so the music plays, and the audience sings.
“We Take Care of Our Own” asks “where’s the spirit that’ll reign, reign over me,”
and we enter a new and different phase of this journey. How does this dream come out if we’re not looking out for one another. If we can’t see the spirit hovering over us in all of it’s glory. The answer comes in songs that do not bode well in Wrecking Ball and Death to My Hometown. Tom Morello thrashes his guitar as Bruce spits out the harsh words of anger towards those robber barons who deserve to go straight to hell. The band is in total sync as the crowd seethes in that pain, anger and despair.
These are cathartic songs, truthful songs, songs of release, songs you can dance to, and yes, songs of transformation.
Then Bruce takes another turn. A long extended version of “My City of Ruins” begins with his funny story of getting kicked out of Disneyland and Knotts Berry Farm, and then subtly shifts to his city in ruins along the Jersey shore. He then speaks of ghosts, ours and his: “Ghosts who get under your skin and scar your heart.” After the introduction of the band, the spotlights are on the areas on the stage where the spirits of Danny and Clarence reside, as Bruce quietly sings the “change was made up town,” over and over again. “From our ghosts to your ghosts.” He quiets the crowd, the band barely audible. Near silence. As a dream of life embraces the lost and the redeemed. Then the gospel chorus of “with these hands, with these hands’” prays for strength and faith for his city, his departed band mates, his friends, and all of our ghosts to “rise up, rise up.”
Transcendence. Transformation. “Can you feel the spirit!” screams The Boss.
“Spirit in the Night” is pure joy, as he and Jake Clemons lift everyone’s spirits, almost acting out the song on stage. E Street Shuffle romps and rolls as sparks fly on E Street with little Angel, Easy Joe, and the rest of the boy and girl prophets, turning “summer nights into summer dreams.” And then, just for the fun of it, Max and Everett Bradley go back and forth in a percussionist’s dream, each one taking turns to beat out wonderful rhythms as Bruce looks on and smiles.
Always those beats, those heartbeats of life.
A sign from an audience member has Bruce changing direction yet again, as he decides to sing “Long Time Comin’” solo. The ghosts of Adam and Cain hover in the background as he sings hopefully, almost like a prayer, that the sins of one’s children will be theirs alone, and not those of the parents. Such a personal moment to be shared. Such a beautiful song to lighten the heart of one who has chosen to “bury my old soul” and “dance on it’s grave.” To move forward; for Rosie and him to lie outside beneath the “arms of Cassiopeia.” It’s been a long time coming. Be patient. Transcend. Transform.
Do we now have a “Reason to Believe”? Maybe, maybe not. The song begins with Bruce singing and Steve playing the blues riff under the lyrics. When the band kicks in, the song carries memories of Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf, and every blues singer who rocked and shook their souls trying to answer questions that have no answers. Belief is always a loaded question, so maybe it’s best to just stand up, dance, and move your body to it’s heart and soul.
Amazingly, the darkness of this show is always, always, lightened by the musicianship of the players. This Depression finds the singer “low”, with his “faith shaken.” Then, Tom Morello comes forth and channels Hendrix and every great guitarist who ever lived as he lifts the song up in chords of sorrow and pity, while reaching for the sky of salvation. The struggle never goes away, as humans lift their arms in hopes of pulling themselves out of the mire that this life has them trudge through. Which takes us to “Darkness on the Edge of Town” where “lives are on the line where dreams are found and lost.” Always those dreams; always coming to you and then falling away. Mike Ness comes on stage to reprise his performance of “Bad Luck” a few years ago, and you can see from the ferocity of the performance that he and Bruce are on the same page.
“You get to the top and then you fall,
Gonna hang down your head and cry.”
Yeah, maybe it’s just Bad Luck. Maybe it’s something more. The song bites at the soul, and Bruce and Ness sing it with no real answers in mind. Just an observation on the state of so many souls on this earth. “Because the Night” finds Nils whirling, thrusting, spinning in the darkened arena as he plays as if his life depended on it. When “Darlington County” rolls in with it’s oh so cheery chorus of Sha la la, la la la la la, the audience is lulled into thinking this is a great ride, as Nils and Bruce play off of each other on the center stage.
Connections, as always, matter, but did anyone notice that Wayne was handcuffed to the back of the state trooper’s Ford?
Sha la la, indeed, for this leads to “Shackled and Drawn” where Wayne might find himself. The gospel influenced call and response may be the only salvation for those “trudging through a world gone wrong.” The band members form a chorus line of sorts at the end, because what can you do except keep singing this song. Salvation sometimes comes only in small doses.
Finally, the children shall lead us. “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” finds Bruce helping a little girl on stage as she sings in the most innocent of voices that she’s waiting on a sunny day that’s “gonna chase the clouds away.”
Bruce smiles, beams actually, for it is the children that seem to always find the hope. This causes Bruce to go to the center yet again, slap some hands, and demand that the audience Raise Your Hand. Everyone joyously obeys because it’s what we really need–so simple and yet so cathartic.
Still, the world comes at you relentlessly like a sledge hammer, and Tom Morello takes the stage to play the most stinging, angry, version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad” you’ve ever heard.
More ghosts, more agonized fury, more screams of outrage from Bruce, Tom, and Morello’s lethal guitar. The song burns like the flames of hell. Then, with Morello still on stage, Bruce single handedly lifts the audience out of their seats as Badlands rages into that concert hall. The audience pumps their fists and sings along, as everyone spits in the face of every demon that tries to capture another soul. The song rises up into the rafters and out into the dark night on wings of human despair, then soaring to that land of hope and dreams.
Bodies may be tiring, but emotions are running high, as Bruce stands in a lone spotlight and begins the magnificent Thunder Road. “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night,” the audience sings. The message has come through again. The redemption for Mary and everyone else is always possible, but she–we–must show a little faith if the transformation is to take hold.
With his guitar held aloft, Bruce goes into the heart of “Jungleland.” The crowd is silent as Jake plays the notes on his sax that once were the sole domain of his uncle, but which Jake has now taken as a personal salute to the man who so influenced him. This moment is breath taking. So many emotions fill the arena, and not just in Jungleland. Then, Roy plays his quiet piano section amidst the silence of the crowd and takes everyone ever deeper into the heart of the city. The song ends with Bruce’s primal scream that encompasses all that has gone before it.
We understand. All of it.
“Born to Run” reaches everyone, fists pumping, people on the floor dancing, everyone singing. Bruce walks to the front of the stage inviting those in the pit to strum his guitar as hands reach to touch the magic of the music. He connects yet again, as he’s done all night, never allowing the space between himself and the audience to grow too wide. The artist extends himself and his art for all to see, all to touch, all to celebrate. He welcomes participation in this dream.
There is pure exultation as “Dancing in the Dark” finds Bruce and Jake pogoing up and down as the audience dances in joyous dreams as they “shake this world off’ their shoulders, and realize that “you can’t start a fire, worryin’ about your little world falling apart.”
Even the guy in the last seat in the last row to the side and slightly behind the stage is dancing among the empty seats in the highest part of the building. Dance to the wonder of it all. Dance just knowing that you’re still standing.
Dance because “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town,” and if you’ve got a Santa hat, Bruce tells you to jump up and dance on the center stage.
There’s only one song left on this journey, and that’s the profoundly meaningful “Tenth Ave. Freeze Out.” The audience sings the opening notes over and over as Bruce raises his hands, higher and higher. We then go to that moment when we celebrate the band, past and present. The video of Clarence has been altered a little and we are allowed to celebrate Danny’s life also. The audience raises its collective voice as Bruce holds his microphone high in the air. From the coastline to the city, we rejoice in the lives of band members we have come to love. The band kicks in, Bruce returns to sing the rest of the song and the last words we hear are, “Oh yeah, oh yeah, It’s ALL RIGHT!”
Yes, he was right after all. We have been transformed.
Not by some smarmy pop, but by a realist who understands the dark nights of the soul and still reaches for the light in a place of dreams. A place where songs are written to transform us, to inspire us, to heal our wounds and help us celebrate our transcendent moments.
When I hear Bruce Springsteen, I hear echoes of Louis Armstrong who changed American popular music; I hear Hank William’s who probed the depths of the common man’s loneliness; I hear Bob Dylan who redefined what music and poetry can be. Most of all though, I hear the voice of Bruce Springsteen, an artist who’s looked directly into the light and darkness of his own dreams and found an audience who has had those same dreams.
And it is those dreams, by way of his art, which he never shies away from. They contain harsh realities, and yet there is always the faith, the passion, and the music itself that can reach beyond those worldly barriers to touch the infinite possibilities of our life on this earth. How lucky we are to be living in the same time as this artist.
If he has not transformed you, he has at least shown you the path.
That is all you can ask of an artist. For in seeing and understanding those transformative dreams through the conduit of his art, we touch the divine.
In Anaheim, once again, I have seen the transformative powers of the artist and understood that the dark night does not last forever. I have seen Bruce Springsteen embrace the divine, and with arms wide open, invited us along on his journey. So I, likewise, fling my arms into the air like so many others, and my soul is lifted up in dreams of wonder.
Thanks to Ron Wells for this guest post. Thanks to my husband for the photos–he and our 9 year old son didn’t have the greatest seats and they barely got into the show. After missing the first six songs and with our son in tears, he forked over the money for tickets to a scalper.
Congratulations to Bruce Springsteen for earning Grammy nominations for Best Rock Performance, Best Rock Song, and Best Rock Album! During his career, he has 20 GRAMMY wins. On February 8, two nights before the GRAMMY Awards. Springsteen will be celebrated
at the GRAMMY MusiCares Person Of The Year ceremony.