We celebrated a dear friend’s birthday a few days back by throwing a party, breaking out the 7-foot home theater screen and digital projector, and streaming “Springsteen on Broadway” via Netflix.
The special documenting Springsteen's 236-gig stand at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York debuted in mid-December. I’ve been a fanatic for more than 35 years. And yet, this party screening was the first time I’d watched it. So why’d it take me so long?
I was avoiding it, to be honest. For a number of reasons that, I’ll admit, are a little weird.
First, Springsteen’s music hits me hard and is deeply tied to the period in my life when I started listening closely to it – 9th grade – and the relationship I had with my father at that time, as well as general feelings associated with my own socio-political awakening, which took place in early high school. That sounds pretentious. But it isn’t meant to be. It’s just true – whenever I listen to Springsteen, I think of a time when I was learning guitar, reading Howard Zinn, not getting along with my father, feeling alienated from everyone and everything at the Catholic Military Academy I was attending, and generally developing the premise that life was going to be at least 50 percent a raw deal.
That’s a lot of baggage. Because of this, my Springsteen listening has largely been a solitary experience, aside from the 50-plus live shows I've witnessed. It just felt too intense to share with anyone other than my brother, who feels similarly. Over the years, we’ve shared the music in a ritualistic manner – a sort of “two brothers, loud tunes and a 12-pack” ceremony. Sounds corny, maybe, but it has been deeply meaningful to me.
This background informs reason No. 2, which involves the unpopular opinion that the Springsteen represented by the admittedly riveting and astutely theatrical “Broadway” show is not “the best” Springsteen.
Wholly subjective, this stance, but again, this is personal. When Springsteen brought his one-man “Devils & Dust” tour to Buffalo in 2005, I was blown away by the manipulation of light and shade he was able to achieve. Those were dark days, and the show was appropriately dark, too. That aside, I’ve always preferred the fully developed arrangements afforded by larger ensembles to the folksy, post-Dylan/Hank Williams troubadour we see in the “Broadway” film.
A dear friend of several decades’ tenure who was at the screening party said, and I’m paraphrasing, “This is really powerful, but I wish he’d sing more melodies,” and based solely on the “Broadway” repertoire, I couldn’t argue. Much of the show finds Bruce doing a sort of folk scat-rap, emphasizing the text with minimal harmonic underpinning. Thing is, this really is only part of what the guy is capable of. Look at tunes like “Kitty’s Back,” “Incident on 57th Street,” “New York City Serenade,” “Girls In their Summer Clothes,” “Kingdom of Days,” “Your Own Worst Enemy” – these songs boast beautiful, fully developed melodies, strong vocal harmonies, and powerful-but-musical lead vocal lines. They’re at once sublime pop songs and dark, Roy Orbison-esque rock operettas. One could hardly describe them as “folksy.” And they are, for my money, more representative of the true depth of Springsteen’s talents.
I loved “Broadway,” and enjoyed sharing the experience with close friends. (And yeah, I cried after the intro to “My Father’s House,” as I knew I would.) But in the grand arc of Springsteen’s career, this theatrical revue/book-reading felt more like a beautifully presented parlor trick than a full celebration of an icon’s gifts.
I’m looking forward to what comes next. Because it's still personal.