I came very late to Bruce Springsteen. Very late indeed. In fact, if you’d told me I’d ever be one of the adoring throng at a BFI event queueing up to shake his hand and have a photo taken with him, I’d have laughed at you, and pointed out that I once left an E Street Band gig an hour early out of sheer boredom. What changed?
In his blog about Springsteen last week, Dorian Lynskey wrote about the “leap of faith” Springsteen requires. I think that’s especially the case with those raised on some kind of musical dogmatism – in my case, that’s 80s indie, with its suspicion of big American rock above all things. Springsteen requires you to embrace the corn: you have to accept that the most important American rock star of the last 40 years does not really care about that most crucial of rock traits: coolness.
My Damascene moment came in a basement in Soho, on a sweltering night in May 2005. My colleague Laura Barton and I had started a monthly club night and she insisted we finish our first event by playing Born to Run. I scoffed. You can’t dance to it. It’s got that breakdown in the middle where all you can do is stand still. It will clear the dancefloor.
It won’t, she insisted. It will fill the dancefloor, even if people are just standing there waving their arms around. She was right; I was wrong. At two in the morning, the entire clientele of Push bar was bellowing, as loud as it could: “Tramps like us, baby we were born to run!” And, in one of those moments of staggering comprehension that I thought only happened in second-rate novels, I understood: Bruce Springsteen compels you to happiness by sheer force of personality, or – at this point in his life and career – by his sheer mythic persona.
This isn’t just my favourite Springsteen clip; I think it might be my favourite live clip of anyone. The studio version of Rosalita is great enough: as pure an expression of a young man’s joy about being alive, in love and playing rock’n’roll as you could imagine (in those lines: “This is his last chance/ To get his daughter in a fine romance/ ‘Cos the record company, Rosie/ They just gave me a big advance!” you can hear someone marvelling at the madness of being handed a big wedge of dollar bills to do what he’s been doing anyway, for years, for much smaller wedges of dollar bills). In this clip, you can see how the joy spreads, from Bruce to band to crowd, until even someone viewing a clip 34 years later can’t help but be bowled over.
The first woman crawls out of the crowd for a kiss around 1’50” in. She’s followed by another 15 seconds later, and Springsteen offers a single clap, and a cry of “All right!” as if he’s telling every man in the audience: “Hey! This is what being a rock’n’roll singer’s all about!” Another 20 seconds in and there’s a third. Springsteen turns to face her, both hands palm-up, his face, a cartoon grin. If he could, he’d send his eyes out on stalks. By the end of the song, he’s been wrestled to the floor, three women trying to get a piece of him. It makes me laugh out loud: these aren’t prepubescent girls, these are women who’ve been so moved and excited by the previous three hours – Rosalita’s normally at or near the end of the set – that they can’t contain themselves. Springsteen has achieved the sole real purpose of rock’n’roll: he has taken people out of themselves.
These are all the things that would once have horrified me about Springsteen: now they are the very things I adore. This stuff is corny, but it’s sincere, and even when it’s not sincere – for no one can “mean it” for three hours a night, 150 nights a year, for 40 years – the muscle memory of truth is there in everything he does. The corniness is a means of communication: it’s as if Springsteen knows it will be too cringeworthy to simply state his belief in what music can do, so he dresses it up in the clothes of the preacher, the huckster, the snake oil salesman, in order to smuggle his message in as a joke. By the time he’s finished, though, it’s no joke.
I don’t get the urge to jump onstage when I see Springsteen. But I do things I don’t do at most gigs: I do sing along at the top of my voice; I do dance badly; I do punch the air. For a few hours I shed my embarrassment. It’s like a drug.
I’ve got a musician friend who, a few years ago, sang Rosalita onstage in New York with Springsteen. The New York Times, covering the show, said my friend was “barely able to contain himself: he seemed about to burst”. I can’t blame him.