Springsteen’s Broadway Redemption is Not What You Think
Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce Springsteen’s one-man show (with his wife, Patti Scialfa, for a few songs) is now finishing its 236-performance run in New York. It comes to Netflix on December 16.
The show is extraordinary. It is an autopsy of us, a public service, a political rally, a list of what we need to do next as a nation. A man confesses his sins, asks for our forgiveness, tells us about an America we still might be able to become, and opens his heart about what it means to be closer to the end than the beginning.
I saw the show live, a lucky winner of the ticket lottery. The Netflix version of the same show (and soon to be album, DVD, etc.) is a simple recording of what we all saw in the theater. No real backstage footage, no interviews, no B-roll of Bruce grimly driving around his hometown. Someone was smart enough to focus the cameras and get out of the way.
Politics is missing from the show and politics is present in nearly every line. While there are references to “the current state of affairs,” you don’t hear the name Trump, same as you didn’t hear Reagan, or Bush, or much about Obama during Bruce’s long career. Instead, you hear about the people they left behind, those who once believed in the American Dream and now see just what happened to it.
Bruce signals early that it’s time to make amends via spoken passages pulled from his autobiography interlaced with his music. I’d heard something like this before—at AA meetings where people working through their 12 Steps admitted what they’d done and sought redemption. Bruce stood up and apologized for allowing “Born in the USA” to become an anthem. He’s pissed off now, singing, no, shouting the lyrics. He seeks amends by telling us it should have always been sung as a protest song, that it always was to him, but he let it slip away.
So he took the song back, hitting the line “son, you don’t understand” hard. Maybe he was directing it at himself in 1984 when he was trying to ride the tiger of fame, or maybe at himself dodging the draft and later, as politicized by Ron Kovic, visiting the Vietnam Memorial wondering who went to ‘Nam in his place.
Springsteen’s politics are bigger than one passing president, same as his vision for us. He professes that we need a conscience, not a party affiliation, to make America great. So the words of a nation turning its back in the 1980s on those who built it double for the words of a nation turning its back on some of its most vulnerable citizens in 2018. Throwing people away has become quotidian; the grace in our lives and work has been nearly forgotten.
The lack of empathy that caused us to abandon factory workers in the Midwest isn’t all that different from the lack of empathy that causes us to abandon people in need today. Some manipulative politicians tell us it’s different, that we don’t need to care about white laborers, same as others tell us we don’t need to care about immigrants of color. Springsteen channels, mimics, and echoes the poets who told that part of America’s story too: Whitman, Guthrie, Steinbeck, Agee, Seeger, Debs, Dylan.
“Land of Hope and Dreams” captures all this, with its signature line about a train, America, carrying saints, sinners, whores, and gamblers, borrowed from Woody Guthrie who borrowed it from John Steinbeck—some damn fine lineage there. We can be better, even if we never were better before. America’s greatness isn’t about romanticizing a past that never existed; we always pushed back against immigrants, always sent men and women to die for the wrong reasons abroad. But this still used to be a country that talked about dreams with a straight face; it was never supposed to be a finite place. And so Bruce amends a key line from “Promised Land,” changing “I believe in a promised land” to “I believe there is a promised land.” The danger is always in thinking we cannot be better people than we’ve become.
“Promised Land” thus is an unexpected highlight of the show, framed around a retelling of Bruce’s first trip across the great western deserts. Springsteen makes no secret that the promise he saw in America remains unfulfilled, and that the answer is us. He finished the song aside the mic, singing and playing without amplification. It was as if he was singing to each of us as individuals and it was meant to be so.
Yet for all its intimacy, much of what’s happened doesn’t feel like it was for us at all. We didn’t show up to see him so much as he seemed to need us to show up so he’d have someone to talk with. Bruce’s adult life has been all about crippling bouts of depression relieved only by maniacal touring. You could imagine if it was somehow possible, he would have liked to have delivered this show to each of us individually, maybe in the kitchen, by little more than the light on the stove. Gathering everyone into a theater was a necessary but unwanted logistical thing.
A lot of this hummed around the edges of Bruce’s performances for years. He was already working out his emotions over his unloving father on stage as a kind of meditation when I first saw him perform in 1978. But tonight, when he imitated his father telling him to go away after a young Bruce had been sent to fetch him from some bar—“don’t bother me here, don’t bother me here”—that was an eight-year-old on stage mimicking an adult. The pain was as involuntarily present as the sweat on his forehead.
The evening was as necessary as a last hospital visit with an old friend. Bruce wanted to know—he asked—if he’d done okay by us, if he’d been a “good companion.” We’d made him very rich, allowing him as he joked to never have to hold a job in his life. Twice he accused himself of being a fraud, saying he’d never been inside a factory. But it’s time now to take that long walk. We’re tired, we’re old, we’re at the point where there is more to look back on than to look forward to. So did he do okay by us? Was it…enough?
Yeah, Bruce, it was. The show finished where things started, really, with “Born to Run.” Everyone in the audience heard it a first time a different time since it came out in 1975, but since then 43 years had passed, we had grown old together. Every one of us, and by God that had to include Bruce, heard a hundred versions of that song in that moment. We heard it on 8-track, bootleg cassette, LP, CD, MP3, DVD, YouTube, and Netflix, and faced together the warm embrace and cold slap of never being 16 years old again.
Age is omnipresent—maybe we ain’t that young anymore—right down to the construction of the song list; it’s telling that a 69-year-old Springsteen chose about a third of the set from his youthful period 40 years earlier. As he said on stage, there’s less blank paper left for us to write on. Maybe as a person, maybe as a nation. Maybe they are the same thing if we think on it right.
Unlike a typical Springsteen concert, where anything less than three hours is a short cut, the Broadway show was tight, maybe even a bit rushed at two and a half hours. Not like Bruce was trying to cram in everyone’s favorite songs and still get home for the news, but like he had a lot to say and knew he didn’t have a lot of time to say it. The end is coming, even though we don’t know exactly when, so you listen up now.
The weight of it all—the love lost, the hate and pain collected, a nation wavering on itself and its promise—feels heavier than it used to when there was more time. Now, Bruce seemed to say, I’m going to get these things together for you and hand them over during these hours. After that, they’ll be yours to take care of. In a way, they always were.
Peter Van Buren, a 24-year State Department veteran, is the author of We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People and Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan. He is permanently banned from federal employment and Twitter.