Article 1988-05-23 New York City, NY

Bruce Springsteen Has a Grown-Up Way With a Song

AS SOMEONE WHO HAS FOLlowed the career of Bruce Springsteen with interest and ambition - oh, to heck with sober critical moderation: with loving enthusiasm - for some 15 years, I took great satisfaction in his ''Tunnel of Love'' indoor-arena tour that ended recently with five shows at Madison Square Garden. For me, it amounted to a fascinating deepening of his concerns, from anthemic rocker to angry social commentator to, now, a grown-up if troubled composer whose songs can stand comparison with the finest art songs of the past.

I attest to my enthusiasm because a number of people, clinging to their memories or pumped up with delirious expectations, pronounced themselves disappointed with the show. The reasons for their disappointment seem to be at least two, apart from the fact that a hot ticket like this tends to find its way into the pockets of older, more settled people who themselves can't muster the rock-and-roll delirium of their youth.

One reason is technical. Despite the huge size of unroofed, outdoor stadiums, their open-to-the-sky configuration poses fewer acoustical problems than an echo-ridden barn like the Garden. And because of the vast distances involved, artists like Mr. Springsteen use giant television monitors that provide a closer sense of involvement than the monitor-free - and still vast - spaces of a basketball arena.

The second and more important reason for any disappointment, I think, was the very nature of the show Mr. Springsteen set about to provide (which in turn probably determined his choice of the more ''intimate'' arena circuit). Like the ''Tunnel of Love'' album, these four-hour shows stressed sober, introspective material.

The theme was grown-up love and its vicissitudes. Many of the songs were overtly gloomy, ponderous dirges in the best Springsteen manner. Many of the ebullient rockers his fans have come to love and expect - the kind that provoked stadium-full sing-alongs on the last tour - were missing. And those rockers that were included tended to double back and comment on the underlying theme. There were uptempo numbers for the encores, of course, but some people felt they clashed with the body of the show, so sharply focused had it been. In any case, they came too late to alter the tenor of the evening.

Two songs epitomized the evening. Well into the proceedings, Mr. Springsteen offered a starkly revisionist version of his youthful anthem (and title of his breakthrough album of 1975), ''Born to Run.'' He prefaced it with remarks to the effect that maybe what his youthful protagonists were really running toward was a mature, responsible self-awareness. The song itself was delivered as a ruminative lament, slow and serious, each word enunciated with solemn precision.

Mr. Springsteen had performed this song with solo piano accompaniment in his youth, as an alternative to its more familiar, full-band, hell-for-leather version. But this was so sharp a rethinking that it recalled Bob Dylan's snarled, monochromatic reductions of his own big hits. There was an enormous difference - Mr. Dylan seemed to be scorning his past, while Mr. Springsteen was earnestly trying to accommodate it, to make it one with his present.

Both versions were failures - the phrase ''strap your hands across my engines,'' intoned as if part of the Pledge of Allegiance, seemed particularly silly. But at least Mr. Springsteen's revision was conscientiously considered, and it had a kind of sad poetic power in his very failure to make his pained adulthood seem like an extension from, or improvement on, his rebellious youth. It made one realize what a difficult time he himself seems to be having, growing into the full responsibilities and satisfactions of adult love. The other key song in the show was ''Brilliant Disguise,'' the first single on the ''Tunnel of Love'' album and the quintessential moment of that album and this show. It came like the still, quiet but deeply troubled center of the whole evening, and it has lingered in my own mind for weeks.

The song is brilliant in more than its title. It's a slowish song (pop hits are generally uptempo) with animation provided by the accompaniment. It's a simple strophic song, yet it has an out-of-phase, shifting underpinning that enlivens the simplicity - indeed it constitutes the ''hook'' that makes the music memorable.

But it's the words that lift the song into the realm of the truly distinctive, a bluntly pained reflection on the perhaps inevitable duplicity of love. The singer wonders if what he perceives in his beloved is real, and yet by the end he's turned things around and questions his own reality - or simple honesty - in the eyes of the beloved. The song is a case study in the ability of artists to address adult themes in the musical and formal language of youth-oriented pop. But it also reaffirms the capacity of popular music itself - vernacular spirit commodified to the max by the full muscle of American capitalism - to achieve traditional artistic stature.

I once ruffled several sets of feathers by suggesting that Joni Mitchell's ''Hejira'' album represented a legitimate extension of Franz Schubert, Hugo Wolf and the entire line of the European art song. I still believe that to be true, and that Mr. Springsteen's songs can join the canon, as well.

That is not to say that pop is only serious when it is classical, or that classical music is only vital if it is based on vernacular idioms, or that central European classical criteria for all things technical and spiritual should be employed in discussing the best modern Anglo-American pop songs.

The point is that the song form - serious words set to music that is deeply felt yet accessible, at least to some - has been and remains one of the most profound of all Western musical statements. The ''Tunnel of Love'' tour was, among many other things, a telling forum for Mr. Springsteen at his most searching and serious. It deprecates no one, past or present, to recognize his contribution to the art-song tradition.

By John Rockwell via The New York Times.
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