Article 1999-08-12 East Rutherford, NJ

Necessary Springsteen Keeps the Faith

Bruce Springsteen was 45 minutes late when he arrived at rehearsal at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., on Thursday afternoon. He was limping, his hand was bandaged, and he was clearly exhausted. In several hours, he would be performing the last of his record-setting 15 sold-out concerts at the arena. In the last five months he had already logged 2 public rehearsals in Asbury Park, a 36-show European tour and 14 performances at this arena. One would think he wouldn't have to rehearse anymore.

But Mr. Springsteen, who has never shown a sense of entitlement to his rock throne and always felt a strong accountability to his fans — particularly those from New Jersey, the state that he and his songs are so strongly connected to — wanted to make that 15th night a little more special than those before it. After all, some fans had been to every show: like the luckier characters in Mr. Springsteen's songs, they deserved a reward for their faith and perseverance. So he rehearsed two songs the band hadn't played yet on the entire tour: ''Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)'' and ''Jersey Girl.''

On almost every night prior, Mr. Springsteen had ended the show with a new, unreleased song, ''Land of Hope and Dreams.'' It was a very appropriate and telling conclusion to the show, a happy ending of sorts to the preceding tales of characters trying to navigate their way through a morally, financially and emotionally uncertain world, weighing their dreams against their reality and trying to decide which path to follow.

The new song ultimately gave its main characters what they wanted, death and vindication, changing the passenger list in the Woody Guthrie song ''This Train Is Bound for Glory'' (which only takes ''the righteous and the holy'') to be all-inclusive (for saints and sinners, whores and gamblers). On ''this train, dreams will not be thwarted,'' Mr. Springsteen sang with the E Street Band. ''This train, faith will be rewarded.''

But after ending ''Land of Hope and Dreams'' on Thursday, he delivered a short farewell speech flattering the audience and then put a hand to his chin and mused: ''Let me see, how can I say thanks? Maybe just once …'' Then he trailed off. Most fans knew what would come next: they had been asking for it night after night, holding up signs pleading, ''Can Rosie come out and play?'' only, at some shows, to be sternly told by Mr. Springsteen that he had no intention of performing the concert classic they were asking for.

ut on Thursday night he had every intention of playing it, changing the lyric about ''the swamps of Jersey'' to ''the great state of New Jersey.'' And when he sang the line he wrote in 1973, ''Someday we'll look back on this, and it will all seem funny,'' he responded to his younger self, ''It is funny.''

It would have been too contrived to open on first night of the series with ''Jersey Girl,'' a Tom Waits song. But it began Thursday's show. In addition, during ''Hungry Heart'' Mr. Springsteen was joined onstage by a very different native son of New Jersey, Jon Bon Jovi (who in his days as John Bongiovi sneaked into this very arena to see the Boss), along with the guitarist Richie Sambora and Melissa Etheridge.

Though Mr. Springsteen set the record for the longest stretch of shows at the arena with these 15 concerts, the 330,000 tickets that were snapped up were not the most he has sold in New Jersey during an engagement. (His six-night stand at Giants Stadium in 1985 packed in more people.) But the popularity of these performances comes at an interesting time. In 1985 he was at the height of his ''Born in the U.S.A.''-era popularity; today, less than a month away from his 50th birthday, most of his recent releases have been archival.

The complicated, morally uncertain picture that Mr. Springsteen painted of the working class has been replaced on the pop charts by the angry certainty of proud white-trash rebels without a cause like Kid Rock and Limp Bizkit, whose sense of pop history stops at early hip-hop and 70's rock. In their songs, which offer few possibilities of redemption, the time bombs ticking in the hearts of Mr. Springsteen's down-and-out characters are always exploding.

Yet Mr. Springsteen's concert popularity endures because, besides always having put on a great live show, he fills a rock-and-roll need that no younger pop act is serving successfully. (He will most likely return to the arena for a New Year's Eve show, though it has not yet been announced.) He evokes a period of pre-psychedelic rock-and-roll that seems to be fading from the collective pop memory. And he speaks for the increasingly invisible backbone of America: the blue-collar laborers, the people caught in the struggle of every day, the poor huddled masses whose individuality he insists on, ''The Ghost of Tom Joad.'' It is a segment of the population that has been slowly losing its voice in popular culture in these years of prosperous baby-boomer spending, romanticized teen-age entertainment and Internet optimism.

Mr. Springsteen is also necessary because he still believes in rock-and-roll. In a mock-preacher voice each night, he offered the audience paradise in this life through ''the ministry of rock-and-roll.'' An early convert, he was quite literally saved by the music when the guitar gave meaning and direction to the life of an awkward small-town loser ostracized by his parents, his peers and the nuns who taught at his school.

He captured that moment with the bittersweet fondness of hindsight at several concerts with an unreleased confessional folk song named after the town he grew up in, ''Freehold.'' But the rock-and-roll sermon reached its feverish peak each night when the house lights came on during ''Born to Run.'' Audience members, religiously rising to their feet, didn't just remember the song, they didn't just sing it: they felt it. ''Someday girl I don't know when/ We're going to get to that place/ Where we really want to go.'' The importance of Mr. Springsteen's music is in those four words of aspiration and ambivalence that speak to us all, ''I don't know when.''

Mr. Springsteen's 15th show at the Continental Arena was a marked contrast from his first concert there a month earlier. On opening night, with television cameras rolling, moguls and critics from across the country in attendance and a lot of anticipatory hype for the beginning of his first American tour in more than 10 years with the E Street Band, he was somewhat stiff and visibly nervous, though he still delivered a strong set. But as the dates progressed, he and the band became looser, more playful, more comfortable and more familial. One night, they celebrated the birthday of Patti Scialfa, his wife and back-up singer and guitarist; another night, the guitarist Steve Van Zandt even brought his cocker spaniel onstage.

At Thursday's final show, Mr. Springsteen and the band walked onto the stage as if it were their living room. More than most previous nights, he spoke between songs, ran around, pumped his fist in the air, interacted with the crowd and jumped on the piano (although the shows were still shorter and less talkative and energetic than in his younger days with the band). He also stretched out on electric guitar, playing at least three solos, most notably during ''Prove It All Night.''

He was more himself: serious and passionate but also goofily self-conscious. The drummer Max Weinberg played with more precision and ease than at any of the previous shows I'd seen, and Nils Lofgren gave ''Youngstown'' one of its best slow-burning guitar-solo codas.

From night to night the structure of Mr. Springsteen's set appeared to be the same, with a handful of gaps for new songs to be inserted. As time progressed, material from his first two albums (before the studio, songwriting and sales success of ''Born to Run'') slowly crept its way into the set list.

Interestingly, the only stage of Mr. Springsteen's career that wasn't represented throughout the engagement was his 1987 ''Tunnel of Love'' album, recorded as his first marriage was dissolving. A reflection of the optimism that the E Street Band and his current marriage seem to bring out of him was that instead of performing those songs grappling with problems of domesticity and co-dependence, he played love songs like ''Two Hearts'' and ''If I Should Fall Behind'' (his 1992 sequel to Ben E. King's ''Stand By Me'').

It is clear that in 1999 — with a $14 million home in Beverly Hills, a place in the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame and almost a quarter of a century of success behind him — Mr. Springsteen is far from the embodiment of those he sings about. But at the same time he has gotten more than he wanted only to discover that a dream fulfilled is no longer a dream; it is a new and heavier weight. And in his long engagement at the Continental Arena, he carried that weight admirably.

By Neil Strauss via The New York Times.
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