Monday, June 20

Springsteen: the ticking of that time

It was both sad and significant that the US leg of Bruce Springsteen’s The River Tour 2016 was bookended by the passing of two musical giants. Six days before Bruce and the band played their first show in Pittsburg on 16/1, David Bowie died. And four days before Bruce and the band played their final US show in Brooklyn on 25/4, Prince died. 

So it was fitting and somewhat spooky when, while researching for an essay on authenticity in pop culture the day after Prince's death, I came across Springsteen, Bowie and Prince in these words by Keir Keightley, in The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock:

‘…while a number of rock critics view artifice as the negation of authenticity, juxtaposing David Bowie’s playful obliqueness to Bruce Springsteen’s sincere directness, what is at issue is the difference between the two families of authenticity. It is never the artificial alone that is the point of rock artifice. Instead, rock artifice involves a deliberate rejection of the Romantic mode of authenticity, in favour of a complex and nuanced Modernist strategy of authenticity in which the performer’s ability to shape imaginary worlds - rather than being shared by this world - is foregrounded. For example, Prince’s flashy androgyny and trickster sexuality highlighted his status as a distinctive artist, operating above mundane norms and conventions of genre and sexuality. In playing with rock artifice, Prince is true to the artist’s prerogative to remake himself, employing artifice as ultimate evidence of his Modernist authenticity (a).’

While in one sense true, I get tired of the ‘Springsteen is the most authentic rock star because he’s the voice of the common working man etc etc’ stance, so I like the way Keightley shapes the concept of two differing strands of authenticity to show that Bruce, Bowie, and Prince are each authentic in their own way (b). Considering the passing of Bowie and Prince, then, what does this say about the longevity of different types of authenticity? About the lifespan of artifice vs the lifespan of sincerity? About differing forms of honesty and how long they can endure? Lots of things, perhaps, or maybe nothing at all. But what struck me most about this quote was that it was these three artists in particular who were picked to illustrate rock music as a whole. Three artists who'd all been in the public eye recently: two because they'd passed away, leaving great holes in the music world; the other because of his new run of still-scorching-the-earth live shows. Three giants of the genre. And only one of them left standing. 

Bruce Springsteen is nearing 67 years old. He’s still physically fit. His voice still holds up. He’s still playing three-and-a-half hour shows, he’s still running about the stage, sweating, dancing, shredding his guitar; E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt describes him as a ‘maniacal frontman’ and ‘Superman’. The band still sound better than most other live acts today. At an E Street Band show you can feel some of that same energy and hunger they played with in the seventies and eighties; they’re not puppets of nostalgia, going through the motions to plump up their pensions.

Yet I keep hearing, mostly on the Springsteen fan circuit, rumours that The River Tour is a farewell tour for the E Street Band. My own opinion (along with Van Zandt’s) differs strongly; the band love to play with Bruce, and what with the unexpected deaths of Bowie and Prince, they must be keenly aware of the finiteness of time. Therefore they gotta play while they still can, right? (I mean, Nils Lofgren cancelled his 2016 solo tour to go on the road with Bruce.) Rather than a ‘farewell’ tour, I prefer to think of The River Tour as a ‘who-knows-what-the-next-few-years-will-bring’ tour, a ‘Bruce-can’t-predict-the-future’ tour. 

Bruce’s US shows included a full run-through of the double album that The River Tour was designed to celebrate. In Chicago on 19/1, after playing Wreck on the Highway, the album’s closing song, Bruce said:

‘So, The River… The other thing I wrote about was time. I was sitting with a friend of mine last night and he said, “time comes to us all”. And The River was about the ticking of that time, and how we each have a finite amount of it, to do our jobs, to raise our family, to do something good.’ 

You couldn’t help but feel that the retrospective nature of the tour, combined with the premature passing of Bowie, had put mortality and time into Bruce’s mind, applying the themes of The River to the life of Bruce and the band themselves. Prince’s death at the end of the US run of shows was a fitting underscoring of these feelings. 

It’s important to think about these things. It’s important to take notice of age and mortality, to listen to the ticking of the clock, to know that things can’t continue in the same way forever. But it’s equally important to enjoy the present moment, to feel it and live in it as fully as possible. Rock and roll music is about both temporariness and immortality, artifice and sincerity. Like Bruce once said, ‘I can’t promise you life everlasting, but I can promise you life right now.’ 

So while people complain about predictable setlists, or speculate about the health and future of the band, or raise an eyebrow and say ‘notice how Bruce doesn’t jump off of Roy’s piano anymore’, I’m just going to continue to enjoy the sweat, the life, the raw undiluted joy of an E Street Band show. While I still can. While they still can. 


(a) What Keightley means by Romantic and Modernist authenticity:
- Romantic authenticity: direct communication between artist and audience; sincere unmediated expression of inner experience
- Modernist authenticity: indirect and aesthetic, true to Modernist credos of experimentation and innovation; not about reaching audience but about remaining true to artistic integrity  

(b) I’d go further, and say that none of these three artists are one mode of authenticity or the other; they each employ bits of both. For example while Bruce’s appeal and success as a rock star rests largely on the direct communication of his live shows, a Romantic kind of authenticity, he has also in a more Modernist way consistently valued and remained true to his artistic integrity: one example of this was his decision to give the song Because the Night to Patti Smith instead of including it in his own album Darkness on the Edge of Town, because it didn’t fit in with the themes and messages of the album, even though it’d probably have provided him with a much-needed hit single. But that’s another discussion.

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