To the river together
Collum, Danny Duncan
Family and community at the Bruce Springsteen show.
The Promise. We waited for a whole year. One cold, dark morning early in 1999, we were sitting at the kitchen table reading the paper together when I saw a tiny notice in the syndicated “celebrity news” column. Bruce Springsteen was reuniting with the E Street Band for a grand tour of Europe and America.
I went to the Internet, found the early tour schedule and signed up for email bulletins about future dates. All year the announcements trickled in. First Europe, then New Jersey, Philadelphia, Chicago, Minnesota, Cleveland, Columbus-even Fargo, North Dakota, but nowhere in the South. We waited and watched the map. “If they get anywhere near us, we’ll do our best to go,” I promised.
The e-mail alert finally arrived in late January 2000. They were coming to Memphis, just an hour and a half from our house, and we were going. One gray, freezing Saturday morning in February, I rose at 6 a.m. in order to be at a Memphis record store by 8 when the ticket lottery began. I have never in my rock-and-roll life stood around shivering in a parking lot to get concert tickets. For a couple decades, I never had the disposable income for concert tickets anyway, and during those years the number of acts for whom I’d brave an arena or stadium dwindled to a select few. Springsteen was still on that short list, but if it were up to me I’d have stayed home and tried to order cheap seats on the phone. Instead, I was out in the ugly weather waiting for a chance to drop about $140 for what I hoped would be two of the best seats in the house.
I had to do it. I’d made a promise to a 7– year-old boy.
It all started in 1998 when we finally set up the turntable and got out the vinyl records for the first time in my son Christopher’s young life. Then, during that long summer between kindergarten and first grade, Christopher discovered the five record Springsteen live set, 1975– 1985, with the book of lyrics and huge color photos.
It became an obsession. For him, it was the Bible, the encyclopedia, and the Iliad and Odyssey all rolled into one. He asked us to play it over and over. Then he asked me to tape selections, so he could listen on his own ancient, single-speaker cassette player. The rest of the summer he carried that black, rectangular cassette player around with him. He’d put it on the ground beside the swing-set and pass hours there in the shade, swinging with the music. By summer’s end the tape player was dead from the sandbox and playground dirt accumulated in its guts.
“Why this?” his mother and I wondered. What is he hearing that he didn’t hear in other music? When we asked him, he’d talk about the drums on “Born in the USA” that were “louder than the whole world” and the guitar noise on “Adam Raised a Cain.” He was also getting interested in baseball that summer, and the E Street Band is big-like a baseball team-with distinct personalities at the different positions. I also suspect that he heard the same things the rest of us do in Springsteen’s work-honesty, sincerity, and unvarnished human emotions. James Brown himself once said, “There’s no such thing as adult water or children’s water or old people’s water. It’s all water, and music is all music.” If it’s clean and fresh, it satisfies the soul.
The Other Promise. My own Springsteen obsession may have waned in the last decade, but it still runs deep. For many elder fans, like myself, an almost mystical expectation has built up around Springsteen. It’s not enough for him to be the most accomplished and versatile white rock artist since Elvis hit the tank. He has to be that and a visionary spokesperson for the radical democratic faith. Back in the bad old Reagan-Bush days, Springsteen became one of the most important voices in American culture because he spoke out clearly for a vision of equality and cooperation at a time when that vision was banished from conventional politics.
Reagan-era deindustrialization, unemployment, and “trickle-down” economics weren’t abstract concepts for Springsteen. They were things that happened to his New Jersey family and friends. So during his marathon tour of 1984-1986, at every stop Springsteen visited with community organizations, unions, and food banks for displaced workers. At every show, when he sang “My Hometown,” he talked about the work those groups were doing and urged his huge audience to help out. He always closed with his own communitarian creed, “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.”
In 1988, Springsteen and the E Street Band took to the road again, performing as part of a worldwide Human Rights Now! tour for Amnesty International. Springsteen’s 1995 solo album, The Ghost of Tom Joad, was almost a concept album about the ravages of corporate globalism, with a focus on the U.S.-Mexico border. Even the intensely personal Lucky Town (1992) included a protest song about the Gulf war.
Springsteen isn’t making that kind of Big Statement on his 2000 tour, at least not an overtly political one. He is promoting the work of local groups with brief comments from the stage and free space in the lobby (at our show it was the Memphis Food Bank). But he’s not making speeches, and that’s his business. The notion of covenant-promises made and kept-has always been central to Springsteen’s work, but he never promised to save America, or even rock and roll. Springsteen’s promise was only to give us music that mattered, played all out-that and the best live show in the entertainment industry.
That’s where the E Street Band comes in. Springsteen is a singer-songwriter and a recording studio perfectionist. But he’s also a rock and roller, and rock and roll is a communal affair-at least it was during that great 20-year-run from The Beatles to The Clash. Most of Springsteen’s band members came with him from the Jersey shore and their shared history always save Sprinsteen’s live shows the feeling of a family affair in which the audience, however large, was included.
Springsteen broke up the band in 1990, when he and his wife, former backup singer Patti Scialfa, started having children. It was as if he had to leave one family before he could start another. On the current tour, he has integrated his families. The E Street Band is back, including Scialfa, who was offstage for hubby’s Lucky Town and Tom Joad tours. And a huge family of satisfied customers is testifying that the promises have all been kept.
Down By the Riverside. In Memphis, the band played at The Pyramid Arena, a shiny gold, pseudo– Egyptian replica that sits between Interstate 40 and the Mississippi River, by the Arkansas bridge. Inside it’s a high-class basketball joint with cushioned theater seats. Christopher and I arrived about a half-hour before show time. The stage was already set. It was a vast, bare expanse of white with three risers-for the two keyboardists and a drummer-across the back and five mike stands across the front. A sound system tape played Neil Young and Crazy Horse, Social Distortion, Marvin Gaye, The Blasters, and scattered hiphop and reggae. After a while we started hearing the same taped songs over again, and Christopher grew antsy. “When is it going to start?” he kept saying. Then, in mid-complaint– boom, out went the lights.
The band members came on one by one, their entrance tracked on giant video screens hanging above each end of the stage. Finally, just behind Clarence Clemmons, Springsteen entered and strapped on the familiar blonde Fender Telecaster.
“All rise,” Clemmons commanded, and we did. Christopher stood on his seat to see over the adult heads and held my hand for balance. There was an a capella gospel harmony introduction (“There’s a meeting in Memphis tonight…”), then, with a roar and a bang, the band raced through “My Love Will Not Let You Down,” “Promised Land,” and “Two Hearts” with hardly a breath in between. It could not be denied. This was the real thing: American music-hard, loud, and true-with screaming guitars, lonesome harmonica, a swinging backbeat, and a desperate guest for freedom and community.
Before the show began, I wondered what Springsteen had been up to in the years since Tom Joad. I’m sure he was hanging out with the kids a lot. But now I know he was also playing his guitar. His live playing on this tour is technically sharp and devastating in its emotional power. Springsteen also seems to have listened to a lot of gospel music and watched Robert Duvall in The Apostle about once a month. The show was full of old-school preacher rhetoric, Duvallian body language, and other echoes of revivalism.
First, there was that gospel opening. Then, during “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” the band segued into Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.” This was a standard part of the tour playlist, but it was also a special treat for us gathered on a Saturday night, by the Father of Waters, in Rev. Green’s hometown. Then, while the band played, Springsteen stopped singing and delivered a sermon on the shouted theme, “I want to go down to the river tonight! It’s a river of life. It’s a river of forgiveness. It’s a river of faith…a river of hope…a river of resurrection– where everybody gets a second chance!” Then, lowering his voice, “It’s a river of sexual healing and companionship.” Finally returning to a Pentecostal shout, “But you can’t get there all alone! No, you can’t get there by yourself! You got to go there together!”
Later, he stopped in the middle of “Light of Day,” to reprise his preacher act. “I can’t promise you life everlasting,” he shouted, “but I can promise you life RIGHT HERE AND NOW! Is anybody ALIVE out there?” Then he fell into an extended riff about bringing “The power and the glory. The majesty and mystery. The ministry of rock and roll.” He repeated this until you half-expected someone to break out in tongues. And who knows? Maybe somebody did.
Near the end of the evening, Springsteen began the song, “I’ll Wait for You,” a ballad from Lucky Town. In the recorded version, it’s an adult love song, a pledge to stay together in tough times. “I’ll wait for you,” goes the refrain, “and if I fall behind, wait for me.” In concert, Springsteen expanded the song into an anthem of community by having each of his singing band members (Clemmons, Scialfa, Steve Van Zandt, and Nils Lofgren) trade lines and verses, solo and in various combinations. The song continued until everyone had pledged fidelity to everyone else, then it closed in group harmony, around a single mike.
This, of course, is “The Message” Springsteen is pushing these days. We need each other. We can only go forward together. It was there in his preacher routines, in the brief plug for the Memphis Food Bank, and between the lines of most of his songs. It’s a spiritual message about unity and interdependence. It’s a moral message about how we treat the folks in our daily lives. And, in an economy where the top 20 percent is racing off and leaving the rest of us in the dust, it is inevitably a political message, too.
Big Wheels Rolling. In case anybody in Memphis was missing the point, Springsteen dedicated his last (pre-encore) song of the night to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr. The song was a new one, “Land of Hope and Dreams,” that is closing all the shows on this tour. It’s a rolling rocker with a sound that builds and swells like purple mountains’ majesty. The words sing about a new version of that old American gospel train. This one “carries saints and sinners…losers and winners…whores and gamblers…midnight ramblers.” On this train, he sang, “Dreams will not be thwarted…faith will be rewarded.” As the train rolls through fields of sunlight, we hear “big wheels singing [and] bells of freedom ringing.” And all the people said, “Amen.”
Christopher was worn out by the second encore. At home he’s almost never awake past 9 p.m. He struggled through a long version of “Ramrod” and perked up again when Springsteen raced across the stage and did a perfect somersault. When the show was finally over, I half-pushed Christopher to the exits through a dense crowd of very tall people.
Outside it was raining, and we weren’t prepared. I pulled Christopher’s coat up over his head, hoisted his 55-plus-pound body up onto my shoulders, and made for the car as quickly as safety allowed. He was asleep in the back seat before we left the city. As the rain got harder, I slowly steered us across the countryside toward our little town. Long past midnight we drove, in silence, through a thick wall of water that rolled down the hillsides and soaked bottomland fields already cleared for planting.
DANNY DUNCAN COLLUM, a Sojourners contributing editor, teaches writing at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi.
Copyright Sojourners Jul/Aug 2000
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