Bruce Springsteen: A Glimpse Into the Promised Land

December 20, 1978. The Seattle Center Arena. Blackness, A blast of drums and then the opening chords of “Badlands.” The band at full tilt, and Springsteen at center stage, leaping back and forth, silent for a few bars then, Va-room!, a roar of guitar and then into the first verse: Trouble in the heartland/Got a head-on collision smashin’ in my guts, man, I’m caught in a crossfire, and I don’t understand…

I was 15. I’d seen a bunch of concerts before this, but mostly of a certain type: Your Ted Nugents, your Chicagos, your Steve Miller Bands. A few stand-outs — Paul McCartney, Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys before they were truly wretched. But this was different. It was dark and joyous. Even in its lightest moments it was entirely serious. It was intensely, totally, moment-for-moment-ly, real.

Three decades later, at least a hundred other shows, including a dozen or so other Springsteen shows (The “River” tour; the “Tunnel of Love” tour; the not-the-E-Street-Band tour in ’92; shows in New Jersey and Madison Square Garden at the beginning and end of the ’99/’00 reunion tour; the “Rising” tour; the “Devils and Dust” solo tour; the “Magic” tour (at the Meadowlands and then in Portland) and maybe more?) But the “Darkness” tour in 78 was the first, and, without a doubt, the best.

Maybe because it was so new to me. Maybe because he was only just found the real wellspring of his voice. Because he and the E Street Band had been on the road non-stop for virtually the entire room, determined to, as he put it, conquer the world. And to the extent that it’s possible to do that, they had.

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They conquered me, at any rate. They played with a spirit, generosity and poetry that blew past virtually everything I had been taught to expect from rock ‘n’ roll. Maybe from life, too.

If it’s possible for an artist to animate the spirit of America, this was (and so often continues to be) Bruce Springsteen on that night. The wounds of experience (“When you realize how they tricked you this time/And it’s all just lies/leave you stranded on a wire across streets of fire…”) a hard-won understanding of political and economic systems (Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/And a king ain’t satisfied ’til he runs everything...) an acknowledgement of his own failings (I know you’re lonely/and there’s words that I ain’t spoken...) And yet: an undying belief in humanity; in self-determination; in all that can be achieved for yourself by believing in, and working for, the common good.

Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man/And I believe in the promised land…

He performed these songs with complete focus, determination and, it was impossible to miss, an absolute belief. And not just his own songs, either. In a show that stretched ultimately to more than three and a half hours (including a two-song encore performed AFTER the lights had come on and most of the crowd had left) the one moment that stuck with me the most was in the first set, a completely unrehearsed, unexpected cover of Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo.” I still remember seeing Bruce congregate the band at center stage, recalling the tune’s structure and chord changes. Apparently, they’d played it many years earlier, and suddenly he’d decided the time was right to play it again. It began with a long organ-led intro (rest in peace, Danny Federici) as Bruce told a shaggy-dog story about a pretty girl who used to walk past a house he’d once shared with Steve Van Zandt. They desperately wanted to meet this girl, but felt shy “because our noses was so big.” Especially when they saw this other guy, who they didn’t know, trying to impress her too, riding past on his bike, no-hands, playing his saxophone: That was Clarence. “We figured we didn’t have a chance. And we were right! We didn’t! And we never would!” So into the tune, a pop gem performed with more raw feeling than ever before, I reckon, Bruce’s voice craggy and yet right on, all through the keening nostalgia and yearning and up to the end, and an even funnier outro story about his dream of going back and finding her again: this time loaded down with evidence of his stardom. “I’d bump into her, say ooops! Drop my records. Bump into her again, oops! Drop my Time and Newsweek. . .” the crowd laughed and applauded, and then he was silent for a moment, arriving at the transcendent thought:

She probably ain’t there anymore.

Then a beat, and one last line, delivered in a whole other, dreamier voice, connecting this old pop classic and its tall tale to all the love, faith and hope he had been (and continues to) sing about:

But ya never know.