' Cinema Romantico: A Digression: Caught In A Dream Where Everything Goes Wrong

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Digression: Caught In A Dream Where Everything Goes Wrong

"Your idol is shattered in the dust to prove that God's dust is greater than your idol." - Rabindranath Tagore

For the last few months I've had a recurring nightmare. It is the Super Bowl halftime show. The stage is black. The crowd is roaring. A piano plays in the darkness. "I know that piano," I think to myself. It is the intro to "Thunderoad" by Bruce Springsteen. Now a harmonica enters, and as it does one soft light comes up on Bruce himself. He sings the opening stanza. Now all the lights come up to reveal the entire E Street Band as the song is about to hit its stride except that doesn't happen. "Thunderoad" stops and...."what are they doing?" I ask myself. "Are they going straight from the opening of 'Thunderoad' to 'Badlands'? Is this....a medley?"

At that point I wake up screaming. Literally screaming. Sweat pouring off my body. I sit in my bedroom in the middle of the night, shaking, saying over and over, "Oh, God, please say it won't be so."

Bruce Springsteen is my idol. He is my hero. Artistically, professionally, personally. I turn to his music when I'm sad and when I'm happy and when I'm on the train about to suffocate from too much peopleness. I want specific songs of his played at my wedding and at my funeral. I listened to his version of "Living Proof" off Plugged at least 15 times on Inauguration Day (I know Obama used "The Rising" during his campaign but Plugged's "Living Proof" has always been my favorite Hope-Springs-Eternal-Springsteen). On the Tuesday in 2002 when "The Rising" was released I took a vacation day from work. I once spent (along with my friend Rory) approximately $300,000 (slight exaggeration) to fly to New York City for one night to see him live from behind the stage at Madison Square Garden. I relayed this story and specifically how I'd emptied my bank account to make it happen to my friend Andrea's mother this past summer and she said to Andrea, "Look at him. He's so happy about it."

All of that, and a whole lot more, is why I am having a grueling time coming to grips with the fact Bruce Springsteen is playing the halftime show at Sunday's Super Bowl.

A few years ago, after Bruce had turned down his annual invitation to play the world's biggest event, a sportswriter openly opined as to why he never accepted and how he wished he would. Immediately I composed and then sent off a scathing letter to this sportswriter. “Why would someone of such resolute character, someone rooted so soundly in his own rock-solid principles ever want the most commercialized gig imaginable?” I demanded in such a way that you could practically see the steam billowing from my ears. I finished, “Bruce Springsteen will never play the Super Bowl.”

Gulp.

Sportswriter Joe Posnanski (a fellow E Street Disciple) wrote a beautifully thoughtful piece on this topic just a couple days ago, trying to come to terms with why Bruce might have made this decision. He closed by relaying the story of Prince’s press conference at the Super Bowl where he performed a few years back and how someone asked him how he felt about playing the halftime show. Prince responded by picking up his guitar and playing the opening to “Johnny B. Goode”. Posnanski wrote, “And that was his answer. Maybe there are no answers. Maybe it's just rock and roll.”

Except in the liner of notes of Springsteen's latest album (just released Tuesday) a portion of his elegy for bandmate Danny Federici, who passed away earlier this year, was reprinted and it said the following: "Of course we all grow up and we know 'it's only rock and roll'...but it's not."

Of course, it's not. A Springsteen concert is not just rock and roll and anyone who has attended one can offer confirmation. Another E Street Disciple, writer Joyce Millman, has compared a Springsteen show to being like "Christmas, something anticipated, slow coming, cherished and festive." I think that's about right. And if a Springsteen show is like Christmas, or, shall we say, the good parts of Christmas, family and friends and snow and skaters gliding on ice and eggnog lattes and that indescribable but oh so wonderful feeling that crackles through your body on Christmas Eve combining warmth and anticipation and hope and love and peace and makes you believe (in everything), than the Super Bowl represents all the bad parts of Christmas. The Super Bowl is "Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire" blaring in malls before Halloween and garish lights on houses that fuel exorbitant electric bills and obnoxious red sweaters with Rudolph taking flight.

The Super Bowl is a corporate, soulless event that’s all about ad space. A Springsteen concert is all about – as the man himself has said – “the ministry of rock and roll”. How can that ministry be offered in such an environment? I weep to think of Bruce, the same man who wouldn't give up the rights to "Born in the USA" when Lee Iacocca came calling and when he first played L.A.’s excessive Staples Center mocked the amount of luxury boxes, thrusting his fist to “Born to Run” in a show being sponsored by Bridgestone, which will be running a spot during the telecast featuring Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. (Someone spray mace in my eyes. Right now. Please. I'm begging you.)

I thought perhaps at Bruce's press conference yesterday in Tampa he might shed a bit of introspective light on why he made this choice but when asked he said, "(W)e have a new album coming out, dummy! So we have our mercenary reasons." This is all he seems to have stated on the subject. The words were in a mocking tone, of course, but is the mockery merely a means of self-defense, of justifying this whole ordeal in his own mind? Most disturbingly are the people who are accepting this reasoning, people like ESPN scribe Gene Wojciechowski, who pegs himself a supposed "Boss-ophile" and then writes, "So Springsteen is pushing his new CD. Makes sense. Everybody is selling something during the Super Bowl."

What?! Springsteen has never, ever been just about "selling something" and now we're simply sluffing this off?! And Jon Friedman of Marketwatch makes a point that is extremely difficult for me to admit seems pretty darn valid: "Is it just a coincidence that tickets for many of Springsteen's upcoming shows go on sale Feb. 2, the morning after the Super Bowl?" (Mace! My eyes! Now! For God's sake, what are you waiting for?!)

But the closer the dreaded date comes the more I wonder if the question isn't so much Bruce’s decision to play the Super Bowl (as bad as that is) as it is my fear of precisely what is going to happen once the event actually unfolds. Let’s think for a moment about the other bands that have most recently played on this worldwide stage. Paul McCartney was just that – Paul McCartney, which is to say, come on, people, he’s not really a Beatle anymore. The Rolling Stones were in the retirement home and busted out to make the date. Prince – the man so disinclined to convention he changed his name to a frickin’ symbol – played a medley. A medley! Tom Petty played last year only a couple years removed from releasing an album that, ahem, mocked the rampant commercialism in the music industry. Then, and perhaps most troubling, there is U2, who played back in 2002 fresh off the critically acclaimed and, I thought, very good “All That You Can’t Leave Behind”. Yet, their first album post-Super Bowl (“How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb”) found them, in the words of music critic Jody Rosen, “transitioning into the revered granddaddy stage of their career.”

Gulp.

Maybe I'm just being paranoid. Bruce is arguably the greatest live performer of all time (okay, not arguably - he is) and knows to toss numerous curveballs during any one concert. Perhaps he'll open with "Loose Ends" and all this will be water under a bridge. Perhaps he'll play a set consisting of nothing beyond the 12 minute version of "Prove It All Night" that he used to do back on the "Darkness on the Edge of Town" tour and my entire body will go up in flames of joy. Perhaps he'll come out by himself and say "Remember that trip hop album I was rumored to have cut back in the mid-nineties and then never released? Well, I'm playing the whole damn thing tonight. Deal with it." Perhaps he'll play "The Promised Land" and when Clarence's solo transitions back into Bruce's harmonica the whole stadium and the whole world will no longer even give a crap about the football game's outcome and the rest of the night will just be a Springsteen concert (oh, I can dream).

This is the guy who when he was still in his teenage band wouldn't play the popular songs of the day and instead focused on originals and obscures covers he felt were worthy! He has always refused catering to the masses! So if he comes out onstage on Sunday and just does Puttin' On The Hits, or, God forbid, a medley, well, I really, honestly don't know how I will react, though my friends may want to think about installing thick, barbed-wire fencing on the roof of our apartment.

I know, I know, you're telling me to calm down. That I'm making too much of it. In his article Posnanski quoted his friend (and yet another E Street Disciple) Liz Clarke of the Washington Post: "I'm taking it very hard. I know people will think I'm being silly. If you asked 10 people why this upsets me, all 10 would get it wrong. It's hard for me to put into words.” I hear you, sister, and you’re not silly. Hell, no. Bruce isn’t their idol, he’s ours, and that’s why this is so hard.

Everyone’s idol eventually gets shattered in the dust. But who wants to watch it happen on live TV?

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