' ' Cinema Romantico: Ray of Light

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Ray of Light

Tomorrow Bruce Springsteen, Planet Earth Poet Laureate, drops a new album. But not only does Bruce Springsteen, Planet Earth Poet Laureate, drop a new album, he drops a new album that was recorded with The E Street Band, live, per The Boss’s own words, with no overdubs. God, that sounds glorious. There are few sounds on the planet to rival the majesty of The E Street Band at work with no overdubs. It seems that much more monumental and necessary given the state of the world, one precluding live music. Hearing Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band will have to stand in for seeing them.

It was 20 years ago this past July that my friend Rory and I flew to New York City for one day to see the last show of Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band’s reunion tour at Madison Square Garden. If I wish I could say my first time in NYC was for something more than just seeing Bruce, well, actually, as much as I love New York, I don’t really wish I could say that at all. That? That was a good night in the world. You haven’t lived until your friend taps you on the shoulder midway through Bruce’s opening number, tells you to just stand still for a second and you suddenly realize you can literally feel a 20,000 seat arena swaying. 

The show itself was documented by HBO. I have the DVD, of course, and have watched it frequently over the years when I need a little kick or a little bit of comfort. And what the film, directed by Chris Hilson, captures best is Bruce and the E Streeters in their element. If occasionally the camera cuts to a wide shot of the stage, mostly it evokes an intimate sensation, opting for frequent single shots of Springsteen and his various rock ‘n’ roll compatriots as well as shots demonstrating the byplay between them. In a word: joy. “Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band: Live in New York City” is joy, which is pretty much how it feels to be at one of his shows. In that spirit, here are my favorite things from “Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band: Live in New York City”. 

This sense of camaraderie, of being bandmates and BFFs, is evident straight away when, in kicking off the proceedings with “My Love Will Not Let You Down”, Bruce turns toward the back of stage and, though you can’t quite tell from the screenshot, says a few words to Max on the drums. I can’t swear to it but I think Bruce is saying something like Are you ready, Max? and Max is saying something like I’m ready, Boss.

If you only know Max Weinberg as Conan O’Brien’s buttoned-up second banana, well, there was a reason Bruce deemed him Mighty Max. (The latest they-don’t-know-what-Born-in-the-U.S.A.-means brou-ha-ha merely reminded me, as it always does, that what people should really do when listening to “Born in the U.S.A.” is ignore the lyrics entirely and just listen to Max’s drums. They’re the truth as much as the words.) So. Let’s all behold the Mighty Max Drumming Face. I tried capturing the moment at the conclusion of “Prove it All Night” when he briefly erupts from his drum throne but it didn’t come out. You can see it at roughly 5:40 of the video. It’s worth it.

Because Garry Tallent, the bassist, never sings, you can sometimes forget he’s there. But he’s always there, hovering just over Bruce’s shoulder, the omnipresent musical concrete girder holding up The E Street Band infrastructure.

For a lot of Bruce fans, the supreme Nils Lofgren moment is his guitar solo on “Youngstown”, truly bringing the song’s howl of anger and desperation to life. Nils is such a humble guy, he just does what the band needs him to do even though he’s a more accomplished guitarist than its leader, and I love this image of Bruce ceding the spotlight. 

It’s not about the fans, I know, I said that, but. During “My Love Will Not Let You Down”, there’s a wonderful moment when the camera pulls back from behind the stage and you briefly see this middle-aged couple right down front. They are singing Bruce’s words to each other while Bruce is singing his own words to them and, boy, was there ever a more succinct image of Springsteen’s music as communion?

This look on Little Stevie’s face when Bruce is in the middle of thundering: “The heart-stopping, earth-shocking, earth-quaking, heartbreaking, air conditioner-shaking, history-making, legendary E Street Band.”

Rory and I were sitting behind the stage and I swear I have mental picture of this exact moment. Bruce & Clarence united in the name of rock ‘n’ roll. This image is the first thing I thought of the day Clarence died.

And then I thought of this: Bruce and Clarence swaying with the crowd.

And then I thought of this: Bruce & Clarence, in the middle of the “Badlands” bridge where they just step back as the crowd sings woah woah oh oh over and over, briefly conversing like they’re just a couple pals having a chat on a park bench.

“Look over yonder,” Bruce sings during the epic “Ramrod”, “and see the party lights.” At which he point he exhorts “Steve!” to literally look at those figurative party lights...

...which Steve does.

The music critic Steven Hyden has deemed “Two Hearts” as “the defining Bruce and Little Steven share a microphone and in the process symbolize the power of friendship song” and I enter the above image culled from the Live in New York City version of  “Two Hearts” as Exhibit A.

The best moment in this version, though, is this look Bruce and Steve exchange in the middle of it as they briefly back away from the mic before attacking it again, the biggest rock stars in the world just horsing around like The Garden is the Stone Pony. A look that is only slightly better than...

...this look they exchange during “Ramrod”.

It doesn’t look like much, I know, this half-grin from the late Danny Federici. But that not looking like much, that’s the whole point. Because this half-grin is in reaction to Bruce doing Bruce stuff at the front of the stage, shimmying and shaking and the whole nine yards. To someone like Danny, who had played with Bruce longer than anybody, seeing Bruce shake his ass for the benefit of all Madison Square Garden was like seeing the newspaper delivery person accidentally hurl the paper into the bushes again. “Huh.”

There is a remarkable essay by Cornel Bonca from 2001 about Bruce and what Bonca deems his Rock ‘n’ Roll Covenant, how Springsteen, in adopting a kind of manic preacher persona during his live shows, essentially dons a mask that allows him to “say things he wanted to say — things he’s been saying, actually, for twenty years in interviews — without coming off as a deluded messianic rock star.” This was especially true during the reunion tour for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” when he stop mid-song to deliver a whole sermon about the formation of The E Street Band and how that formation cultivated the friendship he craved. But at song’s end, like a preacher putting the exclamation point on the services, he screams “Save me somebody!”, which provides Bonca’s essay its title. “And if you have the HBO tape,” Bonca writes, “you can look into his eyes and notice that he’s stripped off the mask completely, and that he looks way past intense or committed or passionate or carried away and, for a brief moment, looks truly, beautifully insane.” That look, it perhaps goes without saying, is the screenshot above.


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