Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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MSN Music News

Singing Along With Bruce

A superstar has become a symbol, and his Danish fans know it

"They say you've never really seen a Bruce Springsteen concert until you've seen one in Europe," proclaimed David Brooks in a deeply silly June 25 New York Times column long since dismantled by the bloggerati. But when I witnessed a European Springsteen concert myself a few weeks later, the show was so remarkable it occurred to me that maybe Brooks wasn't just jiving about what "they" say. So after I got home I asked around, and although a few knowledgeable old-timers had never heard such a thing, others agreed. Prominent among these were Miami Steve Van Zandt and Jon Landau, Springsteen's oldest bandmate and longtime manager, respectively.

Landau didn't mince words, emailing: "he simply is more popular both on records and live in Europe than he is in most of North America." Van Zandt was cagier, explaining to Rolling Stone's Andy Greene that European audiences participate where American audiences observe, and trend younger, especially on the summer festival circuit Springsteen favors: "I mean, we played to 90,000 16-year-olds the other night at Roskilde. It was amazing. I'm not exaggerating." Since it so happens Roskilde was where I saw Springsteen myself, I can attest that Van Zandt was exaggerating, slightly - about the 16-year-old part, not the amazing part. Roskilde estimates the Springsteen crowd at 85,000, topped in its 42-year history only by Prince's 90,000 in 2010. Festival ticket holders average 21 or 22, and the mean age of Springsteen's audience was further raised by the grownups who made most of the 5,000 day-pass buys and the misguided young saps who chose Bon Iver two hours into Springsteen's three-hour set.

To someone peering into Roskilde's controlled-access pit from the stage, maybe everybody looked 16. But not much of any crowd of 85,000 enjoys pit proximity--most festivalgoers depend on the Jumbotron, which at Roskilde was so well-edited that video-to-audio delay was imperceptible and stage business always accounted for, and the sound system, which provided clarity if not presence a soccer field away. Having sidled in at middle depth two songs late and then edged forward for an hour, I got a close look at sizable swaths of crowd, dominated by attentive fans in the 28-to-42 range. It was in part to be with such fans that I kept advancing. Further back, the younger onlookers were often what the Brits call liggers, casuals given to jabbering through the music--music that, as I had failed to anticipate, was very nearly transcendent.

I was one of Springsteen's earliest critical enthusiasts, and I've never stopped admiring him. But I haven't been a full-bore fan since the late '80s, and had only seen him once as my enthusiasm waned: in 2000, at Madison Square Garden, where the woman next to me groused about a bottleneck-blues rendition of "Born in the U.S.A." and 10,000 thick-waisted nostalgia victims boogied clumsily to funkless show drummer Max Weinberg. So although I was glad to see Springsteen again and considered his 2012 album, Wrecking Ball, his best since Tunnel of Love if not Born in the U.S.A., I wasn't especially psyched--which is sometimes best, isn't it?

You don't need me to tell you how dedicated Springsteen remains to his music, his fans and the vitality of his performances--nor, I hope, that he's sometimes sententious and always mortal. If you do, please go find "We Are Alive," the just-published Springsteen profile by another outsider named David, New Yorker editor David Remnick, which only magnifies Springsteen's heroism by squarely addressing his imperfections, including many that haters harp on and a few that are seldom discussed. Clearly the Wrecking Ball Tour represents a revitalization if not a new peak for him. Remnick believes he's rising to the challenge of an onrush of deaths and life crises, especially but far from solely the loss of saxophone colossus Clarence Clemons, who at Roskilde was honored in a long video montage. But Remnick acknowledges that the righteous anger Springsteen unleashes in Wrecking Ball may contribute too, and that's how it felt to me.

Bruce Springsteen didn't attract 85,000 celebrants to a temporary campground 20 miles from Copenhagen because his politics are more redolent of Scandinavian capitalism than of the dog-eat-dog monstrosity Americans are stuck with. He attracted them because he isn't merely a superstar, he's a symbol--not of America, but of an American music that changed world culture. By dint of integrity and longevity, he's transmuted himself into the embodiment and reigning master of a rock 'n' roll now in its late maturity. How could it be, Brooks asked in feigned bewilderment, that massed European youths could shout out "Born in the U.S.A." when they were so manifestly born somewhere else? The main answer--duh--is that those are the six catchiest notes one of the world's greatest songwriters has ever put back-to-back.

There are subsidiary answers, however. The 26-song Roskilde set began unrepentant with the chestnuts "No Surrender" and "Badlands," embellished the subcanonical "Two Hearts" with a Bruce-and-Steve take on Marvin Gaye and Kim Weston's "It Takes Two," and then switched gears into three bitter new songs: the sarcastic "We Take Care of Our Own," the defiant "Wrecking Ball" and the Gaelic threnody "Death to My Hometown," which explicitly blames bankers for the deindustrialization Brooks pretends is as natural a fact as the disintegration of the union movement he finds so bothersome. Still pretty far back, I watched the 20-something woman in front of me first listen hard and then start to mouth choruses, especially the one that went "Death to my hometown." She knew which U.S.A. Bruce Springsteen thought he was born in.

As the material lightened again--"Spirit in the Dark," "E Street Shuffle"--and then darkened again, my brain was engaged with scarcely a stray thought by a vast songbook I hadn't been paying enough mind of late. Springsteen played seven grim selections from the new album, but plenty of upful stuff as well, including a "Twist and Shout" repeated until the dot of midnight, when he vacated the stage so Danish heroes Mew could prep their 1:30 show. Between the new ancestors-as-ghosts song "We Are Alive" and "Twist and Shout" came five straight sing-along anthems, climaxing with the Clarence-dedicated "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and preceded by "Born in the U.S.A.," "Born to Run," "Glory Days" and "Dancing in the Dark."

I ended up occupying one spot for an hour as the crowd pushed tighter. Once again a woman stood in front of me, a little older this time. Often at Roskilde, it was women who seemed to care about lyrics, and this one didn't just croon the choruses. "Born to Run"? "A runaway American dream." The supposed potboiler "Dancing in the Dark"? "I ain't nothing but tired, I'm just tired and bored with myself." "Born in the U.S.A.," I swear? "I had a brother in Khe Sanh/Fighting off the Viet Cong." So what I took away from my particular European audience is this. One problem with that Madison Square Garden audience was that it felt smug--aware of Springsteen's complications, but certain that he'd sweep all troubling thoughts away. The Roskilde fans weren't born in the U.S.A. But they never forgot how contradictory it is, and they loved Bruce Springsteen more for remembering that too. So do I.

MSN Music, July 30, 2012