The Sanctification Of Bruce Springsteen and The rise of mass hip
By John Lombardi Esquire Magazine December 1988
TRUE FAME is a commodity like fiberboard or soybean meal in 1988, and suprastar true fame - not the legless stuff of also-ran politicians or reliable Mookie Wilsons or number six-on-the-charts-but-no-higher pop stars - I mean the ones that last: Cosby, Michael, Reagan, Bruce - suprastar true fame is corporate grace in perpetuity, brand-name canonization like Carson and Hope have, a nation fondly recognizing itself as a perfect sales culture, coming to terms at last with its own bottom line...
The man (or woman - Madonna's almost there) who achieves this degree of fame is no longer measured in conventional terms; "talent," "intelligence," "character," even "looks" seem fogey calipers, the anemic mutterings of those consigned to life's cheap seats, outside the power loop and consequently unable to sense what really counts: so what if Cosby's jokes and expression suggest a demonic frog -the man earns $57 million a year and quietly helps Philly's poor; sure Reagan's an aging anchorman, capable of rabbity surliness, but he rolled America back from the Carter pieties, didn't he, sat asses down at defense-industry computers the way they used to during Vietnam; and yeah, Michael's a little bionic now, after all that reconstruction, but he's sweet, you have to admit, a real-life E.T., narcissism mitigated by ingenuousness and cold cash ($3I million a year, according to Forbes); last, of course, out of Lettermanland endlessly rocking, the white suburban cradle of the twenty-first century, incarnating Mass Hip, the Mall as Church, bumps Bruce.
You have to hear the crowd: Broooce! curling off the aural wave that smashes the stage seconds after the synthesizer's last notes on "Tougher Than the Rest," sounding eerily like boos and with, perhaps, an eighth note of petulance leavening the adulation, that adolescent mulishness of total self-regard, years of combing, of sidelong dreams reflected in car windows, gym mirrors, storefront plate glass "Bruce is Us!" and yet, and yet, he's not us, not anymore, he's thirty-nine, he married a model (why do rock stars always marry models?), made $56 million in eighteen months (Forbes again), is pumped up like Schwarzenegger, sleeked down like television, as high-concept as Sonny in Miami Vice...
The Bruce Mythos, as Springsteen chronicler Dave Marsh probably put it in one of his unreadable tomes, is rooted in the early 70s, the tatty end of the 60s; its heart is the "populist voyager" image, The Sorrows of Young Werther in (until recently) Levis and boots, the Road, the Night, the Girl. According to legend, Springsteen and his E Street Band arose from the ashes of Asbury Park on the Jersey Shore, a garage-group Phoenix come to dribble the basketball of American popular culture after Bob Dylan fouled out. Back in those days, Mass Hip was busy becoming; except for the extreme initiati - folkies like Dave Van Ronk, Patrick Sky, Tony "Little Sun" Glover; writers like Charles Bukowski, Gregory Corso, and Sam Shepard; scenies like Bobby Neuwirth and the late Lillian Roxon - nobody knew that hip was dead. They knew that Hendrix was dead, along with Joplin and Morrison, the Kennedys and King, and that the salutary experience of sweating on buses filled with their music on the way to protest the war or fight for civil rights was no more; they knew that something had happened to Dylan's spirit after his (greatly exaggerated) motorcycle accident, that he'd stopped licking around the edges of conceits so mean that they'd tried to fuse Billboard to Rimbaud, limousines to the Apocalypse, Albert Grossman to Diaghilev. Dylan had stretched American hip culture until it broke, and broke him. He was expected to die, but he didn't. Well, America is more of a relay race than a Dantean journey anyway. Broooce!
In the early photos he's a skinny little guy in a cut-off denim jacket, greaser jeans, rag around his head, needing a shave - a gofer for the Hell's Angels or the Rolling Stones. Except that his dark eyes (Dutch/Irish/Italian, it turns out) are dense with ambition, yearning and burning at the same time, a macho sensitive. What did Bruce want?
To be hip and famous like Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan, except that he'd seen Elvis implode, Dylan retract, one from selling out, the other from giving out: "Dylan was a revolutionary. So was Elvis. I always saw myself as a nuts-and-bolts kind of person." Bruce's dad drove buses, guarded prisoners. His mom typed letters. He came from a section of Freehold called "Texas," where a bunch of Appalachian hillbillies had set up in one of the country's less-noted internal migrations. The kid was street smart. It took a while, he knew, for the urban vibe to penetrate the suburban. That's why the bridge-and-tunnel crowd got status-snubbed every weekend, when they rag-tagged into Greenwich Village and the Lower East Side, wearing the first of their mall pseudo-French "designer" jeans, their hair too long and fluffy clean, their baby wattles rosy white, eyes grave, then glassy.
Bruce was tougher than the rest. He banged on his guitar at the Cafe Wha? and the Gaslight in the Village, then Chevvied on home to Freehold to mythologize the experience for less mobile Jerseyans. He could make a windswept song out of anything: a traffic ticket at Exit 8 off the Jersey Turnpike, where he was, in fulsome, suspended disbelief, "thinkin' about makin' a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and seein' my girl" when the trooper struck ("Open All Night"). In his signature songs, "Thunder Road," "Backstreets," "Born to Run," nothing much happened except the rapid evocation of blurry teen angst, rendered in language as self-consciously prosaic as a pair of stonewashed 501'S would be ten years later. Which was the point: Bruce anticipated Mass Hip, the effect of looking stressed out, nicely worn for the right reasons, without the actual experience of being buffeted by circumstances beyond his control: the idea was not to get as beat up as Dylan, or, heaven forbid, as dead as Brian Jones; Springsteen knew his audience couldn't really relate to something as bizarre as "a motorcycle black madonna/two-wheeled gypsy queen," whatever that was (Dylan's "Gates of Eden"), but they'd probably seen a few "Spanish Johnnys" and "Puerto Rican Janes'' ("Incident on 57th Street") hanging around on their weekend sorties into the big city and had talked them up all the way home.
By 1973, when he released his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, New Jersey, the "truth" of the working-class American life Springsteen allegedly chronicled was profound frustration, the legacy of post-industrial corporatism and unionism, and, in youthful reaction, bursts of ersatz energy as synthetic as the video cracklings after the 3:00 a.m. John Ford movie clicked off in the "shot and beer" bars Bruce so loved to conjure. The actual Jersey Shore, though, had always been a service economy; the "mill" and "factory" closings Bruce plaintively identified as tangible representations of a "runaway American dream" were located up north in Jersey City, Paterson, and the Oranges, or way down south in Camden, where RCA and Campbell Soup were going on the skids. Bruce and his crowd were bored, not desperate. You could shoop by quite nicely at the Stone Pony or the Upstage or the Keyport Rollerdome in Asbury Park on $300- to $3000-a-week gigs; they got you loaded and laid on beer, pizza, subs, the local nubilia, and, provided you were in your twenties or under, the sustaining romance of a kind of East Coast, cut-rate surfer narcissism. Asbury Park was Huntington Beach, California, for kids whose families looked something like Archie Bunker's but who tuned in from breezeways; Coney Island without black and Spanish shooters; II6th Street with natural air conditioning.
A "mall" environment, in short. If Clive Davis, the CBS Records Group president responsible for the initial $40,000 hype that tried to establish Springsteen as "the new Bob Dylan," had been as much of a heads-up mensch as his eventual successor, Walter Yetnikoff, was, CBS would simply have optioned the boardwalk and presented Bruce and the E Street Band as a daytime soap: As the Tide Turns, the rollback of netherworld teen alienation, the Dead End Kids with $5,000 worth of good orthodontics and the occasional B-I2 shot. Bruce was famous for being drug-free, alcohol-free, for working hard (three- and four-hour sets where "youthful" energy bursts knocked audiences out as wholesomely as good aerobics classes would), for being on the right side of social issues... Before Springsteen, rock had been about rebelling; after him, it was about conforming, and that's what pierced the hearts of a little group of formerly leftish "rock critics" who got CBS re-interested after Springsteen's first two records, Greetings and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, flopped.
Bruce was a "rock critic's" dream, a means of rationalizing nostalgic feelings of "rebellion" and blue-collar sympathy with comfortable middle-aged incomes and "life-styles." Bruce's explainers - Robert Christgau of Dartmouth and The Village Voice; Jon Landau of Brandeis and Rolling Stone; John Rockwell of Harvard and The New York Times; Greil Marcus of U. Berkeley and ArtForum; and Marsh, unlettered but strident and a sometime contributor to most of the above - saw in him a way of focusing their intellectual/artistic/activist inclinations. All were kids in the '60s, energized by the possibilities they thought they saw in rock 'n' roll. Christgau and Marsh actually belonged to the G.I. Antiwar movement and the White Panther party, respectively, while Marcus established written solidarity with "anarchist" stick-up types like George Jackson, and Landau mused at length on culturopolitical overviews and produced the "revolutionary" Detroit band the MC5 (into the ground, as it turned out).
For these fellows, Bruce was the perfect punk, a street guy with boundless energy who wouldn't beat you up. A person who looked like Rockwell - steel-rimmed, turtlenecked, Capote-toned - or Christgau-swaybacked, smirking, in stale promo T-shirts - appreciated a little absence of malice. In the '60s it had been exhilarating to find yourself lip-deep in scurftroll fans, waiting for Joe Cocker to spasm or Van Morrison to levitate in presumed contradiction of the established order, but as Delmore Schwartz had warned, "in dreams begin responsibilities," and by the '70s, all these boys were supporting families and titles like "King of Rock 'n' Roll Writers" (Landau) or "Dean of Rock Critics" (Christgau). Talking to Bruce wasn't like talking to Mick Jagger, whose formidable IQ threatened to peel the paint off your pet theories, or Sly Stone, who before his cocaine collapse was capable of throwing a washrag in your face as a test of your willingness to rock out. "The Boss," as Springsteen was known for a while, ducked his head, dropped his g's nicely, seemed boyishly earnest when telling his stories about getting asked to leave Ocean County College for dressing like a biker, or being stuffed in a trash bin by a nun in the third grade (for unspecified sins). Christgau, Landau, et cetera, had little direct experience of white prole life, except in its transplanted form in cultural petri dishes like the Lower East Side or Cambridge, or when they listened to it on the radio, then mulled it over in marathon telephone sessions that could have paid for the medical relief of entire villages in Guatemala. Bruce was becoming Mailer's White Negro for rock's gourmet intelligentsia, five middle-class white men sitting around talking.
In 1975-76, this worked out felicitously. Rock 'n' roll had become effete techno-pop. The industry needed something "vital" to counteract the moon-goon mincings of David Bowie and the disco movement, and the country needed to distract itself from the consensus politics of Ford/Carter. Born to Run, Bruce's breakout album, was an Alka-Seltzer fizz for the media department of a sales culture with an upset tummy. Its songs, racing up and down the American highway, cruising the romance of boardwalk detritus, necking on the abstract beach of memory, entertained editors, executives, and fans who didn't get around much anymore. In fact, the circumstance that all of Springsteen's images were utterly familiar helped more than hurt, as did his recycled delivery - Dylan as Elvis, Gary "U.S." Bonds as Woody Guthrie, Little Richard as Mitch Ryder as Broooce! Hell, the kid wasn't trying to pull anything, he was right up front, and to tell the truth, it was a relief not to feel artistically or intellectually or sexually unhip anymore, as one tended to with the originators of the Boss's inspirations. You could relate to Bruce because he lived vicariously, too - for all his driving imagery, he couldn't shift gears! The other crucial factor was that in an emergent VCR moonscape of cable hook up and instant replay and mass numbers, where consciousness itself tended to get overwhelmed, high recognition factor (HRF) was beginning to seem fundamental: to be "unique" and "original" now just meant to be remembered, and to be remembered, you had to be a cliche.
Three practical things happened to put Bruce over the top:
In May 1974, Landau caught him at a Boston club, wrote "I saw rock 'n' roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen," then quit fooling around as a critic and did a Carl Icahn move on Mike Appel, Bruce's naive handler; within two years he was Springsteen's manager and main producer. The faceless culture editors of Time and Newsweek, responding to what they perceived as a prescient swell on the part of the five rock-crit experts charged with knowing about popular music, put Springsteen on the covers of their respective magazines on the same day, October 27, 1975, something that only happens to world leaders. Noting the above, CBS uncorked $250,000 in publicly earmarked promotion funds to support twenty-three weeks of touring by the Boss and the E Street Band, and an undisclosed amount to shadowy independent promo men to ensure solid "rotation" airplay for selected songs from Born to Run in twelve crucial radio markets in the U.S. The album eventually sold five million units, and renews itself when ever Bruce tours. As Al Teller, CBS's smiling former V.P. for domestic sales, has remarked, "With enough rotation, Aida could go Top Ten."
THE MET CENTER, just outside Minneapolis, off 35W, is a big round building in the golden light, a popular culture cake for the Scandinavians poised on the edge of the Great Plains. There is a Lutheran calm in the air, even though the sound check inside is pumping out the E Street Band's version of the great John Lee Hooker's maximum blues, "Boom-Boom." This diffusive quality seems crucial. Springsteen and his audience are perfectly agreed: in 1988, rock 'n' roll's job is to render frenzy sensible.
As if to illustrate the point, Marilyn Percansky, who is forty-eight now but still hitting them safely in black tights and cumulus-cloud black hair (the skinnyfat Tama Janowitz look), is talking things over with her kids, Lisa, twenty-five, and Marc, twenty-two. All three had been to the Registry the night before, the hotel where Bruce and the band encamped, clearing out the cocktail lounge, rolling up the figurative rug to blast out four hours of "Spare Parts" and "Cover Me" and "Rosalita," the emotional buzz songs of the live show. "He's so cute," Marilyn gushes professionally, tempering the effusions of her children slightly. Marilyn's father-in-law, it develops, ran a funky club in Minneapolis where Dylan himself used to hang out when he first came down from Hibbing, up on the Iron Range in the real north country. Did she know him? She flashes a smile that contains all of Germaine Greer ("Dr. G." in her groupie days), all of Edie Sedgwick and Patti Smith and the great long girls with perfect legs who once lubricated rock's erotic garden, sliding in and out of limos, brushing past the sumo hunks guarding the fragile male stars: "I'm with the band" . . . girls who knew rock better than any straight man will ever understand - they got down on all fours for it, they let it bleed them, they rolled it over and plugged their fingers into it, then straightened their skirts and laughed. She knew him all right, in the cracked-up way that Edie photographed; rock was masculine energy turning feminine, the degenderizing force of technology placed at the service of the marketing department (because sales are ultimately sexless), Jagger reading Shelley in Hyde Park in arch memoriam to Brian Jones, wearing a little white dress..."Bruce is cute," Marilyn repeats, like a vet in a well-lit room remembering a jungle fire fight. "The kids really dig him."
Rick Cheney certainly does. For him, the mysteries of sexual balance of power are not worth pondering. Bruce is a dude, anyone can see that. Where does all this analyzing get you? In St. Louis, where Cheney edits The River, one of the foremost Springsteen fanzines, Bruce's popularity turns on his involvement with food banks and unions and veterans' groups. "Did you know that Bruce writes regular $5,000 checks to Bobby Muller of the Vietnam Veterans of America? To Becky Aiello of the Berkeley Emergency Food Project? And George Cole of the Steelworkers Oldtimers' Foundation?" Well, I'd heard about it, but what about the PR mileage that accrues to him from such generosity - after all, at $22.50 a pop for two sold-out dates at the Met Center, which holds 17,500 believers, Landau Management, commanding a 95-5 percent split with promoters, will gross more than $I million! To say nothing of T-shirt revenues! And the show's been on the road for three months!
"Well, he doesn't have to give anything away," Cheney points out coldly. "What other rock stars do as much? Christ, the media is maddening with its niggling drive to 'expose' everything."
His tone has attracted a little crowd: Lori, thirty, who describes herself as "driven" when it comes to Bruce, maybe "a child in some creepy way," but who nevertheless "hates" some of Bruce's more commercial stuff, like "Dancing in the Dark" and "Hungry Heart" (this observation sets off a fit of Cerberean barking from Cheney: "How can you say that?"); John Pugh, thirty-two, and Mark Silver, twenty-seven, out of Toronto, who'd come down to Crosby, Minnesota, to buy wet bikes, heard the Springsteen tour was conquering the Midwest, picked it up in Lexington, Kentucky, and stayed with it wherever they could, driving hundreds of miles, red-eyed, popping tops and sucking smoke, letting their photo business in Canada fend for itself, getting happily strung out in an '80's sense - they're both stocky, tanned, grounded in a way that would have been unthinkable in, say, 1973, when young people hitting the rockfest summer route became virtual Tuaregs...
Now, finally, they're broke, and paying for their variegated road fuel by scalping a little: "See, Bruce has ticket drops at 5:30 and 6:00 for 8:00 shows," Pugh explains, through a cloud of euphoriant. "He'll let forty or fifty garbage seats (rear floor locations) go, and then between 6:00 and 6:30, twenty or thirty blue-line seats (off-the-floor but close). This is for the true fans, those he knows follow him, because his shows always sell out. We go in and buy a few, enough to cover ourselves. What do we get? Anywhere from $50 to $150 apiece. But if we were really tryin' to make money, we'd scarf up thirty tickets, right?" (Lori is yelling that anyone who charges more than face value for a Springsteen ticket is going against the Boss's populist spirit and is consequently full of shit.)
Silver nods, like a wise rabbi: "You've got pure people [he indicates Lori] and you've got people who are okay but know what life's really like. We think that's what Bruce is. He tells true stories...That's why we're followin' him around."
Not because you're bored with life in Toronto?
"Phew, man," Pugh protests. "Of course we are, a little bit. But really, that's not it. Bruce is successful; he's clean; he's like a guy you'd watch the ball game with. Toronto's a clean city, we're proud of it; so is Minneapolis. People go to war for what we've got. Bruce represents all that. He's one of us who made it. I feel a one-to-one relationship with him. If that's just show biz, he's the best actor in the world..."
But why give him credit for ticket policy? Why not management?
"It's Bruce, man," Pugh says.
"Bruce, for sure," Silver confirms.
THE NEED TO APOTHEOSIZE pop stars is hardly new - Homer and Rodin had a little of Dave Marsh and John Rockwell in them. But what's curious about the Boss is the vastness of the live audience's uncritical response. A pound of Springsteen kitsch trades for a ton of Broooce!, orange subway earplugs de rigueur among the Rambo security guards sweating in the photographers' pit at the lip of the stage and high in the "garbage" seats too. No matter how bland it was, the instant that a song ends the fans triple the decibel level, freeing the eardrums, ringing in a tinnitus that can last for hours. The crowd is louder than the band because it apparently needs to be. Sensing this, Springsteen proceeds to demonstrate a lesson in modern coping: he autohypes himself into an obsessive but contained and so profoundly safe fury, and the audience, recognizing his effort and knowing its own more puny struggles to hold it all in in less than wonderful marriages and jobs and schools, breaks the sound barrier for him. There is an emotional downward mobility in this, as if for Bruce and his fans, noise had replaced action in the modern scheme of things.
At the Met Center, the "Tunnel of Love" show, named for the current album, starts at climax and keeps trying to top it self. After a corny "amusement park" entrance where the E Street Band straggles onstage to "buy tickets," Bruce enters in a hot pink jacket and a black silk shirt and pants, high-heeled cowboy boots with silver-tipped toes (he's five feet nine), carrying a bouquet of roses: "Ready for a ride?" he yells, and flings his flowers. "Tunnel of Love," the title track, occurs. It's meant to be a medium-slow "think piece" about the vicissitudes of marriage ("You've got to learn to live with what you/can't rise above"), but Springsteen is so charged-up he rushes the lyrics, can't wait to start sweating, hunching over his guitar as if it were a gun or a tool, his lower body locked up tight, the torso swiveling on ball bearings.
He's no longer the waif of Born to Run, though he's pumped down some from the body-builder massif he'd achieved during the "Born in the U.S.A." tour of 1984. Springsteen, via Landau/Marsh, his media advisers, possesses one of the keenest senses of what will play in America today, complete with a built-in timer that separates unsalable hip from high-turnover Mass Hip: in 1975 (Born to Run), for example, he presented himself as a ragged road hippie to a suburbia just getting comfortable with images abandoned by the urban cool six years before, after Easy Rider; in 1978 (Darkness on the Edge of Town) and 1980 (The River), he did his versions of Dylan's brooding, post-hip, post-accident John Wesley Harding album, originally released in 1968; in 1984, ten years after Schwartzenegger, he'd pumped so much iron he practically clanked, and opened "Born in the U.S.A." against a monolithic American flag motif. This was consonant with the peaking of the fitness craze, with Reagan's huge plurality in the presidential election, and with CREEP's Orwellian "Morning in America" media campaign (though the actual words to "Born in the U.S.A." - "Had a brother at Khe Sahn/Fightin' off the Viet Cong/They're still there/He's all gone" - were crafted so ambiguously that President Reagan and Walter Mondale, George Will and Democratic senator Bill Bradley could all claim them as "endorsements"). The resulting "flap" over whether "Born in the U.S.A." was really jingo or pinko rock was in fact the second brilliant media coup for Landau/Marsh, eclipsing even the dual Born to Run Time/Newsweek covers they'd helped pull off a decade before, because it was fuel for an eighteen month tour that eventually grossed $100 million in ticket sales, with unit sales of twenty million. "Pop stars at that level are like surfers," confides one insider, who wants to keep his job; let's call him "Deep Squeak." "They pick a wave and try to ride it to the beach. In '84, the wave was Vietnam veterans, unions, and food banks. No other pop star had defined his image in that 'populist' way. But I can tell you it was charity [50 percent deductible], not conviction with Bruce, and with Landau and Barbara [Carr, Landau's assistant and Dave Marsh's wife] too. You'll notice there are no donations this year, none of those wheelchair geeks and sugar-tit suckers hanging around waiting to get their pictures taken with him!"
On one level, though, the populism stuck. Seen from below, say in the first row, Springsteen has taken on a chiseled, Rushmore quality, but instead of resembling Lincoln or Jefferson, he suggests Jimmy Caan as "Sonny" in The Godfather. He's become the image of the prole ideal, while leaving true proledom to scratch its worn behind in a way that Frank Sinatra, with all his ethnic anger, could never have managed. Bruce is as self-conscious as a logo now, and as hard as a penny.
He's doing "Boom-Boom," a number that features Clarence "Big Man" Clemons, his tenor-sax player and longtime stage "buddy." There have been a lot of complaints from rock critics and fans about Clarence's reduced role on the tour, and the growing prominence of blond, microskirted backup singer Patti Scialfa, Bruce's new girlfriend. "Boom-Boom" is there to dispel all of this chatter, in the way that TV images of the President chucking Russian babies under the chin are meant to make us feel generally better about him. Clemons grins, struts, and honks on cue, his biceps gleaming, his eyes mirrored by shades. Springsteen plays off him, to him in a sense, acknowledging the debt all white pop owes to black funk, while at the same time continuing to exploit it. (In the five shows I saw, Clarence was virtually the only black face in the place.) Clarence and Bruce no longer do their famous "soul kiss," but at one point Clemons literally backs Springsteen up, humping dryly, and Bruce slides sensually down Clarence's brawny chest to his belly, his head finally lolling on the Big Man's crotch. The fans go into paroxysms over this display of racial/sexual "harmony," but before anyone can get any funny ideas, Bruce is over to stage left, being belly-bumped by Patti. Erotically and politically, he works both sides of the street.
Which is not to say that all of the songs lack power. Two Faces," "Cover Me," and "Brilliant Disguise" have a whirling, guitar/synthesizer melancholy appropriate for a man about to turn forty; "Tougher Than the Rest" evokes the dusty, hokey grandeur of "Streets of Laredo" and "This Land Is Your Land"; "Spare Parts," despite a dumb intro, is graphic and unforgiving: "Bobby said he'd pull out/Bobby stayed in/Janey had a baby/It wasn't any sin." And I very much like the adolescent goofiness and hell-bent for Top Forty hooks of "Dancing in the Dark" and "Glory Days," where, for once, Clarence's lame riffing and the E Street Band's charts, which rival the Blues Brothers for authenticity, don't matter. But then there is the Mass Hip patter. Bruce stark in a blue light:
There was this girl, an' she was a little older, an' she fell in love with this guy, an' they got a little garage apartment down by the beach...He was a house painter, kinda wild, but he was fun. She got pregnant, they were gonna get married...But I dunno what happened, he got scared an' took off . . . She waited an' waited, and finally went home to her Mom..." (Dramatic pause).
There comes a time when you've got to put the past behind you... This song is about a woman lookin' for her own individual identity!"
Obvious, meritricious little homilies like this happen an average of four times in the live show, and are as dulling as anything on prime time. Springsteen has glued together a badly imagined shantytown of "blue collar" images and buzz-words - "mill," "car," "street," "girl" - meant to touch a suburban generation that only knows the "working class" through sitcoms and "nostalgia" films and old black-and-whites in granddad's wallet. His atomized material, delivered in what quickly becomes a tiring ritual of "energetic" striding up and down the stage, of cultivated hoarseness, rolled-up shirt sleeves, spraying sweat - macho for the age of lib - passes for romance, but exhaustion seems to be the point. After four and a half hours (the longest show in rock 'n' roll by half), fan and star are wrung out like mops, though real emotion - the kind you get at great football games and fights, or old-time rock shows (the Stones were in and out in ninety minutes) - hasn't happened. And that's precisely why Bruce is a suprastar. His "TV" audience has been weaned off depth. It only wants to mime emotion. It's more interested in avoiding risk than experiencing anything "real," having a strenuous workout while pressing remote buttons - as if life were a VCR - that allow a year's worth of unexpressed feeling to be acted out in some okay format. How else explain Stallone? Or Spielberg/Lucas? Or MTV? A veteran sybarite like Marilyn Percansky doesn't get off on Springsteen as much as her kids do because the closest he comes to sex is masturbation.
Hip into Mass Hip
CAN THERE HAVE BEEN an enzyme change among his fans? They're such nice people. In the well-mannered nuttiness of the Met Center, while trying to scribble notes, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Tom Boehland, a vendor of "institutional juices" to hospitals and nursing homes in Minneapolis/St. Paul. He was celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday right there with Bruce. He'd seen my triangular "Tunnel of Love" press pass, pasted on my lapel at the insistence of Barbara Carr, the iron-faced number two man in Landau Management, and guessed I might be Dave Marsh. Evil thought! No, I explained, Barbara Carr was closer to Dave than I was, and the triangular pass was useless, a kind of placebo for rock-crit types. All it could do was get you into the "hospitality area," where they serve up fruit juice and potato chips. To really get backstage you need a big rectangular pass, and that only holds the security guards off for a little while. Eventually they go for your legs, snarling like pit bulls: "Wheresa photo pass? Huh? You're not Full Access!"
Boehland thought I was exaggerating, so on the way to the men's room I tried a quick dash past a security guard by way of demonstration. One of the guard's hands flew to his bat; the other groped his Securo-Phone, ready to beep in reinforcements. "Landau Management! Just testing!" I smiled broadly and went to join Boehland on the long line waiting to micturate.
Springsteen was a veritable elder statesman to Tom, like John Lennon. Jagger was too kinky, a sort of degenerate monkey, and Dylan a Salinger hermit. Steve Tyler of Aerosmith and Bono of U2 were all right, but they didn't have any business longevity. What interested Boehland about Bruce was his ability to put rear ends in seats and keep them there, year after year. As entertainers go, the guy was as practical as a can opener. Plus, he was optimistic. Everybody Boehland knew was fed up with irony. Where could it lead? (He liked George Bush too.)
The West sisters, up from Tracy, Minnesota, felt no need to philosophize their presence. They were plucked out of their "garbage" seats by two members of Landau Management and installed in the middle of the first row. "He always does that," Jill, sixteen, a high school student, gasps, "but we never thought it'd happen to us!" Landau Management, it seems, has a policy of reserving the two best seats in the house and then going into the crowd and selecting the most deserving-looking fans it can find and moving them up, no strings, no charge. Obviously, it's of a piece with the Boss's last-minute ticket drop beneficence, part of Landau's populist humanism, a way of compensating loyalists for the necessary but depersonalizing sales procedures of the last few years: because of the great demand for them and in order to avoid "price discrimination," all Springsteen tickets cost the same; when a Bruce concert is announced, you rush to predetermined outlets and get your hand stamped; this entitles you to rush to a later line to get a number; this guarantees you a seat, though you have to stand in a third line to get it, and you never know where the seat will be: "Ours were way in back, up top," Jill says. She's pretty but flushed and sickly looking, and her eyes are bugging slightly, as if someone had just hit her in the liver with a left hook. "You see how great he is? He knew we were here! He wanted us up front!" She twists around, literally unable to sit still, adrift in the hormonal sea that has helped populate the earth since Circe came on to Ulysses . . . Oddly, her sister Julie, twenty-six, a graphic artist, is behaving in exactly the same way.
Susan Hamre, thirty-four, a blond Minneapolis book editor, is far cooler: "Why do I like him? His songs tell stories; he's not a little kid; he's got great buns."
ROCK MUSIC, like hip, from which it drank a long transfusion, lost its cultural teeth years ago, as the '60s were becoming the '70s. You could see it when John Lennon, in thrall to a woman as ruthlessly unhip as Mike Tyson's is now, rolled the Beatles up; when Keith Richards, like a rich dowager, began having his blood changed in Switzerland; when a California group called the Eagles managed to sell millions of records by idealizing a life in the fast lane. Suddenly rock was Mass Hip, as shiny as a Porsche, as skinny and neutral as a line on a mirror. In a sense, it was the perfect resolution to an American paradox: real hip had been about rebellion, but rebellion sold so well! Look at Rolling Stone.
Old-fashioned hip, which drew on a strange melange of out-law traditions from Camus and Genet to runaway slaves, was an attitude not easily translated in economic or philosophic terms (though great claims were made for its "existential" potential). Born in an era before the mass media consolidated public opinion, it produced some fixed ideas - that moral vision is best arrived at through sin (Rimbaud), that conformity can give you cancer (Mailer) - but basically, you either dug hip or you didn't. Mostly it assumed that man was a drag, and the cultures he invented were hopeless. In response, it posited a simple code: live fast, die young, be cool. It was a minimalist view, comfortable with the pessimism of modern art (post modern art is equally pessimistic but more cynically acquisitive-Mass Hip.) Thus, hip was a cult, 300,000 people in a society of 240 million with a brilliant if melancholy membership: Jackson Pollock, James Dean, Jack Kerouac, Yardbird Parker...But America isn't interested in cults.
Enter Springsteen. If the country's first response to its weirdest cultural vectors was to package and sell them, Bruce would find a way. Rock had already institutionalized rebellion. What was truly dangerous among the beatniks - a deep contempt for the profit motive, an amused indifference to status, a commitment to interracial sex and drug experimentation - was reduced in kind and substance. At its height, rock was a fashion revolution of long hair, costume clothes, and lost weight. Remaining young became a revolutionary act - "Don't trust anyone over thirty" - as if part of America's brain had seized in a fourth gear of adolescent attention, where novels sped by as three-minute songs, paintings were blurred album covers, and ideas flashed as epigrams ("To live outside the law you must be honest")...Really hip rockers confused speed with youth; that's why they snorted coke.
Still, until Springsteen (and Michael and Prince), rock's middle-class performers and audience were responding to songs based on real emotion even if the emotion was borrowed. Keith and Mick were genuinely moved by Muddy Waters's "I'm a Man," for example, and updated it with the polymorphous energy of swinging London; Lennon was in flight from the sooty grimness of Liverpool life and cheered himself up with music-hall versions of Fats Domino and Chuck Berry; Jeff Beck split the atom of pop with power-chord variations on 2/4 and 4/4 time, extending the blues scale. Hip may have proved inadequate for dealing with the neuroses and psychoses of the times, but as music it was still dangerous.
Springsteen simplified rock in the way Mao simplified Marx. He eliminated spontaneity. His guitar lines were as elementary as his words. Few of his songs were hummable, and his articulation - through canniness? - was so tortured that you couldn't understand him. Was the chorus of "Blinded by the Light" really "Wrapped up like a douche/In the rumor of the night"? (No, of course not!) Thus, he could mean anything you liked; you'd never be wrong!
His borrowed emotion, too, was twice removed; he didn't get it from primary sources but interpreters (Big Boy Crudup to Elvis to Bruce), and he'd had no interesting experiences of his own to reroute it through. Like most of his audience, Bruce had grown up in front of twenty-one-inch screens, wearing head sets, having his consciousness compromised by fifteen-second spots. For him, feeling and thinking were a priori abstract, something you could click off, or pay for then leave in a theater or on a turntable (it was a sophisticated moment in Mass Hip when audiences realized they could buy experiences instead of having them). In a sense, Bruce was the greatest member of the audience, a kind of superfan that lesser fans elected to the stage, not be cause he had anything new to offer but because he was one of them, the best recycler of lowered expectations, the greatest retailer of mass taste, the finest smoother of distinctions (like TV itself), a Xerox facsimile of the Hip Hetero as Michael and Prince were facsimiles of Hip Androgynes and Reagan was a facsimile of the Straight Statesman. In a sales culture like ours, the fans inevitably take over, preferring copies to originals because they're cheaper and last longer.
Hip itself was fully pacified by now, on sale at any mall; heroic posters of the Boss and Michael and Prince shone down from record-shop walls like May Day portraits in the Soviet Union; hip's sole mission was to move units; it even laughed at its former self; first on Saturday Night Live, then in silly movies like The Blues Brothers, then on the Letterman show, then in "comedy stores" across the country, and finally in callow, trust-funder magazines like Spy. If hip had once served to remind the culture that it should feel as well as sell, the joke was on all those dead rockers.
MEANWHILE, BRUCE CHUGGED on like a carburetor; if Mass Hip hadn't been there to incarnate he might have become the hottest Toyota dealer in Matawan, growing wealthier and moodier. He'd spend months in the studio, only to come up dry; he'd fine old employees like Obie Dziedzic for failing to bring him his soup and sandwich on time, or for buying an insufficiently faded denim jacket to wear onstage (one hundred bucks to the Vietnam Vets!); Mike Batlan had to forfeit a week's pay for missing an air-conditioning cue at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh and $3II.II when one of the Boss's favorite canoes floated away in a storm; he married and unmarried model Julianne Phillips (amid rumors of proletarian manhandling); he began a tabloid-reported affair with Patti Scialfa, a liaison virtually mandated by the public, which had never liked the tall, unassuming Julianne, preferring Springsteen single. Personnel left the band: "Miami" Steve Van Zandt, a longtime E Street stalwart, after fights with Landau over money and producing credits; Doug Sutphin, after being docked a week's pay for touching Nils Lofgren's guitar; Marc Brickman, Bruce's veteran lighting man, over personality clashes with Landau and George Travis, Springsteen's authoritarian road manager. As the European leg of the "Tunnel of Love" tour ended last summer, rumors had Bruce breaking up the band because it "was no longer efficient" (Deep Squeak), that, as with any winning enterprise, "fine tuning" was necessary. Look at the 3M Company! Or the Yankees!
At the end of the American tour, in Madison Square Garden, Springsteen committed eleven faux finales-multiple climaxes seem to be his way of resolving a show that is all climax: "Part Man, Part Monkey" (no acknowledgment to Jagger) smashed into "Dancing in the Dark" which blitzed into "Light of Day" which was cooled down by the new, acoustically revised "Born to Run" (Brooocers are now constrained from just digging out in their ol' cars because "all you're lookin' for is home an' family anyway!"); he then geared up again with "Hungry Heart," "Glory Days," and "Raise Your Hand."
Scialfa and the E Street Band were sagging, but Springsteen wore the crazed look of De Niro as LaMorta in Raging Bull, wringing wet, hair plastered, stomping relentlessly... He led the band down a hole in the middle of the stage, punching at the rafters, only to return a moment later with a towel around his neck and his clenched rictus grin: " DO YA LIKE GOOD MUSIC?" he roared, and here came E Street, doggedly blaring, like Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows Italian-American Brass Band on the Feast of Saint Anthony in South Philly...The suburban fans obviously ululate like mandrills: Broooce! Brooooooce!! Jon Landau was up there now, playing guitar, fifty pounds heavier than I remembered him from Rolling Stone, balding, but with that same "I got the goldfish bowl" smile...Barbara Carr was banging a tambourine, too, wearing a tiny microskirt just like Scialfa's, matte black, a sealskin in the sun, and perhaps fusion-tailored by the scientists at CBS to lie precisely on the no-man's-land of decency without riding up...
It was ten basketball crowds from ten middling schools, no drugs, no beer even, Dad waiting on Eighth Avenue in the Acura for the young ones, so clean and nice and undemanding in their canonization. One girl, Stephanie Catalano, twenty-four, of Allenhurst, New Jersey, who sold jewelry, had taken the train to the city (it had been raining for three days), had stood dripping in all the ticket lines, had stood in more lines for hamburgers and Cokes, and now didn't even mind her terrible seat at the far end of the hall, halfway up the wall. Did she, you know, want to meet Bruce, or anything? "Oh no!" she said quickly. "It's not like that at all..."
Dr. Ruth Westheimer, the well-known TV sex-therapist personality, happened to be sitting nearby, and I asked her what she thought of Springsteen and hipness and all these kids' reactions:
"Hip, schmip," she beamed. "It just proves what I've been saying all along. You don't have to act crazy to have fun and make money! Bruce is a national monument. This is what America's about!"