Who’s The Boss? Why Springsteen is in the form of his life

DARREN LEVIN reflects on Bruce Springsteen’s 10-date, 78-song “Wrecking Ball” tour, which wound up in Victoria’s Hanging Rock over the weekend. Photos by RICK CLIFFORD.

“Life is a long road,” lamented Bruce Springsteen midway through a three-hour, sweat-soaked set at Melbourne’s Rod Laver last week. He was introducing ‘My City Of Ruins’ from 2002’s The Rising, his post 9/11 album and his first with the E Street Band in 18 years. Fittingly, Springsteen dedicated that song to the “ghosts of the E Street band” – the late Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons and Danny Federici, who he didn’t mention by name. He didn’t have to. The song was written to rouse a battered New York (“C’mon rise up!”), but on this tour it was about the “ghosts of people we lose, and the ghosts that walk alongside us. The missing brother, mother, father, sister, friend. This is from our ghosts to yours”. The subtext was clear.

Memories, loss, life, death, ghosts and spirits in the night – this “Wrecking Ball” tour was about regeneration and renewal, about tearing things down and starting again – but also with reverence and respect for the past. Towards the end of each set, there was another stirring tribute: a slo-mo video montage during ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ cued right when Bruce sang the line, “And the Big Man joined the band.” Clemons, who passed away two years ago following complications from a stroke, is still the heartbeat of the E Street band. His hulking frame and those signature double handclaps are gone for sure, but he’s represented by name and in spirit by his nephew Jake, whose blasts of sax on ‘Badlands’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’ and ‘Thunder Road’ summoned his uncle from the dead.

And then there was another ghost, Tom Joad, who was brought to life each night on the tour via Tom Morello’s guitar scratches and the full thrust of the E Street Band. Deputising for the larger-than-life Stevie Van Zandt who is in Norway filming Lilyhammer – or “freezing his arse off”, as The Boss so eloquently put it – Morello was facing mission impossible from the moment he agreed to take Van Zandt’s place three months ago. (That’s 17 albums and 270 songs to learn in 90 days for those counting.)

But Morello miraculously found a niche in this 17-piece well-drilled machine, curtailing his trademark scratching and histrionics for the sake of the song. He was let off the leash for ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’, a song covered by Rage Against The Machine in 1997, and the way he elevated it from a plaintive folk ballad to a dramatic, feedback-laden tour-de-force was one of the highlights of the entire tour.

‘Tom Joad’ was one of nine songs played on all 10 legs: double-night stints in Brisbane and Victoria’s Hanging Rock, and a trio of Melbourne and Sydney shows. The others included three songs from his new-ish album Wrecking Ball, as well as staples such as ‘Badlands’, ‘Born to Run’, ‘Dancing in the Dark’, ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out’ and ‘Waitin’ On A Sunny Day’, which featured a kid plucked out of the crowd each night to sing a verse. Even moments like this – contrived as they were – never felt cloying, or overly staged. Springsteen has made earnestness his art for four decades, but unlike Mumford & Sons, it never feels manipulative, perhaps because he believes in all this stuff, too. He has that uncanny, almost preacher-like ability to make even the most hardened cynic a believer, and you leave (as promised) with “your back hurting, your voice sore, and your sexual organs stimulated”.

Springsteen’s shows are about inclusiveness, about making the person in Row ZZ as important as those right up the front. Across the tour he took 27 sign requests from the audience – some as obscure as the unreleased (probably for a good reason) ‘Red Headed Woman’ – and was willingly groped either while crowd surfing on his back, or singing on a platform set up within the crowd. At Hanging Rock on Saturday, he pointed at me from amid a throng of people (or so I thought) and grabbed my hand, transporting me back to the fanboy eight-year-old whose Walkman was exclusively populated by Born In The USA. Later on, during ‘Dancing In The Dark’, he made someone’s Courtney Cox dream come true.

We have a tendency to elevate rock stars to golden god-like creatures – and its perpetuated somewhat by the stars themselves – but Springsteen, despite his godlike abilities, never pretends to be anything other than one of us. It’s why 42 years after forming the greatest bar band on earth, he’s become an unstoppable force; as stubborn and unflappable as rock’n’roll itself. At 63, he’s in the form of his life.

Photos from the first Brisbane show:

Wrecking Ball Aus tour: The stats