There are rock stars who pack arenas, play for three and a half hours on any given weeknight, and make songs that have soundtracked American popular culture for the last 40 years and counting sound as though they were written yesterday. And then there are rock stars who do all of these things and ditch their spots centerstage to go dance with their mamas.
Bruce Springsteen is, and has been, that kind of rock star.
Earlier this week at Madison Square Garden, Springsteen brought The River Tour back to New York: The show was originally scheduled for Jan. 24, but a blizzard buried the city that weekend and prevented the trucks and buses carrying Springsteen, the E Street Band, and the E Street Circus—the instruments, the gear, the pulleys, platforms, and other bits and pieces that construct their road show—from making it into Manhattan. That concert was the first of two they had planned for that week, the second going off without a hitch, but due to the exhausting, country-crossing itinerary of The River Tour, the makeup date was rescheduled for two months after the fact.
This was a major bummer for me at the time, a (then) Springsteen Show Virgin who had looked forward to that show like a kid does Christmas. I wasn’t raised on Springsteen any more than any other kid born to casual music fans for parents in 1986: “Born in the U.S.A,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Glory Days” serve up some of my earliest musical memories, with “Dancing in the Dark” standing out especially as a passive childhood constant. My folks had their favorites—Whitney and Madonna for Mom; the Stones, Robert Palmer and ZZ Top for Dad—and when I rescued boxes of vinyl from the garage sale pile in the attic a few years ago, I didn’t find any Springsteen wax to bring home. My Springsteen education, as a result, is rudimentary at best. I know the hits thanks to my tendency to favor classic rock radio stations while driving around Bostonian suburbs as a teenager; I watched the “Dancing in the Dark” music video on YouTube after learning that that’s how Courteney Cox dipped her toe in the waters of fame. I rarely turned the dial when his hoarse vibrato would fill the car, even if it was just that sappy song from Jerry Maguire. I liked Springsteen just fine; I, like my parents before me, was just a barely committed fan who had my social environment to thank for bringing his music into my life, not my own efforts and musical preferences.
There’s a particular sect of popular artist that inspires this kind of casual commitment and appreciation for my generation. Some of our parents learned to drive while blasting Hendrix’s take on “All Along the Watchtower,” Pet Sounds, and Motown, all the licks and hits that were released prior to 1975 that can be universally deemed “classic” rock and pop by commercial metrics and the calendar. Springsteen navigated adolescence on that same schedule, making him their peer and champion at the same time. And Springsteen is absolutely a product of that period, what with his tendency to bring bold choruses and bolder lyrics to a 4/4 rock framework that had long since been established by the time he, too, had his world rocked when the Beatles played Ed Sullivan in 1964.
So to see him live for the first time when he’s touring behind The River—the sole double album of his career, the one that gave us “Hungry Heart,” “Sherry Darling” and “Cadillac Ranch” that he recorded shortly following his 30th birthday in 1979—in 2016, it’s accidentally perfect, in that it gives those of us who grew up with him blasting in the background an opportunity to revisit these hits with fresh ears and eyes. Before, our casual dalliances with Clarence Clemons’ sax lines, Roy Bittan’s piano work, and those iconic “Whoa-oh-oh”-es were enjoyable, but underappreciated; now, 35 years after the record’s release and its five-time platinum certification, to see Springsteen and the E Street Band play through them so wonderfully, it’s enough to make you rue the day your folks didn’t make a point to save their copy of The River, the cassette of which likely got chucked from your dad’s compartment back in 1992.
To say that Springsteen and the E Street Band are excellent performers is an understatement, as they hit the stage with the ability to read their audience—and thrive off their energy—as well as they approach their seasoned setlist. The comfort that comes from performing the same songs for three-and-counting decades is apparent in the ease in which Springsteen, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren roll through their various solos and riffs; in the fluidity of Jake Clemons’ brassy lows, a worthy tribute to the notes played by his gone-too-soon uncle; in the texture and light offered up by Patti Scialfa and Soozie Tyrell and the acoustic guitar strains and backing vocal between them; in the weight of Bittan’s keys, Garry Tallent’s bass lines, and the pulse of it all found in the cymbal crashes and kicks of Max Weinberg’s drum kit.
It’s this complete and total comfort, hard-earned, in a stadium filled with screaming fans that enables them to have fun with each other—not just playing, but playing with a youthful, boisterous approach, with Lofgren spinning like a Strat-strapped whirling dervish and Clemons pulling Springsteen out of the crowd after he’s crowdsurfed his way through the pit four songs in. Springsteen taking off into the crowd again to make his way towards his mom for a quick dance and butt-shaking spell strikes the same emotional chord. The heartstrings get pulled when Adele Springsteen, at 90, claps and beams as her son climbs up the stairs to meet her, but they’re pulled past the point of snapping when you realize that she’s been dancing with her son like this for years, since long before you danced with your mom to “Dancing in the Dark” in the kitchen back when you still had your baby teeth.
And maybe that’s the best part of seeing Springsteen for the first time after you’ve casually grown up with his music playing in the background: You’re able to put those pieces together as you’re listening to these songs as if you were hearing them for the first time and give overlooked verses and chords their due. You’re able to realize why thousands of people don’t mind waiting around two months to see him make up a date in New York, because seeing Springsteen play Madison Square Garden in 2016 is just as great as seeing Springsteen play Madison Square Garden in 1986. You’re able to take pride in the words you remember and embrace the urge to learn the ones you don’t. You’re able to savor “Dancing in the Dark” for the song it is: a hit you’ve been loving, whether you’ve realized it or not, for 30 years. You’re able to not be so casual about it, and that kind of appreciation is worth waiting until adulthood to find.