Bruce Springsteen: still got it?
Blue-collar bard Bruce Springsteen is touring his 1980 album The River. After his first UK date in Manchester, FT pop critic Ludovic Hunter-Tilney discusses The Boss’s enduring appeal with Griselda Murray Brown, FT arts journalist
Produced by Griselda Murray Brown. Studio filmed by Nicola Stansfield and Petros Gioumpasis. Edited by Petros Gioumpasis. Video footage and still images from Getty.
[MUSIC - BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, "THE RIVER"]
INTERVIEWER: An icon of blue collar rock, Bruce Springsteen combines politics and populism. He's currently touring his double album from 1980, The River, having released it as a box set last year. It was a key record in Springsteen's career, his first number one album in the US, and one he described as a coming of age. The youthful protagonists of his earlier work have grown into disillusioned adults, struggling with jobs and family. Springsteen has just landed in the UK, and he played his first gig in Manchester last night. A pop critic, Ludo Hunter-Tilney was there. So Ludo, tell me about the gig. Did he simply play the album track after track?
LUDO HUNTER-TILNEY: Well, to my surprise, in fact, he didn't. The tour is The River Tour it's called. And it's following, as you said, the boxset from last year. And in the United States where he's been playing for the last few months-- a very successful tour there. It's one of his most successful there and is actually number two at the moment this year in terms of revenue to Justin Bieber. Yes, which must rile the boss a bit. But nonetheless, it's been very good.
There, he has been playing The River in its entirety, all 20 tracks. He's been introducing it. He's also been crowd surfing. All of that led me to expect something similar for the European leg. But no, that's not the case. Here, he's regigged things. And he played 12 of the 20 songs, more or less chronologically, but interspersed with other songs. And then he rather abruptly jettisoned The River and moved on, which I thought was a curious choice in so much as he didn't seem so interested, possibly, in presenting the album as something which is from-- where it fits in with his chronology and career.
INTERVIEWER: It's interesting this kind of recycling of older material, because there's a kind of poignancy to it in a way. An older singer going back to something they've done as a much younger one. There's also something possibly slightly disingenuous about Springsteen, now age 66, saying lines like "little girl, I want to marry you." To me, that sounds like it could possibly be a bit creepy.
LUDO HUNTER-TILNEY: Well, oddly enough, the song where that line comes from, "I Want to Marry You," was one of the few songs-- in fact, the only song-- that he introduced and explained something about. And he said that he wrote it in his late 20s. Which does actually, I have to say, strike me as definitely beyond the age when little girl should be used as an endearment.
But there's two things I think I would say about that particular point, which is one, Springsteen is preeminently a storytelling songwriter who sings in character. And his characters may be those sorts of macho men who might use such a term. So that's one reason. The other is I think to do with his own sort of virility frankly. And I think that virility is-- well, it can be a pretty awful characteristic. It can translate into sort of boorishness, aggression, machismo.
But the thing about Bruce is that he manages somehow to make it seem extremely charismatic and unaggressive. There's something about-- if anyone really can carry off, I agree, a term that shouldn't be uttered by an adult male, then yes, it is Bruce. In terms of recycling past material, I slightly wonder whether he does have a degree of ambivalence about that in so much as he has decided to move away from this album, which isn't a fan favourite. It was a key album in terms of translating him from a big name on the east coast of America into a national name. It had his first big hit single, "Hungry Heart." it sort of paved the way for "Born in the USA" a few years later, which sold 30 million copies and turned him into this huge, huge, huge name.
INTERVIEWER: Can you tell me a bit about how he's kind of evolved since his days of maximum virility that you're referring to?
LUDO HUNTER-TILNEY: He's still-- I have to say, Griselda, that seeing the man as he was on stage in his black shirt and his waistcoat and his great biceps as he gripped the microphone, and seeing these sorts of wonderful sort of chords in his neck straining as he sang-- he sang, his voice is magnificent.
INTERVIEWER: I think what I mean as well is has he innovated really since his youth? I mean, is he a different artist now? To go to a Springsteen concert now, is it a very different experience?
LUDO HUNTER-TILNEY: In a sense, probably no. I think that what happened with him in the 70s, he moved up from smaller venues into larger ones ironically, considering about how attached he is to stadium rock and how much we think of him in these stadium size spaces. He was actually very reluctant to move from the smaller spaces where he felt more at home into the larger first arenas, and then onto these very big stadiums. And that's a sort of innovation.
I think in terms of the music-- the sound of the music-- he works within, on the one hand, a sort of rock and roll, a sort of R&B, rock and soul, folk music. These idioms, he moves around within them quite freely. But it's not as if he's about to go and do some dubstep remix of any of his songs.
[MUSIC - BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, "DEATH TO MY HOMETOWN"]
INTERVIEWER: His kind of political life it's interesting as well, isn't it? He had sort of high profile endorsements to John Kerry and Obama. There's a US election coming up. Was there any mention of that last night at the gig?
LUDO HUNTER-TILNEY: Well again, his American tour was not without some controversy. He cancelled a show in North Carolina in protest of its anti-transgender law. There was no mention of any politics in Manchester last night. We had some impromptu moments within the set. We had a man dressed as Father Christmas invited on stage for an impromptu rendition of "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," which is charming, but hardly likely to sway the course of the US election. There was a lovely moment when he plucked a child out from the audience whose first Bruce gig it was in order to sing with him. These sorts of things. But no sort of matters of real substance.
INTERVIEWER: It's funny you mention him plucking a child from the audience, because in a sense, this is the kind of family friendly rock. This is a genre-- it has sincerity and integrity. He is not sort of a trickster or an ironist. Do you think that that's a turnoff for some people?
LUDO HUNTER-TILNEY: Is it a turnoff for some people? Yes, I suppose it might be. I think that's his great attraction. I think that he does manage to have exactly those characteristics at a time when there's so much irony and so much snarkiness around. To have someone who can who can do these quite hammy things like sing about-- use the words babe and little girl, etc. Someone who can turn on the rock and roll ham, and yet invest it with some sort of purpose. He's stayed musically active. He is reportedly going to be releasing a solo album-- will be his next record. So I think that he seems still very committed on his purpose in life, which is to play rock and roll to as many people as possible and to sing about things that really matter in people's lives, the struggles and toils that people go through, but also sort of the joys and happinesses that they experience, things which are sort of touching and are as touching now as they were when he was first getting big years away in the 70s.
INTERVIEWER: Well, thank you, Ludo. I look forward to Springsteen's next album.