Springsteen On Broadway (Netflix and Sony)
It can be disturbing watching a middle-aged man deal with – enumerate, expand on, regret, try to avoid, then dive back into – a lifetime of issues. Not least ones with his father.
Ok, especially ones with his father, but also with adulthood and male relationships, mothers and wives, children and hometowns, women in every facet, relevance and memories, activism and respect, depression and recovery. And how to be a man without being a dick.
You will find there’s anger and tears, denial and accusation, profundity, if you’re blessed, acceptance, if you are lucky. And boy it can go on: it’s taken 30, 40, 50 years to get to this point so no use pretending it can be sorted quickly. That’s a lot of shit to shift through.
I don’t mean Bruce Springsteen, by the way.
As revealed by this stage show-made-film, and accompanying soundtrack – and the autobiography which preceded and inspired it - Springsteen has thought it through, and damn if he hasn’t Sorted. That. Shit. Out.
No, I mean the rest of us who watch this and get that slamming feeling in the gut at certain truths that kick you with frankness. Who have that sucking of air out of the lungs thing when a song done with voice and guitar, or voice and piano, moves you by its unabashed emotion. Who know that ache which goes bone deep.
What makes this thing - this thing I wish I had seen in the flesh but now wonder if it’s a good thing I hadn’t as I’d have just left the theatre an emotional wreck - so special, is that talking about Springsteen On Broadway inevitably moves from talking about Springsteen, on or off Broadway, to something else.
To talking about just how much the experience of watching this show. even at a long remove, in your living room, on your own. tests and reframes your own experiences.
Not because we, or I, am so self-centred that everything becomes about us, but because the matter-of-factness of these truths are both self-evident, so that their relevance to us in unquestionable and unprotected, and poetically fresh, in a way we only dream we could express it.
For example, his argument that we often take on the voice of who or what we want but can’t have, whose love or approval we most assiduously, though not always openly, seek.
His early “voice”, in song and lyric, was his father’s: a masculine ideal that was craving certainty even when it couldn’t be, that looked with acuity in a way that in fact wasn’t his father’s style, or Springsteen’s either. At least not yet.
That is part of what he calls, firstly with icon-puncturing amusement and then with respect for the craft, his “magic act”: the creation of a place or a time or a perspective or a personality that exists between truth and fable but becomes so close to the former that its observations become a substitute for the latter.
Springsteen at first seems deeply rooted in that connection missed with his father, and that drove so much of the first thirty or so years of his life. The performance of My Father’s House, eased into at the piano, makes that obvious; The Promised Land, on guitar – now more gazing with curiously into the distance than the searching for a horizon of the original version - does it more subtly; the tough Long Time Comin’, much later in the show, does it in bruised retrospect.
However, as expressed in a gentle The Wish, and nodded to in a persuasive Dancing In The Dark, it is the relationship with his mother, who gazed down at him with unfettered love when he had the “privilege” to stay behind at work with her, who danced – and still dances now in her Alzheimer’s-affected 90s – with joy, which is a more varied and in many ways equally as crucial element in his life. At least until his second marriage.
This tightly scripted and beautifully written monologue, which stretches well past two hours, is briefly punctuated by two duets with wife and muse, Patti Scialfa, unironically sharing two songs written from the embers of his first marriage (Tougher Than The Rest and Brilliant Disguise) that sweep up the doubts and fears and regrets and hopes into febrile but tender confessions.
While the script doesn’t touch directly that short first marriage in the way the book did, it doesn’t necessarily have to. As Springsteen says in another part of the show “listen to the lyrics” because the story is right there. And so is the resonance.
The strength of this show, which is thankfully reproduced in full on the CD, and loses little in its listen-only format, is in that resonance. Not just for middle aged men either. Nor just for those with their hearts sprung from sleeves to sit there on the table beating in public, as the social/political anger and then optimism within The Ghost Of Tom Joad, The Rising and Land Of Hope And Dreams, is briefly but pointedly contextualised in a frankly delivered narrative.
These songs, as much as the script – which in some ways is a throwback to the lengthy song introductions he did in the 1970s that some of us only ever read about, and pined for – just keep throwing up Springsteen’s gnarled observations that somehow also work as answers.
How do we reconcile our adult selves with the inner child that never grows up and that child’s hurts that never actually disappear? Where do we draw the line between control and acceptance? What do we retain of the dreamer and what should we discard? Why are we not just better people when we say that is what we want to be? Who needs his father’s approval anyway?
The show begins with Growin’ Up, a song which affected a wordy worldliness, and ends with Born To Run, a song almost deliberately naive in its condensed, idealised wish fulfilment. Neither told a full story in their original moments. Maybe neither told a wholly true story either.
But here, they form part of a genuine, evolving, complex, poetic story. His. And ours.