PHILIP MARTIN: About that magic trick

You wonder where it comes from.

The man is unprepossessing in the spotlight, minimally prettied up for the stage. Maybe the black T-shirt costs $600, maybe it's something that comes out of a plastic bag. After all, he once warned us he was just a "rich man in a poor man's shirt."

Black jeans. Engineer boots.

I'm not the sort of person who pays $500 to sit in a theater, though I can't say I wasn't tempted. Springsteen on Broadway sounds like a joke, like that Bob Dylan variety show you imagined back in the '70s: Bob and Toni Tennille trading verses on "Love Will Keep Us Together."

But then show me a time when rock and roll wasn't show business. Elvis dyed his hair to look like Dean Martin because he believed dark-haired movie stars had a better chance at a long career than dirty blond kids who couldn't help but sneer. He was going to hold onto Graceland for as long as he could; he didn't expect it to last.

Keith Richard was melancholy when the Rolling Stones finally signed a record deal because he figured that was the beginning of the end.

Anyway, the guy in the black T-shirt is in your living room now, smaller than life on Netflix, looking like one of your wife's bohunk relatives, his fitness and maybe a touch of hair dye his only rock-star affectations. He begins:

"DNA, your natural ability, the study of your craft, a development of and devotion to an aesthetic philosophy ... and then if you want to take it all the way out to the end of the night, you will need a furious fire in your belly that just don't quit burning. These are some of the elements that will come in handy should you come face-to-face with 80,000 screaming rock and roll fans. Because these are fans who are waiting for you to pull something out of your hat, out of thin air, something out of this world, something that before the faithful were gathered here today was just a song-fueled rumor. Now I come from a boardwalk town where almost everything is tinged with just a bit of fraud. So am I."

If it sounds familiar, it's a reworked version of the foreword he wrote for his 2016 autobiography Born to Run. And this nearly one-man show (his wife, Patti Scialfa will come out and sing with him on a couple of tunes) is another way of presenting that material, of sounding out the mystery of "Bruce Springsteen."

He's right about the fraud; it's a racket for tricksters, this rock and roll, this business of show. What is doesn't factor so much as what is perceived. And maybe it's wearying to inhabit a persona, but a man has got to work and it's a damn sight better than running a tree saw. Some jumpsuits have a name stitched over the right breast, some are gold lame. But anything you put on feels like a costume at first; you have to break in that second skin.

An artist makes something of the base materials of the world, something beautiful and haunting. Wizards wake the ghosts in common things. It's not for everybody. You have to hope for luck to pay your bills.

And the only way to come at the truth is obliquely, through the filter of your own experience and aspiration. You lie your way to it, John Ciardi said.

Bruce Springsteen's particular gift is for empathy--he has an uncanny knack for placing himself inside the singular perspective of some Other. It's this, more than his penchant for anthemic chord stacking, that makes him one of the best pop songwriters.

When he emerged with Greetings From Asbury Park, he was wordy and obscure, Dylanesque, though without the mystery and gnosis of old Bob; a talented pretender who made a big noise but didn't emerge as a mature artist until after his commercial breakthrough.

Springsteen was always good, but he only got great when he left off talking jive about madman drummers, bummers, Indians in the summer and teenage diplomats and started talking about concrete things and ordinary characters. Darkness on the Edge of Town, not Born to Run, was the seminal Springsteen album, the one that announced him as an especial American voice.

It doesn't matter what he was, it's what he became that deserves our attention.

We can't all be artists; there's nothing democratic about it. Lots of smart, interesting and useful people just don't have the touch--the curse--to make something shiny and beautiful out of the base materials of the world. Out of the quotidian. Out of heartbreak. Out of pain. We get a few freaks, a few mutants, and we ought to cherish them.

I've never met him, though I've had close encounters. More than 40 years ago, I sold his saxophone player some softball equipment, and the Big Man left me tickets for his show. I've been to half a dozen other shows over the years; back in April we were there in the Beacon Theater in New York when he walked out to join Patti Smith. Glory days.

We are the right ages for him to matter; I've had all his albums. I've written about most of them and can make a case for them all. (Maybe not Human Touch.) I remember writing a piece about driving around Phoenix listening to Lucky Town the day it was released in March 1992 but I can't find it; the magazine that published it isn't around any more and though there are some pretty complete Springsteen archive sites online, they somehow missed this one.

I think it might be embarrassing to read now because I remember writing something about how a record album might, under the right circumstances, save your life. I was being ironic. But I meant every word.

So I'm listening to Bruce talk about his dad on Netflix, and the blackness that sometimes swamped both father and son, about the depression in his blood. I'm listening to him talk about his mom, the dancer with Alzheimer's, and about the guilt he still feels over the boys who went to Vietnam when he didn't. And I don't detect an ounce of blarney, even though he's told me the blarney is in there.

That's the magic trick.


Philip Martin is a columnist and critic for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. Email him at pmartin@arkansasonline.com and read his blog at blooddirtandangels.com.

MovieStyle on 12/26/2018

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