Stephen Golub: Seeing the Light and Springsteen

[Note from BenIndy: Trying this again after we encountered a bug. This post was first published on Stephen Golub’s blog, A Promised Land: America as a Developing Country. There, Steve blogs about domestic and international politics and policy, including lessons that the United States can learn from other nations. If interested, you may sign up for future posts by subscribing to the blog.]

Bruce Springsteen performs in Italy in July 2023. | Sergione Infuse / Corbis via Getty.

Pushing 75, His Concerts Still Deliver Solace, Hope and Dreams…and Inspiration for 2024

By Stephen Golub, originally published on A Promised Land, April 7, 2024

Benicia resident and author Stephen Golub, A Promised Land.

He had me at “Light of Day.”

It’s one of my five favorite Bruce Springsteen songs. He opened his March 31 San Francisco concert with it. I was lucky enough to be there.

The high-octane tune is about a trucker driving hard after a week on the road, determined to get down to good times in Galveston by Saturday night. But it’s more generally about pushing ahead with hope after getting “a little lost along the way” and about turning the corner to find the light of day.

Similarly, Bruce’s entire performance was about far more than just putting on a show, as I learned from both him and a fellow audience member over the course of the evening. More on that in a minute.

The Church of Bruce

With age and recent illness looming over our hero, my stepson/fellow fan Trevor and I knew that this might be our last chance to take in Bruce and his E Street Band in concert. It was our fifth time seeing him together, stretching back well over a decade. It was my thirtieth such Springsteen experience since watching him open for Chicago at Madison Square Garden in 1973.

As Springsteen told the throng early in the evening, the show is not just about what he and the band do. It also hinges on how we respond – acting in concert with him, if you will. The supposedly laid-back California crowd loudly lived up to our part of the bargain.

For those unfamiliar with what I’d call the Church of Bruce, his appeal partly flows from the degree to which his adherents identify with his music: One fellow fan calls it “the story of my life.”

To watch this YouTube video, click the image and a new tab will open.

The fans’ intense devotion also stems from his concerts’ joyful energy and audience engagement. At its peak, the interplay is akin to a religious revival, though with salvation subservient to fun. This “Light of Day” video from a 2000 New York City show exemplifies that, albeit in an extreme way:

Neither Trev nor I are the most demonstrative people in the world. But both of us danced, shouted, sang along and let it rip throughout the evening.

That someone pushing 75 could still push out three hours of non-stop singing, twisting, shouting and guitar/harmonica playing was astounding. As he playfully bellowed to the roaring crowd near the end of the show, “You’ve just seen the heart-stoppin’, pants-droppin’, earth-quakin’, booty-shakin’, love-makin’, Viagra-takin’, history-makin’ E Street Band!”

He proved it all night.

Spirits in the Night

Springsteen’s music has always featured anger, angst, passion, pride, love, longing, hope and dreams. It’s ultimately about life.

As life has taken its toll, with friends and fellow band members passing on, he’s blended newer messages into the mix: treasure loved ones, here and gone; cherish their memories; relish each day.

The point hit home in an unexpectedly poignant way due to the pleasant 60-something woman – whom I’ll call Mary – seated beside us during the concert. Getting there early, Trev and I had lots of time to chat with her before the band came on. She’s a James Taylor fan, but attended the show (alone) because her late husband was a Springsteen devotee.

We didn’t pry into that very personal matter. But I couldn’t help but reflect a bit on why Mary was there: Maybe to feel the spirit of her beloved partner there with her?

That possibility reemerged in the middle of the concert, as the band eased into the somber “My City of Ruins.” I at first wondered why they were playing it at all during a resoundingly upbeat night. Bruce originally composed it a quarter-century ago to lament urban and economic rot in Asbury Park, New Jersey, near where he grew up. He recorded and reinterpreted the tune in his post-9/11 album, The Rising, as a tribute to devastated New York City.

In one inescapable sense it’s a dirge, marked by these lines:

Now there’s tears on the pillow, darling, where we slept
And you took my heart when you left
Without your sweet kiss my soul is lost, my friend
Tell me how do I begin again

But “My City of Ruins” is about more than sorrow. It’s also about beginning again in the face of unfathomable adversity, as its refrain repeatedly urges listeners to find strength and “rise up.”

And that’s what Bruce asked the assemblage to do as he introduced the song and yet again reinterpreted the tune in the process. His remarks made it not about a ruined city but about our resilient selves. He urged us to realize that our lost loved ones remain with us in crucial ways. I couldn’t help but sneak a glance at Mary, only guessing at what she might be feeling.

But I knew what I was feeling, as I recalled my own dearly departed with gratitude for what I’d shared with them, learned from them and still carried with me, and with hope that I could honor their deaths by cherishing life.

Speaking of resilience…

In this election year, our society faces a kind of severe adversity we would have found unfathomable just a decade ago. Our future may seem to  rest on the seemingly frail shoulders of a leader pushing 82.

But if an aging rocker, not much younger, can still deliver powerful performances at a uniquely demanding job night after night, it’s not too much to trust that his elder can do it day after day, as he’s done for the past three years. It’s not too much to believe that the same man can triumph in November and beyond.

And just as Bruce reminded the crowd that the success of his concert involved our efforts, the success of the campaign depends on us as well.=

Speaking of hope…

The elation of a Springsteen experience can give way to  reflection. I think that I’ve been thinking about the 2024 campaign in the wrong way. It’s not just about beating back those who’d drag us into a dark age for democracy, for women, for America’s role in the world, for so much more.

It’s also about seeing this as a chance to move forward on those fronts and so many more.

It’s not just about fear and anger. It’s about hope and dreams.

Despite the darkness, and with enough drive and dedication, we could be just around the corner from the light of day.

Once more, Steve blogs about domestic and international politics and policy, including lessons that the United States can learn from other nations, at A Promised Land: America as a Developing Country. We recommend you sign up for future posts by subscribing to the blog.