There’s a passage in Bruce Springsteen’s 1973 song “Growin’ Up” that encapsulates why he has inspired such enduring love and devotion in the hearts of his millions of fans, over the course of more than 40 years of superstardom.
“Well, my feet they finally took root in the earth, but I got me a nice little place in the stars,” he sings in the second song of his debut album, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.”
“And I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car.”
It’s a fusing of the mystical and the mundane, built around the unifying idea that you matter — you, the ordinary person, driving that regular car or cramming onto that crowded subway, working that run-of-the-mill job, living a life that might not be remembered in the history books but nonetheless means everything right here, right now, in this very moment.
That notion, what he has in the past described as a “conversation with my audience,” defines every song he’s ever written and every concert he’s ever performed. It’s why his shows with the E Street Band routinely reach the four-hour mark, in a whirlwind of frenetic energy. It’s why the characters he writes about — the young couple who goes down to “The River,” the protagonist “driving all night, chasing some mirage” in “The Promised Land” — are both specific and eternal, striving as we all are for something more, resonating far beyond the Jersey Shore boardwalks and concert halls that shaped him.
It’s an extraordinary gift — to bring people together, to make us recognize that what binds us matters more than what divides us. And it has been displayed in a new and exciting fashion in “Springsteen on Broadway,” an evening of stories and songs in which the icon turns the spotlight squarely on his own story, continuing the autobiographical strain that began with the publication of “Born to Run” last year.
It’s spare and stripped-down, a quiet evening of reflection that is both melancholy and funny, stricken with pain and filled with defiance. Save for a brief appearance by Patti Scialfa, his wife and bandmate, the show consists of nothing but Springsteen, his guitars and piano, and his stories. He structures the two-hour performance around a rough outline — reflections on his youth and his parents; the early experiences on the Jersey Shore circuit and his meteoric success; his romance with Patti and, finally, his own sense of the role he has played and continues to play in the lives of so many.
The set list stands as a rumination on these themes, featuring songs like “Growin’ Up” and “My Hometown,” his lovely ode to fatherhood set against the backdrop of a town fallen on hard times, as well as minimalist versions of “Born in the U.S.A.” and “The Rising” that frame the songs as raw expressions of protest and resolve.
The apex of the show comes when Springsteen sits at the piano, and plays “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” the E Street Band’s creation myth that pays tribute to the late Clarence Clemons, whose friendship and presence in the band defined him as did no one else.
“Losing Clarence was like losing the rain,” he says.
Yet Springsteen’s still here and so are we, searching for that place where we’ll walk in the sun.