If you came expecting a big thrown down screed about empowerment, activism and the state of the world today, Bruce Springsteen – lean in a dark shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows and black jeans – disappointed. It was not a talk of rabble-rousing state of the nation that he strode onstage to deliver.
Instead, with the tiniest bit of soul patch quivering, he came to give witness to the power of music: to capture imaginations, channel hormones, inspire quests, ask questions and mostly, especially to feel alive.
Now making a musical impact in his 5th decade of public viewing over two centuries, Springsteen drew on a rich history of influences (doo-wop, Motown, James Brown, the Animals, Beatles, Dylan), other places (country, Woody Guthrie, his family dynamic) and his own quest for the ability to walk upright after finding the furtive darkness at YMCA dances.
It would be easy to bask in the glory of all that he represents to so many.
To tell the stories of “and then I wrote,” to explain the moments and tell the stories of knowing. But that would be looking back, frozen in amber – and the Freehold, NJ man is about remembering with a well-tended warmth to serve as fuel for where you’re going.
Early on, he eschewed the notion of a “Keynote Address,” rather invoking the myriad perspectives and truths at work in the world, and certainly South By Southwest 2012. Working the jaw-snapping freneticism of an old school AM disc jockey, he wordslammed his way through every genre, subgenre that could be playing SXSW – and then tacks on, “now, add neo- and post- just to make sure we got them all.”
If the self-deprecating jocularity, omnipresence of sexual desire and full-born eroticism and tender memories of the way songs had hit him wasn’t enough, what came through was his abiding in faith in music’s power to carry life, to lead us forward even when we’re not sure and to raise the questions that will give us the answers that we’re seeking.
With rabid details (silk stockings, whispered lies, Hank Williams' hard voice and toxic vision), Springsteen dissects the realities of what music means – but also how it inspires. Inspires people, and closer to home inspired songs like “Badlands” and “Back Streets.”
It was a witness, surely. Powerful, filled with the presence of being taken hostage by moments when a song hits you just right.
It was also ownership of his duality as a creative: someone finding recognition in the questions of country music’s raw life – the fact that people work, face troubles, don’t necessarily make their way – and the fact he remains enamored of the the motion in Elvis’ pants, which first transfixed a 6-year-old boy watching “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
He wants to make the world better; he wants to live better.
It is that simple. The essence of the American Dream is to work hard and do better than your parents.
Springsteen’s dream, though, seems to include not forgetting the fire that made it all burn so hot and wild – nor the people who might need a little help getting by.
And so, he did not come to lecture. He brought a lot of music and names to life for the assembled. But more importantly, he served as a reminder that it’s the creativity that ignites – and where we should put our faith.
Suggesting that every band here seek its own duality, he proclaimed
“Don't take yourself too seriously...
but take yourself seriously as death itself
have iron clad confidence, but doubt…
Stay hard. Stay hungry. Stay alive.
When you walk onstage tonight,
treat it like that’s all there is.
Then remember: It’s only rock & roll.”
With a wry smile, he was gone. Descended the steps, to embrace Jon Landau, the man who once proclaimed him the future of rock & roll and out through a doorway, into a warren of corridors and into the blazing Texas sun. Not unlike Elvis would have done many, many years ago.
He didn’t look back. He did suggest he might check out some bands, seek the very thing he spoke of. In his wake, the lucky ones who got tickets to Springsteen’s own witness tonight at the “Austin City Limits Center” murmured like ones who were included in the ultimate miracle on the mount.
It is that ability to be renewed that gives music its force in a world choking on hype and white noise – and to know, to believe is the greatest transaction of all.
If there were doubters in that room, listening to the man who remains the voice of the blue collar, the hard working, the unseen, the down-sized, the post-Nam, Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan bets amongst us offered a powerful faith to draw on. Is it enough? That remains to be seen, but certainly Bruce Springsteen more than showed he believed.