Honoring The Boss

Last night on CBS they aired the annual Kennedy Center honors ceremony, which honors five major figures in arts and entertainment – this year, it was Bruce Springsteen, Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks, a jazz musician and an opera singer (no, I hadn’t heard of either of them, although for most of the night I was convinced the jazz guy was Martin Landau). Politics aside* – and yes, it was hard to put aside the sense that Bruce was being honored at this time and in this venue in good part for his work for the Obama campaign – it was definitely a fitting tribute.
Jon Stewart opened with a funny and heartfelt monologue, using his trademark delivery to explain that “When you listen to Bruce’s music, you aren’t a loser. You are a character in an epic poem…about losers.” And on a more serious note, Stewart cut to the center of Bruce’s appeal: “He empties the tank every time.” Which really is it; it’s certainly the essence of Bruce’s live show, but really it’s true of his music as a whole: Bruce at his best has always been about giving everything you have to the things that matter, from music to love to the open road, and no matter the inevitable hardships along the way. It’s that sense of total commitment that makes Springsteen such an emotionally compelling performer.
You can catch here Stewart’s remarks and Sting’s show-closing version of The Rising (Sting was apparently dressed for a night at the theater with Mr. Lincoln):

Sting isn’t maybe the best voice for that song, but the climactic choruses of The Rising always give me the chills, and he does a solid job as the song goes along. Also performing: John Mellencamp did a serviceable if overly gravelly version of Born in the USA, switching back and forth between the acoustic version and the arena-rock version; Melissa Etheridge delivered a rocking version of Born to Run; blues-rocker Ben Harper and country singer Jennifer Nettles did an interesting duet take of I’m on Fire; and Eddie Vedder, who really is a more expressive and versatile singer than you’d guess from Pearl Jam’s catalog (in which his vocals are always great but usually limited mostly to howling rock and brooding slow-rockers), sang a stirring version of City of Ruins (it was a little odd to pick two songs from The Rising and none from Darkness on the Edge of Town or The River, but perhaps it was just the luck of the draw).
By and large, it’s been a banner decade for Springsteen between turning 50 in 1999 and 60 this year. He’s toured regularly with the E Street Band since the reunion built around the release of the Tracks box set in 1999; Billboard Magazine tabbed him as the 4th highest-grossing touring act of the 2000s, behind U2, the Rolling Stones and Madonna, bringing in over $688 million from more than 400 shows before over 8.6 million fans, and the #3 tour of 2009, behind U2 and Madonna, covering 72 of those shows. He released an excellent live double album in 2001, and five studio albums – the Seeger Sessions record of folk standards and four original albums (The Rising, Devils & Dust, Magic and Working on a Dream). The Rising remains virtually alone in music, film, literature or any other art form as a successful post-September 11 effort to come to grips with even a part of that day’s events. The Seeger Sessions record is really good (I highly recommend some of the additional tracks you can get on iTunes). The other three albums have been a bit half-baked in terms of quality, but each had several good songs on them; Working on a Dream is probably the strongest of the three. And Bruce isn’t going gently; this fall at his last appearances at Giants Stadium he performed a good original song, Wrecking Ball, written for the stadium’s demise:

Yup, still the Boss.
* – To touch on one political item: one of the topics I mean to explore in a longer essay if I have time some day is why Bruce’s lyrical universe is so congenial to social conservatives despite the man’s own lifelong dyed-in-the-wool leftism. One piece of that puzzle is that Bruce has always been an odd fit with modern cultural liberals because, however far left his politics, he doesn’t share their contempt for ordinary Americans, with their flags and their churches and their marriages. But the key is that Bruce’s stories, as told in song, almost always contain within them the essential element of social conservatism: individual actions have consequences for the people who choose them and for others as well. His characters are always haunted by the things they have done, the choices they have made. The contrast that provides to most of popular music is stark. Put another way: perhaps Bruce can’t so easily escape the lessons of his working-class Catholic upbringing.

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