Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Springsteen film bolsters reputation as a concert legend

You can't hear it on the album or see it in the film, but I remember a lot of tension in the audience. People turning their back to the stage. Police officers, too - in protest. Strangers yelling at each other. Some screaming. A bunch hissing. A few booing. Here and there, a heckle. Acts you don't usually witness at a concert that costs $75 a ticket.

It was last July 1 in New York City, the final night of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's reunion tour and the culmination of 10 sold-out shows at Madison Square Garden. It was also one of two shows recorded for Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band: Live in New York City, the title of both a new double-live album (in stores Tuesday) and the most electrifying concert film (Saturday at 9 p.m., HBO) since the Talking Heads' 1984 classic Stop Making Sense.

As a live act, Springsteen is a legend, known for big four-hour rave-ups so energetic and poignant they seem to shrink football stadiums to the size of a neighborhood bar - a show that's tailor-made for the big screen. But the emotions from that July night were even more intimate than usual.

Microphones pick up some of the tension, but it doesn't come across, at least audibly, as conflict or uneasiness - more like typical barroom clamor, which some of it is: whistles, woos, people shouting to be heard above the band, yelling excited, unintelligible things.

I remember the moment clearly because it was one of those rare times when you're so overwhelmed by everything - the performance, the crowd, the song, the mood - you feel certain you'll tear up, not because of anything sad, but out of pure joy.

In fact, the song being played, “American Skin (41 Shots),” was elegiac, a dirge that built over seven minutes into a howl of anger.

Standing in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment at the time of the shooting, Diallo was apparently reaching for a wallet. For a year, the case was a racial flashpoint in New York City. Then a few months before Springsteen's Garden shows, the officers were acquitted of murder charges, launching a fresh round of impassioned protests.

Playing “American Skin” in New York City at that moment, in prime Springsteen Country, was viewed by supporters of the officers, many of whom were fans, as nothing less than treason. Here was a working-class hero, they figured, and he had turned against a largely working-class profession: the street cop.

They read the song as anti-police, as did the president of the New York chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, who publicly called Springsteen a “dirt bag.” By the last night of the tour, “American Skin” had become a mini-event within an event.

Springsteen himself offered nothing in response but the song itself. The lilting refrain, chanted again and again by most of the band, rings like a funeral hymn: “41 shots ... 41 shots.” And the chorus, sung by Springsteen with increasing desperation, is about as lucid and direct as pop songs ever get with complicated social issues:

“Is it a gun?/ Is it a knife?/ Is it a wallet?/ This is your life/ It ain't no secret/ It ain't no secret/ My secret, my friend/ You get killed just for living/ In your American skin.”

It's hardly anti-police. But because it's even-handed, clear and pointed in its aim, and full of compassion for both sides, Live in New York City offers a compelling look at how Springsteen did with one song what Bob Dylan did when he went electric at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival: He risked alienating a sizable chunk of his audience.

He sings first in the voice of a policeman kneeling over “the body in the vestibule, praying for his life.” And then in the voice of a scared mother who orders her son, presumably in the wake of the Diallo shooting, that he's got to understand how society works. It's some of the most heartbreaking verse ever written for rock and roll:

“If an officer stops you/ promise me you'll always be polite/ and that you'll never ever run away/ and promise mama, you'll keep your hands in sight.”

On the disc, and bathed in a blue light for the film, the band begins the song slow, with a mournful organ line and steady strumming. As soon as Clarence Clemons, the E Street Band's longtime saxophonist, sings the first “41 shots,” the audience lights up.

This is it, they could be collectively thinking. What you can't see in the film, or hear so well on the album, is how divided the audience actually was. Boos came deep and sustained out of corners of the Garden. Hecklers tried shouting down hecklers.

There was loud chatting and disruptive off-beat clapping and excited whispers as more and more concertgoers became aware of what song had just started. Off-duty police officers (who obviously didn't know what they were getting into when tickets went on sale earlier that spring) stood silent in clusters, their shiny badges clenched in their palms thrust high above their heads, defiantly facing the stage.

You can't see any of this in the film. Only a light rhythmic clapping can be heard in the audience. And then Springsteen holds up a hand and brusquely says:

“We're gonna need some quiet.”

And there's quiet.

That stayed in. The camera remains trained on the stage for the entire song, recalling Martin Scorsese's lovely simple vignettes with The Band in the concert film, 1978's The Last Waltz. Whatever tension was in the Garden isn't lost in the recording, however; it registers on the grim faces of Springsteen and the E Street Band, who play the song with so much fury, they seem to be driving it through the protests.

What's missing from the film, but included on the compact disc, is another misread Springsteen protest song: “Born in the USA.” It's been taken as a patriotic anthem, warped by Ronald Reagan during his re-election campaign into an uplifting ditty - even pursued by Chrysler, which offered Springsteen $12 million to use it in a commercial (he turned them down). Here its message is impossible to misconstrue.

The familiar chorus is sung in a mumble; the verses come out bitter and tired, the reflections of a displaced Vietnam veteran; and the music, stripped of any drums or chirpy keyboard lines, is pared down to a simple moaning slide guitar.

“Born in the USA” is one of six songs included on the CD but not in the film; others include the rarity “Lost in the Flood” (in fact, it's the first performance of the song in 21 years), the epic “Jungleland,” the bootleg standard “Don't Look Back,” a rowdy roadhouse “Ramrod,” and “If I Should Fall Behind,” a regular encore that features most of the band taking a line or two of each verse, asking the audience as much as each other:

“I'll wait for you, and if I should fall behind, wait for me.”

Watching the film, however, you can see why it was not included: With only two hours of performance to pull from a 31/2 -hour show, it would be redundant. “Springsteen's rapport with his folks staggers not only for the degree of adulation present,” the Village Voice wrote of the tour, “but for his ability to move them from vulgarity to deep thought in a heartbeat.” And what you don't get of this by listening to the album is available in truckloads in the HBO special.

As concert films go, there's not a whole lot of art to it. There's no backstage footage or interviews or even song titles to introduce each number. Simple camera shots, in high-definition digital video, frame the band in extreme close-ups - Springsteen himself looks so impassioned, you expect his head to split open and Al Green to climb through. Occasionally you see the audience, who are just as much characters in the film as the band. They pound their fists in the air, wave their arms. More often, you hear them, humming together, and on “Tenth Avenue Free-Out,” filling in, over and over again, the Stax-like horn introduction.

Springsteen works the crowd, strutting across the lip of the stage and preaching and hamming it up, practically speaking in tongues, screaming that he wants to throw “a rock and roll exorcism, a rock and roll baptism, and a rock and roll ... BARMITZVAH!”

Some of the immediacy of his live shows is invariably lost watching from your couch, but for posterity's sake, Live in New York City does what great concert films do, just record: Drummer Max Weinberg smashes his drums so hard during “Prove It All Night” that he flies off his stool; “Mansion on the Hill” a quiet duet between Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa, recalls the country rock pairing of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris; a new version of “The River” never catches fire the way it should.

And on “Atlantic City,” the band starts with the foundation of a simple beat, letting its slow burn build and build. Springsteen repeats “Come on and meet me tonight,” and the camera glides by him, chanting into the mike with arms outstretched.

The single verse takes on more and more urgency, and the drums pound louder and louder. And then the song bursts open in a roar, and when that happens, arms and bodies undulate skyward like seaweed caught in a strong current.

It's all exactly as I remembered it and nothing like I remembered it.

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