Friday, December 18, 2009

A good year for the Boss

2009 caps a remarkably productive decade for Springsteen

One of the distinguishing characteristics of Bruce Springsteen's career is that he's always thought in terms of producing an extended body of work. Yet for for him, as for anyone whose career has been marked by a sense of longevity, he's had his peaks and valleys. Any summary of his work would note that he burst into public consciousness in 1975 by releasing Born to Run and appearing simultaneously on the covers of Time and Newsweek; he reached the pinnacle of his fame in 1984 with the release Born in the USA and his (unwelcome) invocation by Ronald Reagan in the presidential campaign of that year. Conversely, legal troubles with his manager impeded his career for much for the years following Born to Run; most observers believe his work of the early nineties (see Human Touch and Lucky Town, though I regard the latter as underrated) is relatively undistinguished. It's in this context I say that 2009 was a banner year in Springsteenland. If it doesn't represent a professional summit, the year was nevertheless a period of remarkable productivity and public esteem. Moreover, in a profession in which youth has always celebrated and premature endings are almost proverbial, Springsteen has demonstrated a capacity for creativity that affirms and inspires those who seek a rich and full life, even if they have not been blessed with the scope of his talents.

Springsteen's year began, as it did for so many of us, on a note of hope, with the election of Barack Obama. It took decades for Springsteen to move from a cautiously abstention from public issues to active involvement in contemporary politics; he made his first endorsement for president in 1984 by performing on behalf of John Kerry's ill-starred campaign. So it was all the more satisfying in 2008 to support a winner -- one who joked when he ran for president because it was the next best thing to being The Boss -- and that Obama returned Springsteen's esteem by having Springsteen play a prominent role at his inaugural celebration con
cert. He rendered a memorable version of "The Rising" (a signature song at Obama rallies) with a gospel choir, and used his musical platform to honor Pete Seeger, with whom he sang a rousing version of "This Land is Your Land."

Later than month, Springsteen released his fifteenth studio album of new material, Working on a Dream. No one would consider it Springsteen's best work -- I myself prefer Magic, released in late 2007 -- but the record is a testament to Springsteen's productivity and the capstone of a remarkable decade that saw the release of a live album (Live in New York City in 2000), a multi-volu
me greatest hits collection (The Essential Bruce Springsteen in 2003) and four studio albums (The Rising in 2002, Devils and Dust in 2005, Magic in 2007, and Working in 2009). The new album, more upbeat in tone than any Springsteen album in many years, featured a catchy title song, a reflective meditation on love and aging in "Kingdom of Days," and a surprise return to the almost-10 minute epics of Springsteen's early days in "Outlaw Pete," a rock & roll western. (See my blog post about it.) Given the perfectionism that almost derailed Born to Run in '75 and delayed many albums in the years since, Springsteen's willingness to disgorge (though surely not empty) his vaults represents a remarkable evolution in his working style in what might be termed his long Indian Summer.

In February, Springsteen and the E Street Band performed at the Super Bowl in Tampa for a 12-minute set that consisted of "Tenth Avenue Freezeout," "Born to Run," "Working on a Dream," and "Glory Days. "I want you to put the chicken fingers down and turn your television set all the way up!" he told the crowd. Given the enormity of audience and the brevity of time, a Super Bowl gig is more a form of cultural ratification for the acts that play than an opportunity to really ply their craft. But for Springsteen, whose work has always been rooted in a (large) sense of community, the honor, no less than the venue, was surely welcome.

In April, Springsteen and the band kicked off a seven-month tour to support Working on a Dream, merely months after the end of the Magic tour. These Working shows, which included farewell concerts at Giants stadium, were quickly followed by the 25th anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concerts in late October.

In effect, the year ended where it began: with Barack Obama. Springsteen went to the White House as an honoree at the Kennedy Center, along with Robert DeNiro, Mel Brooks, Dave Brubeck, and Grace Bumbry. Musical tributes for this lifetime achievement award included included a John Mellencamp version of "Born in the USA," Melissa Etheridge performing "Born to Run," and Sting singing "The Rising." Famed violinist Itzhak Perlman, of all people, paid an insightful compliment to Springsteen:
“He gives his audience what it wants, but he also lets them know what they want and helps teach them to want more,” Perlman said. The show will be broadcast by CBS on December 29.

While 2009 might have been a triumph in Springsteen's public life, there were indications of trouble in his personal life. In April he was named in a divorce suit, and was forced to make some relatively tight-lipped affirmations of his marriage -- not for the first time in recent years. (For more on this, and currents of infidelity in Springsteen and Patti Scailfa's music, see what was by far my most popular blog post.) For Springsteen no less than the rest of us, the gears of public and private life don't necessarily synchronize. There are times when that may be inevitable, and times when it may be a good thing.

On the whole, though, it appears that Springsteen has many blessings to count in 2009.
"We worked really hard for our music to be part of American life and our fans' lives," he said at the Kennedy Center Honors ceremony. "So [the award is] an acknowledgment that you've kind of threaded your way into the culture in a certain way. It's satisfying."

Happy old year, Mr. Springsteen. And many happy returns.