I came to Paris this month to work on my book without the incessant buzz of American culture in my head. My wife knew that there’s no life for us without at least some of that buzz --- when she saw that Bruce Springsteen was playing in Paris midway through our visit, she bought tickets on eBay. So instead of a leisurely dinner and a long walk home last night, we went to the Bercy Arena for Bruce's one-man show. Twenty-six songs later, I can confirm what I always suspected --- when you get down to it, there's a lot of Jersey in Paris.
A New York Times reviewer wrote about one of Springsteen's American shows that this solo effort had him "struggling under the weight of his own decency." I would have used "struggling" as the subject of that sentence --- the song cycle Springsteen has created here is a universal study of effort. How hard it is to make it through. How easy to get lost and defeated. The sacrifice of choosing our children over ourselves. The thrill of modest but available victories --- a smile, a touch.
Springsteen's formula is textbook Marine: break 'em down, then build 'em up. The key songs in this effort come early in the show ---"The River" and "Point Blank." The kid in "The River," marrying his pregnant girlfriend at 19, and the old friend in "Point Blank” who's been reduced to welfare or whoring in doorways --- how easily that could have been us, how lucky we are to have been spared. "My God, they're sobbing all around us," my wife said. Well, so was she. So was I.
And then "The Rising," the 9/11 anthem I avoid, because it brings that day back so vividly. Springsteen played all the parts --- singer and gospel chorus ("dream of life!"), rushing the lines a little to get everything in. And, also, of course, using that acceleration to take that fireman higher, faster, to that "sky of longing and emptiness, sky of fullness, sky of blessed life." Talk about wrenching!
And, finally, the turn. Which was nothing less than an argument to compromise when you need to, but never to settle. Didactic? Every song hammered home the same implicitly political message: Circumstances and conspiracies have forced us to take mark-downs on our dreams, but we shouldn't look at our lives as a series of defeats.
Elliot Murphy, an American singer-songwriter who now lives in Paris, came out to do "Better Days" (“These are better days/There’s better days shining through") with Springsteen, and Springsteen followed that with "Land of Hope and Dreams" ("Dreams will not be thwarted/Faith will be rewarded"). The finale was "The Promised Land." Which was simply unrecognizable, a slow, gritty statement of defiance. We're not boys, though Lord knows they treat us like children. We are men, if only in our relationships with our women and our kids. And we do believe in a promised land, because to believe in anything less is to betray our children.
Amazing that Springsteen could, near the end of the song, step back from the microphone and sing, unamplified, to l0,000 absolutely silent people. Astonishing that he would think to end it in a primal scream that transitions to a howl of joy. And exactly right that the encore should be "Dream Baby Dream," a song by Suicide, with its mantric repetition: "Dream baby dream/forever, and ever/you know those dreams keep you free baby/dream baby..."
"Calmez," Springsteen said at the top of the show, his French rote and halting. "Je veux vous donner mon meilleur." Well, he did better than give us his best --- he took us on a tour of our lives. If you can stand to be stripped naked in public, if you’re willing to be taken apart and put yourself back together under the guidance of a compassionate preacher, you should think about traveling great distances to see Bruce Springsteen this summer.
Springsteen's tour schedule: http://www.vh1.com/artists/az/springsteen_bruce/tours.jhtml
Springsteen's Paris set list: http://forums1.sonymusic.com/eve/ubb.x/a/tpc/f/404103162/m/4951083473