A Night In Bruce Springsteen's America

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib goes to a stop on The River Tour.

To watch Bruce Springsteen step onto a stage in New Jersey is to watch Moses walk to the edge of the Red Sea, so confident in his ability to perform a miracle, to carry his people to the Promised Land. I believe in the magic of seeing a musician perform in the place they once called home. The Jersey air felt different, lighter than usual, as I walked into the massive Prudential Center and made my way to my seat.

Having seen Springsteen before, I wasn’t surprised by the aesthetics of the arena. I imagine, though, that this could be overwhelming for someone who has never seen Springsteen live. The chanting and relentless fist-pumping beforehand while the stage is being set up, the American flags wrapped around foreheads or hanging off of backs. From another angle, this may feel like a strange political rally. On its face, it matches the tone, passion, and volume of political theater at its base form.

Whether or not the preacher himself intends this, in the church of Bruce Springsteen, it is understood that there is a singular America, one where there is a dream to be had for all who enter, and everyone emerges, hours later, closer to that dream.

I found my seat next to an older man who, despite our fairly close proximity to the stage, was still using binoculars to scan the rapidly growing crowd around us. Without looking away from his binoculars, he told me that he saw Bruce back in 1980, when The River was first released. He explained that he saw Bruce play on December 8, 1980. I thought on this for a moment, before it came together. “Lennon,” I said. “The night Lennon was murdered.” He finally put down his binoculars, nodded lightly, looked at the exit, toward the outside world, and said “I hope no one gets killed out there during the show this time.”

The day before I crossed into New Jersey to watch this show, Bruce Springsteen playing through his iconic 1980 double album, The River, I found myself in Ferguson, Missouri, standing over Michael Brown’s memorial plaque. There was no notable reason for this trip. I’m not sure what I wanted to feel, other than closer to a sadness and rage that had become a very real part of my life. I was in St. Louis, and I think I wanted to return to a place where the fight to pull itself back together never stopped, against the backdrop of suffocating injustice that still hangs above the city. The air feels different in Ferguson, too. Unlike New Jersey on the night of Bruce Springsteen coming home, the air in Ferguson still feels heavy, thick with grief. Yet it is still a town of people who take their joy where they can get it, living because they must.

There is a part of me that has always understood The River to be about this. Staring down the life you have left and claiming it as your own, living it to the best of your ability before the clock runs out. In “Jackson Cage,” a man dreams of a life more fulfilling than the one he has with the woman he loves in a New Jersey town, but he settles. He gives himself over to the fact that what he has will do, until he has nothing else. This, too, is the promise that has always been sold in Bruce Springsteen’s music. The ability to make the most out of your life, because it’s the only life you have.

The technician in me has always loved watching how deftly Bruce Springsteen commands the E-Street Band, and this night in New Jersey was no different. During “Sherry Darling,” it takes a mere turn of his head and a slight nod to pull sax player Jake Clemons to the front of the stage for a solo. During “Two Hearts,” Bruce leaves the stage to walk among the crowd, and Steve Van Zandt slides directly into the hole Bruce left onstage. Not a note was missed, even as Bruce crowd-surfed and danced with members of the audience.

What has always fascinated me most about The River is the start of Side 2. The way “Hungry Heart” bleeds into “Out in the Street,” two of the most upbeat songs on the album, but the two that I have always found the saddest, both explicitly and implicitly. In one, a man, overcome by dissatisfaction with the perceived American Dream, leaves his wife and children, never to return. In the other, there is a celebration of freedom from what we are to believe is a soul-crushing job. During “Out in the Street,” while most of the audience danced and clapped along to the lyrics about going into work at a job you don’t love on Monday and dreaming of stripping out of your work clothes on Friday, I thought, as I do every time I hear the song, about living the Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. During the second chorus, a woman behind me tapped my shoulder, smiled, and yelled “Come on! You gotta want to dance to this!”

Here is where I tell you that this was a sold-out show, and as I looked around the swelling arena when I arrived, the only other black people I saw were performing labor, in some capacity. The fact that I noticed this, I’m sure, would potentially seem absurd to many of the other people attending the concert. One of the other black people, an older man with a laugh like my father’s, led me to my seat and told me that he hoped he got to watch a bit of the show in between working.

In Bruce Springsteen’s music, not just in The River, I think about the romanticization of work and how that is reflected in America. Rather, for whom work is romantic, and for whom work is a necessary and sometimes painful burden of survival. One that comes with the shame of time spent away from loved ones, and a country that insists you aren’t working hard enough. In New Jersey, Springsteen’s songs are the same anthemic introspective paintings of a singular America: Men do labor that is often hard, loading crates or working on a dock, and there is often a promised reward at the end of it all. A loving woman always waiting to run away with you, a dance with your name on it, a son who will grow up and take pride in the beautiful, sanctifying joy of work.

I do not know what side of work the employees in the Prudential Center came down on that night, or any night. I know that I understand being black in America, and I have understood being poor in America. What I know comes with both of those things, often together, is work that is always present, the promise of more to come. Even in my decade-plus of loving Bruce Springsteen’s music, I have always known and accepted that the idea of hard, beautiful, romantic work is a dream sold a lot easier by someone who currently knows where their next meal will come from.

As the band launched into a killer extended version of “Cadillac Ranch,” I looked over to the steps and saw a young black man who had been vending popcorn and candy. He was sitting on a step, covered in sweat, and rubbing his right ankle. A man, presumably attempting to get back to his seat, yelled at him to move.

What I understand about The River now that I didn’t before I saw it in New Jersey is that this is an album about coming to terms with the fact that you are going to eventually die, written by someone who seemed to have an understanding of the fact that he was going to live for a long time. It is an album of men and women and families and the grand idea of surviving to enjoy it all. It is often fearless and forward-looking in its talk of both love and loss. There’s a conflict between dreams and reality, of course, but the reality is still always one of survival.

As the final saxophone solo in “Drive All Night” kissed every corner of the Prudential Center and hundreds of cell phone flashlights cut through the dark of the arena, I realized that I am now the age Bruce Springsteen was when The River was released in 1980. I once thought that I saw the same version of adulthood that The River speaks of. One with conflict and celebration, but always living. It is 2016, and not watching the videos of black people murdered doesn’t mean that black people aren’t still being murdered. I try not to think about death -- my own, or that of anyone I love -- but I don’t consider the future in the way that The River seems to consider the future. I don’t fear what the future holds as much as I fear not being alive long enough to see it. It could have been the ghosts of Ferguson that I carried with me to New Jersey, or the sheer emotional exhaustion I felt as the last notes of “Wreck on the Highway” died out, but I felt like I truly fell in a different type of love with The River after seeing it in this way. What it must feel like to write an album like this. To listen to an album like this with different eyes on the world. What it must feel like to imagine that no one in America will be killed while a man sings a song about the promise of living.