There’s something so pure, so sweet, so indelible about the sight of Bruce Springsteen and Little Steven Van Zandt sharing a microphone, both wielding guitars and beatific smiles, the Boss joyfully bellowing jowl to jowl with his quirkiest minion. Since the “Glory Days” video (the E Street boys already wistfully nostalgic by 1984), I have associated this image with happiness, with camaraderie, with America, with rock. They reprise it now onstage Thursday night for a euphoric Madison Square Garden overloaded with lustily hooting, wantonly fist-pumping disciples. You have never seen so much fist-pumping in your life. Bruce/Stevie are howling through “Radio Nowhere,” a crabby, pretty-rocking-for-fiftysomethings lament to a communication medium that Bruce will outlive. “Is there anybody alive out there?” ends the chorus, triggering a hailstorm of hoots and pumped fists. A great many people are alive out there. In two hours or so, Bruce will play “Born to Run.” All is right with the world. You need to see this once in your life. Unless you are a Springsteen fanatic, exactly once. The second time pales in comparison. It has no choice.
This is my second time, and I am nitpicking, and I frankly feel horrible about it. Back in 2002, packed into an enormo-dome in Columbus, Ohio, the chorus to “Candy’s Room” hit me like an exhilarating punch in the face; now, that moment reprised at the Garden, I am distracted, regarding drummer Max Weinberg’s somewhat plodding thwacks with apprehension, wishing he’d provide a bit of swing, some empty space, a few palpable bass frequencies. Back in ’02, Bruce was pimping The Rising, a blatantly heartwarming post-9/11 Attempt to Heal America that only a dude of his stature and talent—that bewitching alchemy of the subtle and the unapologetically unsubtle—could make not sound completely ridiculous. Those songs rushed by in a stirring, life-affirming blur. But now we’re onto Magic, a fine album with a few sterling pop moments but a shakier grasp on the subtle/unsubtle thing, all those highways and mystery trains and gypsy bikers and flags flying over courthouses triggering both pumping fists and rolling eyes. Far from terrible, though. A few days ago, I heard the wistful, anthemic “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” over the p.a. at the Meadowlands an hour before the Giants game started, as everyone was on the field stretching out; Bruce’s killer melody wafting over those all-American boys fielding punts and running lazy out-patterns struck me as absurdly perfect.
Equally good though is Magic‘s title track, soft and loose and ominous, Bruce almost purring as he offers to pull quarters out of our ears and chop us in half over light (syncopated!) percussion and gently sawing orchestration. It’s genuinely entrancing and equally unsettling. At MSG, they botch it. No backbeat, so the rhythm is wobbly, uncertain, and beset by pushy violin. Bruce and his wife/bandmate, Patty Scialfa, warble much of it together in awkward duet. And worse, it’s preceded by a long, pedantic speech—the tune is clearly a barbed con-man monologue mirroring the Bush administration’s down-is-up audacity, but Bruce feels compelled to very, very explicitly spell this out for us now, even going so far as to utter the words “You can fool some of the people some of the time. . . . ” So can you, Bruce. Soon thereafter, he’s belaboring the point of Magic‘s sardonically jaunty “Livin’ in the Future,” rattling off America’s pros (“Cheeseburgers! The Bill of Rights!”) and cons (“Rendition!” “Illegal wiretapping!”), abandoning the unsubtle entirely to decry loudly what he fears is a First Amendment freeze-out. I’m with him all the way, but this can get pretty corny; he’s better off speaking softly and letting the songs swing the sticks.
Because when they swing, they hit hard: “Candy’s Room” still a killer, palpable bass pulses be damned. “Dancing in the Dark” better than you remember. The goofy, teenage-lusty “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” probably worse than you remember, but Bruce and Stevie, back on one mic, banter charmingly—one looks, the other touches. And the crew climaxes with “Meeting Across the River” and “Jungleland,” the epic closing suite on Born to Run, as pathos-ridden and operatic as any Scorsese flick, its bleak urban-decay scenery loudly chewed by an earth-shattering Clarence Clemons sax solo, way too loud and way too cheesy and exactly right. The majestic “Born to Run” itself—oh, God, I can’t even talk about it. Forget it. And when the set ends with “Badlands,” the crowd howls countermelody oh-whoa-oh-oh-oh‘s in ecstatic unison, and keeps the chant going a cappella after the band leaves the stage.
These are undeniable pleasures, a collective force strong enough to eventually break the law of diminishing returns that makes me nitpick the second time around, smirking as Max plods along or Clarence sort of half-rhythmically shakes maracas in the interim between earth-shattering sax solos. (They oughta just bring a pinball machine up onstage to help him pass the time.) My cynicism is eventually overpowered, but I can’t help but envy those here for the first time, those completely in thrall to that initial and unexpected rush of blood to the head, the heart, the loins, no matter how prepared you are, the songs’ crescendos blindsiding you even when they hit right when you expect them to. As a little kid gaping at the “Glory Days” video on MTV, I could immediately sense the power those two guys on that one mic had—watching them onstage at a sold-out Madison Square Garden more than two decades later, I struggle to retain that dumbstruck awe. I can manage it sometimes, and they can manage it more often than that, but it’s never as good as it was. Unlike the clumsy, desperate sex acts and last-chance power drives that Bruce’s best songs evoke, the first time is inevitably the best.