Bruce Springsteen, March 29, 2012
In the introduction to his song Jack of All Trades last Thursday at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center, Bruce Springsteen noted—as he had on previous nights—that the song was penned before the explosion of the current debate about the 99% versus the 1%. “I wrote this when there was no Occupy Movement, there was no discernible outrage [about] the crimes that have been committed or the damage done to lives all across the United States,” Springsteen said. Recent events have given the song a renewed relevance in the current discourse about wealth inequality.
This is one illustration of how time can enhance the meaning of a lyric, of how changing events let us see new depths in a work of art. And it was not the only example from Thursday’s show.
That night’s Springsteen concert was my first since the loss of E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who passed away in June 2011. Yet the spirit of the band’s larger-than-life sax player filled the arena throughout the evening. When Clemon’s nephew, saxophonist Jake Clemons, took the stage for a solo he seemed to embody the spirit of his late uncle. And at the end of the nearly 3-hour show, during the band’s autobiographical anthem Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, the instrumental accompaniment went silent as Springsteen’s solo voice intoned the lyric, “When the change was made uptown, and the Big Man joined the band.” Springsteen then thrust the microphone into the air for the audience to pay tribute to the missing band member.
For me, the most poignant moment of the evening came earlier in the set during My City of Ruins, a song which Springsteen cast in a new light to honor the memory of both Clemons and former band member Danny Federici, who died in 2008. In introducing the song, Springsteen began, “We’re so glad to be home. The first time we came to Philly, the E Street Band wasn’t even born yet. [We were] four or five guys out of a smoky little bar in New Jersey. But tonight to get done what we need to get done, it takes a village, baby.” Looking out at the audience, he continued, “We got old friends with us. And we got new friends with us. And I see old faces in the crowd. And I see new faces out there, too…. With your help we’re going to tell a story of hellos and goodbyes. And of the things that leave and of the things that remain.”
In between the song’s chorus and the final verse, Springsteen introduced the E Street Band, now 16 members strong. Following the roll call, he asked the crowd, “Are we missing anybody? Are we missing anybody? Do I have to say the names? Do I have to say the names?” He didn’t. The audience remembered well lost band members Clemons and Federici. “Because if you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here. So let them hear you,” Springsteen said as he held up the mic to let the crowd make its voice heard, calling out to Clemons and Federici as if the combined cheers of the audience could reach them across the void of death.
My City of Ruins was originally written and performed in late 2000 as a paean to the fading glory of Springsteen’s native Asbury Park, New Jersey. Less than a year later, the song took on new meaning following the September 11, 2001 attacks. When Springsteen performed it on the national telethon “America: A Tribute to Heroes” on September 21, 2001, the song seemed to speak directly to our national loss and desire for renewal.
Last Thursday night, the song gained additional resonance from the recent loss of a beloved friend and longtime member of the band. Although the song’s lyrics originally referenced a romantic relationship, it was difficult not to think of Clarence Clemons when Springsteen sang of the absence of a loved one with the words, “My soul is lost, my friend / Now tell me how do I begin again?”
Yet through these layers of meaning and shifting historical nuance, the song retains a consistent message. Like so many Springsteen songs, My City of Ruins offers the hope of renewal and rebirth in the face of loss and heartbreak, of optimism confronting devastation. Of the things that leave and the things that remain.