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America Kicks Ass and So Does Bruce Springsteen

We attended the final night of 'The River' tour, and there's no other way to put it: The Boss demonstrated why he's one of the greatest of all time.

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Back in February, I ended up back in my home state because of a death in my family. On the last night of my stay in the great state of Iowa—about a week’s time—I went out to a bar in Des Moines with an old friend from high school. The bar was called Gas Lamp. It was a Tuesday. And every Tuesday at the Gas Lamp is Karaoke Night, featuring a live band made up of four dudes who are probably in their mid-30s who, I can only imagine, probably work some run of the mill office job that is not too thrilling. The bar was spacious (this was Iowa, after all), and when we entered, it was about a quarter full. We purchased a couple beers for two bucks a piece and sat down, expecting to see some bizarre characters take the stage and sing their heart out in ways that probably weren't that good. Quickly, we realized that every person in the bar was a regular on Karaoke Night, and every one of them had a Specific Song™. Each person, believe it or not, was incredible. A guy in a striped button down and baggy khakis did a version of The Strokes’ “Is This It” that would make Julian Casablancas not only proud, but jealous. A woman in a hoodie did Linkin Park’s “In the End” and made the crowd feel the holy ghost and contemplate their existential existence. Another dude in wire glasses did a version of Weezer’s “Say It Ain’t So” that would’ve caused Rivers Cuomo to send a DM. It was goddamn magical.


But the best person we saw perform on Tuesday Karaoke Night at the Gas Lamp in Des Moines was an older man, probably in his mid-60s, who, right down to the glasses and grey beard, looked like an identical twin to George R.R. Martin. He walked onto the stage, appearing a bit nervous, and planted his two tree trunks down about shoulder width apart. The band launched into Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run,” and George (let’s just call him George) grabbed the microphone with two hands, and belted out the opening line: “In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream.” His voice was tremendous—emulating the beautiful gruffness that is The Boss, whose down and dirty croon makes every single person feel like they can sound just like him if they just grunt enough. George stared out to the back of the bar, singing to no one in particular and everyone at the same time. About a third of the way through, just after the house guitarist tore up Clarence Clemon's legendary sax line, George counted off: “1-2-3-4!,” and threw his fist up into the air before finishing the last verse—“Tramps like us, baby we were born to run!”—to an erupting crowd of half drunk Iowans.

George walked off the stage, passed by me, and one of the locals said to him, “Man, that was awesome.” He responded, simply: “Thank you,” said George. “It’s my favorite song.”

This is why Bruce Springsteen kicks ass. New Jersey might want to argue with you, but truly, it doesn’t matter where you find yourself across these Great United States, you always find Bruce Springsteen. He’s the embodiment of the American working class. He sings about getting your union card and drinking beer by the lake in the summertime, and why those moments, no matter how trivial in the grand scheme of things, feel so vital and important. His music is uncomplicated and simple—anthem rock that’s built by the blues, and each person can always identify with it, whether they’re 18 or 66. He’s the soundtrack to a 80s movie montage that features a character having an epiphany while running down a suburb block. He’s a F-16 flying over the Super Bowl after the national anthem. He’s the denim jacket I wore to see him perform last night.


And boy, what a night it was: the final evening of The River Tour, and the second at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. For the past few months, Bruce and his longtime backing band the E Street Band have been touring his 1980 double album The River, his fifth studio record and first to land at number one on the Billboard charts. The only previous time he’d played it live in full was back in November 2009, but a re-release of everything recorded during the two years he spent recording—more than two dozen outtakes—in a collection called The Ties That Bind: The River Collection caused him to take it on the road again.

The River is one of Bruce’s most ferocious records—which, Christ, that’s saying something. He and the band wrote it with the mind that they wanted to capture the intensity and raucous of their live show, which led to such beasts of songs like “The Ties That Bind,” “Hungry Heart,” “Crush on You,” plus the dramatic ballads of “Fade Away,” “Point Blank,” and, my personal favorite, “Drive All Night.” On stage last night, just after kicking things off with outtake “Meet Me in the City,” Bruce said to the sold-out (and apparently record setting) crowd that The River was a “coming of age record.” Earlier this year he told Rolling Stone that they invested "literally" everything in the studio sessions, and by the end, they were just “eating peanuts.” Being hungry paid off, as the result was, as we can see now, legendary.


“The size of the record doesn't make it a casual undertaking,” he said to David Fricke. “And it's a funny record. It ends on a strange note with ‘Wreck on the Highway,’ where it's just a guy and his thoughts [laughs]. That's all there is. The album starts with the pursuit of connection and community, the desire to find out where you fit in, and ends up with this guy in a bedroom with the person he loves and his thoughts.”

And that’s kind of like life, isn’t it? What makes Bruce so appealing to so many people isn’t necessarily that his music is revolutionary (although some Stans will surely let me know how wrong that opinion is), but rather that he knows exactly how to describe what it’s like to be alive right now in a way that is digestible and easy to comprehend—regardless if that “now” is in 1980 or 1992 or 2016. He was staring down 30 when he started to record The River, and he eternally knows how to wrestle with the crippling anxiety of someone around that age. This is a record desperate for human connection, embodying the beauty of Bruce’s music and how it works so well to bring us together. Yet there’s an underlying constant of escapism—creating a feeling that maybe, just maybe, if I sing along to these songs at the top of my lungs, I won’t feel as alone as I do when I’m not singing along to these songs.

When he breaks it down in ballad form, leaving his gargantuan voice as the primary instrument, it creates a yearning that is both welcoming yet hopeless. We don’t want to be alone. We want to be loved. And we want someone else to tell us the same: “I swear I’ll drive all night just to buy you some shoes, and to taste your charms,” he sings on “Drive All Night.” “I just wanna sleep tonight again in your arms.”


I’ve never seen an arena like I saw Barclays last night, and I’ll probably never see it again. The Boss played for about three and a half hours. After he finished his 20 songs from The River, he took requests from the crowd, cracking into favorites like “Loose Ends” and “Trapped.” At one point, he brought at 10-year-old girl on stage that made a sign that said “I can sing all the words to ‘Blinded by the Light’ and I can prove it.” He handed her the microphone, and, well, she proved it! By the way, who remembers that Bruce wrote “Blinded by the Light”?

Then he launched into a medley of hits—dropping “Badlands” and “Thunder Road” before paying tribute to Prince (again) with “Purple Rain” into “Born to Run” into “Dancing in the Dark” into “Rosalita” into “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” into a cover of “Shout” and then, why not at this point, “Bobby Jean.” People danced foolishly, because that’s what you do at a Bruce Springsteen concert. Every person knew every lyric to every song, because that’s what you know when you’re at a Bruce Springsteen concert. There was no shame, because that’s not something you find at a Bruce Springsteen concert.

The River is about time,” he said near the end of the show. “And time slipping away.”

With Prince’s death last week and Bruce’s wonderful cover of “Purple Rain”—he introduced it by saying “One more time, for a friend…”—I couldn’t help but stand and wonder what the hell will happen with The Boss finally clocks out for good. But then I remembered earlier in the show, he walked off the stage and ended up crowd surfing his way back. He crowd surfed! At age 66! And then he danced on stage and shook his ass and had the camera zoom in on his ass shaking. Bruce is relentless. Bruce is life. Bruce is eternal. We’re lucky that he’s spent these 66 years on earth giving us what he has, and I wouldn’t put it past him to stick around for at least 66 more.

Eric Sundermann would like you to know that you can’t spell America without Eric. Follow him on Twitter.