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Intensity, passion, scale and a sincere rapport with his audience are the hallmarks of Bruce Springsteen's finest shows. As the singer's Glastonbury debut approaches, Andy Gill celebrates a great American star and performer
It's fast becoming something of an annual tradition, as essential a part of the Glastonbury experience as mud and portaloos: no sooner have the line-ups been announced for that year's festival than some self-appointed guardian of the Spirit of Glasto raises a dubious eyebrow and condemns one or another of the headlining acts as somehow unworthy or otherwise unfit to top the bill. Last year, of course, it was Noel Gallagher firing a broadside across the bows of Jay-Z, who cannily responded by taking to the stage with his own version of Oasis's "Wonderwall". This year, it's Sean Lennon's turn, the man most famous for being someone's son choosing to take a pop at the man most famous for being born to run and then being reborn again, in the USA.
What on earth can Bruce Springsteen have done to upset poor Sean? Stolen his girlfriend? Prevented one of Sean's records from securing its rightful chart position? Nothing quite as far-fetched as that, it seems. Sean apparently believes it's "outrageous" that someone not completely steeped in ye druidic mystique of Olde Englande should be allowed to top the bill. "It's shocking," said Lennon. "I have been to Glastonbury a few times, I've even played a few, and it just didn't seem like [Springsteen] was the kind of artist they had headlining. I heard they called him, and he didn't even know what it was."
Leaving aside for the moment what "kind of artist" Sean believes might be appropriate – a weasel phrase presumably accommodating all manner of landfill-indie tosh – and overlooking previous appearances by the likes of McCartney, Cohen and Brian Wilson, it still seems an absurd prerequisite for an act to have to have heard of an institution before being allowed to perform there, particularly an artist whose festival cherry, surprisingly, was only popped earlier this month at the Bonnaroo Festival in Tennessee. Nor, indeed, is it entirely certain that Springsteen himself was the unaware party, rather than his front-office suits.
"It's been our mission for quite a long time to get Bruce," reported the festival organiser Emily Eavis. "I thought it was quite unlikely, especially when the agent said, 'Glaston-what?'. We put together a document for him and spoke to his people and explained, 'This is what happens, this is all the money that goes to charity'. Pretty quickly he said: 'Yes'."
Indeed, rather than bridling at this interloper into his cosy little trustafarian indie world, Sean Lennon might reflect upon the festival's good fortune at securing such an in-demand megastar, at a time when the prevailing culture of big-budget one-off shows is making it increasingly difficult to secure top international stars for the event. As Eavis acknowledges, "It's quite hard to understand why you should play a festival for not much money when you're being offered quite a lot to go elsewhere."
And at the very least, it ensures that whatever the meteorological, medical and social tribulations afflicting festival-goers this weekend, for a few hours they will know they've actually been entertained, and on a grand scale. Surely the fittest star of his age (59), Springsteen is famed for the legendary scale and intensity of his shows, and initially wanted to play his usual three-hour set at the festival. Even if he has to settle for half an hour less, it will be high-octane stuff from the first bars to the final encores. Last year at Old Trafford, for instance, he gave a typical Man of the Match performance with a series of two- or three-song broadsides, occasionally punctuated by the assured patter of a consummate showman who effortlessly bridges the gulf between himself and his fans.
No other stadium-stuffing star of Springsteen's magnitude – not U2, not Radiohead, certainly not Prince or Madonna – would take the kind of risks he does: racing along runways into the crowd, shaking hands as if with old mates, falling to his knees as their hands paw over his body and guitar. He's also less restricted than other acts, including the Stones, whose sets have to follow the sequence programmed into the computers. At some point in Saturday's show, Bruce will collect song requests written by fans on sheets of cardboard, and the E Street Band will instantly blast them out, like a living jukebox, with a spontaneity unprecedented in the carefully regulated world of modern rock performance. To use a football analogy, this is no fancy-dan show-pony reliant on a few slickly choreographed feints and step-over moves, but a real box-to-box dynamo whose legwork is made possible by the sheer size of his heart.
It's already been a memorable year for Bruce, with performances at two of the landmark occasions in American culture. His band's set at the Super Bowl half-time show was probably the most energised 12 minutes in the event's history, even if a little of the gloss was taken off it by hoaxers choosing that moment to replace Springsteen's sizeable Wikipedia entry with the statement, "This guy kinda sucks". And a few weeks before that, he was backed by a gospel choir as he sang "The Rising" on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to kick-start the Obama Inaugural Celebration.
The two men clearly have a mutual admiration society. Barack Obama has claimed that there are "a handful of people who enter into your lives through their music and tell the American people's story: Bruce Springsteen is one of those people", and (only half-jokingly, one suspects) admitted that he was only running for President because he couldn't be Bruce Springsteen. The singer has returned the favour with numerous benefits and shows of support during the candidate's campaign, explaining as he would lead pointed singalongs of "This Land Is Your Land", "I don't know about you, but I want my country back, I want my dream back, I want my America back."
"A lot of the core of our songs is the American idea: What is it? What does it mean?" he told Jon Pareles of The New York Times. "'Promised Land', 'Badlands' – I've seen people singing those songs back to me all over the world. I'd seen that country on a grass-roots level through the 1980s, since I was a teenager. I met people who were always working toward the country being that kind of place. But on a national level it always seemed very far away. And on election night it showed its face, for maybe, probably, one of the first times in my adult life. I sat there on the couch, and my jaw dropped, and I went, 'Oh my God, it exists.'"
It was the culmination of all the hopes Springsteen had hoarded through the decades when his songs had been frequently misinterpreted as jingoist expressions of American patriotism by politicians whose beliefs were diametrically opposed to his own blue-collar sympathies and liberal-left principles. During the 1988 Human Rights Now! tour in support of Amnesty International, he explained his involvement as a refinement of the instincts that had first led him to music.
"When you're young and you pick up a guitar, it feels so powerful. It feels like you pulled the sword from the stone. But as you get older you realise that, although it can do a lot of things, there are also a lot of things it can't do. I used to believe that it could save the world, but I don't really believe that any more. As I've got older, one of the things I've wanted to do with my music is somehow take that power that I got from those records when I was a kid, and put it to work in some nuts-and-bolts way."
He wasn't always this politically engaged, nor, indeed, articulate enough to express any political sentiments in a persuasive manner. In his Catholic high school, Bruce was not a good student, his wiseacre tendencies frequently securing him punishment from the nuns; and in college, so the story goes, his fellow students took the drastic step of petitioning the administration for his expulsion. At home, meanwhile, Springsteen received little encouragement from his father, whose drunken rages he later recognised as deriving from the bitterness of a working man frustrated at his own lack of opportunities.
Their family conflicts were later animated in one of the numerous stage-patter stories with which he punctuates performances, in this case before "Growin' Up". "When I was growing up there were two things that were unpopular in my house," it began. "One was me, and the other was my guitar." Faced with the usual parental ambitions, Bruce goes to see his priest, telling him how he doesn't want to be a lawyer or an author, but a musician. His priest advises him to talk to God – and when he gets to God's house, God is sat behind a drumkit, with the letters G-O-D on the bass drum. Moses, God explains, screwed up with the Commandments, scared into premature retreat back down the mountain by all the thunder, lightning and burning-bush effects laid on by the Almighty. "You see, what those guys don't understand is that there was supposed to be an Eleventh Commandment," says God. "And all it said was: Let It Rock!" [cue re-entry of band, collapse of stout party, etc].
Caught under the spell of Elvis at the age of nine, Springsteen had by his teens become obsessed with music. He played in a series of local New Jersey bands going under names such as Steel Mill and Dr Zoom & the Sonic Boom, eventually ending up with his own 10-piece band. Over the next few years, as success eluded them, its numbers dwindled until Bruce was left on his own. But by that time, influenced by Dylan, he had discovered the gift that would attract the attention of his first manager, Mike Appel. "When I first came across Bruce it was by accident," claimed Appel, "but when I heard him play I heard this voice saying to me: Superstar!"
Appel, a typically fast-talking showbiz wheeler-dealer, took Springsteen along to meet Columbia's legendary A&R man John Hammond, who had previously signed Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan. Hammond took an instinctive dislike to Appel's hard-sell patter, but was intrigued by the young man sat quietly in the corner with a guitar case. "Do you want to get your guitar out?" he asked, and Springsteen duly complied with an impromptu "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City". "I couldn't believe it, I just couldn't believe it!" recalled Hammond later. He signed up Springsteen, and a few months later Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ appeared, garlanded with the kind of effusive comparisons to Dylan that would capsize a lesser talent.
After it came out, he asked Appel how many copies the album had sold. "We didn't do very well," responded his manager, "we sold about 20,000 records". "20,000 records!" exclaimed the singer enthusiastically. "That's fabulous! I don't know 20,000 people. Who would buy a record by someone they have no idea about?"
Since then, countless millions have bought his records, even duff ones such as 1992's bargain-in-reverse double helping of Human Touch and Lucky Town, and the various live albums that have attempted to capture his onstage charisma. With the sole exception of 1995's bleak solo offering, The Ghost of Tom Joad, all his albums since 1975's Born to Run have reached the Top 5 of the US Album Chart, with four of his five releases this century topping the chart. Apart from the resurgent Dylan, it's hard to think of another performer with as long a career who has managed to carry their popularity so impressively into the new millennium.
And certainly, no other performer of his stature has retained quite as close (and apparently sincere) a connection with their audience. There's the great story about the time he was spotted in a cinema watching Woody Allen's sour essay on artist/fan relations, Stardust Memories, by a kid who challenged him to prove he didn't regard his own fans with similar contempt, by coming back to meet his mom and have a bite to eat. He complied, and 15 years later he sees the kid's mother every time he plays in St Louis.
"Part of what I liked about my job," he told NME's Gavin Martin, "was that I could step out of my hotel, walk down the street, and some nights you could just get lost and you'd meet somebody and they'd take you into their life, and it was just sort of... I don't know, a way of connecting with things."
Connecting with things is the key to what drives Springsteen, and also to his enduring appeal. If Elvis was rock'n'roll's George Washington, and Dylan its Abe Lincoln, then Bruce is surely its Franklin Delano Roosevelt, urging a New Deal for the downtrodden and oppressed, employing a homespun, folksy style far removed from, say, the untouchable mystique with which Dylan surrounds himself, and always stressing the need for connection to heal the rifts which, around the time of The River, he perceived were splitting his America in two: "In the beginning the idea was that we all live here a little bit like a family, where the strong can help the weak ones, the rich can help the poor ones," he said at the time. "I don't think the American dream was that everybody was going to make a billion dollars, but that everybody was going to have the chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity and a chance for some self-respect."
So although his latest record contract may be worth a reported $110m, and his 2008 world tour have grossed a cool £204m, more than fulfilling his childhood dreams of being as big as the Beatles and the Stones, such statistics are clearly less important to him than the opportunity to connect with people on a grand scale, and to animate their concerns in a way that uplifts their spirits while protesting the inequities. His career, he realises, is not entirely his own, but is something shared with, and partly constructed by, his fans. "It's not just my creation at this point, and it hasn't been really for a long time," he acknowledges. "I wanted it to be our creation. Once you set that in motion, it's a large community of people gathered around a core set of values." As he said when accepting the Best Original Song Oscar for "Streets of Philadelphia", "You do your best work and you hope that it pulls out the best in your audience, and some piece of it spills over into the real world and into people's everyday lives. And it takes the edge off fear, and allows us to recognise each other through our veil of differences. I always thought that was one of the things popular art was supposed to be about, along with the merchandising and all the other stuff."
That's good enough for me, and while it may not match Sean Lennon's stringent requirements for Glastonbury validity, it's apparently good enough for Jay-Z nay-sayer Noel Gallagher, too. Or maybe not. When he was asked to comment on this year's line-up, Noel said, "I like Bruce. I don't know, do I like Bruce? I don't own any of his records... I love Neil Young – he's playing, isn't he, somewhere?"