There's an ineffable quality to Bruce Springsteen's enduring appeal. Less lyrically lucid than Bob Dylan, nowhere near as virtuoso a musician as numerous contemporaries (including several in his own long-serving backing group, the E Street Band), never quite delivering an album as groundbreaking or as critically acclaimed as Sgt. Pepper's or Pet Sounds, Springsteen has outlasted them all. This is in no small part thanks to his unrivalled live performances, voted the greatest of all time by the readers of Rolling Stone, which have been immortalised in a new documentary.
Currently undertaking a lengthy tour to promote his seventeenth studio album Wrecking Ball, on July 22nd the Ridley Scott-produced Springsteen & I will hit cinemas in a style befitting the Boss; for one night only. A largely fan-oriented documentary may sound less incisive than a more conventional talking-head feature with the man himself, but that doesn't allow for the unique, irrepressible connection that has been fostered with fans of "the Boss" for over forty years. In many cases, it transcends fandom, admiration, even love. One word frequently used to describe his shows is "religious", and the same can be said of the role he plays in many of his fans' lives.
The shows are not dissimilar to evangelical gospel churches, demanding penance from the rapt audience - "If you wanna play, you gotta pay!" Springsteen often informs fans. In the Wrecking Ball tour format, a large chunk of the setlist is comprised of requests taken from signs plucked from the crowd, a young child is invariably sourced to sing the chorus of the latter-day classic "Waitin' on a Sunny Day", and several girls are chosen to "do a Courtney Cox" during "Dancing in the Dark".
They also have the ability to make the congregation speak in tongues - in truth, few attendees will have ever set foot in a refinery, rolled down the New Jersey turnpike, or spent a night in a cell - but that doesn't stop tens of thousands roaring along on a nightly basis anyway. Political satirist Jon Stewart has spoken of the rejuvenation and redemption one achieves by going to a Bruce show.
However, unlike many of his ilk, Springsteen's deification has not been a gradual process, preempted by decade-long hiatuses and periods of stuttering or non-existent musical output. With traditional rock 'n' roll being crowded out of both sides in the early 1970s - the earnest, softly spoken singer-songwriter on the flank, psychedelia, glam, and Pink Floyd-esque progressive on the other - Springsteen's explosion onto the scene could not have been more timely. Jon Landau, who later became Springsteen's producer, famously opined that he had seen "rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen". Forty years on, it still is.
Springsteen's role as the last great bastion of true, no frills rock is doubtless a root cause of his iconic status, but there's so much more to it than that. Peter Carlin, author of an outstanding biography simply titled Bruce describes Springsteen's music as a tenuous fusion of "thoughtful sadness and ecstatic joy. He understands that those two forces are linked".
He has gone back to the same thematic well countless times, and never fails to stress his humble beginnings, the eponymous title track of his latest LP beginning in reassuring fashion "I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey, some misty years ago". His mother even fulfilled the Courtney Cox role at his recent Olympic Park gig. Small town Americana, hope and disillusionment, dreams and broken promises pervade every record, every song he's ever written, and crucially, all are interwoven through their unwavering shared perspective. "He cares as much, more, about the losers than the winners" comments the E Street pianist Roy Bittan. The disconnect that should now make writing as the downtrodden loser seem little more than a hollow joke, after over one hundred million albums sold and sizeable roles in President Obama's two election campaigns, has simply never occurred.
Wrecking Ball is a prime example of this peculiar phenomenon. For a globetrotting megastar to try and distill the frustrations of those hardest hit by the ongoing recession is one thing - to achieve it with such aplomb whilst personifying such a struggle is demonstrative of an unworldly talent for pathos.
Springsteen & I captures New Jersey's favourite son at a moment of artistic fulfillment that he would've scarcely believed possible as a young musician preparing his potentially career-ending third album following the commercial failure of his first two offerings. That album was Born to Run and the rest, as they say, was rock 'n' roll history. However, the film is by no means a way of bringing the curtain down on the most illustrious of careers; Carlin believes "Making music for people, telling stories and performing them onstage propels the blood through his veins. It's who he is. He's an artist by design and will only stop when his tools shatter."