Bruce Springsteen generally opens a show with this invocation to the crowd: “We’re here tonight because what we need to do we can’t do by ourselves. We need you. We need you”. Then he’ll chant, “Can you feel the spirit? Can you feel the spirit now?” Before he’s sung a note, audience and performer are united in an inseparable bond.
Is this sort of thing unique to Springsteen? Maybe. What is certain is that there is something very special about Springsteen’s relationship with his audience, and his own perception of what the nature of that relationship should be. This is what hits you repeatedly in the new documentary film Springsteen and I that I saw at one of the national preview screenings on Monday night.
The film – which sets out to document the special relationship between Springsteen fans and The Boss – is built around videos made by fans themselves in which they talk about what he means to them and recount an experience that has defined their connection. Over 2000 Springsteen fans submitted videos; mercifully, less than ten made the final cut. But those that do are often extraordinary: heartfelt, moving, and sometimes very funny. Interspersed with the personal video footage are rarely-seen clips of live performances from every stage of Springsteen’s career, making the experience even more enjoyable – at least if you’re a Bruce fan.
The fans’ segments, edited by director Baillie Walsh and produced by Ridley Scott, feature footage shot by the fans themselves, sometimes simply stating which three words they think best describe Springsteen, while the more interesting ones tell the story of how Bruce has made an impact on their life. Some feature footage of themselves with Springsteen, such as one lucky street musician with whom Springsteen sings and plays in an impromptu street jam.
I must admit that my heart sank during the first ten minutes or so: the film opens with diehard fans cataloguing the three words that sum up Bruce for them – none particularly interesting or insightful – followed by a very strange section in which a woman who is clearly one disc short of a box set embarrasses her ten year old son with the recollection of how, when he was an infant, she’d hold up a picture of Springsteen and repeat the word ‘Daddy’ several times.
But, after this unpromising start the film simply gets better and better as genuinely moving moments and remarkable stories pile up. Not only do these sequences capture all the absolute devotion of Springsteen fans, they also reveal the main reason why this artist means so much to so many. In the words of one contributor: “You trust Bruce. He isn’t going to let you down. You believe in Bruce, and Bruce believes in you”. That Springsteen does, genuinely, believe he shares a bond with his audience, their lives and daily concerns, is borne out time and again – and especially in the heart-warming epilogue.
As Laura Barton points out in an article published to coincide with the film’s premiere, part of Springsteen’s appeal lies in the intimacy of Springsteen’s songs:
His willingness to paint the lives of ordinary people, blue-collar workers in small-town New Jersey, struggling to make ends meet, to shoulder their responsibilities, yearning for the simple escape of youth and rock’n’roll and a fast car. There are nicknames, recurring characters, streets, venues, specific screen-doors, specific porches, specific moments in a life rendered so real you could touch them.
As if the embodiment of Springsteen’s celebration of working class life, hard work and struggle, in the documentary Kitty, a graduate with an MA who was unable to find work in her field and so became a truck driver, explains how she finds dignity in the lyrics of Nebraska; listening to Bruce, she says, makes her feel that “the more physically demanding my job is, the more important I am”. The reason that this film has so many great moments and has such a big heart is that it allows ordinary people to speak freely and passionately about their lives and those things that move them.
There is the couple, together for 28 years and living in a small New York apartment, who admit they have never been able to afford to see Bruce in concert; they film themselves dancing around their kitchen to ‘Radio Nowhere’. There is the factory worker from Manchester who saves up for a holiday with his wife to see a Springsteen show at Madison Square Garden, only to discover they had the worst seats in the house. He tells of their encounter, as they made their way to their seats, with Springsteen’s famed “man in black,” who strolls through venues offering fans the ultimate prize: front row seats. “I was so excited I bought my wife three glasses of champagne,” he remembers, eyes shining. “At seven dollars a glass.”
John, a groundsman at Denmark’s Roskilde stadium, films himself in the stadium where he recalls seeing Springsteen as a boy on the Tunnel of Love tour. He was 9, and on an old Walkman recorded the whole show on cassette tapes which he has still. In one of the film’s funniest episodes, a man agrees to be filmed by his Springsteen-worshipping wife who he has followed to concerts every major city in Europe. She asks him if there is anything he would like to say to Springsteen; quick as flash he responds: “Shorten your concerts.”
Another guy recalls his girlfriend leaving him the day before a Springsteen concert and how, holding up a sign at the show that read ‘I’ve been dumped’, Springsteen called him up on the stage and gave him a big hug. Remarkably, the film makers have found footage of the moment, just as they have for what probably counts as the film’s funniest and most heart-warming moment when an Elvis impersonator leaps on stage at a Philadelphia show and almost upstages Bruce as he performs ‘All Shook Up’ and ‘Blue Suede Shoes’. “I don’t know where he came from”, gasps Bruce as Elvis leaves the stage.
In her Guardian piece, Laura Barton writes that, for many of his fans, Springsteen has come to represent ‘something upstanding and wholesome’:
He is politically engaged, left-leaning, with a passion for the underdog (this week he dedicated a song to Trayvon Martin, for instance) and seems to set out an example of what can be achieved by kindness, consideration and pure hard graft. He tours often and long, his shows frequently last past three hours; on stage he works hard as an entertainer: covering all areas of the stage, playing sometimes obscure requests, and frequently channelling the role of a kind of southern Baptist preacher. “Where we wanna go, we can’t get there by ourselves,” he tells the crowd. “We need YOU! Can you feel the spirit?” he asks, and hands are lifted aloft and waved in this new kind of church.
The nub of the special relationship between Springsteen and his fans is that he is a special kind of star, a huge celebrity who seems human, even modest, with a commitment to honesty that resonates with people. He seems to understand the average person’s life, even if he is anything but average, and couples this with a belief in himself as embodying the redemptive power of rock’n’roll. Something of this comes across, too, in Peter Ames Carlin’s recent biography, Bruce. In her article, Laura Barton recounts a story told her by rock critic Greil Marcus:
“Bruce can seem warm, open, friendly – an ordinary guy, someone you can imagine being friends with – because he is genuinely interested in other people,” [says Marcus]. “And because he acts consciously to set himself apart from the arrogant, entitled, dismissive rock star, both because he doesn’t want to be like that and because he is aware of how damaging to the – let’s not say image but the sense-of-self – his fans hold of him and hold him to.”
Marcus cites as his favourite example a day in 2000, when Springsteen visited a seminar he was teaching at Princeton on Prophecy and the American Voice. “My older daughter had run into him at a party in New York … and told him about the class,” he explains. “He said he’d like to take it – she said, I’d tell him he’d have to do the reading.”
The reading that week was no mean feat – Allen Ginsberg’s Wichita Vortex Sutra from 1966, accompanied by a recording of Ginsberg performing the entire, very long poem with an orchestra of downtown New York musicians. But characteristically, Springsteen put in the hours.
“Bruce arrived early, and we went in together,” Marcus recalls. “I introduced him – everyone knew who he was – and he sat down around the seminar table and for the next three hours carefully, subtly, took part in the conversation. He had, he told me later, been very affected by the poem, and had an argument he wanted to make about it, but he did this by speaking only in terms of something a student said, responding, and eliding his statements into questions. People then took up things he’d said, so that he was able to turn the discussion without ever appearing to.
“That’s a very specific situation, but I think many fans glimpse that sense of self in Bruce’s music, songs, self-presentation – and can imagine, and even do imagine, themselves and him interacting in their own lives. Certainly for some people that crosses over into the kind of identification and obsession that some people outgrow and some people don’t.”
The special screenings on Monday didn’t quite run to the generous length of a Springsteen concert, but in addition to the main feature we were treated to bonus live footage of the notorious Hyde Park concert in 2012 when the power was cut by bureaucrats just as Springsteen was jamming with Paul McCartney. After that came an epilogue in which some of the fans featured in the film got to meet Bruce in person at Roskilde stadium. There are warm hugs and amusing comments from Springsteen, before he is evidently lost for words, moved when he discovers that the Danish guy who, as a nine year old, first saw him perform there is now working at the stadium as a groundsman, and will be clearing up after the show the next morning.
In 2007, the writer Sarfraz Manzoor (who is glimpsed in the 2012 Hyde Park crowd during the bonus footage) published Greetings from Bury Park, his account of the impact of Bruce Springsteen’s music on his own life, and its role in helping him leave his home town of Luton. He tells Laura Barton that Springsteen and his music still means a great deal:
“In my 20s and 30s, I believed being a Springsteen fan meant travelling the world and clocking up as many concerts as I could manage. I was wrong – the point of loving his music is not to become obsessed by him but to make the best of your own life so you don’t let the best of yourself slip away.”
- Springsteen’s fans: ‘You believe in Bruce; Bruce believes in you’: Laura Barton explores the extraordinary devotion of The Boss’s fans (Guardian)
- Reading Mr. Springsteen
- Bruce in Manchester: standing shoulder to shoulder in hard times
- Bruce Springsteen’s new album and a keynote speech
- Springsteen: The Promise fulfilled
- Luton, actually