Thunder Road

Today Bruce Springsteen turns 61. He is an excellent songwriter and incredible live performer. For a long time now he has been tapping into his own vein of the Cosmic American Music.

When I saw Springsteen in concert last year in St. Paul, I went with a bad attitude, wanting to dislike the show, but found it highly enjoyable most of the time and irresistible in several spots. He left his politics at home and let his songs do the talking for him. Springsteen is still a tireless showman in the excellent physical condition necessary to perform as he does.

The songs that night were heavy on the Depression-era themes that Bruce has warmed to since the Reagan administration. “Johnny 99” (1982) and “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (1995) were in some ways the heart of the show, with Nils Lofgren taking an inspirational solo on “Johnny 99.” Springsteen threw in Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” (1855, as Springsteen noted) for good measure, remarking that some things never change. That is certainly true in Springsteen’s case, for better and for worse.

It was a funny kind of Depression we were living in during the Reagan era, with the the recession created by the Carter-era stagflation followed by the sustained job growth and economic prosperity that commenced with the effective date of the Kemp-Roth tax cuts in January 1983. In our current hard times, 20,000 residents of the Twin Cities could afford to fill up the Xcel Center on tickets that must have averaged about $100 a shot.

“Thunder Road” is an early song that is one of Springsteen’s (many) best. He cites sources: “Roy Orbison singin’ for the lonely.” He voices a thought with special currency: “You’re scared and you’re thinkin’ that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” He announces his statement of purpose: “I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk.” He makes it clear that he’s playing for keeps: “We’ve got one last chance to make it real.” In the duet below with Melissa Etheridge, we have a beautiful acoustic version of the song without the usual audience singalong that can ruin it.

The highlight of last year’s St. Paul show was “Land of Hope and Dreams.” Again, Springsteen quotes sources. This time it’s Curtis Mayfield’s “People, Get Ready,” with Bob Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” vaguely in the background. The guy can still write anthems, and this song’s theme is all-American: “Bells of freedom ringin’.”

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