Last Friday night at the FleetCenter, I saw rock-and-roll’s middle age, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.
Like his songs, Springsteen the man seems to have acquired the granite solemnity of official sanction. His grim charcoal suit coat and vest, perhaps nicked from the grave of a Depression-era banker, matched his graying, close-cropped-yet-still-unruly steel-wool mane. As the opening convocation, "The Rising," reached its peak, Springsteen made a face that he often makes when he sings: that great De Niro–esque shit-eating frown, a gargoyle grotesque of passion and disappointment and determination. And as he made the face, he took his hands off his guitar and stood with legs apart in a slight crouch, arms out away from his sides, palms forward: the good, sturdy stance of a man determined not to tip or lean or fall, the poise of a defensive back resolved to let nothing by him. Below us, on the floor of the FleetCenter, several men held up an American flag with Springsteen’s image superimposed upon the stripes, a sweating, bandanna’d likeness rendered in the blue-green patina of the Statue of Liberty.
Perhaps it is too late to complain that Springsteen is now more monument than man, the type of artist who gets dragged out to commemorate tragedies and dedicate large public works (in the hours before his FleetCenter show, he sang at a new bridge named for the activist Leonard P. Zakim). Perhaps the complaint itself is misguided; maybe we need him this way, he set in his ways, we in ours.
Surely there was nothing wrong with his performance last Friday. The E Street Band are one of the great rock-and-roll spectacles — having seen them let loose on the Spectorian two-chord punk of "Ramrod," I’ll never again call Rocket from the Crypt the best band in the universe. Whether or not the stories Springsteen tells on The Rising stand up to the scrutiny of future generations, the songs — the ghostland soul of "My City of Ruins" and the crisp, cheddar-sharp Appalachian deliverance of "Into the Fire," the absent-hearted ballads "Lonesome Day" and "Empty Sky" — could pass for greatest hits.
A couple of them could pass for the songs of Darkness on the Edge of Town. The faith, love, and hope of the compromised protagonist in "Badlands" became the faith, love, and hope of the uncompromised hero in "Into the Fire." This is Springsteen the monument in middle age: sentenced to rewriting his greatest hits and to dedicating bridges. A Springsteen concert is a ritual. And as one who recoils at the easy familiarity that ritual provides, I found myself wishing for a glimpse of a different Springsteen. There was a tiny glimpse, a cameo by the unsure-of-himself, new-Dylan Springsteen in "For You," the lyrically dense composition from his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., here delivered alone at the piano and, after all these years, still in a voice that seems to imitate Dylan. This must have been a special occasion: apparently he doesn’t do that sort of thing much anymore.