Saturday, October 20, 2007

Springsteen, Oakland 1985

Show #3, September 1985

In the four years between Shows #2 and #3, Bruce’s career underwent a sea change, and by September 1985 he was one of the most popular rock stars on the planet. Whether he ever intended for that to be the case is an interesting question. After The River tour wrapped up in late 1981, it was said that he had grown uncomfortable with the level of fame that he had achieved, uncomfortable with the scope of the shows he was now performing, and uncomfortable with the political world that he was seeing around him.

Springsteen’s answer to how he was feeling was Nebraska, which was both a statement on America in the age of Reagan, and a challenge to his audience. It was as if Bruce was saying, are you really with me? In the words of Greil Marcus:

Nebraska is the most complete and probably the most convincing statement of resistance and refusal that Ronald Reagan’s U.S.A. has yet elicited, from any artist or any politician. Because Springsteen is an artist and not a politician, his resistance is couched in terms of the bleakest acceptance, his refusal presented as a no that doesn’t know itself. There isn’t a trace of rhetoric, not a moment of polemic; politics are buried deep in stories of individuals who make up a nation only when their stories are heard together. But if we can hear their stories as a single, whole story, they can’t. The people we meet on Nebraska – the 1958 mass killers Charley Starkweather and Caril Fugate; a cop who lets his brother escape after a barroom killing; the kid who watches as his father gets drunk, shoots a night clerk, is given life and begs for death; the man who dumps his soul and goes to work as a hit man for the mob; the mill workers who’ve grown up in the glow of the mill owner’s mansion – can’t give their lives a public dimension because they are alone; because in a world where men and women are mere social economic functions every man and woman is separated from every other.

For an album of its type, Nebraska sold well, but not at the levels of the previous hits. Of course, that was never the intent.

Fast forward, to almost two years later. In May 1984, you started to see the ads for Born in the U.S.A. in magazines and in record stores; it was a marketing blitz by Columbia Records the likes of which had never been seen before in Bruce’s career. I remember thinking at the time that the executives must have thought they had a hot product on their hands, and boy were they right. The first single, “Dancing in the Dark,” sounded unlike anything Bruce had recorded up to that point, and when the first strains of “Born in the U.S.A.” came over the speakers, it was apparent that this one was something special. Though Marcus thought it was a step back from Nebraska, Robert Christgau gave it an A+, something he hardly ever does, and absolutely nailed why the album was so successful:

Imperceptible though the movement has been to many sensitive young people, Springsteen has evolved. In fact, this apparent retrenchment is his most rhythmically propulsive, vocally incisive, lyrically balanced, and commercially undeniable album. Even his compulsive studio habits work for him: the aural vibrancy of the thing reminds me like nothing in years that what teenagers loved about rock and roll wasn't that it was catchy or even vibrant but that it just plain sounded good. And while Nebraska's one-note vision may be more left-correct, my instincts (not to mention my leftism) tell me that this uptempo worldview is truer. Hardly ride-off-into-the-sunset stuff, at the same time it's low on nostalgia and beautiful losers. Not counting the title powerhouse, the best songs slip by at first because their tone is so lifelike: the fast-stepping "Working on the Highway," which turns out to be about a country road gang: "Darlington County," which pins down the futility of a macho spree without undercutting its exuberance; and "Glory Days," which finally acknowledges that among other things, getting old is a good joke.

As with the previous tour, the first leg was held in sports arenas, but it quickly became apparent that Springsteen’s star had eclipsed even those large venues. It was next to impossible to get a ticket to those first shows; even spending the night was no longer a guarantee. After European and Asian jaunts, Springsteen made the biggest leap of faith he’s ever made, agreeing to make the venues for the second leg of the U.S. tour the giant, outdoor stadiums that, up to that point, he’d avoided like the plague. That made it possible to score a ticket, though even with that, this show was the only time that I had to resort to scalpers to get mine.

At this point of my life, I was in what I now like to call my “post college limbo” period. After graduating from Cal in 1982, I had no clear idea about what I wanted to do with my life (though I knew it would probably have something to do with politics), so like thousands of others in that position, I went to graduate school. While I never walked away with a postgraduate degree (but I finished all of the coursework!), I met two people who would become central figures of my life, one whom would become a great friend, mentor (and later, boss) and Debra, the woman who would become my wife and bring focus to my life (whether she realized it or not).

This show was part of the pre-marital wooing period. I’d made Debra a lot of tapes in the 18 months I’d known her, and figured that a Springsteen concert was the next logical step. I can’t remember where she was working at the time, but I remember picking her up in the afternoon and beginning the drive to Oakland from Sacramento, both of us making the mistake of drinking a couple of sodas at the beginning of the drive. As punishment for that bit of stupidity, we were treated to one of the worst Bay Bridge-area traffic jams I’ve ever encountered, to such a degree that it took us almost two hours to travel the last 10 miles to the Oakland Coliseum. It was definitely the closest I’ve ever come to pulling over in the middle of traffic, and just “letting it all hang out” to relieve myself. Romantic, huh? Fortunately, she was feeling the same way, and when we finally parked (in a dirt lot across the freeway from the Coliseum), it was a mad sprint for the nearest restroom, with both of us shouting at each other, “see you at the seats!” We managed to make it just as the first strains of “Born in the U.S.A.” began.

Seeing a concert at a venue of this size is never ideal, and when you listen to the recordings of this tour on the Live 1975-1985 album, you can sometimes hear Bruce straining a bit. But when you were there, you didn’t really notice. This show had a ton of highlights, but from where we were it was a bit hard to see them. We were less than a dozen rows from the top of the Coliseum, and had it not been for the huge video screens, it would’ve been hard to tell if that was really Bruce and pals on the stage, or just some clever impostors. With this tour the “Detroit Medley” had been retired, as had been “Rosalita.” The “Twist and Shout/Do You Love Me” combination was a great replacement, and “Travelin’ Band” was the perfect way to close things out.

In the end, it probably was not the best of his shows that I’ve seen, but it was definitely one of the most memorable.

Set List:

Born In The USA / Badlands / Out In The Street / Johnny 99 / Seeds / Atlantic City / The River / Working On The Highway / Trapped / I'm Going Down / Glory Days / The Promised Land / My Hometown / Thunder Road / Cover Me / Dancing In The Dark / Hungry Heart / Cadillac Ranch / Downbound Train / Stolen Car / I'm On Fire / Pink Cadillac / Bobby Jean / This Land Is Your Land / Born To Run / Ramrod / Twist And Shout - Do You Love Me / Stand On It / Travelin' Band

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