10 years ago this week, I fell in love with the music of Bruce Springsteen. It happened almost by coincidence: a conversation at my uncle’s 50th birthday party that shifted toward The Boss and his legendary live shows. From there, it didn’t take much to transform me from a casual Springsteen fan to a die-hard: just a drive through the winter storm from hell, my iPod, and a little song called “Thunder Road.”
A lot has happened in my life in the 10 years since. I graduated from high school, and then college. I fell in love with a girl and married her. I became a part of her family, and she a part of mine. I moved away, and then moved back home. I bought a house, sold it, and bought another one. I chased my dreams and watched them die. I lost my grandpa. I lost my first dog, and then my second one. I had my heart stolen by a little, devious, trouble-making kitten. I started a career. I even got to see Springsteen (three times) and shook his hand (once).
Thinking through all these life events and big changes would have been illuminating in any situation. It’s hard to believe it’s been that long since my big Springsteen epiphany, or that so much could have possibly happened in the interim. It feels like yesterday that my parents and I were navigating that horrific winter storm in my stepdad’s Honda Civic, or that I was cruising around my snow-covered hometown days before Christmas, having my mind blown by Darkness on the Edge of Town for the first time. But marking those memories this week feels extra poignant given the recent release of Springsteen on Broadway on Netflix.
Like so many other Springsteen fans, I was not able to make the pilgrimage to Manhattan to see this show in person. Due to various factors—cost, logistics, the impossibility of getting tickets—I was left hoping for a miracle that would allow me to see this show. A generous loved one swooping in with tickets, perhaps, or maybe just straight up goddamn magic. In the meantime, I had some mutinous thoughts about the production: about how Bruce was prioritizing his fans on the East Coast, or playing to 975 people a night when he could be doing 10, 20, 30 times that on an arena tour. It wasn’t fair, I reasoned to myself. After finally getting a chance to experience Springsteen on Broadway, though—albeit, in my living room rather than in a New York City theater—I finally understand. This show wasn’t about playing to the most people, or even really about playing to people at all. It’s something Springsteen needed to do for himself. He needed to play for him.
There are a few different characters in Springsteen on Broadway. The most obvious is Springsteen himself. The most valuable supporting player is undoubtedly Patti Scialfa, Springsteen’s wife, who joins him for two songs mid-way through the set. And there are all the characters who cross his story at one point or another: his parents, his bandmates, his influences. But the most important character in Springsteen on Broadway isn’t any of these people. It’s not even Springsteen himself, despite the fact that it’s his name up there on the marquee. No, the most important character in Springsteen on Broadway is the big, wide, empty stage from which The Boss tells his rambling, beautiful story.
If you’ve seen Springsteen before, you’re probably used to the bigness of it: the larger-than-life bombast of the E Street Band and the majestic sound they make together. Sure, Bruce has gone acoustic a few times in his career, on records like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. But when people think of Bruce Springsteen, they think of his anthems: songs like “Born to Run” or “Born in the U.S.A.,” that thrive because they have the full might of the E Street Band behind them. Springsteen on Broadway incorporates both of those songs, as well as other crowd-pleasers like “Dancing in the Dark” and “Thunder Road” and “The Promised Land,” songs that could, on any night of the week, turn an arena or stadium full of fans into the loudest sing-along crowd you’ve ever heard.
And yet, with Springsteen on Broadway, Bruce has none of that. He doesn’t have the band. He doesn’t have the arena. He doesn’t even have the singing fans. Like a superhero stripped of his powers, he’s forced to make do with the bare essentials: an acoustic guitar, a piano, maybe a harmonica here and there. The bareness of it is almost unsettling given what we know about Springsteen, what we’ve heard him do. But like any great superhero, Bruce isn’t defined by his powers. They’re a mechanism that allows him to magnify everything he is and amplify it so that it reaches the cheap seats. But, as it turns out, he can still save the world without them.
At one point late in the show, Springsteen gives a monologue about going back to his childhood home and expecting to see the big, beautiful copper beech tree that stood in the front yard when he was young. He arrives to find the tree gone, cut down by the county for some reason he can’t discern. But then Bruce explains that the tree wasn’t really gone: its presence was still there, floating in the air, filled with starlight and moonlight and refracting all the time and memories and people that had passed it by. “My great tree’s life couldn’t be ended or erased so easily, because of its history,” he says. “Its imprint was too great, and it was too old, and it was too strong, and it had been there too long to be done away with so easily. It had stood witness to everything that had happened on these small streets beneath its arms. All the joy. And all the heartbreak. And all the life. We live amongst ghosts, always trying to reach us from that shadow world. And they’re with us every step of the way.”
Springsteen on Broadway is filled with ghosts. You can sense them there in the skeletal versions of Springsteen’s songs, and in the weathered, contemplative sound of his voice as he ruminates on mortality and loss and the slow decay of time. Most of all, you can sense the ghosts in the emptiness of the stage that surrounds Bruce throughout the show. There’s the ghost of his father, and the fraught relationship the two shared before finally stumbling toward peace and mutual understanding. There’s the ghost of his mother, who isn’t gone but is in the throes of a fight with Alzheimer’s. There are the ghosts of his fallen brothers, bandmates Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, as well as the Jersey musicians who inspired him to start a band before they unjustly lost their lives in the Vietnam War. And there are the ghosts of family and friends and acquaintances, ghosts that one inevitably accumulates as they get older. “I just want to commune with the old spirits; stand in their presence; feel their hands on me on more time,” Bruce says. That line is more or less the mission statement of Springsteen on Broadway, and it’s why the show is so deeply resonant: it’s Springsteen’s chance to reconnect with what the years have taken from him. It is the sight and sound of the world’s greatest living entertainer taking a break from entertaining to lose himself in his own thoughts and songs, all as a means of coming to terms with his own mortality.
Someday, just like with the big old copper beech tree from the story above, Bruce Springsteen won’t be here anymore. It almost hurts to type those words, and to accept their inherent truth. Engaging with Springsteen on Broadway is wrenching in part because we as fans are not ready to accept the fact that our Boss might not be eternal. For the past 10 years of my life, and for much longer stretches in the lives of so many other people, Bruce has achieved the goals he laid for himself at the start of his career: “I wanted to rock your very soul, and have you bring it home and pass it on. And I wanted it to be sung and altered by you and your folks and your children, should they be interested. I wanted it to be something you could call on when things were good, and when things were not so good. That it might strengthen, help make sense of your story and your life, in the way you strengthen me and help me make sense of my life. You’ve provided me with purpose, with meaning, and with a great, great amount of joy. I hope I’ve done that for you, and that I’ve been a good traveling companion.”
I can’t imagine what the last decade of my life would have looked like without Bruce as a traveling companion. He was there for so many moments of exhilaration and triumph and so many moments where I felt low and broken. I can only hope that his story has many pages and many years left to be written, filled with new albums and life-affirming live shows and chances to experience what he (accurately) calls his “magic trick.” But I know that Springsteen truly is eternal, and that he will continue to be a traveling companion for many of us for as long as we’re on this earth. Like his great beech tree, Springsteen’s imprint is too great for him to ever truly leave us. He’s been there for births and weddings and funerals and euphoric sing-alongs and successes and failures and heartbreaks; for slamming screen doors and drives down the backstreets and dances in the dark and lonesome days. And he’ll be here forevermore, even if Springsteen on Broadway is his way of accepting that, materially, he won’t be.