Bruce Springsteen does quite a lot of remarkable things in his stage show. It lasts 4 hours or so, and he manages to make a stadium seem like a club back on the New Jersey shoreline. He goes through a range of personae to fit his songs, from a freedom-train riding Sam Cooke-soundalike on ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ to jump-jive on ‘Open All Hours’ to solo tortured soul on a closing ‘Thunder Road.’
And everything in between: thrash, soul, folk, old-timey and 60’s pop (in Glasgow even tugging his sweaty forelock to Lulu with a ‘Shout’ that reduced Hampden Park to delighted rubble.)
So what is the essence, what is the secret of being able to pull this trick off? How do you assimilate dozens of different popular styles from different decades (even centuries), give them relevance and excitement for a crowd itself spanning generations, and even inspire them?
There may be clues to be found in the work of two other musicians.
The first is George Dalaras, who was born in Piraeus in 1949 and started recording during the Colonels’ junta, finally making a breakthrough in 1972. What was remarkable about Dalaras is that he took Greek popular music – laiki – from its debased and trite state of the mid-1960s and restored it to dignity and integrity.
He did so by reclaiming the original songs of the Rembetika movement, and reminding his audience of its importance in resistance to hardship and political oppression. This was especially the case with his second successful album which featured songs of the German occupation of Greece. Above all, he respected the music and through its audience, and applied his singing, playing and production talents to making these as good as he could.
The USA equivalent of Dalaras might be Gram Parsons. His background could not have more dissimilar – he was born into a wealthy family and attended Harvard – but while a student, he came into increasing contact with country music, having seen and heard Merle Haggard play.
Crucially, Haggard was part of the Bakersfield tradition of country, rather than the debased and overproduced Nashville products which dominated the pop charts. The Bakersfield sound had been developed in exile by the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ Okies who had travelled west to California and had retained a tougher and more uncompromising ethos.
Parsons’ approach, most famously with the Byrds in 1968, and including his versions of country standards, mirrored that of Dalaras. He took seriously a genre which was widely considered to be a trite and over-commercialised product, added first class playing, arrangements and production, as can be heard on the Grevious Angel – with Emmylou Harris sounding genuinely unhinged on George Jones’ “We’ll Sweep Out the Ashes.” Above all, his approach gave country due respect as a music that people like, buy and sing themselves, while being despised by intellectual and fashionable taste.
And this brings us back to Bruce Springsteen, who was asked in 2009 to explain why he put so much effort into his marathon shows. He said:
“I’ve had an experience through music that has touched almost every part of me. It educated me in ways I didn’t get educated in school. So we try to lay on a bit of that, by being funny, being serious, playing hard.”
What this does not convey is the quality of music which he plays, nor the simple poetry of his lyrics which combine to present the audience with situations, contradictions and dilemmas in which they can identify themselves and their neighbours and communities.
But it does reflect an appreciation of the power of popular music and an appreciation of the role which it plays in their lives. This is incredibly difficult for a popular artist to pull-off, as it depends entirely on the artist being credible as an image of the listener or viewer, who will by definition be able to spot a phoney version of themselves from many miles off, as the likes of Rod Stewart will be well aware.
But as the achievements of George Dalaras and Gram Parsons also show, when it is done accurately, real music about real folk, delivered with real quality, fortifies and inspires us like nothing else. And Bruce Springsteen’s music and his shows are celebration of exactly that.