Springsteen's Fake Sweat

11 Nov 2014 | 10:23

    Perhaps this should not have come as a complete surprise. Springsteen’s detractors have long called his sincerity into question. "I don’t believe Springsteen," Bob Geldof once remarked. "He writes fiction. The Magic Rat did not drive his sleek machine over the Jersey state line." Others have harped on Springsteen’s chameleon-like transformation from early-70s greaser to mid-80s All-American, from word-drunk poet to plainspoken populist. In his worshipful tribute to Springsteen, It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive, Eric Alterman spends a considerable amount of energy defending Springsteen from the charge that his whole persona is carefully contrived, but then concludes that even if he were a fraud, it still wouldn’t matter. "‘Real’ or not, Springsteen’s media personality is ultimately irrelevant," Alterman writes. "There is simply no faking the feeling [Springsteen] demonstrates and inspires through the wonderous force of his performance." Part of me still wants to agree with Alterman. Leading up to his 10-night stand at Madison Square Garden this past June, I’d seen Springsteen in concert seven times, beginning with his arena tour to support Born in the U.S.A., which was also the first concert I was old enough to attend without my father tagging along. Although Springsteen fans are sometimes known to engage in an annoying game of one-upsmanship, wherein they assess different degrees of fandom by how many shows they’ve seen or how much "Bruceology" they’ve mastered, I’ve never had any reason to doubt my connection to Springsteen. Among friends, I promote his records Amway-style. I frequently read books and articles about him, and I trade for his bootlegs on the Web. Moreover, I’ve always defended Springsteen against the murky argument that his phenomenal wealth, fame and success somehow corrupt his proletarian idiom and image. In an age in which elites are trying to distance themselves from the masses in every conceivable way, Springsteen’s identification with America’s downtrodden strikes me as refreshing, convincing and even admirable. Unlike Geldof, I believe in Springsteen.

    Or at least I think I do.

    •

    My eighth Springsteen concert fell at the Garden on June 26, and even now I’m amazed at how it all went down. Less than a minute after my friend Jeremy and I hurried into our wretched, 300-level seats at the ass-end of the arena, we were approached by a quiet, unassuming guy who upgraded our tickets to the fucking front row! Apparently, Bruce hates scalpers, and all tour long he had a pair of handlers who randomly bestowed early arrivers with the best seats in the house. I’m not a religious man, but I thought I felt Providence shining upon me that night. Two hours later I was beating my fists on the stage, charged from the energy of 20,000 frenzied fans around me, sweaty, slightly drunk and as happy as I’ve ever been as Springsteen stood just 10 feet away, testifying to "The Power! The Promise! The Majesty! The Mystery!... THE MINISTRY OF ROCK ’N’ ROLL!"

    For two hours and 40 minutes, Bruce worked hard, and he made sure we knew it. He danced in circles around his mic, jumped onto the piano, threw his guitar high in the air, thumped it against his chest, dipped it into the audience. And in what struck me as a particularly earnest gesture, during Little Steven’s hard-driving guitar solo on "Murder, Inc.," Bruce stood at center stage and repeatedly flung his arm so hard that sprays of his own sweat literally flew into the side of Steve’s face, as he exhorted him to (I thought I could read his lips) "play that fucking thing!" This was rock ’n’ roll animalism at its inspiring best.

    "I cannot promise you life everlasting," Springsteen boasted, "but I can promise you life...right now!"

    I was sufficiently moved that the very next night I bought a scalper’s ticket and saw Springsteen again, all by myself. It was still a great show, but I was bothered by something: while the set list varied somewhat, almost all of his antics onstage were played out exactly as they had been the night before.

    Now, I recognize that at any concert there’s a certain amount of playacting going on, a certain measure of foolishness and showmanship that is to be anticipated. In an era of $77 seats, caring professionals like Bruce know they need to give everyone a complete show, and spontaneity may suffer. I’d never go to a Springsteen concert with the same expectations I’d take to see a punk band.

    But still, it was a little too much to see the posturing, the dancing, the jumping on the piano, the throwing and pounding and lowering of the guitar all executed with the same timing and perfection that one might expect from a dance troupe at Lincoln Center. Most troublesome of all, when Little Steven leaned into his guitar solo on "Murder, Inc.," Bruce was right there with him, ostentatiously throwing his sweat and coaching him along. What had struck me the night before as a raw and immediate gesture, solidly grounded in the ineffable spirit of rock ’n’ roll, now seemed canned, contrived and more than a little silly.

    •

    And now this essay is getting hard to write.  It’s July 1, the very last night of Springsteen’s 15-month tour, and this time I’m seated right behind the stage, along with two friends and a cousin. The show races along and everyone seems to be having fun and playing brilliantly, although I admit I’ve indulged in some recreational chemistry to enhance the whole experience, and I’m trying to pretend I haven’t already seen Springsteen’s prefab antics twice before. And then, just as the band dives into "Murder, Inc.," I see Bruce dart behind the drums. He grabs a heavy sponge, which he quickly runs along his arm. A few minutes later, he whipsaws this arm in Little Steven’s direction, and through the floodlights we can all see his "sweat" flying through the air.

    •

    In one of his finer songs from Nebraska, Springsteen marvels at how ordinary people muster up the resiliency to navigate life’s disappointments. Even in the face of dead dogs and abandoned lovers, "at the end of every hard earned day/People find some reason to believe." But for many fans, Springsteen himself–or, more specifically, the promise of transformation at a Bruce Springsteen concert–has been the something to believe in. It’s hard to imagine anything more contrary to this spirit, any gesture more cynical and condescending toward an audience, than fake sweat.

    Coming from Springsteen, this seems especially egregious. Simon Frith once observed that "the basic sign of Springsteen’s authenticity…is his sweat [emphasis mine], his display of energy… When the E Street Band gathers at the end of a show for the final bow, arms around each other’s shoulders, drained and relieved, the sporting analogy is clear: this is a team that has won its latest bout. What matters is that every such bout is seen to be real…"

    Over the years, my fandom has led me to overlook a number of things about Springsteen that might otherwise have rubbed me the wrong way. For example, he’s been protesting for years that his "Born in the U.S.A." motif was misappropriated by social conservatives, and it’s true that much of his work in this period was suffused with an indignant irony. But at the same time, one can understand the confusion of right-wingers who rallied around Springsteen and his incessant flag-waving. Ultimately, there’s no way to disguise the fact that he traded on the iconography and sunny optimism of the Reagan era, even when he despised Reagan.

    And although he wields enormous influence and writes songs that grapple eloquently with questions of social justice, I’ve never known him to take a forthright political stand on anything that might cost him a share of his audience. He’s also engaged in several questionable marketing strategies that suggest the Boss is more business-savvy than he would probably like us to believe. It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the Rock ’n’ Roll Industry.

    But the fake sweat strikes me as an almost personal affront. In his concerts at the Garden, Springsteen repeatedly spoke about people being disillusioned today, and we are. Ultimately, Gore Democrats who complain about urban sprawl and anarchists who smash windows at places like Starbucks and Nike aren’t so far apart: they’re fed up with what’s fake, homogenized and dumbed down to the lowest common denominator. Cultural production–the movies, the music, the television programs–never seemed so contrived.

    In the end, I don’t suppose Springsteen’s fake sweat makes him any less capable or convincing as a songwriter. My favorite Springsteen records still seem in synchronicity with my own beliefs, experiences, values and dreams, and still give me access to the poetry of everyday life. But this fakery is a clear form of betrayal, far beneath his dignity. If you can’t believe in Bruce Springsteen’s sweat, what can you believe in?