A Bruce Springsteen gig is so physical these days: I spend my whole time looking at his body. I paid less attention to his voice last night (6 July) in Hyde Park – it sounds fine – than to the two splints on his hands, one down his left wrist and the other around the trunk of his right palm, the bit with which he hits the guitar. Were they real, these tough bands of frayed black canvas, a treatment for rockstar RSI? Or were they a symbol of work, as Springsteen is?
In his cherry red DMs, denim turn-ups and military haircut (a little too short now) he breathed through his harmonica in a way that would make most people hyperventilate, and he didn’t sweat. He came on at 7pm, still sore from 2012 when the staff at Hyde Park “pulled the f***ing plug” on him and Paul McCartney for exceeding the 10:30pm curfew, and he played, as he always does, for three hours. Why are Springsteen shows so long, really? It must be because he needs it. At one point he said something like, “Are you feeling it? Because if you feel it, I feel it” – and for the first time at a gig, I felt like the act on stage was telling me to try harder. So many of his songs have the heave-ho of army chants.
In his eighth decade, he has some of Joe Biden’s ancient ease, the demeanour of the happy warrior. In recent years Springsteen has consistently pointed out the fact that he’s old, doing evocative cowboy music, telling anecdotes, looking back more, talking a lot more. He’s warning us that one day he will shift his whole show to a single, elegant bar stool and this, you suspect, will be a tough transition for him. The thing is, no one knows when that day will be. If you went to see Elton John this year, you were saying goodbye. If you see Springsteen, it’s more poignant, because at this very moment he is perfectly poised between being exactly what he always was, and the change.
He left most of the big hits for a final mini-show at the end after his 17-piece band took a bow: a 45-minute extra set of things like “Born to Run” (so similar to “Bat Out of Hell”, I always think, right down to the motorbike!) and “Dancing in the Dark” (I have never, ever heard a lyric shouted so loudly as people always shout “Wanna change my clothes, my hair, my face” – it must be the way we all feel). In the main gig, there was a fantastic Commodores song, “Nightshift”; and the one that passed my personal skin test (when the follicles on my arms contract like a plucked chicken) was a languorous swing take of 1973’s “Kitty’s Back”, where Bruce bent strings with one splinted hand while smoothing his hair with the other. I’ve never seen him do jazz before and he needs to do more.
Around the same time Springsteen started doing his legacy work, he began admitting to a lifetime of intermittent darkness and depression. The locomotive energy on stage is cut with mournful moments: at one point he said suddenly, “Death is like you’re standing on the railroad track with a train bearing down on you and it brings a certain clarity of meaning.” It comes out of nowhere but on reflection, I think he’s saying: “Man, I’m tired! I’m not a machine.” The thing is, he doesn’t look tired at all.
[See also: Elton John is saying goodbye, for one more time]