Bruce Springsteen is one of America's finest exports. He's the embodiment of the blue-collar dream: a man who worked hard and didn't give up until he built something massively successful out of nothing. He is talented. He is attractive. He is charisma personified. He is also, however, full of shit.
Springsteen is the most impressive actor that you've ever seen. His whole persona is based off of being a rock & roll everyman. The story is simple: He came from meager beginnings in Nowheresville, New Jersey. His parents sacrificed and saved to buy his first electric guitar. Young Bruce learned to play, stayed invisible in school, narrowly escaped a stint in the army and then took every shitty gig possible until he was finally saved by musical superstardom.
That's some fine myth-making right there. Because while the whole story might be true, it leaves out some important parts.
Springsteen, after all, was fairly successful pretty early into his career. He built a cult following in his region just a few years after he started playing under his own name — and talent scouts and managers took notice. In fact, one of the few hardships he's faced professionally came about because he found management almost immediately. That management wasn't the best, and for a while Springsteen didn't own the rights to his own music. But this was remedied with a legal battle almost 40 years ago.
He still sings many of the songs that he wrote back in the beginning. And he still sings about union cards and hungry hearts and glory days and the demise of the Chicken Man. He still sings about being lonesome and driving in cars late at night and the feeling of suffocating small-town doom. His heartbreak still sounds fresh and real — not contrived or inauthentic at all.
But he hasn't been a scruffy little underdog for decades; that is just a pose. Consider this: He's touring now to promote a box set version of The River, an album that he released in 1980. Many of the songs from The River were leftovers from a previous album. Meaning this: The man is so successful that his re-released leftovers still get fanfare almost three and a half decades later. Springsteen is not a tramp like us and he hasn't been for a long, long time.
He might remember what it feels like to be a working-class bumpkin, but he couldn't possibly relate to it anymore. It's difficult to reconcile Springsteen's finely crafted down-on-their-luck characters with his undisputed international success. He used to sing longingly about the unattainable mansion on the hill, but now he can buy many mansions on many hills. He might have gotten his start playing gritty seaside hellholes, but now he buys houses in Beverly Hills and earns $100 million record deals and $10 million book advances.
You'd have to be shockingly uninformed to believe that Springsteen still lives the life that he sings about or that he's anything like the personalities in his classic songs. But does any of this weird dissonance matter when you watch him on stage? Nope. Not one bit.
It doesn't matter if you know his history. It doesn't matter if you don't know all of his songs. It doesn't even matter if you like his music. When he stands behind a microphone, Springsteen will own you. You will believe him and his stories. You'll think that his concert only ended so that he could get to work on time for the graveyard shift at his factory job.
At this point, Springsteen could totally phone it in. He's been at it for so long that he could just set his stage to cruise control and still sell out every show. At age 66, with nearly 50 years of performing publicly under his belt, he wouldn't even be faulted for not producing a multi-hour extravaganza. He could just show up in a pair of khaki shorts and still get paid royally — but that slacker blood, it never burned in his veins.
When Springsteen commits to playing a concert, he commits to bringing his all while dropping both sweat and panties. He has a reputation to uphold. His shows are athletic, energetic and appear to be exhausting. Some of his records may be earnest and restrained, but in a live setting his focus and energy can't be beat. No single man has worked so hard onstage since James Brown. Others in his age group still do stadium shows and do them well, but it takes four whole Rolling Stones to pull off the prowess of just one Bruce Springsteen.
With Springsteen, you know what you're going to get. He'll take the stage in painted-on jeans. He'll be all rippling tendons, like a panther on the hunt. He'll tell stories between songs that sound like he's reading poetry. His leathery face will fluctuate between beaming and grimace. He'll grunt and growl and howl and then whisper like he's telling you a secret. He'll take charge of your emotions and crush you, but then he'll lift you up so high that you'll feel like you're flying. He'll skip taking an encore break and just continue to breeze across the stage like it ain't no thing. He will finally exit in a graceful blaze of glory.
His marathon show will clock in at around three and a half hours. You will leave completely spent and feeling extra tired for him. More importantly, you will leave thinking that somehow, some way, he still fully believes every damn word that he sang.
So when you're having a debate over who is the best actor ever, forget Marlon Brando or Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis. The only real answer is also the greatest living performer of our time: Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen. Catch his live show if you can; it's unbeatable. He's a man with nothing to prove who still goes out and proves it every night of his tour. Springsteen will take you and make you his bitch. They don't call him "The Boss" for nothing.