There’s no better musical act to bid adieu to the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena than Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who kicked off their first of three final shows on “The River” tour Tuesday night at the storied venue, an oblong husk of steel and peeling vinyl seats that opened in July 1959 and where Springsteen (who famously dubbed it “the dump that jumps”) has performed over 30 times throughout the course of his iconic career. Saturday, March 19, will mark the arena’s swansong before it’s demolished (cue references to Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball.”)
At 66 years old, Springsteen knows something of love and loss, and one could easily draw comparisons between the sports arena’s aesthetic fall from grace and the themes of perplexing adulthood and inscrutable relationships inherent in “The River,” the landmark 1980 double-sided album that Springsteen and his band played in its entirety to a packed audience made up of fervent fans for whom the Jersey-born rocker is far more than a performer, but a spiritual touchstone for whom they will make multiple pilgrimages during any given tour. (As one lifelong fan put it, “I lost count of how many shows I’ve been to at around 75 and the year 2006.” Another fan, with a graying mullet cut and a red bandanna tied around her neck, flew from Australia for the performance, wearing a t-shirt that read “I crossed shark infested waters for ‘The River.'”)
“‘The River’ was my coming of age record,” Springsteen told the crowd before launching into his three-and-a-half-hour set (two hours of “The River” and one-and-a-half hours of more mainstream Springsteen hits). “I wanted to make a big record that felt like life. I wanted it to contain laughter and friendship and tears.”
From languid ballad “Independence Day” — “the first song I wrote about fathers and sons, the kind of song you write when you are young,” Springsteen said — to the hopeful and upbeat “Hungry Heart” and the wistful, romantic melody “I Wanna Marry You,” to “Drive All Night” and the album’s eponymous track, “The River,” with its sullen, blue-collar lyrics about teenage pregnancy and economic depression and the harsh effects of real life on young love, Springsteen revealed himself through story and song the way he always does, naturally and eloquently — as a songwriter, as orator, as philosopher.
“If you lose your love, do you lose yourself?” mused Springsteen before his track “Stolen Car,” a song lamenting a married couple’s drifting apart, his oft-plied imagery of the car a metaphor for escape and solace in the face of darkness and despair.
While “The River,” haunting and dirge-like and obscure, might have underwhelmed — infuriated, even — more casual Springsteen concert-goers aching for his radio favorites, the “Boss” did not disappoint, churning out hits like “Badlands,” “Rosalita” and “Thunder Road,” widely considered one of the greatest rock songs ever recorded. Its prophetic lyric “I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk” prompted attendees at last night’s show (and every show) to clench their eyes shut and strum along on air guitar. Springsteen fans don’t merely sing his songs — they commune with them.
But Springsteen is a guy — an artist, a hero — who understands that without sadness there can be no joy, without endings there can be no beginnings. These tropes were manifested in last night’s rousing rendition of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” from Springsteen’s breakout 1975 album, “Born to Run,” a account of how Springsteen and his E Street family — including Max Weinberg, Steven Van Zandt, Garry Tallent, Patti Scialfa, Roy Bittan and Nils Lofgren — came together. A longtime staple at Springsteen shows, the song has since become a memorial and tribute to founding E Street members Danny Federici, who died in 2008, and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, the “big man (who) joined the band” and died in 2011.
This concept of loss in the midst of life was perhaps best summed up by the way in which Springsteen described “The River” album at the show’s start: “The River is about time, time slipping away as you walk alongside your own mortality and realize how you have a limited amount of time to love.”