Springsteen: a preacher without a religion

Jerker Jansson reports from a magic evening of rock’n’roll in Stockholm where ‘the Boss’ thawed the frozen souls of Swedes.

Jerker Jansson

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The E Street Band is probably one of the best bands in the world. Technically. It can’t get any tighter. Can’t get any heavier. Bruce Springsteen is the manifestation of rock’n’roll. The essence of epic rock.

The arena where I saw ‘the Boss’ live, Stockholm’s Stadion, is not the best in the world. It’s a worn-out football stadium that deserves to die in peace and to be replaced with something worthier. The rest of the tour will probably be similar. Most of the audience had trouble seeing the stage. The night was cold and damp. But Springsteen made us all feel special. He’s like a preacher without a religion. He even held a short speech in the name of love, music and sexual freedom, pretending to be a preacher. Acting out a stereotype: an American Christian saviour, with no other message than rock’n’roll.

The E Street Band drummer, Max Weinberg, couldn’t come on the tour so he sent his 18-year-old son, who actually performed a small patricide. The kid is way better than his dad. And everybody who has listened to Springsteen in the past 30 years knows what the rest of the band consists of: Rock basilisks. The architects of rock. The Pokémons of popular music. Watching Clarence Clemons, Nils Lofgren, Steve Van Zandt and Gary Tallent is like seeing the Nordic gods Thor, Oden, Freyja and Frigg performing. Or Charizard, Spider Man, Tinky Winky and Mr Spock for our younger readers.

The theme of the current tour is that Springsteen takes requests. Everybody knew this in advance so many had made cardboard signs with their favourite tunes written on them. Bruce made a big act out of collecting them and chose songs from them now and then. And it worked. The Boss knows how to please the crowd. He truly is the king… but to be honest a lot of his songs are quite boring. The diehard fans, the ones who know all the words and the right thing to do when the Boss makes a sign, loved every minute of it, but he could easily have shortened the show by an hour without making me disappointed.

Springsteen’s genius lies in his populism and his ability to balance the needs of people from all parts of society. He is a talented songwriter. He is a gifted epic poet. But he also is a mediocre country and western epigone, a habile radio hit writer and a good musician, but a lousy solo guitarist. He has carved his name into the history of music and has become a legend in his lifetime, but he can get as boring as a countryside hotel pianist. The bulk of his later productions are weepy love songs or smalltown romantic bagatelles. But while his lowest level is not very high, his highest level is higher than anybody else’s – and he does bring out the best in people.

Religion has lost its grip over the Nordic countries. Political ideologies has been killed by the EU membership and has been sacrificed in the war over the political midfield. There is nothing to believe in. And when there is nothing to believe in there is nothing to hope for. But the Boss has hope. During the Bush years he glowed like the morning star.

Now he seems to be a bit tired. During the reactionary years in the USA, he symbolised the ‘good’ America for us Scandinavians. We love America and everything American intensely, but we are ashamed about our love. The Bush era was painful. It wasn’t easy wearing Levi’s jeans, eating hamburgers, watching Six Feet Under and chewing Juicy Fruit gum. But Springsteen made it bearable. Even though his songs are not openly political, we know were he stands. He tells us stories about the consequences of politics. It started under the Reagan years with his sixth album Nebraska, where he told us about people whose lives had been destroyed because of the cynicism of the political right-wing elite.

But things have changed. The good guy is in the White House and travels around the world talking about peace and love. Springsteen’s friend is in power. The energy he got from being angry is gone. And we don’t need him anymore as a symbol. We have a new idol. And he has a multicultural background! The Boss is demoted from the top position of our popular cultural noblesse, has gone from being the king to being a jester, with nothing else to do but to sing and dance. He is no superhero anymore, no working-class hero, no Mister Nice Guy. He is just a rock’n’roller. A good one, yes, but the magic is gone.

But his true fans don’t care. For most of the Swedish fans a Springsteen concert is a cult action, regardless of political trends. It’s a non-religious rite. And in Sweden, where we celebrate summer more than anything else – midsummer is the biggest party and ceremony of them all – flirting with our barely thawed souls in the beginning of June is a sure way to be loved. Belonging to the part of humanity that likes but doesn’t love, that respects but doesn’t adore, Bruce Springsteen, I’d say that Europe will be a happier place this summer because of him.

Yet what the evening at Stockholm’s Stadion gave me was not a big rock’n’roll experience, but a short glimpse of the status of the collective subconscious. And it said that we just want to be loved. That we are tired of war and crises. It said that we need somebody who can take our minds of the dark clouds and make us dance. Smile and dance. And we did.

Jerker Jansson is a freelance writer based in Sweden. He edits Voltaire and his monthly Thinking Chef column appears in Ordfront Magasin.

Previously on spiked

Nathalie Rothschild was cheered up by ‘the Godfather of Gloom’, Leonard Cohen. Tom Slater was suspicious of folk – until he heard Ranger3. Emily Hill did not see anything countercultural about the Glastonbury festival. Patrick West looked at the Samsonite demise of heavy metal. Or read more at spiked issue Music.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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