The first time I heard him play was at a small club, the Bitter End in New York, where he did a guest set. He had this descriptive power -- it was just an amazing display of lyrical prowess. I asked him where he was from, and he sort of grinned and said he was from New Jersey. In those days people used to joke about New Jersey. There was this collective complex that people from New Jersey had about what it meant to be from there, and he just smiled because he knew where he was from.
The next time I saw him play it was with his band, the one with David Sancious in it. I'd never seen anybody do what he was doing: He would play acoustic guitar and dance all over the place, and the guitar wasn't plugged into anything. There wasn't this meticulous need to have every note heard. It was so powerful, and it filled that college gym with so much emotion that it didn't matter if you couldn't hear every note. It was drama, his approach to music, something that he would expand on many times over, but it was there from the beginning.
A year or so later I saw him play in L.A., with Max Weinberg, Clarence Clemons and Steve Van Zandt in the band, and it was even more dramatic -- the use of lights and the way it was staged. There were these events built into the music. I went to see them the second night, and I guess I expected it to be the same thing, but it was completely different. It was obvious that they were drawing on a vocabulary. It was exhilarating, and at the bottom of it all there was all this joy and fun and a sense of brotherhood, of being outsiders who had tremendous power and a story to tell.
Bruce has been unafraid to take on the tasks associated with growing up. He's a family man, with kids and the same values and concerns as working-class Americans. It runs all through his work, the idea of finding that one person and making a life together. Look at "Rosalita": Her mother doesn't like him, her father doesn't like him, but he's come for her. Or in "The River," where he gets Mary pregnant and for his nineteenth birthday he gets a union card and a wedding coat. That night they go to the river and dive in. For those of us who are ambivalent about marriage, the struggle for love in a world of impermanence is summed up by the two of them diving into that river at night. Bruce's songs are filled with these images, but they aren't exclusively the images of working-class people. It just happens to be where he's from.
Bruce has all kinds of influences, from Chuck Berry and Gary "U.S." Bonds to Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie. But he's also a lot like Montgomery Clift, Marlon Brando and James Dean -- people whose most indistinct utterances have been magnified to communicate volumes. Bruce has always had enormous range in terms of subject and emotion, as well as volume -- his quietest stuff is as quiet as you will ever hear anyone sing, but at his loudest he is, well, he's the loudest. But he's always worked on a very large scale, a scale that is nothing short of heroic. He is one of the few songwriters who works on a scale that is capable of handling the subject of our national grief and the need to find a response to September 11th. His sense of music as a healing power, of band-as-church, has always been there, woven into the fabric of his songs. He's got his feet planted on either side of that great divide between black and white gospel, between blues and country, between rebellion and redemption.
[From Issue 946 — April 15, 2004]