LA Times, Jan 28, 1996
By Robert Hilburn
The enthusiastic audience in the elegant old Stambaugh Auditorium has been cheering after each of the first dozen songs in Bruce Springsteen's solo acoustic concert, from the stark observation of "Darkness on the Edge of Town" to the bittersweet commentary of "The Ghost of Tom Joad."
But the crowd is hushed now as Springsteen begins introducing "Youngstown." The song from his demanding new album tells how the town's very soul was torn from it when the steel mills began shutting down in the late '70s, leaving more than 10,000 workers unemployed.
"This is about the men and women who lived in this town and who built this country," Springsteen tells the heavily bundled crowd on a night when foot-deep snow from the Blizzard of '96 covers the ground outside.
"It's about (the people) who gave their sons and daughters to the wars that were fought ... and who were later declared expendable."
The people of Youngstown know the story of the song all too well. Many in the hall either worked in the mills or are related to someone who did.
To some of them, the song is a salute to the generations of workers who built the steel for, among other things, the tanks and planes that helped win the nation's wars. To others, "Youngstown" is a painful reminder of the betrayal they felt when owners closed the mills rather than upgrade them to better compete with foreign rivals.
Except for a cheer the first time "Youngstown" is mentioned in the song, the audience listens in silence:
Well my daddy come on the Ohio works
When he come home from World War Two.
Now the yard's just scrap and rubble,
He said, "Them big boys did what Hitler couldn't do." ...
My sweet Jenny I'm sinkin' down,
Here darlin' in Youngstown.
It's a wonderfully emotional moment -- the "Jenny" in the song refers
to one of the city's historic blast furnaces, the still-standing but shuttered
When the song ends, the tension in the hall breaks and the crowd gives Springsteen a standing ovation. Moments later, hundreds jam the aisles in front of the stage to shake his hand.
It's a scene reminiscent of Springsteen's glory days, when he wrote about blue-collar idealism with a passion that placed him at the creative and commercial center of rock -- not unlike Youngstown's own status for decades in the steel world.
Springsteen and the E Street Band filled stadiums around the world in the '80s, and his album "Born in the U.S.A." spent seven weeks at No. 1 in 1984, selling more than 15 million copies in the United States alone. To millions of fans, he was the Boss.
But now Springsteen is playing 2,500- to 5,000-seat theaters on his own, and "The Ghost of Tom Joad" failed to crack the national Top 10. After eight weeks in stores, it is languishing at No. 93 on the charts. Radio has generally ignored the album.
Although the disc's bleak melodies and biting commentaries about hard times and injustice are defiantly uncommercial by today's pop standards, many observers see only the bottom line -- and they see a career suddenly as cold as the ground outside this hall.
From a distance, the facts could point to a sobering conclusion: Time has passed the rock star by, the same way it has passed by Youngstown and blue-collar America.
But while this downsizing of popularity could be devastating to an artist, Springsteen's mood seems anything but defeated. He is thrilled by the audience response on the tour, which he hopes will help draw attention to music he considers among the most personally satisfying of his long career.
"If you look at the general arc of my career, I've had a very large cult audience from when I started," Springsteen says of his '80s superstardom. "Then I hit 'Born in the U.S.A.' -- and suddenly a lot of people who weren't interested in my music before and who haven't been interested in me since bought that record.
"I always felt that whole 'the Boss' thing is fundamentally silly. I never for a second had the slightest idea or interest in going out and trying to (duplicate that success). I knew what it was the minute it happened -- it was an anomaly. I knew my audience would go back to its regular level. I didn't see that it might happen. I knew that it would happen."
You don't have to resort to counting album or ticket sales to document the
changes in Springsteen's career during the last decade. You could just add up
the press credentials at Stambaugh Auditorium, which is just 10 minutes from
the mills that stand silently at the western edge of town as ghostly reminders
of Youngstown's better days.
If Springsteen had taken a break during his "Born in the U.S.A." tour to play a small hall in a town he had just written a song about, an army of writers and TV crews would have followed him. Those were the days when Springsteen was such a force on the cultural scene that both presidential candidates in 1984 evoked his name.
Tonight, however, only critics from the nearby Cleveland and Akron papers have joined the entertainment editor from the Youngstown Vindicator in reviewing the show. The only TV crews are from the local stations. "60 Minutes" did do a profile on him last Sunday, but that program tends to be as slow as the Grammys in catching up with rock artists.
Details magazine, which takes pride in being the voice of the young and ultra-hip, slammed "Tom Joad" in its February issue, calling the album a "sad attempt" by Springsteen "to reinvent himself as a tasteful acoustic folk singer." In England, Q magazine described the album as the ghost of Springsteen himself, calling him "the blue-collar rock god who went missing at the end of the '80s."
Other reviewers, however, have been wildly supportive. Rolling Stone called the album Springsteen's best in a decade and among the bravest works by anyone in the '90s. The Village Voice also hailed it: "As evidence regarding the gap between (the) gold-card rich and (the) dirt-poor mounts, and the public good grows as obsolete as any factory town, it becomes imperative for artists to go beyond themselves and draw attention to what we are losing."
The irony in the debate over Springsteen's role in contemporary pop is that concert promoters say he could still gross upward of $150 million if he toured with the E Street Band, which he broke away from after the Amnesty International world tour of 1988 to explore other musical directions. And his "Greatest Hits" album -- which contained E Street Band classics, new band recordings and his Grammy- and Oscar-winning "Streets of Philadelphia" -- entered the charts at No. 1 last winter.
So what's he doing in Youngstown?
At 46, Springsteen no longer resembles the hungry young rocker on the cover of "Born to Run" or even the underdog warrior of "Born in the U.S.A." His hairline is receding and there are lines in his face. In the late afternoons, when he walks through the near-empty theaters, he can easily be mistaken for a stagehand.
When he steps to the microphone on this tour, however, he seems a man rejuvenated. In interviews, too, he speaks with a sense of mission and perspective.
"You don't start with the audience and then make a piece of music to fit that," he says. "That's where a lot of people make a mistake. They get caught up in the race, and it can be dangerous to your creativity and, probably, your sanity.
"What you have to do is start with a piece of music and then search out the audience for it, and if this is the audience for the new album, that's fine. That's where I should be right now," he says, referring to his tour of small halls.
In response to the inevitable question about an E Street Band reunion, Springsteen
"I don't know if it pays to project too much into the future," he says. "I don't have any plans at the moment for the band, but I assume at some point we will play together in some fashion again. We enjoyed getting together for the greatest-hits thing. But we don't have any plans."
There was excitement here over the song "Youngstown" as soon as Springsteen's new album was released in November. Local radio stations played it, and business was brisk at the Music Oasis record store in the Boardman Plaza.
"There has been a good cross section of age groups coming in for it," says Robert Kane, assistant manager of the store, which sells 30 to 35 copies of the album a week. "Mostly, it's people in their 20s and 30s, but a few teenagers are also caught up in it. They're not usual Springsteen fans, but they're intrigued that he wrote about their town."
Interest heightened further after Springsteen's concert date was announced. All 2,600 tickets were sold in record time for the show at Stambaugh Auditorium, a showcase patterned after the Pantheon in Paris that was built in 1926 for $1.5 million and donated to the city by a man who earned part of his fortune from the steel mills.
On the day of the show, fans began lining up in the icy hours before curtain time, hoping that extra tickets might be put on sale. David Yatsco, 36, drove three hours from Columbus. He's a Springsteen fan, but he also wanted to share in Youngstown's moment of glory. Some of his relatives once worked the mills.
Such excitement is rare these days in this city of 95,000 on the Pennsylvania border.
"When I came to Youngstown in '67, it was a vibrant town," says Michael Braun, an editor at the Youngstown Vindicator, standing in the newspaper's editorial conference room. "You'd go downtown and find people, cars, all kinds of stuff going on.
"After the mills started closing, it was like the city's soul was taken away and all that was left was the husk. You go downtown now and almost every single building is shuttered. There's also been increased divorce, crime, alcoholism, suicide. It's a shame."
You could say that Springsteen's path to Youngstown began 20 years ago when he first saw John Ford's 1940 film "The Grapes of Wrath." There was something in the adaptation of John Steinbeck's 1939 novel about the heroism of Tom Joad and the rest of his oppressed migrant farm family that touched the singer-songwriter from the blue-collar Jersey shore.
"The film dealt with social and spiritual issues, the pursuit of justice," Springsteen says, sitting in his dressing room after his show the night before at the luxurious 5,000-seat Fox Theater in downtown Detroit. "I saw all these things as interconnected in people's lives.
"You see how a single decision can affect a person's life or a whole country's
life, and if the decision is wrong, you see how it can damage your soul, whether
it's Vietnam or abandoning people in the inner city or seeing people's lives
destroyed by taking their jobs away."
In the early days of his career, Springsteen wrote about following one's dreams, winning over all odds. As he got older, he began worrying that he was not reflecting the harsher realities of the world. The images and questions of the Ford film came back to him.
In key moments of such albums as "The River," "Nebraska" and even "Born in the U.S.A.," he found room for darker tales of society's victims -- people whose hopes had been destroyed by bad decisions, sometimes their own, sometimes those of ruthless authorities. The songs drew upon the tradition of folk, blues and country artists such as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Robert Johnson, not the rock and soul heroes of his youth.
Springsteen's writing took a turn after "Born in the U.S.A." He began focusing more in his albums "Tunnel of Love," "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town" on the tensions and joys of relationships. It was a natural subject because Springsteen, after devoting himself almost entirely to his music through his early 30s, began aggressively seeking a permanent relationship himself. He is now married to singer Patti Scialfa and the couple have three children -- Evan James, 5; Jessica Rae, 4, and Sam Ryan, 2.
Springsteen was three-fourths of the way through another album about relationships in 1993 when director Jonathan Demme asked him to write a song for his AIDS drama "Philadelphia."
In "Streets of Philadelphia," Springsteen addressed the subject with such compassion that it somehow reconnected him with the social observation and commentary of his earlier albums, especially the acclaimed "Nebraska" (1982).
He set aside the other collection and began writing about the Tom Joads of today, including the country's new arrivals from Mexico and Vietnam who are suffering the same injustices as the migrant workers of the '30s.
Yet he had no delusions about the album's sales potential in today's pop climate.
If you can judge them by their buying habits, most young rock fans appear to be too caught up in music that expresses the anger and alienation of adolescence to deal with songs about society's other problems. At the same time, older pop fans have turned to the more soothing and comforting sounds of bands like Hootie & the Blowfish. Realizing that radio probably wouldn't play the new album any more than it played "Nebraska," Springsteen decided to take his case to the road.
"People turn to entertainment for a lot of different reasons -- to dance,
to forget their troubles -- and that's fine," he says. "If I'm working
9 to 5, that's plenty of reality for me during the week, you know. Come the
weekend, I want some fun.
"At the same time, I think there are plenty of people who do go to music and film and novels and art as a way to find something that feels reflective of the world as they know it. I find tremendous comfort in that type of work."
Despite his reputation as one of rock's premier performers, Springsteen was
anxious about this tour -- unsure whether his audience would accept him in a
solo acoustic format. He had often included moments of social observation in
his shows, but they had been surrounded by uplifting rock 'n' roll celebration.
"For the music to work, you have to have silence," he says. "These songs come to life in the quiet, and I knew intrusions on that quiet would chip away at the mood you are trying to convey.
"The show has a lot of elements. The spoken passages are as important as the songs in a way. It's theater and it's music. Ideally, I appear in between songs, but when the music starts, I disappear and the characters in the songs fill the stage with their lives and their experience."
Audience acceptance has been so good that he is now thinking of extending the tour to the summer and possibly beyond, perhaps stepping up to even larger halls in selected cities. Things were so loose on the tour by the time he reached Detroit that he felt free to play a goofy novelty song about infomercials that he had written on a plane the same day.
His tour nervousness returned, however, in the hours before the Youngstown concert. He's aware of the dangers of commenting on someone else's hometown. In writing the song, Springsteen had closely followed the facts in "Journey to Nowhere: the Saga of the New Underclass," a 1985 book by photographer Michael Williamson and writer Dale Maharidge that discussed Youngstown.
Still, Springsteen wondered if he got the tone right.
The response at Stambaugh Auditorium left him jubilant.
"This feeling was great," he tells a group of visitors backstage after the show. "It was like playing the VFW hall in my hometown -- the feeling of community. The response was very, very moving."
Springsteen had been scheduled to leave town right after the show, but he decided to stay over for a day to visit historic sites in the area. As he lingered backstage for nearly two hours before returning to his hotel, he seemed more comfortable with his music and career than he had in years.
The questions of his relevancy aren't new. They've been asked in one form or another ever since the "Born in the U.S.A." superstardom, which made him a multimillionaire.
There was the issue of whether a rich man could truly identify with blue-collar woes, and whether Springsteen, the settled family man, had lost his creative edge.
Staughton Lynd, a lawyer who represented local unions in a 1979 suit to prevent U.S. Steel from shutting its Youngstown mills, scoffs at the notion that Springsteen's music is irrelevant.
"It's hard to name all the people who have just passed by while this town was bleeding and dying," Lynd said the day after the concert. "But (Springsteen) walked across the street. He cared -- and hopefully people in other cities will remember the song and learn from what happened here."
Taconite coke and limestone
Fed my children and made my pay.
Them smokestacks reachin' like the arms of God
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay.
-- "Youngstown," Bruce Springsteen