Monday 27 January 2020

Ireland's love affair with Bruce

Bruce Springsteen plays the first of three sell out gigs at the RDS in Dublin in 2008.
Bruce Springsteen plays the first of three sell out gigs at the RDS in Dublin in 2008.
Springsteen at the RDS.
Springsteen in Dublin.

Some folk got themselves into a tizzy recently at the prospect that the discovery of a legal document from 18th century might prove that Elvis Presley was, in fact, Irish.

While the jury might still be out on that one, there can be no denying the special relationship between Bruce Springsteen and Ireland.

First off, former Taoiseach Charles Haughey surrendered his nickname, The Boss, to the New Jersey rock'n'roller back in the 1980s.

That was when a crowd of more than 100,000 rocked up to Slane Castle to witness Bruce play what was his first ever concert in Ireland and his first big open air gig. The sun shone on County Meath that day and the audience made Bruce feel welcome.

Not all were aware that Bruce had recently got married. The gig by the Boyne kickstarted a love affair that shows no sign of cooling down.

The event has become something of a legend. Devoted fans still speak in awe of being there the only time Bruce ever played The Beach Boys' When I Grow Up (To Be A Man) in his show. As exclusives go, that's one that Bruce seems to have held sacred.

If you could travel back in time to 12 years earlier, you might have spotted the signs that would confirm Bruce being welcomed as one of our own.

In '73, when The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle was released, knowing music buffs in Dublin were commenting on a songwriting style that seemed to come from a similar inspirational source as that of local rocker Phil Lynott. And it didn't take much imagination to sense a connection to Van Morrison's old Caledonia Soul Orchestra of that period.

Those musical games of join-the-dots would continue when The Boomtown Rats had their first No. 1 with Rat Trap and its Clarence Clemons-style saxophone solo and it's "the Five Lamp Boys were coming on strong…" imagery.

What was undeniable was that Bruce had developed a strong story-telling technique in his writing that celebrated a cast of characters in much the same way as losers and loners had been hailed in the old ballad traditions.

We weren't to know it then as Bruce worked on songs of "riding through mansions of glory in suicide machines" that he'd one day nail down his folk and gospel influences with three filmed Dublin concerts on the Seeger Sessions Band Tour.

This thing of Bruce and the Irish is now officially a longstanding appreciation society. Why else might you bump into Bruce in a Dublin pub like The Long Hall or O'Donoghues?

Most touring musicians like to move on to the next venue as soon as possible after a show. People will tell you that Bruce tends to stick around when he's here.

Certainly, The Waterboys were stunned when The Boss (an affectionate nickname he's never liked) popped into their dressing room after a show in the Iveagh Gardens four years ago.

Instead of flying to Finland after his Irish show, Bruce had hung on here and enjoyed both kinds of r'n'r.

Maybe it's something of his ancient Irish ancestors in his genes that helps make this umbilical connection to his Irish fans. You'd have to ask him. And maybe mention his Catholic school upbringing and his family's love of horses, when you're at it.

As a kid, Bruce loved Elvis. But the King couldn't write songs like The Boss.

And Bruce writes songs about people we can identify with. People who, as he said himself, might "have a chance to live a life with some decency and some dignity and a chance for some self-respect". You don't have to be American to know, or think you know, someone like that. Hell, as they say in the lottery ad, it could be you.

This direct line of artistic communication is the core of Springsteen's appeal. It's the bedrock of the unique rapport that manifests itself in gigs. A rapport that's often elevated to levels of sacramental intensity. But from the Irish fans' perspective, Bruce can do no wrong.

As my friend Colm O'Hare points out, no other artist has ever played what was in effect a five-date stadium tour of Ireland as Bruce did in 2013 when he played Limerick (Thomond Park), Cork (Páirc Uí Chaoimh), Belfast (King's Hall Arena) and two sell-out shows at Nowlan Park in Kilkenny.

Last year in New York, with the Clintons in the audience, Bruce joined U2 on stage at Madison Square Garden for the end of the Dublin band's eight-night residency. They performed I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For.

They also threw in a version of Ben E. King's Stand By Me, which Bruce first performed with the band live in 1987.

U2 and Bruce first met up when Bruce delayed returning to the States in '81 in order to catch the band playing in London. A few years later, Bono and Bruce guested on the Artists United Against Apartheid single, Sun City.

When Bono inducted Bruce to the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in '99, he declared, "He was the end of long hair, brown rice and bell bottoms."

Bruce was probably unaware that he had a few things going for him that were wired directly to the carburettor of the Irish psyche.

In the E Street Band he has the ultimate American bar band. A supreme rock'n'roll showband. And deep in the Irish subconscious, there's a craving for a big old brass-driven showband. The old ballrooms, the Dreamlands and the Roselands, may have been bulldozed or turned into carpet or tractor showrooms but, like the Great Famine, we'll never shake off the memory of the rare good old days.

Also when Bruce delivers his marathon shows, Irish audiences know they're getting value for money. Shows that are often longer than three and four hours, guarantee bang for the Irish buck.

But more importantly, Bruce is a straight arrow kinda guy.

He's not a performer with airs and graces. "I get to come out onstage and I don't have to play myself," he once said, in circumstances that echo the Irish experience. "I get to be myself. I have an audience that comes and gives me that freedom. And then, in turn, I can give them what I feel is my best."

And, with one of the most enviable repertoires in the business, Bruce plays every show like it could be his last. Like an All Star inter-county hurler, he puts everything into it.

No wonder, they call him The Boss.

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