A memory: I am three years old, watching MTV. A man on a stage wearing tight jeans and a white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up dances and sings into a microphone with his band in the background. He sways his shoulders and spins as the camera follows him, and toward the end of the song he pulls a young woman onto the stage to dance with him. I remember loving the music, and even the video, in a three-year-old sort of way.
The man is Bruce Springsteen; the song is “Dancing in the Dark.” The year is 1984.
I saw the video again recently for the first time since childhood; it has not aged well. I wonder if, even in the Eighties, it ever really impressed anyone who was old enough to dress himself. Springsteen, making a concerted effort to dance, looks stiff and self-conscious; it’s not one of his finer moments. Yet the song still transfixes me, far more than it ever did in my youth, because the words mean something to me now.
In some ways “Dancing in the Dark” is a perfect Springsteen song: muscular and anxious, it depicts that stuck space between youth and aging where you’re “dying for some action.” At twenty-six, I feel a kinship with that restless voice. When Springsteen was my age, he sang “Maybe we ain’t that young anymore” on “Thunder Road” without a touch of irony, and that lyric feels more like my own uncertain thoughts than anything on today’s pop charts. Nobody has ever captured as well as Springsteen that itch to keep moving before life permanently catches up. Perhaps that’s why his music is so perfect for the open road; he sings about cars and driving off before it’s too late while those of us listening in our own cars speed past everything.
Springsteen’s songs however grudgingly admitted that you couldn’t outrun middle-age forever. By the time he recorded “Dancing in the Dark” for Born in the USA, he was well into his thirties. Twenty years later, he’s still exploring that topic. On Springsteen’s most recent CD one of the standout tracks, “Girls in Their Summer Clothes,” echoes that sentiment. Springsteen sings “tonight I’m gonna burn this town down” but the chorus reverses the old Boss formula. “The girls in their summer clothes pass me by,” he sings with a Zen calm—those fresh-faced girls float away, and there’s peace in the admission that their world is no longer his. Maybe they’ll burn the town down, but they’ll do it without him.
The First Time
Last month, I finally had the chance to see Springsteen and the E Street Band perform for the first time. I was anxious to see how he had held up after all these years. My friends and I ambled in two hours before showtime, wide-eyed and eager and about two decades younger than most of the crowd.
At 8:30, the lights dimmed, and Springsteen took the stage with his band to a deafening applause. When the Jumbotrons overhead zoomed in on the musicians it was hard not to notice the effects of time. There was a lot of balding, and all around, more wrinkles and weight in the midsection than in earlier, glory days. The band’s walk onto the stage leant new meaning to the phrase “E Street Shuffle.” The most afflicted seemed to be legendary saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who, now in his sixties, noticeably limps. A throne-like chair was set up on the left edge for him to rest in when he wasn’t playing.
Despite these visible effects of time, once the music started the band sounded as if it hadn’t lost a step. They mixed classics like “Prove It All Night” and “Badlands” with newer gems like “Long Walk Home.” Springsteen jumped around the stage, looking rejuvenated and weathered at the same time. My friends and I sang along with the songs that say time is short, getting shorter. We sang along, too, with the songs that say time has already passed, and I sensed that someday it would be these songs that speak most to our lives—at a time when youth has fully passed us by.
Beautiful and True
After two hours of a healthy mix of recent and ancient, Springsteen gift-wrapped the encore, with spirited performances of “Glory Days,” “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark,” in succession. “Glory Days” sounded joyous, as if two decades had allowed him to come to terms with its bittersweet commentary on growing older. Midway through “Dancing in the Dark,” Bruce pointed to a little girl in the audience, and lifted her up out of the front row. Together, they shimmied across the stage. Young danced next to old, a perfect expression of the way both work together in Springsteen’s music.
Watching them dance resuscitated a twenty-three year-old memory for me. I thought back to that outdated music video from my childhood and then looked at Bruce Springsteen’s wrinkled face on the Jumbotron. I decided that nothing ages well, at least not to the naked eye. Those songs, though: they haven’t aged a bit. The new ones ring as beautiful and true as anything Springsteen has ever written, and the old ones are still magic after all these years. They leave you feeling older, wiser and, somehow, all the more blessed to feel young.