On His Latest Tour, Bruce Springsteen Contemplates His Own Ending

Bruce Springsteen is walking toward me.

He is singing “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and his shirt is inexplicably open, revealing deeply tanned and chiseled pectoral muscles. The Bad Scooter has found his groove, and he’s now headed in my direction. If this sounds like a deeply weird dream, I should add that I’m surrounded by 16,000 people inside of a Minnesota hockey arena.

As he gets closer, I fixate on the beads of sweat pouring down from his deeply tanned and chiseled forehead. He’s putting out a level of moisture not seen since Patrick Ewing in the 1994 NBA Finals. Here is a 73-year-old man who has been performing on stage for two and a half hours, and I imagine he must be exhausted. But as Bruce finally looms over me like I’m a tourist surveying the iconic mugs etched into Mount Rushmore, he betrays no signs of tiredness. This time, Hakeem Olajuwon doesn’t stand a chance.

Then, it happens: We briefly make eye contact. At least, I think we make eye contact. But then I remember that the greatest living arena rocker is standing approximately 36 inches away form me, and his magic trick is fooling individuals gathered in 16,000-person blobs that he is singing only for them. He is making eye contact with me, but he is also making eye contact with everybody. But he’s really looking at you, my brain assures me. I decide to believe my brain.

To my right is a woman from Nashville who I am guessing is in her late 50s. Before showtime, she told me that she saw the first date of Bruce’s 2023 U.S. arena tour last month in Tampa. “You could tell that he looked old,” she said. And yet here she was on a Sunday night catching droplets of Bruce’s perspiration in St. Paul, nearly 900 miles away from home, with plans to see The E Street Band again later this month in Detroit and twice more in Europe this summer. I look over at her as Bruce hollers about a transistor radio blasting from a tenement window directly in front of us, and she is beaming.

Nobody right now seems old. But Bruce is the only one who does not look old. His hair is more gray than brunette now, but that only makes him look harder, like a rock-solid block of concrete, the very stuff that arenas like this one are made of. To quote the man himself, Bruce Springsteen is still tougher than the rest.

But Bruce is old. I know this because he keeps telling us that he’s old. Mortality is a central theme of his best-selling 2016 memoir Born To Run. It also forms the crux of the award-winning one-man show Springsteen On Broadway. Bruce underlines it again on his most recent album of original songs, 2020’s Letter To You. If you haven’t heard it, you can get the gist of the album’s subject matter from reading the track listing: “One Minute You’re Here,” “Last Man Standing,” “Ghosts,” “I’ll See You In My Dreams.”

And then he reiterated this message yet again in his 2022 Howard Stern interview, in which he hinted that there might not be many more marathon three-hour arena-rock shows in his future. Instead, he imagined emulating Johnny Cash or the late Pete Seeger, who played into his 90s as a wizened folkie.

Who can really believe that, though? The paradox of Bruce Springsteen is that while, on one hand, he is second only to Bob Dylan when it comes to elderly rock stars who fixate constantly on death, he also has remained committed to his own physical fitness with a zeal that is comparable only to the supernaturally spry exoskeleton known as Mick Jagger. Given his age, of course he would consider pivoting to the sort of music that doesn’t require a level of physical exertion that people born around the time that Tunnel Of Love was released find taxing. Except … this is Bruce Springsteen! He is indomitable! Even when Bruce tells us that life is fleeting, his performances show us the opposite — that maybe The Boss will, in fact, be the one guy who defeats Father Time.

That hope, however, is another product of his magic trick. As Bruce walks past me and makes his way from the platform in the middle of the arena floor back to the stage, I am completely bamboozled. It is impossible for me to imagine a time when I won’t be able to see The E Street Band and have my soul rocked for three hours. Excuse me: I mean have my soul rocked by the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, booty-shaking, love-making, earth-quaking, Viagra-taking, justifying, death-defying, legendary E Street Band!

Twenty minutes later, as I’m trudging back to my car through an utterly frustrating and thoroughly predictable early-March Minnesota blizzard, the spell breaks and a different reality sets in. It’s not only possible that I won’t see this kind of Springsteen show again, it’s also more likely than not. A live performance by Bruce Springsteen And The E Street Band in 2023 is a precious resource. And that resource is dwindling faster than any of us want to believe.

When I tweeted last week that I had successfully procured a ticket to see The Boss, my mentions were inevitably clogged with jokes and outright gripes about ticket prices. The controversy over Ticketmaster’s “dynamic pricing” policy has undeniably cast a pall over the current tour. At best, it has informed every conversation about these shows. At worst, it has been the only talking point, as evidenced by both daily newspapers in the Twin Cities centering their pre-concert coverage on complaints about how tickets for this tour are exponentially pricier than The E Street Band’s previous local stop in 2016.

The most damning condemnation came from the media outlet that has covered Springsteen with the greatest loyalty and rigor. Backstreets, a fanzine that started publishing quarterly editions in 1980, announced last month that it is shutting down. While not explicitly positioned as a protest of the ticketing policy, the high prices were blamed for dampening the enthusiasm of the publication’s writers and readership for the tour.

Fans have complained about high ticket prices for as long as there have been concerts. But this was different. An earlier Backstreets post timed with the initial on-sale last summer is striking for the raw hurt at its core. It’s nothing less than a cry of betrayal and, in the magazine’s own words, a “crisis of faith” about fans being “thrown to the wolves.”

When pressed by Rolling Stone about the criticism, Springsteen was coldly pragmatic: He admitted that he personally instructed his people to price tickets at market value, and pointed out that if they had been initially priced lower than that, they would have been scooped up by brokers and marked-up dramatically anyway. Why should they get that money and not him and his band?

As much as I hate dynamic pricing, a truly diabolical practice even by Ticketmaster standards, I can’t really argue with that logic. The first stateside E Street Band tour in seven years was going to be a hot (and expensive) ticket no matter what. Consider that when Bob Dylan resumed touring for the first time in eight years in the early ’70s, David Geffen called it “the biggest thing of its kind in the history of show business.” If a Bruce Springsteen tour in 2023 isn’t exactly comparable to Dylan going out with The Band in 1974, it’s still worth noting that he’s been widely regarded as the best in the world at playing rock songs in hockey arenas for at least 40 years. And there’s extra urgency now given the scarcity of Bruce Springsteen shows in the recent past and, perhaps, in the not-so-distant future.

But what Bruce didn’t factor in was the illogical regard his followers have for him. He stands for more than his classic-rock peers, so we expect him to charge less. Even if it’s true that scalpers are usually the ones who jack up prices, it hit different when it seemed like Bruce was the one doing the soaking.

“Well, I’m old. I take a lot of things in stride,” he told Rolling Stone when the “crisis of faith” comment was brought up. “You don’t like to be criticized. You certainly don’t like to be the poster boy for high ticket prices. It’s the last thing you prefer to be. But that’s how it went. You have to own the decisions you have made and go out and just continue to do your best.”

The takeaway by disgruntled fans was that he was wholly unbothered by their disillusionment, which only deepened the bad feelings. But now that I have seen the tour, I’m focused on the part of that quote where Bruce once again directly states where he’s coming from: Well, I’m old.

In the days leading up to the concert, I listened to Letter To You on repeat. I liked the album upon its release, though I had a weird hang-up about how he took several old songs from the ’70s — “Janey Needs A Shooter,” “If I Was The Priest,” “Song For Orphans” — and reworked them. It felt like a cheat, like he was compensating for the inclusion of fresher clunkers like “The Power Of Prayer” and “Rainmaker.” But lately, I’ve talked myself into regarding Letter For You as a borderline-great Springsteen record, because I realized that those ancient (and admittedly terrific tunes) fit with the album’s overall “lion in winter” theme, in which Bruce takes stock of his life in rock and reconciles the fact that there are now more musical adventures in his past than await him in the future. (I have even come to forgive the ugly album cover, which explicitly visualizes the “lion in winter” theme.)

That theme carries over to the current tour. The setlists have been mostly static, with occasional debuts and curveballs sprinkled amid songs that have been carefully selected to offer a comprehensive retrospective of his catalog. In St. Paul, three selections from The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle (“Kitty’s Back,” “The E Street Shuffle,” and, of course, “Rosalita”) highlighted his jazzy and jammy early period, with Bruce once more cutting loose on long, hot-dog guitar solos like he was back at The Main Point in Philly. Three selections from Darkness On The Edge Of Town (“Prove It All Night,” “The Promised Land,” and “Candy’s Room”) captured the gut-level power of his late-’70s prime, with Steven Van Zandt — who now looks nearly as trim as he was during the Carter administration — howling garage-rock backing vocals and stroking his own stinging guitar solos. There were several tunes from his most popular album, Born In The U.S.A., and the title tracks from two of his most notable 21st-century records, The Rising and Wrecking Ball. (There was nothing from the non-E Street Band ’90s albums, though Bruce did pull out a tour debut with “Pay Me My Money Down” from We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, and dutifully trotted out “Night Shift” from the recent soul covers collection Only The Strong Survive.)

And then there were the numbers that derive from the bookends of his career. From Born To Run, there were the essential warhorses: “Born To Run,” “Thunder Road,” “She’s The One,” and my favorite Boss song of all, “Backstreets.” That final number was paired in the middle of the set with a central track from Letter To You, “Last Man Standing.” Both songs are about young people who pledge life-long loyalty while in pursuit of outsized dreams only to ultimately come apart, and they are delivered in the dramatic and romantic manner one expects from a Bruce Springsteen song. The difference is that “Backstreets” is Bruce’s perspective as a kid in his 20s, and “Last Man Standing” is Bruce’s perspective as a man in his 70s.

Standing on stage alone with his guitar, he addressed the audience for the first time at length before “Last Man Standing.” The lack of patter otherwise underscored the importance of the moment — his only other long-ish introduction came ahead of another similarly themed Letter To You song, “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” also performed alone at the end of the night.

He related the story of George Theiss, a boyhood friend who invited 15-year-old Bruce to join his first band, The Castilles. Decades later, Theiss became the subject of this song after he died of lung cancer in 2018, leaving Bruce as the only surviving member of their garage band. The Castilles, by the way, lasted three years, an eternity for a teen rock group, Springsteen proudly noted. And then it ended. Like all things must.

Writing new songs that obsess over the past, and also repurposing old numbers to reveal their present-day relevance, is the basis of Letter To You, and it also sets the tone for this tour. It’s a reflective show, and also a refractive one, in which songs change shape when set in relation to each other. The youthful defiance of the tour’s show-opener, “No Surrender,” now has a melancholy edge. One of his greatest songs about aspiration, “The Promised Land,” is prefaced and shaded by “Letter To You,” a direct message to his audience about how he has poured his “fears and doubts” into his work. His defining song about the gratifying work of performance, “Prove It All Night,” is paired with “Ghosts,” which addresses the same idea but from a backward-looking, nostalgic stance.

Springsteen still sings “Backstreets” with heartfelt conviction, but prefacing it with “Last Man Standing” irrevocably changes with it means. In the current set, it ceases to be a coming-of-age anthem; it is now a prequel story about a man whose age has come and gone. It is a period at the end of a sentence that was first written 48 years ago.

Watching Sunday’s concert overall felt like closing a circle. It reminded me of a genre movie where a gang decides to team up for one caper, in the hopes that they can eventually walk off forever into the sunset. (There’s certainly a lot of loot at stake.) In case it needs to be stated for the record: This is still a kick-ass band. Naturally, the principals demand the most attention — the titanic beat of Max Weinberg, the bouncy bass of Gary Tallent, the consistent brilliance of Roy Bittan, the swashbuckling swagger of Steven Van Zandt. But there’s also an expansive supporting cast this time around, with a full horn section augmenting saxophonist Jake Clemons and a small army of backing singers. The lineup reflected the setlist — the past commingled with the present, and achieved a special harmony that temporarily suspended time.

I have no idea what lies ahead for The E Street Band, because no one does. I’m only saying that it felt like a group of people singing and playing like they might not have many more parties like this in the future. I couldn’t help but choke up a little during the encore when at the end of “Glory Days” Bruce called Little Steven over to the microphone and asked if he wanted to go home.

“I don’t wanna go home,” Little Steven said.

Then Bruce asked the left side of the arena if they wanted to go home. No! Then he asked the people seated behind the stage. No!! Then the people on the right side. NOOOO!!!

It was unanimous: Nobody wanted to go home.