More than a decade since his first visit to New Zealand, The Boss is returning, this time in a global tour supporting his latest album, High Hopes. The tour so far has also included Australia and, for the first time, a tour of South Africa in January. Bernadette McNulty joined him in Johannesburg, for the momentous visit.
The cavernous FNB Stadium in Johannesburg will always be inextricably linked with Nelson Mandela. In 1990, not long after it was built, the football ground was the perfect location for the ANC leader, finally released from imprisonment after 27 years, to address the nation of which he would become the first democratically elected president.
Then, in December last year, Africa's largest stadium - with a capacity of nearly 95,000 - held the passionate, euphoric tribute to the country's beloved Madiba.
If anyone can step up to the legacy and atmosphere of the FNB stadium it is Bruce Springsteen. The American rock star this year went to South Africa for the first time, to play four concerts. He arrived at a point when his international popularity has risen once more to match his 80s heyday. His latest album, High Hopes, released last month, has reached No1 in 17 countries, making him the only US artist to have had records at the top of the American charts in each of four decades.
When Springsteen touched down in Cape Town for three smaller concerts at the Bellville Velodrome ahead of the Johannesburg date, the arrival of his private jet and the sight of the Boss stepping on to the tarmac, wearing his signature black leather jacket despite the sweltering sun, were reported as if it were a royal visit.
At his traditional first-gig press conference, the 64-year-old described how he felt he had "accidentally walked into the crossroads of history" by arriving just after Mandela's death.
He laughed, though, when asked if he thought his visit was historic. "You've got too much history here in this country for it to be historic. We are just going to try and make it eventful for the audience."
International rock and pop stars are not the exotic creatures they once were in South Africa. Since the World Cup in 2010, the country has become a more regular stop-off for musicians, hosting concerts last year by Rihanna, Bon Jovi and Justin Bieber. But what makes Springsteen's visit more resonant is that he brings a personal connection with South Africa's past and the international protest movement against apartheid in the 80s.
In 1985, he performed on the song Sun City, directed against the South African gambling resort for its luring of international stars to break the sanctions against performing in the country; three years later he played two consciousness-raising gigs in Africa alongside Sting, Peter Gabriel and Tracy Chapman. Springsteen credits his guitarist and old friend Stevie Van Zandt for originally switching him on to the issues in South Africa.
"The Sun City record was really important for us in the States in understanding what was going on down there. Steve was way ahead of the curve: he got rockers and rappers together, something that hadn't happened before in America."
On stage, bedecked in his typical hippie bandana and scarves, Van Zandt is the visually florid ying to Springsteen's clean-cut yang. His face is becoming as familiar as that of his New Jersey schoolfriend thanks to his television acting roles, first in The Sopranos and now in the Norway-set comedy drama Lilyhammer. It was the filming schedule for the latter that led to his absence from the tour of Australia last year.
Springsteen recruited Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello to fill his place. Morello's attacking style inspired many of the new versions of songs on High Hopes and he is now a full band member for the latest tour. Van Zandt's distinctive Italian nose doesn't seem to have been put out of joint, though.
"I get to work the audience. I don't even have to be in tune, let alone learn all the chords," he says.
Van Zandt first visited South Africa in 1984 to research a solo album. Appalled by the government's plans to relocate the black population to artificial "homelands" he came out of the trip with a much bigger ambition: to force Ronald Reagan to end his opposition to economic sanctions against apartheid South Africa. The focus of his campaign became Sun City, a huge resort built on one of the homelands, luring stars such as Elton John, Rod Stewart and Queen to play by offering million-dollar fees.
"By zoning in on one policy I could tell the whole story of South Africa and I could tell it quite literally. You wouldn't usually do that in a song," says Van Zandt.
Only months after the Live Aid concerts, Van Zandt quickly assembled an astonishing roster of musicians to appear under the banner of Artists United against Apartheid: Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Bobby Womack and, of course, Springsteen signed up alongside rappers such as Afrika Bambaataa and Run DMC.
"At that moment, record companies were hoping that rappers would just go away. But I knew it was important to have them because it was the first time black artists had been able to express themselves directly."
Despite little radio play - "it was too black for white radio and too white for black radio" - the brilliant video showing Reed, Springsteen and co larking around on the streets of New York was a massive MTV hit.
"It was completely disorganised compared to We Are the World," says Van Zandt.
"I would ring our video guy up at 2am and say, 'Get up, Miles Davis is here playing. Come over and video him'."
The song raised $1 million for the anti-apartheid campaign and, more astonishingly, had the political effect Van Zandt had aimed for. When Reagan used his veto to try to block the Anti-Apartheid Act's passage through Congress in September 1986, the House of Representatives overrode the veto and the act became law.
"Sun City became a street-orientated revolutionary song," says Van Zandt. "This was not intended to last forever. It was intended to fix the situation. And, in the end, we achieved one of the few victories we will ever see in our lives."
Equally significant for Springsteen was the Amnesty concert he played in Harare two years later. Desperate to see him play, 15,000 young South Africans applied for visas to enter Zimbabwe to attend the concert.
Hearing of the influx, Springsteen addressed them from the stage. Rather than condemning the white population, he offered sympathy for those being conscripted to fight in South Africa's border war with Angola.
"There can't be much worse than living in a society that's at war with itself, under a government at war with its own people and being required to support that government," he said. Richard Pithouse, a lecturer in politics at Rhodes University in Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape, was too young to attend the concert but says its impact, along with that of protest records like Sun City, was significant inside the country.
"Along with Bob Marley's concert in Zimbabwe in 1980, this gig still resonates now. He showed young South African men sympathy rather than dictating to or hectoring them. He was uncompromising in his condemnation of apartheid but they also felt they were being understood. It's easy to forget how isolated young people felt when books and records were hard to get hold of. Records like the Specials or Eddy Grant's Gimme Hope Jo'anna didn't bring down the system but they did nurture a subculture of resistance."
As meaningful as Springsteen's connection is with South Africa, it seems as much the universality of his musical themes - romantic, rousing narratives about daily economic and emotional struggles - and his spectacularly physical shows, most lasting over three hours, that are captivating audiences around the world.
Jon Landau, Springsteen's manager, cuts an avuncular, gently bearish figure backstage, and it is hard to believe this relaxed, smiling man is overseeing the complex logistical operation of shifting the Springsteen show around the world.
"Touring has been completely professionalised. It is not like the olden days," he says. He compares Springsteen to an "athlete" but also stresses how carefully they arrange the shows so that the 64 year-old can look after his voice.
"We can do three, sometimes four shows in a week. If we do five, that is playing with fire. Once a singer's voice gets strained you don't have a chance to get it back unless you cancel shows."
While everything backstage is run with calm but ruthless efficiency, on stage, he says, Springsteen puts planning secondary to being in the moment with the audience.
"He doesn't have a watch. He gets in a zone, and he knows when a show is complete. That is why every show is different, the set list is different. It isn't a recital."
Springsteen speaks in measured, serious tones about issues such as economic inequality, although like Van Zandt he believes it is harder now to make a political statement in music. He says there are too many distractions to cut through to get people's attention, which chimes with Van Zandt's view of the Sun City record.
"I'm not so sure we could pull it off again now," Van Zandt says. "We are in a different place, in a permanently bad economy across the world. I don't think you could interest people in foreign issues in the way that you could then. It was a golden moment; you could get things done."
Despite rejoicing in "the miracle" of having black presidents in South Africa and the United States in the 25 years since he was in Zimbabwe, Springsteen says his aspiration for the South African shows is the same that he has anywhere: "I just want to play the best shows I can and entertain people."
Rather than political, the word Landau and Van Zandt use to describe the shows is "spiritual".
Van Zandt says that since the death of E Street Band members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons "spirituality is now a permanent part of our show. You lose them but you don't. They live forever in the work and in the show."
It's a sentiment that takes on greater poignancy later that week when Springsteen's hero Pete Seeger dies and he plays We Shall Overcome in remembrance of him.
On stage at Bellville those ghosts are joined by Mandela, whom Springsteen pays tribute to in a jubilant opening cover of the Special AKA's Free Nelson Mandela and later in a more meditative We Are Alive, saying: "This is a song about the living and the dead. About how the body dies but how the spirit lives ... the dead are always whispering into the ears of the living."
Surveying the 10,000-seat velodrome, Springsteen jokes that it feels as if he is back in New Jersey's Asbury Convention Hall, but the smaller venue doesn't stop him from delivering another barnstorming performance. As he flits between soul, folk, rock and gospel, drawing on rock'n'roll's most electrifying showmen, from Elvis to James Brown, all wrapped up in the distinct mythology of his own blue-collar rock'n'roll, the mostly middle-aged audience, finally enjoying the songs they only heard at far remove, are transformed into a sea of almost teenage rapture.
It is the kind of party you feel the country deserves - and that Nelson Mandela would have very much enjoyed.
Who: Bruce Springsteen
When and where: March 1 and 2 (this Saturday and Sunday) at Mt Smart Stadium, Auckland. Limited tickets still available.
Listen to: High Hopes (2014)
- TimeOut, Daily Telegraph