Greg Fleming on why Bruce Springsteen is the man, ahead of the singer’s return to New Zealand next weekend.

Heroes are tricky things, especially when it comes to rock 'n' roll, because Rock Stars are really good at letting you down.

One minute it's Rust Never Sleeps then it's Reactor, or you've sat through any Dylan show post-2006.

Bruce Springsteen might just be the exception.

And perhaps that's because Springsteen has never been cool. Not really cool like Nick Cave, Dylan or Lou Reed - I'm not sure any of those artists have danced with their mum onstage. Nebraska (1982) made him hip for a minute but the global success of Born in the USA (1984) soon cured that.


Indeed, in certain Auckland circles in the 80s Springsteen was as reviled as Coldplay is today - you kept your love of The Boss quiet.

I remember wearing a Born in the USA T-shirt on stage at an 80s BFM gig to jeers and protests.

Fast-forward three decades and while there's little chance of me fitting into that T-shirt, Springsteen remains one of the biggest live acts in the world.

While the albums of the last few years haven't troubled the charts for long, a Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band show is guaranteed to fill stadiums from Johannesburg to Stockholm and will do the same in Auckland later next Saturday.

Despite his fame and riches, Springsteen remains the Blue Collar Everyman to his fans; a regular guy - the sort who'll sit and pose for pics and play a few tunes when he sees a guy and his fiancee down at the beach - as he did to a New Jersey couple a few years ago.

He hasn't hit the cocaine, the rehab clinic, the bottle or the Bible and has been married to sometime E-Streeter Patti Sciafla since 1991 - they have three grown children.

Perhaps the most "celebrity" thing about him is that he's been seeing a therapist for decades, which is one of the things we learnt in last year's candid autobiography, Born To Run.

Sure, Dylan's Chronicles is more artful, but Springsteen's turned out to be a much more relatable and human story - especially when it comes to the personal demons that both drive and cripple him.


In parts it's surprisingly moving.

He says, of the death of bandmate Clarence Clemons in 2011, "Losing him was like losing the rain."

And Springsteen's particularly fearless when documenting his battle with depression.

"I couldn't get out of bed," he writes of an 18 month-long bout in 2000. "Hell, I couldn't even get a hard-on. It was like all my notorious energy, something that had been mine to command for most of my life, had been cruelly stolen away. I was a walking husk."

And few could have imagined the extent of his father's mental illness or the difficult family dynamics he was raised in - a home where he was spoilt and castigated in equal measure.

Though the last decade has seen E Street get a little emptier with the deaths of band members Clemons (2011) and Danny Frederici (2008) - the core unit will be back - the indefatigable Max Weinberg on drums, Garry Tallent on bass, Roy Bittan on keys and Stevie Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren on guitars.

The last time Springsteen played New Zealand (2014 at Mt Smart) he played to 100,000 fans over two nights.

I saw the second show, which kicked off with a scrappy solo version of Lorde's Royals. Then, after a few crowd pleasers, he played Born to Run in its entirety - although by the reaction of the crowd perhaps many would have preferred the other Born - Born in the USA - his biggest record here - which featured the previous night (am I the only Springsteen fan who's never liked Jungleland?).

On stage Springsteen was alternately goofy, manic and dour, and - when the material needed - a beautiful version of My City Of Ruins dedicated to those lost in the Christchurch quakes - empathetic. It was a strangely moving moment and wasn't the last time that night where the barrier between star and audience was breached.

That's the magic of a Springsteen show. Suddenly we were just people in a field mourning, celebrating, remembering; you might not have talked to the person standing next to you but a bond had been made and Springsteen was the conduit.

And then he's back, mugging to the crowd, and we're laughing and rolling our eyes as he brings another woman up on stage to dance (rather badly) with.

His first show in New Zealand - on a rain-drenched night at Western Springs in 2003 - good as it was - paled in comparison to the bigger shows of 2014.

On his last visit Springsteen seemed more at ease with the showmanship, the bigger band - a horn section, backing vocalists and guitarist Tom Morello (his inclusion still a bone of contention among long-time fans). He also seemed more attune to the breadth of his work - from the brooding noir rock of Darkness on the Edge of Town to the frothy, pop cliches of Waitin' On A Sunny Day.

As he has said - "The older you get, the more it matters."

And live, Springsteen remains at the height of his powers. He's 67 but still unstoppable onstage - a couple of shows pushed four hours in 2016. And the live renaissance has proved a winner financially too (the 2015/16 tour grossed over US$255 million).

But it's been a rockier road musically speaking.

In Born to Run he reveals how disappointed he was with the reception of 2012's Wrecking Ball, which he considers one of his finest works.

"In the States, the power of rock music as a vehicle for [political] ideas had diminished," he writes. "A newkind of super-pop, hip-hop and a variety of other exciting genres ... [were] more suited to the current zeitgeist."

Since then there's been a lot of looking back. High Hopes (2014) was a patchy collection of odds and ends, and 2015's reissue of 1980's The River (a four-CD, three-DVD box-set) was a great excuse to take the band around the US and Europe one more time - and to Australasia this month.

Last year he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama, finished that autobiography, attended a raft of bookstore signings, continued that tour and gave some of the most revealing interviews of his career (check out the one with Marc Maron on his WTF podcast).

He also has a solo record in the can.

So Springsteen is hardly slowing down but he knows the road does not go on forever.

That couple he sings about in Thunder Road - well they're really not that young anymore and neither is the audience at a Springsteen show - but that non-denominational joy, those big, redemptive choruses that set fists pumping in stadiums the world over, that sense that we're all in this together - that's Springsteen's secret sauce - one which remains both uncool and incredibly heroic; a celebration of life, hard truths and all, through the power of rock 'n' roll.

"I come out on stage to deliver to you the greatest band in the world," he told the Guardian last year.

"I still have great pride in what I do. I still believe in its power. I believe in my ability to transfer its power to you. That's never changed. One of the things our band was very good at communicating was that sense of joy ... Rock bands try to project a lot of different things: intensity, mystery, sexuality, cool.

"Not a lot of rock bands concentrate on joy, and I got that from my relatives on the Italian side - they lived it and they passed it down to me."

State of play

Springsteen chooses his set list the day of the show. He also responds to fan signs held aloft in the pit.

Let's hope he plays:

Incident on 57th Street - he played an incredible version of this in Brisbane in 2014 - but he's never played it in New Zealand - a song from his second album which many consider his finest ballad.

Where the Bands Are - a River outtake - gorgeous garage rock.

Terry's Song - a late heart-breaking addition to Magic after the death of friend and assistant Terry Magovern in 2007.

Roulette - another River outtake circa 1979 - written within days of the Three Mile Island incident. Springsteen's first topical song; it boasts a guitar line very similar to Magazine's Shot By Both Sides.

• Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street band play Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday, February 25 with Jet and Marlon Williams & The Yarra Benders in support.