Look at it this way Springsteen’s confessional
Throughout his 236 sold-out shows on Broadway, which concluded Saturday night, Bruce Springsteen spoke of his “magic trick.”
As I watched one of the first shows, I realized his greatest illusion was transforming the Walter Kerr Theatre into a church.
After sharing intimate stories of family, lost friends, the emotional roots of a cherished copper beech tree and performing stark versions of audience favorites, such as “Thunder Road,” “Growin’ Up” and “The Rising,” Springsteen summoned the inner child to again repeat the words he once recited daily at St. Rose of Lima School.
“Our Father, who art in Heaven ...”
He delivered “The Lord’s Prayer” in its entirety. Like all Springsteen live performances, he explored the words for fresh interpretations: “Give us this day ... just give us this day.”
It didn’t draw vocal reaction from the audience, or attract much media attention, but for me it was his riskiest artistic choice. I traditionally devote some ink to faith during the Christmas season. This has also proven risky. If you want to make someone uncomfortable, talk religion.
I first wrote about Springsteen for my college newspaper in 1984 as I neared the finale of 17 years of Catholic education. I was more interested then in exploring the influence authors Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner had on the songwriter, who was at the height of his “Born in the USA” fame. The subject of religion was so familiar that I was temporarily blinded to how growing up Catholic had shaped Springsteen.
A year later, I interviewed a Jersey girl Springsteen randomly pulled onto the Giants Stadium stage as part of his “Dancing in the Dark” routine. When she started Catholic school in 1981, she had sought empathy from Springsteen by mailing him a cross for Christmas.
He fulfilled her wish by sending back a copy of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” scrawling the words “Thanks so much for the cross. It is very beautiful!!” over his likeness.
In 1987, I wrote my first column for Greenwich Time. It was about waiting in line for Springsteen tickets. I’ve seen him live about as many times as the years as I’ve lived, but nothing has surprised me as much as his decision to cover the church’s greatest hit.
After writing about the cross-for-vinyl swap, I started paying more attention to the river of religious imagery flowing through Springsteen’s lyrics. The 12 apostles should have gotten song credits and a piece of that Tony Award.
All this religion seems to slip by the casual listener. Even talk show host Stephen Colbert, perhaps the most vocal Catholic on network TV, somehow missed what’s been in sight since “Blinded by the Light” opened Springsteen’s debut album.
“Where is the Catholic in your songs? It’s not overt,” he asked when Springsteen appeared on his show to promote his lauded autobiography.
“It’s pretty overt, you know,” Springsteen replied, reaching back to his first album to the line “Nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin’ Immaculate Conception.”
“It’s a little overheated, that line, but you get the idea of where I was coming from.”
There are many other overt examples (“Adam Raised a Cain” and “Jesus Was an Only Son” aren’t exactly veiled). He heroine of choice is Mary and he’s wandered through more deserts in search of the promised land than Moses.
But the true lessons of a Catholic education are those that inform his themes of isolation and community, of death and resurrection, of mourning and jubilation, of faith’s rewards. The boy who witnessed a carousel of weddings and funerals at the neighboring church in Freehold calls his life’s work “my long and noisy prayer.”
During the solo “Devils and Dust” tour in 2005, he mused about Catholicism as “a source of poetry and power arising from the sheer terror of my childhood,” but acknowledged that “I’m kind of through with the confession thing.”
His transformation of the Walter Kerr Theatre put him back in the confession booth.
On the show filmed for Netflix, which premieres tonight (Dec. 16), Springsteen confesses mumbling, chanting and sing-songing the daily ritual of the morning prayer as a boy. His recollection of green school uniforms was all too familiar. So was his acknowledgment that church teachings are not easily shaken. He ruminates about his giving tree and a profound night when “the words of a very strange but all-too-familiar benediction came back to me.”
Mumbles have been replaced by performance.
“Deliver us from evil — all of us — for ever and ever.
The 975 audience members remain hushed on Netflix. But as I sat in the last row, I waited for the reflexive response. It came from the stage, it came from within, and it came from one typically vocal audience member.
John Breunig is editorial page editor. Jbreunig@scni.com; 203-964-2281; twitter.com/johnbreunig.