YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

POP MUSIC : Reborn in New Jersey : Bruce Springsteen keeps the hometown fans happy with the old songs, but it's a dangerous game

August 16, 1992|ROBERT HILBURN | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic.

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Carmen Sorice, a 29-year-old electrical engineer from Newark, smiles when he recalls how upset he was at Bruce Springsteen when he heard the news.

No, he's not referring to any of the highly publicized issues that caused legions of Springsteen fans in recent years to question the character of the man rock adopted in the '70s and '80s as its working-class hero.

Those issues ranged from the New Jersey native's move to a mansion in Beverly Hills, his marriage to a budding Hollywood starlet instead of a Jersey Girl, and, most of all, the firing of the E Street Band, which had been by his side since the mid-'70s and was a symbol of the loyalty and sense of community celebrated in his music.

Something else had troubled Sorice.

"You see that skyline?" he says in the parking lot outside the Brendan Byrne Arena, pointing across the Hudson River to Manhattan. "Until this building was opened, everyone in Jersey had to go to New York . . . to Madison Square Garden to see the big rock shows.

"But they built this place in 1981 and Bruce was the first act to play here. It was great because it meant New Yorkers had to come here instead. And Bruce continued to play here, which meant a lot to us because it showed he didn't forget where he came from."

The problem for Sorice was that Springsteen played the Garden, instead of the Byrne Arena, during his last U.S. tour in 1988.

"It was like a slap in the face," Sorice continues. "My wife and I said we'd never go see him again."

So what are the Sorices doing in the parking lot for one of Springsteen's 11 homecoming shows at the Byrne Arena--the initial stop on his first U.S. tour in four years?

"Hey," he says sheepishly, putting his arm around the cardboard Springsteen cutout that is sticking out of his car window. "Time passes . . . and, besides, we wanted to hear the old songs again."


O ld songs .

Bruce Springsteen is at the point in his career where fans are more interested in what he has done than what he is doing. He has two new albums in the stores, but they're not even in the Top 50 on the charts.

So why is he still hot at the box office--selling 220,000 tickets to 11 shows here?

The fans are in love with the old songs.

It happens to them all: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Elton John and Stevie Wonder.

Even though artists may continue to do quality work, fans eventually begin caring more about the old songs than the new ones and concerts gradually turn into nostalgia sessions.

A high percentage of old songs doesn't automatically equate nostalgia because the best pop songs--like the best films--carry an artful, revealing edge that can continue to enrich over the years. Dylan's work is the most noteworthy example of this quality.

In most cases, however, the audience's obsession with the past is accompanied by a corresponding decrease in interest in the new material, turning the artist from a vital figure on the contemporary scene to, in effect, a museum piece.

Few artists have been able to reverse that trend once it begins developing.

Springsteen, at 42, has an advantage over most veteran pop artists because he is still doing rewarding work, but he's got to fight back aggressively if he is going to avoid becoming caught in the nostalgia undercurrent--more aggressively than he did in some of the homecoming shows.

More than any other time in his long career, Springsteen needs to show that he really is tougher than the rest.


O ld songs.

None of the four dozen other fans interviewed in the arena parking lot in the hours before the Springsteen concert mention Sorice's reference to the Garden slight of 1988, but most of them cite the other, more publicized reasons for being at least somewhat disillusioned with the man whose "Born to Run" was once nominated as the state anthem.

But time has soothed their wounds, too.

So, here they are, waiting for the arena gates to open. They compare stories about past Springsteen concerts and listen to his music on portable stereos, at least the old songs.

Typical comments:

* "I haven't even heard the new albums," says a 32-year-old construction supervisor from Hoboken. "I was upset about some of the things that Bruce did over the last few years. . . . I wasn't even planning to come, but a friend came Saturday night and he loved it. So, he got a pair of tickets for tonight and asked me to come along. I asked if Bruce still did 'Badlands.' When he said yes, I said, 'Let's go.' "

* "I was turned off when Bruce dumped the band and moved to L.A. but not to the point you wouldn't want to see him again," offers a 31-year-old teacher from the Jersey Shore. "I've heard the new albums and they're pretty good, but I don't think anything can mean as much as the early tunes. It's like he's writing about his life now, whereas he seemed to be writing about my life, too, in the old days."

Los Angeles Times Articles