It makes sense that the European continent would enthusiastically welcome Bruce Springsteen this summer on his Wrecking Ball Tour. Europe is in its second year of a prolonged recession, and its economic union looks like a failed savings and loan association. As he has in the past, the Boss is making The Grand Tour. Instead of gracing luxury hotel suites, though, he’s filling up the kinds of cost-overrun stadiums in Barcelona, Paris, Düsseldorf, and Cork that are one reason the European Union is starting to look like Youngstown.
I caught the Wrecking Ball in the Geneva soccer stadium, known locally as La Praille, that was built at the cost of millions for the UEFA European championships in 2006. It has since stood largely empty, a symbol that local politicians are better at spending bread than putting on circuses.
According to the stadium’s promoters, La Praille was to have played host to the local soccer team, FC Servette, which was “shackled and drawn” with bad debts just when the stadium was finished. Now the organizers are filling in with the odd rock concert, rugby friendlies, and the peripatetic longtime French rock and roller, movie star, and all around heartthrob Johnny Halliday, whose concert industry is the only thing standing between the EU and collapse.
Not even the Boss and the E Street Band could fill La Praille, although they arrived with a multiplex cinema in tow and started the concert at the distinctly suburban hour of 7:30 p.m., mindful that Switzerland is intolerant of rockers making noise after 10:00 p.m. (the hour in some Zurich apartment buildings when “upright urinating” is shut down).
The Boss’s handlers evidently taught him enough French (clearly not a subject pushed at Freehold Regional High School) so that when he came on stage he could say “bon soir” and “merci beaucoup” to a crowd so carefully dressed and well behaved that it could have been the summer jamboree of an international actuarial association.
Those toward the front held aloft carefully lettered signs welcoming the Springsteen to Geneva. These placards were not of the heavy-metal variety, suggesting after-party wastage or death to American droners, but rather mild exhortations to the Boss for song requests, or slow dances in the dark.
The Boss’s stage presence is much more upbeat than his lyrics. I am not sure anyone cared whether or not this town is “a death trap, it’s a suicide rap,” when he was cavorting with the crowd and mussing the hair of small children—Uncle Bruce from the Jersey Shore on his way around Europe.
As you would expect, he was dressed for the concert in the apparel of a hardware store assistant—tight shirt and jeans—although, in a concession to his age (63), he had two large wrist bands and what looked like sensible shoes (I'm guessing maybe Rockports?). During the performance he was in perpetual motion around the stage, with that uptempo air of '80s exercise guru Richard Simmons, and the same hypnotic effect on what in French are called “women of a certain age.”
From where I was standing, the E Street Band was a thin black line on a stage of Nuremberg proportions. Fortunately, the Boss had his own multi-screen video feeds, and all around the stadium there were cameras and roadies, beaming the concert live to the Megatron screens that surrounded the stage.
When I went on my toes to see Bruce or the band live, the E Streeters looked like porcelain miniatures in some Franklin Mint rocker collection (“...collect them all”).
On the nearby silver screens, however, the Boss and his cohorts were the size of floats in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade. At times I felt like I was squeezed into the world’s largest electronics store with all the televisions tuned to the E Street network.
I confess that my middle-aged ears, even with the plugs they passed out at the main gate, could not pull down all the lyrics from the pulsing sound system. So I took it on faith that his girlfriend was pregnant, the plant was closing, and the Vietnam War wasn’t working out.
Because English is not as widely understood in Switzerland as you might think, I suspect that some of the lyrics were lost in translation. For example, in Geneva, “working on the highway” is practically a white collar job. I can imagine local puzzlement at the thought that anyone holding “a red flag” and watching “the traffic pass me by” would lead to the contemplation that there is “a better life than this.” Around here traffic wavers get early retirement and full European social benefits.
Nor are the American depressions that the Boss evokes equivalent to recent European hard times. Industrial America downsized and shipped the jobs to Asia ('death to my hometown') while the recession in Europe is the result of an overvalued currency and social costs for its aging population. Nobody is thinking 'we gotta get out while we’re young,' if the goal is to hang on until the state pension starts 'treating us good.'
I have no idea what the Boss is like at home. In person he sounds a little like Rocky Balboa saying “Yo, Adrian.” But his stage presence is magnetic, warm and empathetic. Because his wife, E Street band member Patty Scialfa, was tending home fires ('Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, jack'), the Boss danced with a number of women from the front rows—did their signs have phone numbers?—and he let numerous fans share his mic.
I was on my feet for four hours in what felt like a crowded elevator, waiting for the TV in the corner to play Born in the U.S.A. So, during the concert, I had time to reflect on the E Street corporate culture and came to the conclusion that Springsteen is an inclusive manager, something often missing in rigid, hierarchical European companies.
The band looks happy, and Springsteen Inc. is very good at retaining key employees, even though on stage Stevie van Zandt looked like a jet-lagged pirate and Nils Lofgren hopped around like a chimney sweep.
The irony of the concert is that it was held the night before the 4th of July, normally a moment, even overseas, when the United States can bask in its refracted glory. Before insurance premiums closed down the carousels, even Geneva had one of the largest July 4th parties abroad. Now, however, Swiss and American relations are at a low ebb.
Like the rest of Europe, the Swiss “celebrated” the 4th with the news that the National Security Agency has tapped European Union phones, much the way the U.S. has used local airports for rendition flights and beaten up on local bankers and the euro.
Nevertheless, the two flags of the so-called sister republics flew over the stage, 'waitin’ on a sunny day,' and the Boss closed with Thunder Road. When he belted out, 'It’s a town full of losers/ And I’m pulling out of here to win,' there was no hint as to whether he was eulogizing the American dream or European decline.
Matthew Stevenson, a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine, is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical travel essays. His next book is Whistle-Stopping America.
Flickr photo by Maripuchi: The Wrecking Ball Tour in Gijón, Spain, a few days before it arrived in Switzerland.