Appearance may mark crucial point in Springsteen's career

BORED IN THE U.S.A.? 'SNL'

May 08, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

Sharon Gendler is a Bruce Springsteen fan.

Well, maybe "fan" isn't quite the right word for one as devoted as she. Put it this way: If Bruce-ism were a religion, she'd be a deacon. At least.

Naturally, the Reisterstown resident has all of the singer's albums, all of his singles, and a scrapbook devoted to Springsteeniana. And, not only has she seen Springsteen in concert more times than most mortals could imagine, she also was actually plucked out of the audience to dance with her idol at one show.

So she's just crazy about his new albums, "Human Touch" and "Lucky Town," right?

Wrong.

"Let me be completely honest with you," she says. "I listened to them, and I wasn't real excited. There were some things that I liked, but it was a letdown. I was expecting something different."

Nor does she seem to be the only one. Despite pre-release predictions of Springsteen-mania, neither "Human Touch" nor "Lucky Town" has been doing blockbuster business since their release five weeks ago. Both slipped out of the Top 10 in a matter of weeks, with "Human Touch," the better-selling of the two, currently at No. 16.

By contrast, Def Leppard's "Adrenalize," which arrived in record stores the same day as the Springsteen albums, has been lodged at No. 1 since entering the charts.

As a result, the doubts about Springsteen's viability run so deep in some quarters that his appearance on "Saturday Night Live" tomorrow night is being seen in virtual life-or-death terms.

In addition to being Springsteen's first live performance on network television, the "SNL" spots -- in which he'll perform three songs -- marks his first public performance since firing the E St. Band. Thus, with a new group, a new album and a potentially new audience, the industry wisdom is that anything less than perfection on his part could be disastrous.

How could there be such doubts in the first place, though? What precipitated Springsteen's apparent fall from grace?

Obviously, some of it has to do with the amount of time Springsteen has spent out of the public eye in recent years. After all, not even the biggest stars can afford to keep quiet for five years without losing at least a little of their audience.

More to the point, though, is that a lot has changed in the time Springsteen has been gone -- both for him and for his fans. And HTC not all of the things he's done since his last album and tour sit especially well with the fans.

Take his personal life. David McGee, a Nashville-based music writer who was the first to report on allegations that Springsteen abused some of his employees (the employees eventually sued, and Springsteen settled out of court), feels that the singer's once-sterling reputation has been significantly tarnished over the last five years.

Consider the dissolution of Springsteen's marriage to actress Julianne Phillips. "It was a very public kind of humiliation for Julianne," says McGee. "I have no idea what went on behind closed doors; I don't know if she deserved that or not.

"But to be photographed in your underwear on the balcony of a hotel in Paris with another woman, while you're married and your wife's at home in the United States, is a humiliating thing for the woman involved. I think people took note of that."

Then there's the sense of disconnection some fans feel when listening to the new songs. "How can he sing, 'These are better days,' when things are really bad?" asks Gendler. "The economy is terrible, and he's singing about 'these are better days.' They are for him, maybe, but not for too many other people. Who's going to identify with that? Certainly not his working class constituency."

"He's so far away from where he began now, and has lived such a different lifestyle, that I just don't know that he's in touch with what the people who came up with him experience on an everyday level anymore," agrees McGee. "Maybe he doesn't really know who it is he's trying to talk to anymore."

Or maybe the notion of Bruce Springsteen as the be-all, end-all rock hero was expecting too much of him in the first place. Bill Flanagan, editor of Musician, feels that the biggest reason Springsteen-mania hasn't panned out for these albums is that it was never there in the first place.

"Springsteen has always had a very large cult following -- if you can call a couple of million people a cult following -- that has completely connected to him, and felt very represented by him," he says. "And that has remained constant.

"But there was the aberration of 'Born in the U.S.A.' selling over 10 million copies, and with that, the general-interest media -- daily newspapers and network TV -- began using Bruce Springsteen as the biggest rock star in the world, in the same way that they used Elvis Presley and the Beatles. It was simply a reference point that people who didn't listen to rock and roll music could understand."

That may well be the case, and Springsteen's "SNL" appearance will ultimately do little more than cement the singer's position with his core audience. But after seeing a rehearsal performance at New York's Bottom Line Wednesday, long-time Springsteen chronicler Dave Marsh has no doubts whatsoever.

"I'm more confident than ever that [hearing for yourself] is the cure to this," says Marsh. "People make a mistake when they make premature judgments."

In any case, Gendler -- and doubtless many fans like her -- is more than willing to be won over.

"I'm waiting for it," she says of the TV appearance. "I'm looking forward to a tour. I'm excited, because I'm still excited to see Bruce. I'm still interested in what happens to him.

"I don't think this is the end of the line."

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