The Ties That Bind: Springsteen in Belfast

In the same week that Richard Haass breezed in to help us out another, more famous American rocked into town bringing his own recipe for peacebuilding. Bruce Springsteen played to 25,000 at the Kings Hall Arena and 28 years after a similar scorcher of a day in Slane I was there with the multitude.

Now as a Bruce veteran, I have to tell you that little this guy does on stage is off the cuff. So I was dumbstruck that his first words of the main set came in the form of an invitation. To come and join him and the band and I quote,  in the everlasting, ass-shaking, house-rocking unifying power of rock and roll. Last Saturday night, with all its uncertainty, and after a week of conflict on our streets, that word unifying was surely deliberately chosen.

He opened with the old civil rights era standard, ‘This Little Light of Mine’, making every worship leader in the crowd green with envy at his ability to lead the congregation in singing. Then I waited to hear what light he would let shine through his music. And straight away there it was, an old song, from 1980, ‘The Ties that Bind’ –

You been hurt and you’re all cried out you say
You walk down the street pushin’ people outta your way
You packed your bags and all alone you wanna ride,
You don’t want nothin’, don’t need no one by your side
You’re walkin’ tough baby, but you’re walkin’ blind
to the ties that bind
The ties that bind
Now you can’t break the ties that bind

If you’ve been following the news from Belfast in recent weeks there is no need for any exposition here.

The song ends with this verse

You sit and wonder just who’s gonna stop the rain
Who’ll ease the sadness, who’s gonna quiet the pain
It’s a long dark highway and a thin white line
Connecting baby, your heart to mine
We’re runnin’ now but darlin’ we will stand in time
To face the ties that bind
The ties that bind
Now you can’t break the ties that bind
You can’t forsake the ties that bind

Now we certainly didn’t need anyone to stop the rain on Saturday night, but boy did we need to hear that whatever we do, and however far we run, we will inevitably have to face up, some day, to the ties that bind us here in this city.

His next song came from the same era, Jackson cage, about the choices people make. About lives and destructive relationships that can enslave and trap us. Choices that, depending on how they are made, could serve as a key which will either lock us in a cage or set us free. It’s a choice.

And after this followed several songs from the Nebraska album, full of alienation and violence and dereliction and destruction. Arguably we were halfway through the main set before there was a genuine party song. This was no rock and roll party in the hot, sultry Belfast night, this was rock and roll righteousness declaring something true and angry.

It was an astounding set for Belfast. And everyone of us, no matter what our background or political views, joined voices from all over this island, from the rest of the UK, we met Belgians, Italians, Germans, Austrians and Italians. We sang and danced till our voices gave out and our feet ached.

Bruce wasn’t foolish enough to speak directly to our circumstances. He let the music do that. The performance was the message. The setlist a deliberate act of subversive art. And  in it he called us to a higher aspiration to meet together in a shared dream for this hard land.

I have more than 30 years of a history with this man’s music, have travelled thousands of miles over the years to see him live more than 20 times. And now my teenage children are following me. Saturday was spent memorably in the company of a whole gang of tramps Andrew, with whom I shared front row at Slane, and Mark, Bill, Steve, Heather, Neil, Dave, Joanne, Jenny who had given up a week’s work to travel all over Ireland watching Springsteen and more. My wife is understanding but sometimes suggests that surely I’m a little too old to have hero’s or man crushes. But I disagree. To quote the Boss again, no not my wife, I guess I’m just a prisoner of rock and roll. And thankfully, from this voluntary incarceration, there is no early release.

This is an extended version of Wednesday’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Ulster

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