I love watching the Kennedy Center Honors each year. For those of you who don’t follow TV the way I do, it’s the repeat of the Kennedy Center’s Achievement Awards, where they award those in the arts for their lifetime contribution to American culture through their craft. This year celebrated Robert De Niro (film), Mel Brooks (comedy), Dave Brubeck (jazz), Bruce Springsteen (music), and Grace Brumbry (opera). It was Bruces’s tribute that stole the show.
Jon Stewart (tell me he wrote it himself) gave one of the most moving and inspirational introductions that I’ve ever heard. He started off funny, as are all amazing introductions, and talked about how perhaps Dylan and James Brown had a baby and it was Bruce. And, then he went into his point that he didn’t really understand Bruce’s music until he began to yearn. Yearn is one of my favorite words. I think the world is bland without it.
He went on, “I didn’t understand Springsteen until I began to question the things I was making and doing in my own life. It wasn’t about the things. It was about stories of lives that could be changed. I was working in a bar in NJ and every night when I closed the bar, I got in my car and listened to Bruce and everything changed. I didn’t think or feel like a loser. When you listen to Bruce’s music, you aren’t a loser, you are a character in an epic poem about losers. That is the power of Bruce Springsteen.”
“It’s that whenever I see Bruce do anything, he empties the tank. Every time. And the beautiful thing about this man is he empties that tank for his family, his art, his audience and he empties it for his country. And we, who are on the receiving end of that beautiful gift, are ourselves rejuvenated, if not redeemed. And, I thank you.”
Then the bio tape started to roll and the message was even stronger. They quoted Bruce. “The song writers who inspired me were searchers,” he said. “They spoke about our lives and our dreams. I searched for stories about the people I knew.”
Then the lyrics started.
“The screen door slammed. Mary’s dress waves. Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays. Ray Orbison singin’ for the lonely. Hey that’s me and I want you only. Don’t turn me on again, I just can’t face myself alone again.”
Then back to Stewart’s voice-over. “He wanted his songs to bear witness to the hardships and heroism of everyday life.”
Then they showed Bruce singing. On stage, sweating his passion vocally like a pig before the slaughter, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial last year during the inauguration with a black chorus behind him in red robes that seemed to make his flame stronger. At the big football thing in January – oh yeah – the Superbowl, where he led three or four generations in a half-time show that was much stronger than a bared breast. And, I realized that Jon Stewart was right. He empties his tank every time he plays. And, he has played through so many moments of our lives.
Voice-over again. “I try and meld my voice to the story I’m telling. And, when a moment comes in our common history, I want to be there,” Bruce said.
Then the music again, “The dream of life comes to me, and like a catfish dancing on the end of my line, come on up for the rising. Come on up. lay your hands in mine.”
“Bruce doesn’t sing, he testifies.”
“I’m in the middle of a long conversation with my audience. It will be a long conversation for both of us by the time it’s done.”
The stage was then graced with the Viet Nam vet in a wheel chair who wrote Born on the Fourth of July. He told the story of being invited by Bruce to a concert where he played a song for him, and he said he felt proud again to be an American. It was a moment to be sure.
And, then his peers came out and sang. The last song was by Sting and everyone in the Center stood and sang and moved slowly, and with a cool unity that only happens once in a decade. Mel Brook’s wife, among others, was crying. Stars were moving and singing and forgetting the cameras.
And, when it was all over, Bruce stood and patted his fist twice to his heart, and I really got, for the first time, that way of showing the love. And, his friends on the stage who had just done their very very best to honor him with their talent and his music, they also patted their hearts twice right back to him.
What a gift to watch. And, Luke (my dog) and I played it over and over again and moved to the music and sang his words, and I am grateful for yet another moment in my life filled and enriched by the music.