From the very first song of Sunday’s three hour and 22-minute, 33-song concert in Berlin, Bruce seemed to make a point of constructing a setlist that specifically, albeit subtly commented upon the tragic history and hopeful future of this extraordinary city. One of the MANY benefits of stalking following Bruce around Europe is realizing how much the different cultures of every city and country he plays changes how the same songs resonate on any given night, regardless of whether or not Bruce consciously intends to elicit a multiplicity of reactions. And in Berlin, it felt as if almost every song – specifically in the first, less predictable half of the setlist – spoke to the past and present of this historically-rich metropolis, and the exuberant crowd’s passionate response was hopefully a sign that they understood the message.
Though most probably assumed that Bruce chose to start the show with “Adam Raised a Cain” because it was Father’s Day, he easily could’ve chosen any of his plethora of songs concerning father-son relationships; a solo piano performance of “Independence Day,” for instance, would’ve made a lot more sense given the name of the tour. Yet “Adam Raised a Cain” connected to more than just the holiday that happened to fall on this day; when sung inside of Berlin’s gorgeously imposing Olympiastadion that was designed and built by none other than Adolph Hitler, lines like, “You’re born into this life paying / For the sins of somebody else’s past,” “You remember the faces, the places, the names / You know it’s never over it’s relentless as the rain,” and “You inherit the sins, you inherit the flames” can easily be applied to how Germany has dealt with the dark role that this city and country played in the events of World War II.
Yes, “Adam Raised a Cain” was inspired by Bruce’s relationship with his father, but on a more macro level, the song touches upon how future generations must confront the problems and mistakes of past generations. And given the fact that Bruce examines this issue not only through his personal relationship with his father but also by using allusions to the Old Testament, it proves a fitting commentary on how modern-day Germany must deal with the sinful acts their ancestors committed against the Jewish population.
I’m overjoyed to report that Berlin has done a fantastic job in the face of such a daunting task. One of the reasons I skipped Bruce’s concert in Munich – a city that I’ve previously visited – was because I wanted to have ample time to be a tourist in Berlin for my first time here. As I – someone born into a Jewish family yet whose only religion is the Gospel of Springsteen – walked around the city and visited various museums, I was truly moved at how much of an effort the German people have made to honor the memory of their country’s tragic history in a way that immortalizes the events while still allowing life to continue in a normal fashion. Yes, it’s incredibly important that we remember through seemingly endless memorials and museums and such what occurred during the darkest stretch of the 20th century to ensure future generations do not repeat the same errors of past ways, but it’s equally important to do so in such a way that allows the country to move on from these events towards a brighter future.
Germany can never totally make up for their past crimes against Jews, but no one should expect them to; such vindictive desire for total punishment against Germany after World War I in the form of crippling reparations imposed on the country was one of the factors that allowed Hitler to come to power in the first place. Instead, it’s better to give them a chance to atone for their wrongdoing while still affording them a real opportunity to progress. So many of their memorials – and there are A LOT – are imbued with this idea; they’re littered throughout the streets, yet they in no way define the city due to their simple, minimalistic designs. These memorials serve as subtle reminders of the country’s tragic past, but the vibrant life that continues to thrive around these monuments is a testament to how far the country has come, not in spite of but because of how much focus Germany has paid to honoring the darkest moments in its history.
Bruce fans, in fact, should be very familiar with this concept – he’s always been a proponent of the necessity of facing life’s most depressing truths in order to learn how to progress past them. In the words of “Tunnel of Love” – a song that was soundchecked even though Patti wasn’t present but sadly not played – “you’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above,” with the blatant irony being learning to live with something IS the same as rising above it.
And since Germany has risen above their past, Bruce didn’t spend much time wallowing in the darkness – though the setlist never deviated too far from it – and instead seemed to prefer to celebrate the party culture that has become one of Berlin’s most iconic attributes nowadays. After an understandably intense performance of “Adam Raised a Cain” – by far one of the heaviest-hitting openers of the tour – that featured a far-too-brief guitar duel between Bruce and Stevie, Bruce followed up with the much more upbeat “Badlands,” the second German show in a row that began with a Darkness on the Edge of Town two-pack. And once again, Bruce mixed up the sequence of the songs he plays from The River by next going with “Out in the Street” and “Sherry Darling,” two of his most overt party anthems.
The next song was perhaps the biggest surprise of the night: the tour premiere of the un-soundchecked yet seamlessly performed – which included another opportunity to let Stevie flex his guitar solo muscles – “My Lucky Day,” the first appearance of any song from Working on a Dream. In a way, the song encapsulated Bruce’s entire approach to the evening: though obviously not directly written about Germany, the message contained in the title of the album particularly resonated because the song was played in Germany. Working on a dream is exactly what the country has been doing in recent years – working on a dream of building a society of tolerance, acceptance, and inclusivity despite its history towards the contrary.
So many of the songs throughout the night were colored in a different way thanks to Berlin’s unique history. “Wrecking Ball” came next, and it connects to this history in a variety of obvious and subtle ways. Berlin has seen its fair share of destruction and rebuilding over the years – which Bruce symbolizes in the form of a wrecking ball, and captures in lines such as the repeated “hard times come and hard times go” – from the air raids at the end of WWII to the tearing down of the Berlin Wall.
Yet it was a subtler reference that particularly resonated with me; though Europeans don’t audibly respond to the song’s mention of stadiums being replaced by parking lots in the lines, “all of our little victories and glories / Have turned into parking lots,” this sentiment directly applies to one of the city’s most memorable WWII memorials. On May 10, 1933, a giant book burning was held in Bebelplatz; today, this powerful memorial can be seen through a plate of glass underneath the now peaceful plaza:
If it’s not clear, the memorial is a small, underground room full of empty white bookshelves symbolizing the books that the Nazis removed from German society, in addition to the books that were never written by all of the writers murdered during the war. A few years ago, they were going to remove the memorial to build – yes – an underground parking lot. Thanks to a series of protests, the parking lot ended up being built around the untouched memorial, an ode to the type of power residing in the hands of communities of people that the Bruce Springsteen concert experience embodies nightly.
Though not all of the songs in the setlist could be re-interpreted to comment upon German history and culture, many of them could be. “Night” – a song rife with car imagery – called to mind Germany’s long association with the automobile industry, and the title “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” could accurately describe the lives of many city-dwelling Germans during the country’s more downtrodden time periods.
Yet staying true to his belief that rock and roll must simultaneously speak to AND transcend life’s darker moments – as he conveyed during his legendary concert in East Berlin in 1988, two years before the Berlin Wall came down – Bruce mixed in a variety of rocking tunes largely detached from German society, such as the next three songs: “Spirit in the Night,” and the return of the common two-pack of “Candy’s Room” – another song from Darkness – and “She’s the One.” “Hungry Heart” made a later-than-usual appearance in the setlist, and right through “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)” and “Death to My Hometown” – yet another song whose title could’ve been a commentary on Berlin’s history – the relentless pace BARELY slowed down over the course of the first fourteen (14!) songs. It was pure, unadulterated, yet still subtly socially conscious rock and roll, a rare combination that the E Street Band has thrived at for decades.
Though some may refute a lot of my interpretations of Bruce’s setlist choices by citing the fact that he’s largely deviated from talking politics on this tour, I’d argue that he’s simply been doing so in a subtler way. When George W. Bush was in office during The Magic Tour, the state of the country gave him much more fodder for pontification. But since Bruce supports the current administration – and will most probably also support the likely next administration – he seems to feel more comfortable making political points through the subtext of his setlists. In America, The River Tour was largely comprised of Bruce revisiting his own history through an almost 40-year-old album, but one of the main reasons to study the past is to discover what it can illuminate about the present.
And the next song in the setlist did just that, revealing why Bruce had chosen to play songs that could be interpreted to call to mind Germany’s tragic history. The show’s pace finally slowed down for another beautiful rendition of “My Hometown” after receiving its tour premiere in Munich, Bruce’s only other show in Germany two nights prior. The song addresses the biggest blight in United States history, commonly referred to “America’s Holocaust:” slavery, and more generally the despicable way white people have treated black people since the country’s founding.
By deciding to play “My Hometown” at both of his stops in Germany, Bruce seemed to be trying to make the point that the events of WWII are German history only because they occurred in Germany; German people do not bear any unique characteristics that make them more likely to perform such atrocities, to which America’s long history of racism can attest. As the famous Milgram experiment conveyed, all humans are equally capable of acting in a heinous manner to their fellow man if they find themselves in the wrong circumstances, and these circumstances are often thrust upon them by no fault of their own. The events memorialized throughout Berlin should not feel foreign to anyone who visits the city; they should simply serve as reminders of the behavior that we must always make a constant effort to curb throughout the world.
As such, these memorials should feel like they could just as easily be found in your hometown as they are in the hometown of everyone from Berlin. Bruce actually conveys this universality of human cruelty in the song by subtly changing “my hometown” to “your hometown” in the end of the song. He’s sharing his story, but it’s no different than so many other stories experienced by far too many people all over the world. As they do a few other times during these shows every night, the video team symbolized this sentiment through some breathtakingly clever camerawork: as Bruce and the crowd engaged in a little yet loud call-and-response of “your hometown,” the giant screen behind the Band superimposed a shot of Bruce over a shot of the crowd, which Bruce turned around to look at before the song ended. It was a powerful image that captured the powerful message the performance of the song conveyed.
Yet Bruce wasn’t done likening German history and American history. As in Munich, Bruce closed his mid-show three-pack of ballads with “American Skin (41 Shots),” yet another song dealing with America’s horrific treatment of black people. Yet whereas “My Hometown” depicts the racism of the mid-20th century, this modern masterpiece delves into social problems that are basically ripped from today’s headlines despite the fact that the song was first written and performed a full 16 years ago. Even though it was inspired by a very specific event – the police shooting of Amadou Diallo – “American Skin (41 Shots)” ultimately addresses America’s general and longstanding problem with racism, thus the reason the part of the title that directly refers to the real-life event is contained within parentheses; the instance of this man being shot 41 times is merely one of countless cases that conveys the timeless American problem of black people being killed for no other reason than the color of their American skin.
By coupling together “My Hometown” and “American Skin (41 Shots),” Bruce implicitly criticized the way that America has faced the sins of its past, especially when compared to how Germany has done so. “My Hometown” reminded the audience that every country – in this case, America – has equally tragic events in their history that need to be remembered and memorialized, and “American Skin (41 Shots)” expresses what happens when a country instead tries to sweep the errors of their past under a rug.
Everywhere you walk in Berlin, there are plaques on the ground outside of homes with the names of those who once lived there but were forcibly removed and then killed. Does America have anything even remotely similar to commemorate the lives of those who died because of slavery and during the Civil Rights movement? Actually, how many memorials do we even have specifically honoring black people murdered because of American racism, from before the Civil War era to today? Are there plaques where slaves were hung? Where Amadou Diallo was shot? Any plans for Ferguson? I would guess that Berlin has more WWII memorials than the entirety of America has for black people.
Yes, I understand that memorials in no way make up for the sins of the past, but their existence – or in America’s case, a lack thereof – conveys how a country deals with the darker parts of its history. For instance, during my time in Berlin, I learned that the German government gave properties that were stolen from Jewish families back to their kin. In fact, some buildings have been untouched since WWII because either subsequent generations haven’t wanted to return, or they’re stuck in litigation to determine the rightful heir. And yet, when anyone suggests that reparations be paid to the modern-day black families of those whose lives were lost due to slavery, most Americans balk at the mere suggestion. What has America done to pay back the debt it owes to a seemingly endless number of black families, many of whose ancestors helped build this country by allowing America’s early economy to thrive through unpaid, forced labor?
To those who claim that Americans of today should not have to pay for actions they personally never committed, remember the lines previously quoted from “Adam Raised a Cain” such as: “You’re born into this life paying / For the sins of somebody else’s past.” If you agree with how Germany has faced their past, then you also must disagree with the way America has. Since many of Germany’s memorials were erected relatively recently, they were not built by those who directly contributed to the events of WWII. And since the Government funded a majority of most of them, who do you think footed the bill? Innocent taxpayers. For a country that was founded upon the notion that – in the words of another song from Working on a Dream – we take care of our own, America has done a piss-poor job of taking care of our black brethren.
Until we do, tragedies like the one depicted in “American Skin (41 Shots)” will continue to occur. I’ve heard many people blame recent police brutality against black people as being a byproduct of President Obama stirring up unnecessary racial discord, but how could that be true if the song was written years before anyone even knew the name Barack Obama? He has simply been one of the first Presidents smart and brave enough to discuss America’s long history of racial injustice that most have preferred to ignore. The only way that Obama’s presidency has resulted in the recent increase in hate crimes is because he was courageous enough to finally upset the institutional racism apple cart, and those who’d prefer for those racist apples to be put back in the cart that is America have decided to express their ignorant anger through violence. Before shooting his black victims, Dylann Roof – the abhorrent individual who killed nine people in a South Carolina church in 2015 – screamed, “You’re taking over our country.” To whom do you think he was referring?
Yet hope should by no means be lost. It took Germany many years to build a lot of their WWII memorials, and even though the Civil War occurred way back in the 19th century, there’s always time to correct the errors of the past. Though Bruce loves excavating the darkness of life, he always maintains a positive outlook on the future based on his insistence that mankind can eventually change, which may have been why he followed up “American Skin (41 Shots)” with “The Promised Land,” a title that harkens back once again to the Old Testament and Judaism. Simply put, it’s time for America to follow Germany’s lead in how to properly immortalize murdered Americans of the past, and in doing so, we’ll bring the country one step closer to “The Promised Land.”
The only way for us to get there is by working together with as many different people of various races and cultures as possible. Though they’re obviously much less important and on a far smaller scale, Bruce’s concerts are a nightly testament to the sheer power of community, the type of power that can prevent the construction of a parking lot from replacing a necessary memorial. One of the reasons Berlin’s concert simply cannot be considered one of the best of the tour is because the latter half of it contained the same predictable setlist that Bruce has been overly relying on recently, even though there were a few moments that enhanced their performances of these songs – such as Bruce letting Nils sing solo the “Little girl sitting in the window…” part of “Darlington County” that they usually sing together, and the fact that the little boy he called up for “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” turned in an adorably robotic performance, even yelling, “Come on, E Street Band” back into the song without Bruce even asking him to. Yet I had a great time throughout this stretch because of the community of people that I was standing next to and across from in the front of the pit, who came from all over the world and bonded through the European pit roll call system.
Many naysayers criticize people who participate in this system because they judge those who travel to these fantastic foreign cities yet spend all of their time waiting in line. Firstly, as I hope this piece proves, it is very possible to check-in at all of the necessary times to save your prime spot in the pit AND see the sights of these cities. Yes, it requires a lot of preparation and a willingness to hit the ground running in between check-ins, but that’s a small price to pay to be able to culture yourself while still being as close to Bruce and the Band as possible come show time. I will admit that we’re forced to wait in line at the stadium for far too long on the day of the actual concert, but I’ve befriended so many locals while waiting, all of whom have educated me on their country’s culture. Traveling around a city is of course great, but doing so does not allow you to immerse yourself in the city’s people as much as the pit system.
I was lucky enough in Berlin to be surrounded by a plethora of friends – both those I met at previous shows and new acquaintances – and being able to rock out with so many like-minded fans who I actually knew enough to call my friends definitely allowed me to enjoy the less exciting, more predictable portions of the show. Since we saw each other multiple times per day for much of the week – not to mention the fact that many spend their days just hanging out with fellow fans in the area where people come to get numbers – we had forged a real connection with each other, one that literally transcended the bounds of the pit; many friends on opposite sides of the center platform would interact with each other in a variety of non-distracting ways, and many times one side would decide to participate to a song in a certain way – such as waving their hands back and forth during “The Promised Land” – and then the other side would follow suit.
As if he sensed this connection across the front of the pit, Bruce ended the main set with his own personal ode to the communal power of E Street Nation: “Land of Hope and Dreams.” In addition to commenting upon us fans, the song portrays the type of ideal society that Berlin has been working on constructing since the fall of the Berlin Wall. Since that era of such a drastic separation of cultures, Berlin has become one of the most diverse cities in the world, probably why it’s now considered one of the best places in all of Europe. Hopefully American voters remember the example that the Berlin Wall set for how horrendous of a cultural “solution” building a wall can be for the country that actually builds the wall. Think about the cultural repression and stagnation of East Germany thanks to the GDR’s brilliant idea, which ultimately contributed to their government’s downfall. An interchange of culture is vital to the progress of any country, and even if such cultural exchange can bring with it some negatives – in the words of Bruce, there’s always a price you pay – such negatives are almost always worth the far more important positives. And yes, I’m talking to you, Trump supporters.
By trumpeting Berlin’s newfound ideal of open-minded inclusivity in his music, personal life, bands, and concerts, Bruce has created a community of fans that stretches from nation to nation, each educating and thus bettering the others through their interactions. In the words of the song played after “Land of Hope and Dreams” that built upon its themes to open the encores, he’s allowed his fans to swear forever friends, on the “Backstreets” until the end. That friendly atmosphere powered the show through its raucous encore, from a blistering “Born in the U.S.A” – yet another reminder not only of how poorly America has often treated its own in the past, but also of the fact that the type of implicit criticisms of America that Bruce seemed to be making throughout the show are not unpatriotic; in fact, they’re the opposite, for they show that the criticizer cares about and loves their country enough to want to see it improve – to a relentlessly rollicking “Seven Nights to Rock,” the longest performance of the song so far on the tour thanks to Bruce allowing everyone to take their turns at a solo – perhaps Bruce was feeling the pit’s infectious communal energy and wanted to share it with the rest of the Band.
Yet the night had one final connection to Berlin’s many memorials; during “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” I realized the minimalist yet powerful similarities between Berlin’s tributes to WWII and Bruce’s nightly tributes to Danny and Clarence. Both are subtle enough to allow people to continue to enjoy the city/show without becoming too sad, yet they’re still powerful enough to capture the magnitude of what and who they’re honoring. And much like how many of the songs in Berlin took on added resonance thanks to the nature of the city in which they were played, so too did Bruce’s tribute pack an extra emotional punch for those aware that the day before the concert was the fifth anniversary of Clarence’s death.
Yet instead of wallowing in the darkness, Bruce followed up with a particularly joyous “Shout,” which saw those in the front of the pit mimicking together in their spots the square-shuffle that Bruce and Jake engage in at the end of the song. Bruce once again responded to this communal energy by finally adding a few, longer descriptors for each band member when he introduced them. By the time a solo, acoustic “Thunder Road” came to its always emotional conclusion, everyone around me had their arms around each other swaying back and forth.
Though the setlist may not have looked special, the way the songs resonated with this specific city and thus the crowd elevated the entire night. Yet another reminder that you can never understand the full picture simply by staying at home, and that’s as true for Bruce shows as it is for traveling to foreign countries.
 I’ve previously written about my personal apathy regarding an artist’s intention here, but I’ll briefly reiterate the sentiment now because it’s relevant to a lot of what you’re about to read: simply put, I believe an audience’s interpretation of a work of art is just as valid as the artist’s original intention behind making that work of art. Once an artist shares their work with the public, they no longer own it; their audiences do. And since this art no longer belongs to them, their interpretation of it becomes just one amongst many, equally valid interpretations. If an artist only intended for there to be one interpretation of their art, then they never should’ve shared it with anyone in the first place. Most artists understand and agree with this theory, which is why a majority of them rarely share their interpretations of their own work – they know too many audience members would simply take their explanation as gospel, thus saving themselves from having to work to come up with their own interpretations. If this sounds way too liberal of an idea to you, then brace yourself – this is just a jumping off point, and we’re going to land in waaaaaay more liberal territory. You’ve been warned, Dad.
 Along with “Shackled and Drawn.”
 This is probably the first and last time that I’ll bring up an occurrence of Europeans responding LESS loudly than their American counterparts, which may be due to two factors: 1) Bruce has dropped his customary pause-for-applause that he usually inserts after the lines, and 2) perhaps stadiums aren’t replaced by parking lots as much in Europe as they are in the states?
 Played due to a painstakingly-created sign that Bruce brought to the stage and described: a recreation of a small room with posters of various rockstars inside – Bruce, Eddie Vedder, Led Zeppelin, etc. – and a bunch of candy on the outside. As Bruce said, “rock and roll, a bed, and candy – what else do you need?”
 As I wrote previously, the excessive reparations that the Allies imposed on the Central Powers after WWI ultimately brought about the conditions that led to WWII.
 “The River” was sandwiched in the middle.
 Sadly, one of the most surprising moments of the whole night occurred during the soundcheck: for some reason, the Band first worked their way through “Shackled and Drawn” and “Tunnel of Love” with Nils taking lead vocals! I’d imagine Bruce was late in getting to the stadium since they performed both songs again with Bruce shortly thereafter, but regardless of the reason, it was trippy to hear. Also made me wonder: since a soundcheck is intended for Bruce to listen to how a song sounds in order to tell the Band what they need to play differently before performing it for a live audience, who do we think Bruce trusted to be his ears in his absence? Or perhaps the Band was merely warming up the songs in preparation for the Boss’s inevitable return…
 Hysterical anecdote: after the concert, I happened to be on the same train as the kid and his family on our way back into downtown Berlin. When the boy exited the train, a few passengers gave him a hearty round of applause. Right on cue, he started singing the chorus again as an encore!
 Even so, I still don’t understand why Bruce refuses to shakeup this portion of the setlist; he easily could’ve replaced one of these songs with “Shackled and Drawn” – always a crowd favorite – and the now common “I’m on Fire” with “Tunnel of Love,” both soundchecked.
 Another random anecdote: everyone who gets a low number and will thus be let into the pit first are asked to take a shift when they’ll be responsible for sitting in front of the stadium to wait for people who show up to get their number. Though there are ALWAYS people in front of the stadium either because they want to hang out with fellow fans or because they’re literally camping out, the group organizing the line still asks for help because A) you should have to put in extra time to earn the fantastic spot you’ll inevitably get in the pit, and B) it’s a good way to enhance the communal atmosphere. Anywho, I happened to take a late-night shift, and those of us waiting outside of the stadium were joined by…two wild boars and their 17 children, who literally just walked across the front of the stadium! There’s a reason Berlin is often considered a city built in the middle of a forest. Just look at this madness:
 Even though we do become friends in the days leading up to the concert, most temporarily forget this bond in the name of acquiring the best possible spot once we’re walked into the pit. But since we’re all friends on E Street, no one ever truly stands alone.
 Another indicator of just how strong of relationships can be forged through this system: a dedicated German fan couldn’t attend this concert because she has terminal cancer. As a show of support, the people running the line organized everyone to come together to take a giant picture for her so she knew we were all thinking of her.
 So proud of myself for that one.
 Yes, this is a veiled reference to “Meet Me in the City,” a song that has inexplicably not been played in Europe yet.
- Adam Raised a Cain
- Out in the Street
- Sherry Darling
- My Lucky Day
- Wrecking Ball
- It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City
- Spirit in the Night
- Candy’s Room
- She’s the One
- Hungry Heart
- You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)
- Death to My Hometown
- My Hometown
- The River
- American Skin (41 Shots)
- The Promised Land
- Working on the Highway
- Darlington County
- Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
- I’m on Fire
- Because the Night
- The Rising
- Land of Hope and Dreams
- Born in the U.S.A.
- Born to Run
- Seven Nights to Rock
- Dancing in the Dark
- Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
- Thunder Road