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POP MUSIC : Reborn in New Jersey : Bruce Springsteen keeps the hometown fans happy with the old songs, but it’s a dangerous game

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. </i>

Carmen Sorice, a 29-year-old electrical engineer from Newark, smiles when he recalls how upset he was at Bruce Springsteen when he heard the news.

No, he’s not referring to any of the highly publicized issues that caused legions of Springsteen fans in recent years to question the character of the man rock adopted in the ‘70s and ‘80s as its working-class hero.

Those issues ranged from the New Jersey native’s move to a mansion in Beverly Hills, his marriage to a budding Hollywood starlet instead of a Jersey Girl, and, most of all, the firing of the E Street Band, which had been by his side since the mid-'70s and was a symbol of the loyalty and sense of community celebrated in his music.

Something else had troubled Sorice.

“You see that skyline?” he says in the parking lot outside the Brendan Byrne Arena, pointing across the Hudson River to Manhattan. “Until this building was opened, everyone in Jersey had to go to New York . . . to Madison Square Garden to see the big rock shows.

“But they built this place in 1981 and Bruce was the first act to play here. It was great because it meant New Yorkers had to come here instead. And Bruce continued to play here, which meant a lot to us because it showed he didn’t forget where he came from.”

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The problem for Sorice was that Springsteen played the Garden, instead of the Byrne Arena, during his last U.S. tour in 1988.

“It was like a slap in the face,” Sorice continues. “My wife and I said we’d never go see him again.”

So what are the Sorices doing in the parking lot for one of Springsteen’s 11 homecoming shows at the Byrne Arena--the initial stop on his first U.S. tour in four years?

“Hey,” he says sheepishly, putting his arm around the cardboard Springsteen cutout that is sticking out of his car window. “Time passes . . . and, besides, we wanted to hear the old songs again.”

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O ld songs .

Bruce Springsteen is at the point in his career where fans are more interested in what he has done than what he is doing. He has two new albums in the stores, but they’re not even in the Top 50 on the charts.

So why is he still hot at the box office--selling 220,000 tickets to 11 shows here?

The fans are in love with the old songs.

It happens to them all: Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, Elton John and Stevie Wonder.

Even though artists may continue to do quality work, fans eventually begin caring more about the old songs than the new ones and concerts gradually turn into nostalgia sessions.

A high percentage of old songs doesn’t automatically equate nostalgia because the best pop songs--like the best films--carry an artful, revealing edge that can continue to enrich over the years. Dylan’s work is the most noteworthy example of this quality.

In most cases, however, the audience’s obsession with the past is accompanied by a corresponding decrease in interest in the new material, turning the artist from a vital figure on the contemporary scene to, in effect, a museum piece.

Few artists have been able to reverse that trend once it begins developing.

Springsteen, at 42, has an advantage over most veteran pop artists because he is still doing rewarding work, but he’s got to fight back aggressively if he is going to avoid becoming caught in the nostalgia undercurrent--more aggressively than he did in some of the homecoming shows.

More than any other time in his long career, Springsteen needs to show that he really is tougher than the rest.

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O ld songs.

None of the four dozen other fans interviewed in the arena parking lot in the hours before the Springsteen concert mention Sorice’s reference to the Garden slight of 1988, but most of them cite the other, more publicized reasons for being at least somewhat disillusioned with the man whose “Born to Run” was once nominated as the state anthem.

But time has soothed their wounds, too.

So, here they are, waiting for the arena gates to open. They compare stories about past Springsteen concerts and listen to his music on portable stereos, at least the old songs.

Typical comments:

* “I haven’t even heard the new albums,” says a 32-year-old construction supervisor from Hoboken. “I was upset about some of the things that Bruce did over the last few years. . . . I wasn’t even planning to come, but a friend came Saturday night and he loved it. So, he got a pair of tickets for tonight and asked me to come along. I asked if Bruce still did ‘Badlands.’ When he said yes, I said, ‘Let’s go.’ ”

* “I was turned off when Bruce dumped the band and moved to L.A. but not to the point you wouldn’t want to see him again,” offers a 31-year-old teacher from the Jersey Shore. “I’ve heard the new albums and they’re pretty good, but I don’t think anything can mean as much as the early tunes. It’s like he’s writing about his life now, whereas he seemed to be writing about my life, too, in the old days.”

Once inside, the fans cheer warmly as Springsteen arrives on stage with his new band. There’s a surge of energy as he leads the five musicians into “Better Days,” an upbeat song from his “Lucky Town” album that summarizes much of his own happiness these days.

The best of the new songs chronicle the search for that happiness after his last tour--involving the bouts of self-doubt after his divorce from actress Julianne Phillips in 1989, then the recovery period climaxed by a second marriage to singer--and Jersey Girl--Patti Scialfa and the births of their two children.

The fans react respectfully to two other new songs, but it’s not until he turns to one of his early rock anthems, 1978’s “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” that you get the sense of euphoria that characterized the audience on Springsteen’s past tours.

*

The pattern continues through the rest of the opening set--acceptance of the seven other new songs, but real passion for the additional four oldies, including “Badlands” and an acoustic version of “Dancing in the Dark.”

The reaction is more consistent in the second half as Springsteen focuses on old material, playing only four new songs in the 15-song set. The fans love it. Afterward, there is only praise for the star. On the way out of the arena, they talk about how he’s “as good as ever” . . . “still great.”

Rather than talk about their past disillusionment with Bruce, there are now allowances for how people have to change. A couple of Jersey fans even joke that they’d move to Beverly Hills in a second if they had the chance.

But the subtext is clear: The fans are still in love with the old Bruce. To combat that, Springsteen must draw a line.

*

O ld songs.

It’s easy to see why, after almost four years off and the public confusion about his private life, Springsteen would return to the stage in a conciliatory mood--which means playing a lot of the old favorites that fans want to hear.

However, he said at the beginning of the tour that he planned to only use the old songs when they worked in the context of the show--amplifying or contrasting emotions and ideas expressed in the new songs.

And he has been too conservative in fulfilling that pledge, perhaps anxious about the ability of his audience to accept that many new songs.

Things work well in the opening half of the concert as he weaves new and old songs into revealing sequences, even changing an occasional lyric to give a song more contemporary bite.

In “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” a song about despair, the original line was I lost my money and I lost my wife . In concert, he changes it to I lost my faith when I lost my wife.

In the second half of the concert, however, he abandons that plan: only four new songs versus 11 old ones.

One reason Springsteen called an end to the E Street Band in 1988 was to break the ties with the past--to give him the freedom to move forward, to prevent the cobwebs of nostalgia from stepping in.

The first test of his continued relevance was making albums that exhibited growth--and, regardless of sales, he accomplished that. “Lucky Town,” especially, is a work of considerable power and vision.

But he has to continue that growth in concert so that fans have new reasons to believe, not just a reminder of what once made him one of the greatest figures ever in American rock--and he isn’t making that point strong enough by doing only 14 of the 24 new songs in a 30-song, three-hour performance.

*

Early in his career, Springsteen spoke of the importance of not letting audiences dictate the nature of an artist’s shows.

Back in 1975, when he was still an opening act, he closed a set at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium with a slow, disarming ballad rather than one of the more rousing, show-stopping tunes that would have left the crowd yelling for more.

“It’s just being honest with the audience and with myself, I guess,” he said at the time. “You can’t conform to the formula of always giving the audience what it wants or you’re killing yourself and you’re killing the audience.

“Just because they respond to something doesn’t mean they want it. I think it has come to the point when they respond automatically to things they think they should respond to. You’ve got to give them more than that. Someone has to take the initiative and say, ‘Let’s step out of the mold. Let’s try this.’ ”

There’s no need for Springsteen to antagonize his audience by rejecting all the old material. But he needs to reverse the balance--making his new work the more obvious focus of the tour.

The worst thing that will happen if he does emphasize more clearly the new material on the rest of the tour is that some fans will fall away and he may sell out only six nights the next time he plays the Byrne Arena. The best thing that could happen is that Springsteen demonstrates that he remains as vital and productive an artist as he ever was.

Faith is a word that Springsteen--who will be at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on Sept. 24, 25 and 28--uses a lot in his music, and it’s time to put more faith in his new work and, by implication, himself and in his audience.


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