11th July 2009
Bruce's cast-off characters
by Mike Scott
Heavy Springsteen vibe in south Dublin city today. He's playing tonight and tomorrow at the RDS, an open-air venue not far from where I'm living, and as my wife Janette and I stroll to lunch at a neighbourhood restaurant the streets are full of Bruce fans wearing their t-shirts from the last tour, arriving in twos and threes and fours, ready to queue up and get a good spot near the stage when the venue doors open.
And as we leave the restaurant an hour later we can hear the soundcheck starting. Bass drum and snare checks followed by the sound of the E Street Band (or perhaps their roadies) rollicking through a great sounding slice of old school r & b (when that term meant real rhythm and blues, not the strangulated slick pop of today).
I'm not going to the show myself because I have a confession to make. I loved Bruce when he was in his 20s and his first 3 or 4 albums are among my all-time favourites, but - and this is the confession, which says more about me than Bruce - I kinda lost interest when he stopped writing about weird and wonderful wild characters like The Magic Rat, Crazy Davey, Wild Billy, Kitty and hustlers, criminals and failed poets like the heroes of Meeting Across The River and Jungleland. No, when Bruce left those dudes behind and started singing about working men, factories, union members and 'Glory Days', often in either doleful tones or through the medium of cheery six-pack bar music, there was a parting of the ways and my interest flowed elsewhere.
I've often wondered what songs Bruce would be writing if he'd followed the fortunes of Wild Billy and Crazy Davey; I mean if those characters hadn't just become 'normal' and gone to work, like the people Bruce has written about since 1978, but if they'd stayed crazy, were still working at a circus, still hustling, still trying to set up stings. Where are they now? Bruce invented them; they must be around somewhere.
Just when I'm musing on this, six or seven streets away from where the E Street Band's (or the roadies') soundcheck is booming, I see a seriously weird looking character walking towards Janette and me. He's in his early fifties, wearing a black fisherman's coat, massive white beard halfway down his chest. Something clicks in my head and I think to myself: "It's Wild Billy!"
Suddenly I realise that, like discarded symbols, the neglected characters of Bruce's early career haunt the streets around where he plays his concerts, dispossessed phantoms, shades, the ghosts of the heroic-age visions of Bruce's youth. If I walk these streets long enough today or tonight I'll meet them all: the gunnerman, Kitty, Mary the Queen Of Arkansas, Crazy Davey, the Mission Man, Spanish Johnny, Puerto-Rican Jane and the Magic Rat himself. Shit. If I walk these streets tonight myself some 'Working On A Dream' fan walking home from the RDS is gonna see me and whisper to his mate: "Look. It's the ol' Magic Rat, haunting Bruce's show!"