Paul Heinz

Original Fiction, Music and Essays

Life Lessons from Three Old Men

Over the past several years I’ve had the privilege of getting to know three older men in my community, and from each I’ve been able to take away a few lessons about how to live or how not to live, offering me glimpses of how I’d like to be a few decades down the road.  Bette Davis once quipped, “Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” and as expected, all three men have experienced various hardships, some quite debilitating, but two of them – and one in particular – have managed to live extremely fulfilling lives, while one seems determined to wallow in a state of regret and helplessness. 

For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to call the men Al, Bob and Carl.  All three are over 85 years old.  Al and Carl lost their spouses between five and ten years ago.  Bob is still married.  All are physically able, especially Carl, who walks three miles a day and shovels his own driveway.  I also shoveled my own driveway this winter, but whereas I’ve been managing severe shoulder pain as a result, Carl – at thirty-five years my senior – suffers not one iota from the physical labor.  Not too shabby!  He’s also mostly blind, which makes many things difficult, but he’s fortunately still able to read, take walks and watch TV.  Al is in good physical shape as well, though a little less robust, and to date he still keeps up an amazing travel schedule, visiting numerous countries each year.  Bob is in fair shape, able to get around but not do anything too strenuous.

Physical attributes aside, the biggest differences between these men is mental.

Al is the kind of guy who always has a smile on his face, who loves to talk and listen, and who’s endlessly curious.  When he was well into his 80s he decided he wanted to record a collection of old children’s songs for his great-grandchildren.  I helped him with this project, but not before he insisted on attending months of vocal lessons at a nearby music store to help with his voice technique.  His rhythm wasn’t so good, but his singing voice was loud and clear, and he successfully created a piece of art for his descendants.  Al works out regularly, sings in a group, drives, goes out to lunch with various people, and keeps a travel schedule that just thinking about exhausts me.  He has a female companion to accompany him on various trips, which is undoubtedly helpful, but much of his travel is spent visiting relatives and friends.  A World War II veteran and widower, his life has not been without hardship, but he’s overcome these hardships with vigor and a zest for life.  When he underwent a medical procedure a few years ago and had to spend a few nights in a hospital, he told me about his experience with a smile and couldn’t stop mentioning the cute nurse who had taken care of him.  This is the man I want to be when I grow up!

Bob still travels some, but doesn’t appear to be as physically able as Al.  He does still drive, and this allows him to go to work almost every day for a few hours, and his wife of similar age does the same!  He is acutely concerned about the future of the Earth and the political changes happening world-wide, but that hasn’t kept him from working zealously at archiving his family records for future generations.  I’ve helped him publish his father’s diary, am in the process of helping him publish his memoir, and we’ve digitized old family movies and photos.  Smiles are a little harder to come by for Bob, but when we visit in person his eyes light up and we enjoy each other’s company.  He is comedically self-effacing despite his significant life achievements, he has a strong relationship with his children and grandchildren, and he is quite adept at using technology, allowing him to communicate with his younger relatives.  It took him a few tries to get going on adding audio to some old home movies, but he’s embarking on this task with determination.  Although Bob is still married, his life hasn’t been free of hardships, having lost much of his extended family in the Holocaust and having left his immediate family in the 1940s for the U.S., never to see his father again.  More recently, aside from many physical ailments, he lost his cousin, his last link to his European past.  Still, he perseveres, and doesn’t face a day without an agenda of to-dos.

Carl’s blindness makes life more physically challenging, and while he’s overcome this condition in some ways, in other ways he uses it as an excuse.  Smiles have to be earned for Carl, and even then, they look like he’s practicing for the real thing.  He reads, he watches movies, visits the library, has lunch with a men’s group a few times a month, and sees his three children at various times.  This doesn’t sound too bad, but he’s alone most days with little contact with other human beings, and there is a veil of sadness over everything Carl does.  I would best describe him as doleful, lugubrious, qualities that are funny in a character like Eeyore, but in the daily drudgery of human life are something else altogether.  Carl is disappointed in his children because they don’t visit him and take care of him as much as he would like.  When I suggested that he invite them over to his house for dinner, he said, “And have to cook for all of them?  No thank you.”  After I proposed that he offer to make a salad if they could bring the main course, he answered, “I don’t want to appear needy.”  I said to him, “Carl, we’re human beings.  We’re all needy.”

He resents his children taking vacations to interesting places without him, but he’s wealthy enough to take them all on a vacation that would include him, if only he would set thing into motion.  He won’t do this.  He has a lot of regret over past events – the details of which are unclear to me – and when I recommended that he see a therapist to get his thoughts out, he says, “Well, I’m a little tight with the money.”  No kidding!  I’ve implored him to spend some (“What are you saving it for?”) but old habits die hard.  I’ve suggested getting wifi so that he can explore podcasts, movies, works of music, etc., but he doesn’t want to spend the money.  Although he’s done some amazing things in spite of his blindness, he won’t take advantage of the services that are so easily available to people that would expand the radius of his life.  He says he can’t get out to shop or eat lunch.  “Have you heard of a cab?  Or an Uber?”  He doesn’t want to do this.  He wallows in his dour disposition, almost seeming to take pride in it.  On the one hand, he recognizes his predicament, for he’s the one who reached out to a local service to ask for the weekly visits that I now perform, but that seems to be all he’s willing to do for himself.  Most importantly, it’s apparent to me that he went through life without friends.  His wife was his social life, and now that she’s gone, he’s left with the results of a friendless life.

So what to take away from these three old men?  Nothing earth-shattering, but watching real-life can help to clarify what we perhaps already know, and you can’t start implementing life’s lessons in your 80s; you have to live these throughout your life, practice them, become proficient at them.  Being happy may in many ways be a choice, but if you’ve never practiced being happy before it’s going to be difficult to do so when you’re old.  Here’s a list of some of my takeaways:

1)     Express gratitude daily.  Without question, this is number one for me.
2)     Share your time and expertise with others.  Without question, this is number two.  If you only practice these two things, you’re half-way home.
3)     Stay curious.
4)     Keep old friends.
5)     Open yourself up to opportunities to make new friends.  Cast as wide a net as you can.
6)     Stay in close contact with your children and beyond – don’t eschew opportunities for love and companionship.
7)     Look for reasons to say yes to things instead of finding excuses to say no.
8)     Surround yourself with things that make you feel good.  Music.  Art.  Flowers.  Nature.  Pets.
9)     Experience new things, challenge yourself
10)  Stay active despite whatever limitations you may have.
11)  Overcome the desire to stick to a routine.
12)  Laugh at yourself.
13)  Accept other people’s shortcomings as you hope they will accept yours.
14) Proactively reach out to people for lunch dates, gatherings or calls for help. Needing companionship isn’t being needy - it’s being human.
15)  Stop bitching.
16)  Get happy, and don’t forget to tell your face.
17)  Stop talking about yourself for one fricking second and listen.

So there you are.  Trite?  Cliché?  Perhaps, but if living the right way were easy, we’d all be gloriously happy, successful and fulfilled.  This stuff is work, and I’m glad that I have some real-life examples to guide the way.

Joe Jackson at Thalia Hall (again)

Joe Jackson has been busy lately.  After not one, not two, but three tours supporting his very strong 2012 release, Fast Forward, he immediately took his band consisting of bassist Graham Maby, drummer Doug Yowell and guitarist Teddy Kumpel to a studio in Boise, Idaho (the location of last summer’s final show), and quickly recorded an eight-track album called Fool.  It too is strong, and at last night’s return to the fabulous Thalia Hall in Pilsen, Chicago, he and his band played five tracks from the album along with a selection of other songs spanning four decades to an enthusiastic sold-out audience.

To commemorate Jackson’s forty years in the industry and to mix things up a bit from his previous tours, the band highlighted tracks from four other albums from four different decades, though two of them were way too predictable: Look Sharp from the 70s, Night and Day from the 80s (those are the predictable ones), Laughter and Lust from the 90s and Rain from the 00s.  It’s these latter two along with the six newer tracks (one from Fast Forward) that made the evening interesting, along with a rendition of “Steppin’ Out” that mimicked the original recording to perfection, including a glockenspiel and Jackson’s Boss DR-55 drum machine whose “club beat” was used in the original.

All of the musicians were excellent and given various moments to shine, though Jackson took more solos than I remember from previous concerts, including one from his once-ubiquitous melodica.  But it was drummer Doug Yowell’s high energy performance who really sole the show.  Animated, forceful and dexterous, Yowell blew me away with the beginning of one of my favorites, “Another World,” when he managed to play the drum beat and accompanying cowbell and timbale beat simultaneously.  My drummer son and I turned to each other with mouths agape.

The biggest surprise of the evening was the final track from 1991’s Laughter and Lust, the moody tune of resignation to love, “Drowned,” along with the opening – and closer! – “Alchemy” from Fool.  That’s right, Jackson both opened and closed with the same song under dim, red lights.  I loved it, if only because it meant that we didn’t have to hear the band end with “Slow Song” again as they had repeatedly since 2000.  Adding “I’m the Man,” “Got the Time,” and Steely Dan’s “King of the World” were welcome crowd-pleasers near the evening’s end, and the new song, “Fool,” was among the most exciting songs of the night.  Jackson pointed out that it is sometime the fool – or jester – who makes life sane (“If you lose your sense of humor, you’re fucked.”) and the song’s playfulness seemed contagious to the four musicians on stage.

All in all it was a great concert.  Jackson continues to use an iPad teleprompter for his lyrics, which is a little odd for songs that he’s been singing for forty years, but hey, if that’s what the guy has to do to keep touring, then I’m all in. I’ve seen Jackson perform eight times now, and this show ranks in the top three for sure. Keep ‘em coming, Joe!

Acting, Race, Sexuality and What's Offensive

One can argue about the distinctions between the two terms, but acting is – at its most basic level – pretending.  A good actor can play virtually anyone or anything, and in doing so impart some truth to an audience.  It’s art, to be sure, but it’s artistic pretending.  You would think that pretending would have no bounds, that its only limits would be the human imagination, but that isn’t the case, not because of the people’s limitations but because of mankind’s ignoble history that’s led to certain types of pretending to become taboo.  The most obvious example is white people painting their faces black, but there are others, and the guidelines aren’t as clear-cut as you would think.  Read this article from the USA Today in full and tell me that you now have a clear understanding of what’s allowed and what’s not allowed.  To quote the movie Fletch

Fletch: “Well, there we’re in kind of a gray area.” 
Frank Walker: “How gray?” 
Fletch: “Charcoal.”

When I was growing up, Saturday Night Live allowed for many comedic skits that might not fly today.  I say “might not” because it’s not entirely obvious what’s allowed and what might stir controversy.  (If you disagree, keep reading).  In December of 1984, SNL aired a mock-documentary of Eddie Murphy playing a white man, to hilarious effect.  (If you’ve never seen it, do a quick Google search).  That same year, Billy Crystal wore dark makeup to portray one of his idols, Sammy Davis, Jr.  This was all deemed well and good in 1984 (at least through the lens of the American mainstream), but when Crystal reprised his impersonation at the 2012 Oscars, he got a lot of flak, with one critic making the blanket statement, “Blackface is not okay.  Ever.”    

Setting aside for now that there is in fact a distinction between “blackface” as historically understood and Billy Crystal putting on makeup to impersonate Sammy Davis, Jr., it’s important to note that Davis’s daughter Tracey defended Crystal, saying, “I am 100 percent certain that my father is smiling.  Billy previously played my father when he was alive, and my father gave Billy his full blessing.”  She also took issue with categorizing Crystals portrayal as “blackface.”

Now, you might say that Crystal’s Oscar performance is an exception to the rule due to it being a reprisal of a skit from years ago, but that going forward we should have no more of this.  No white person should ever wear black makeup to portray another person. 

What about the reverse?  Can someone wear white makeup to portray a character?

Let’s go back to Eddie Murphy who once again showed his acting and imitation prowess in 1988’s Coming to America, when he wore white makeup and depicted a stereotypical Jewish man telling a joke at a barbershop.  I just watched a clip of it and laughed out loud.  I don’t know if the Jewish community raised a ruckus back in 1988 for this skit – I do know my Jewish wife found the scene hilarious at the time – but given that Jewish actors once made a living performing actual blackface back in the day, staying silent on the matter was probably best.

But there is of course a distinction to be made here.  Whites have historically been privileged in this country and blacks have historically been oppressed.  Furthermore, blackface has such a sordid history that we could agree that wearing dark makeup, even as an attempt to depict a person whom you respect, should be relegated to a thing of the past.  (Which means that Tropic Thunder couldn’t be made today, which is regrettable.)

As Kara Weisenstein summarized in this Vice article: “Darkening your skin is never okay (because of aforementioned old-timey racists), but dressing up as a character of another race is usually fine, as long as the character’s race isn’t part of the costume.”

Fair enough, as long as it goes both ways.  I mean, I love Eddie Murphy’s portrayal in Coming to America, but Jews haven’t exactly been exempted from oppression (and they’re also a minority, making up less than 2% of the U.S. population), so let’s just agree – going forward, no person of one race should wear makeup to portray a person of another race.  Is this something that we can agree on in 2019?  Can we?

But then we get to a more recent controversy involving Scarlett Johansson, who was lambasted for agreeing to play a transgender person in the proposed film, Rub & Tug, before finally bowing out of the project.  As summarized in this article from The Guardian, Johansson’s initial response to the hubbub was correct on its face but not taken well by the trans community: “Tell them that they can be directed to Jeffrey Tambor, Jared Leto and Felicity Huffman’s reps for comment.”  All three of these actors played trans roles that were largely lauded, but the argument goes that the time has come for a change, that since trans actors typically can’t play roles that aren’t trans, it makes sense that at the very least trans roles should go to trans actors.  Yes, there was a time when it was okay (apparently, that time was in 2014, when the show Transparent debuted), but no longer.  Going forward, trans roles should only be played by trans actors. 

Can we agree on that?  Okay.  Again I say, fair enough.  But then…

Why isn’t there backlash against Eric McCormack, a straight man, reprising his role as a gay character on NBC’s Will & Grace?  Just as with Billy Crystal in 2012, the word “reprisal” once again seems to be a key word here.  Even McCormack admits that he’s still allowed to play the role of Will Truman primarily because the show debuted in the 1990s.  Were it to have debuted in 2018, the role would have gone to a gay actor.  But then McCormick adds, “But does that mean that now when you walk into a casting room you have to state whether you are straight or gay? I don’t know.”

Now that’s an interesting point.  I can picture a casting director having a questionnaire for actors as they enter the audition room in order to fend off potential controversies, which of course would set off a whole new controversy! 

But if it’s all a matter of fairness, then let’s look no further than a hugely successful show on Amazon, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.  Most of the characters in the show are Jewish, but much of the cast, including leads Rachel Brosnahan and Tony Shalhoub, aren’t.  Is this okay?  If yes, why?  Because the actors have the same color skin as the characters they’re playing?  Is this the only factor to consider?

I don’t know, but ultimately I think the answer has to be that it’s okay for non-Jewish actors to play Jews, just as it should be okay for Catholic Italians to play English Protestants or American Jews to play Mormons.  Acting is pretending, and as McCormack implied, where do we draw the line and how do we determine who’s on what side of the line?  Will we have to have actors submit ancestry charts prior to auditioning for a role?  “I’m sorry, would-be actor, but you’re trying out for the role of an Italian-American from Texas with a background in the oil industry, but you’re an Irish-American from Arkansas whose family has a background in agriculture.  There’s no way you can play this part.” 

Crazy, right?  Personally, I love that Tony Shalhoub plays a Jew in Mrs. Maisel, that Emma Stone plays a Brit in The Favorite, and that Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett play damn-convincing Americans.  It’s okay. 

Fine.  We seem to be getting somewhere, but just when I think I can wrap my arms around it all, there are examples that throw everything off kilter.  When actress Juliette Binoche played a Chilean in The 33 no one seemed to raise an eyebrow.  But why?  Binoche is white, and there surely must be talented Chilean actresses.  Binoche was allowed to play a Chilean, but she clearly wouldn’t be allowed to play a Chinese woman or a Nigerian woman.  Is it only about race or skin color?  Or is there more to it?

There is!  Or at least to some folks, there is.  And this brings us to a hugely successful film with an Asian cast.  The lead actor in Crazy Rich Asians, Henry Golding, is only – these are not my words – “half-Asian,” so this led to a controversy about the film’s casting, with some saying that the film should have cast “full-Asians.”  This sounds so wrong to me that it brings to mind Voldemort and his posse attacking Mudbloods.  As writer Deanna Pal – who has an Italian parent and an Asian parent – beautifully states in her article defending the casting decisions of the film, “Since when does being more than one thing cancel the other out…to impose whitewashing narratives onto biracial people feels like erasure of half of who I am.”

To me, as long as an actor’s portrayal of another person is coming from a place of love and respect – and this can include poking fun of that person, as Eddie Murphy did in Coming to America or Billy Crystal did on SNL – then I personally don’t give a shit.  Yes, I know, being a fifty year-old upper middle-class white man has given me the privilege of being able to say, “I don’t give a shit.”  I get it.  But I personally love the recent trend to throw historical accuracy out the window when casting a work of art, allowing anyone to play anybody.  The recent movie Mary Queen of Scots has a multiracial cast despite it not being historically accurate, and the musical Hamilton did the same to great effectBut if this is allowed, so too should it be allowed for a straight man to play a gay man, a half-Malaysian woman to play a Chinese woman, or a gay, half-Italian, half-Arab man to play a straight, half-Jewish, half-Brazilian man. 

As Kara Weisenstein concludes in her article, “I want to live in a world where little white boys can be President Obama, and Muslim girls can be Wonder Woman, and queer teens can be Elvis or Ariana Grande, and Heidi Klum can be a goddamn ogre if she wants to be.”

Honestly, let’s relax a little bit here. 

I’ll end with a funny YouTube comment I read about the aforementioned SNL skit, whereby Billy Crystal plays Sammy Davis, Jr., and Joe Piscopo plays President Reagan:

“This is so offensive, I can't even believe it's real - how dare they let an Italian from Jersey play Ronald Reagan!”

Signing off, hoping I offended no one with this essay, but knowing full-well that I did.

Season 2 of Mrs. Maisel: a Marvelous Mess

Last January I sung high praises for the first season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a smart comedy with likable characters who don’t choke anyone to death with a chain or dissolve a human body in an acid bath.  What a nice change of pace!  But the second season of Mrs. Maisel, which my wife and I just finished last week, is a mess, full of plot lines that lead nowhere, unnecessary characters, inconsistencies and lazy writing.  Is it still better than a lot of what’s on TV?  Probably, but the show isn’t striving for mediocrity – that’s merely its outcome.

Mrs. Maisel is without a doubt among the most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen, with amazing 1950s costumes and set designs, and glamorous glimpses into record shops, department stores, switchboards, and summer months spent at the Catskills.  The acting is also superb, with now two-time Golden Globe winner Rachel Brosnahan as Midge and the incomparable Tony Shalhoub killing it as Midge’s father, Abe.

But then there are the plot lines, and there are so many debacles in this department that it’s hard to know where to begin.  I’ll address just a few.

Great pains were made to show that Midge’s first impromptu comedy show at the Gaslight was recorded and bootlegged at a local record store, where it was appreciated by a few comic nerds, pressed into vinyl and placed on sale.  In one episode, Midge’s manager Susie discovers the record at the shop and chases the store clerks onto the street.  Where does this intriguing plot line lead?  Absolutely nowhere.  No money made.  No lawsuit filed.  No discovery from a club promoter or record label.  Might this plot line come back in Season 3?  I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, but by that time it’ll be a complete non sequitur.

Susie begins the season receiving death threats, resorting to sleeping at the Gaslight and switching apartments with an Italian-immigrant family.  Where does all this lead?  Nowhere.  It just…stops, and Susie once again safely roams the streets of New York and is back at her apartment before the season’s end.

The first two episodes of Season 2 have Midge’s mother Rose living in Paris, having escaped an unfulfilling life and inattentive husband, and Abe and Midge travel across the Atlantic to retrieve her.  Where does this transcontinental diversion lead?  Well, nowhere…unless you include Rose’s brief foray into art studies as integral to the show.  Her husband doesn’t change, Rose goes back to the life she’d led before, and Midge once again displays her twisted priorities by traveling to Paris at a moment’s notice without a second thought about her children, which leads me to my next point.

As the show is written, Midge’s two children are grave inconveniences, and one wonders if show creator Amy Sherman-Palladino is regretting introducing them into the script in Season 1.  The current show would be better without them, because it’s hard to root for Midge when she’s up for The Most Neglectful Mother of the Year Award.  Yes I know, parents may not have doted on their children in 1958 the way they do today, but aside from reading a book to her son in one episode, Midge interacts with her children not one iota.  And don’t get me wrong – Joel is just as bad in his role as a father as Midge is as a mother.  The Maisel children are equal opportunity victims.  Mrs. Maisel would be a much better show if Midge was trying to figure out how to follow her dream while being a good mother. Too bad that’s not part of the package.

Then there are the amazing number of expendable characters who keep mucking up the story.  We meet Susie’s dysfunctional family, a device used to garner a car for Midge and Susie’s tour, but it would have been just as well to learn that Susie came upon a car by some bit of serendipity.  We get a detour to the art world of New York, of which Midge’s new boyfriend Benjamin is well-versed, and spend half an episode (or did it just feel like half an episode?) on a self-destructive artist Declan Howell, who’s apparently in the script to help Midge decide what she wants out of life.  But the culminating scene – where Midge gets to see the artist’s previously hidden magnum opus – takes place as Benjamin goes out for coffee, so the reveal doesn’t lead to any growth between Midge and Benjamin, which I think would have been a more important development. We watch Midge’s husband Joel take out a bank loan with his pestering parents, we hear his self-loathing rants to his buddy while they whack at baseballs (which they then retrieve without the aid of their baskets), we learn about Midge’s brother’s employment at the CIA, and on and on.  What we don’t see much of is Midge perfecting her craft, learning the hard knocks of comedy, and gradually breaking into the business while keeping her personal life together.  That would be a great show!

And then there are Mrs. Maisel’s vulgarities, which make no sense.  Susie is supposed to be the tough one with the foul mouth, and I am all in with her character’s obscenities. But Midge grew up in upper-class society, attended Bryn Mawr, married a guy and gave birth to two children; I don’t believe for a second that house-wife Midge Maisel is spewing out F-bombs left and right in 1959.  And then the writers have Midge doing an impromptu performance at her friend’s wedding reception, a scene that’s so cringe-worthy it lacks believability, which is just another way of saying it’s lazy writing, something I also commented on in my post on Season 1. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of the F-word, and I can tolerate the show’s use of some of today’s idioms (“It is what it is,” for example), but the words have to match the characters.  Otherwise, they’re just a distraction.  If you’re interested in reading about the plethora of anachronisms in Mrs. Maisel check out this blog

Mrs. Maisel works so hard to visually represent the late 1950s and I find it odd that the writers don’t work just as hard on plot points and verbiage.  Season 2 gets a thumbs down from me, and if Season 3 doesn’t redeem itself I’m giving up, though admittedly, 50 year-old middle-class white guys may not be the advertiser’s most coveted demographic! 

Next for me on TV - checking out The Good Place and The Kominsky Method.

Springsteen on Broadway

You gotta hand it to Bruce Springsteen.  The guy can compose a great tune, his stage performances are unparalleled, his autobiography is one of the best I’ve read by a musician, and now he’s completed a sort of companion piece with his autobiographic Broadway stage show, no small feat for this aging rocker.  I looked forward to checking out the Springsteen on Broadway release on Netflix a few weeks ago, and while I enjoyed aspects of it, I’m thankful I didn’t shell out $500 to see it in person, and it’s unlikely that I’ll view it again.

Pulling off a two and a half hour stage show with extensive narration is impressive, and the sheer volume of prose Springsteen had to memorize and deliver with conviction is to me no less admirable than, say, the one-man show on Hemingway that I saw Stacy Keach perform last summer at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.  I couldn’t tell by watching the film whether or not Springsteen used a teleprompter, but it wasn’t apparent, and aside from some initial narration that seemed a bit canned and rehearsed, he does a fine job of delivering the material as if for the first time.

It’s the first hour or so of the show that’s particularly hard to watch for me, and I found myself ready to press fast forward through some of the moments that felt routine and self-serving, as of course an autobiographical show must be.  It takes a tremendous ego to think people want to hear your story, but it takes skill to mask that ego enough to appear relatable, and there are times when Springsteen fails at this tightrope act.  Fortunately things begin to turn about mid-way through the show, as if the Boss needed a little time to gain his footing and truly immerse himself in the material, and I found his soliloquies on Vietnam, his father and mother, and the current political climate to be the strongest parts of the show.

His narration would hardly be a matter of critique if Springsteen’s musical performances – there are something like sixteen songs in all – provided their usual redemptive force, but absent the E Street Band, Springsteen’s pedestrian musicianship is glaringly obvious.  Bruce is not an accomplished guitar player, even less so as a pianist, and it’s woefully apparent throughout the show, as his three-chord songs provide no variation or upward lift in the hands of a limited instrumentalist.  Like Melissa Etheridge who I saw perform in Waukegan last month, Springsteen is a great songwriter and gifted lyricist whose music is bolstered by the skills of surrounding musicians, but alone is a strum and hum performer with a limited musical palette.  The Boss also sabotages his own works by reinventing the melodies in uninspiring ways, pausing and slowing things down at times when the song requires lift and momentum, and insisting on singing in his faux-western voice that he’s grown accustomed to using during the past decade and a half or so, summoning his inner Arlo Guthrie that some may find endearing and heartfelt, but I find to be as artificial as his blue-collar lyrics, which he refreshingly admits early in his show, “I made it all up.  That’s how good I am.”

Three songs do rise to the occasion: his stripped-down, dour take of ”Born in the U.S.A.” and the two songs performed with wife Patti Scialfa: “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.”  Having a partner to harmonize with and – perhaps more importantly – to play off of, is exactly what the show needs.  Springsteen has made a career out of interacting with his fellow musicians – the joy and sweat shared between his comrades on stages is half the fun of watching him perform – and it’s lacking for most of this Broadway show. 

Still, I can’t think of many artists who could pull off a relatively sincere theatrical show for 236 performances, sell the hell out of it, and still have demand to showcase it on Netflix.  I’m glad it exists, and it isn’t a bad legacy for the old man to leave behind – that of a great storyteller with love for his country and its people, and concern for its future.  I wish there were more artists – and hell, more people  - like the Boss.  Check out the entire show on demand on Netlfix.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved