Dean Men Make No Sales

The late Bruce Springsteen did not appear on Saturday Night Live. And don't let the Japanese convince you he did.

You've got to hand it to the Japanese. I can remember when their idea of special-effects wizardry was two guys in lizard costumes throwing each other around a scale-model set of Tokyo that was rendered with all the accuracy and attention to detail of the plastic hotels from a Monopoly game. Lips would move for ten seconds, words would come out for five.

If you missed Saturday Night Live on May 9, you cannot imagine how far the Japanese have progressed. The electro-mechanical geniuses at Sony, parent company of Columbia Records, have come up with a Bruce Springsteen robot that is so lifelike you'd almost swear it was the real thing. It walks like Bruce, jumps around and half-dances in that previously inimitable Springsteen fashion, and plays guitar better than its human counterpart did. Sony/Columbia even went to the trouble of using computer modeling to age the robot, extending the forehead a little to simulate a receding hairline and throwing some electronic gravel into the digito-vocal simulator to create the marvelous effect of an even raspier and more idiosyncratic voice than the rock star had in real life.

It was a techno-tour de force. It was almost enough to make one forget about Bruce's tragic death years ago during the Tunnel of Love sessions (some say he was already very ill during the making of Born in the U.S.A., although this is the subject of much controversy among Springsteen devotees). I guess Sony/Columbia figures that a contract is a contract; death is not a valid exemption. If the real Springsteen couldn't be there to fulfill his legal obligations in the flesh, then by God they'd come up with the best damn replica the world had ever seen to take his place - Brucezilla, if you will.

Of course, being A) Japanese and B) money-sucking corporate greedheads, Brucezilla's progenitors overlooked a few details that no self-respecting Springsteen fan would have missed, such as:

Bruce on network TV? Get real.
Bruce in Rodeo Drive-gypsy wardrobe? What were they thinking?
Bruce without the E Street Band? Inconceivable.

I wonder how much they had to pay Roy Bittan to go along with the hoax. Teaming Brucezilla with a handful of kids right out of trendy-rock central casting was a pathetic move, even if the new guys did go out of their way to sound exactly like the E Street Band would have. Thank God the Japanese don't pull stunts like this when they make Toyotas.

On balance, however, it was a remarkable facsimile of one of the great songwriters of the post-Beatles era. It launched me off on a serious nostalgia trip, remembering the first time I saw Springsteen live, backed by the E-Streeters plus Southside Johnny's horn section, at the Miami Jai-Alai fronton. What a glorious ride it was from there to the last time I saw Bruce in the flesh, during his back-to-back Orange Bowl sellouts (pun intended). In those days Bruce readily acknowledged the debt of gratitude he owed to his phenomenally talented supporting cast - the Big Man on the sax, Miami Steve on guitar, Mighty Max pounding the drums. During the glory days, E Street was the tightest rock band in the game.

And then there was the cast of characters that Springsteen created. Sandy, Magic Rat, the barefoot girl, Wendy, Little Gun, Eddie, Crazy Janie and her Mission Man, Rosalita - I wonder how her papa felt when he read about Julianne Phillips's multimillion dollar divorce settlement. Bet he'd practically boot Rosie out the door if Bruce came a-courtin' nowadays.

I spent the better part of my 22nd and 23rd summers tearing up the highway in a big old dinosaur (my buddy's Olds), from the shores of Asbury Park through Lincoln, Nebraska, past Thunder Road and the badlands of Wyoming and on down to that pretty little place in Southern California where they play guitars all night and all day. It was one of those road-movie, life-imitates-art deals, two white guys from Ohio with a trunkful of Coors and the tape deck blasting. We didn't have nearly as much fun as we would swear we had when we got back, but we got a feel for a country whose breadth and majesty cannot be properly absorbed any other way. Springsteen was every bit as vital a fuel as gasoline on that trip, and I shall forever remember the moment I heard "Darkness on the Edge of Town" for the first time - as we spun through a pitch-black mountain pass in the southern Nevada desert at midnight to encounter the scintillating lights of Las Vegas glimmering like a multicolor Oz ahead of us. We won 60 bucks, which seemed like a killing at the time, and invested the bounty in a copy of Darkness and a week's supply of Singles and Frostys.

No doubt we all have our own Springsteen nostalgia to wallow in, but we have to accept the fact that the potent musical force we once knew is dead, and get on with our lives. Though it was successfully covered up until now, I saw the photos. Wreck on the highway. Nothing but some blood where the body fell, nothing left that you could sell, just Bruce all across the horizon, a real highwayman's farewell....

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