Bill Simmons said it best:
Q: My favorite YouTube clip is the Boss’ greatest TV performance: his surprise duet with the Wallflowers at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards. Keep in mind, the VMAs had grown tiresome by the mid-’90s and Bruce had sort of slipped into irrelevancy with passable acoustic albums like “Tom Joad.” The situation was ripe for “sad former rock star shows up and creeps everyone out” potential (which did happen a few years later with Axl Rose.) But Bruce comes out looking leaner and meaner than he had in years, complete with bad-ass goatee and leather jacket, and snatches “One Headlight” right out of Jakob Dylan’s feeble hands. He nails a great guitar solo, makes tons of great Bruce faces and even turns in the classic sharing-vocals at-the-same-mic-stand move. You’re literally watching Bruce rediscover his ability to rock as the song goes on. It’s like Elvis’ 1968 comeback special. Watching this live with my college buddies at the time, I predicted a Bruce creative surge, which actually happened in the late-’90s, peaking with his reunion with The E Street Band and what is still the only artistically valid musical statement about 9/11: “The Rising.”
So, it begs the question: what would be the sports equivalent? You’d need a superstar, returning after a notable absence, who makes a comeback and rediscovers his “love of the game,” and in the process, mortally wounds or breaks the spirit of an up-and-coming star with a great pedigree, right?
—M. Drury, Hoboken, N.J.
SG: Wow, that question had everything — lively material, a couple of funny jokes, a provocative question, even accompanying video evidence. Now THAT is how you get into the mailbag. And you’re right, that’s one of the best YouTube clips ever. I actually remember watching that live, seeing Bruce and saying, “I’m not getting my hopes up, but he looks pretty damned good,” then watching in disbelief as he completely blew Dylan off the stage. It was like one of those pornos from the late-’70s when John Holmes is having a threesome with a girl and some random guy, and by the end of the scene, the other guy is hanging out with the crew and telling them, “Look, I’m not gonna compete with that.”
Before we get to the answer, I wanted to point out a couple of things before you dive into the video:
1. The Wallflowers were flying pretty high at the time (looking back, you could even make the case that they were the most underrated mainstream band from the latter half of the ’90s), and it’s quite possible that Bruce completely derailed young Jakob, who already had enough of an uphill battle as Bob Dylan’s son before another music legend hijacked his signature song as he was standing right there. I always thought the Wallflowers should have been bigger than they were. What would have happened if Bruce didn’t agree to play the ‘97 VMAs? We may never know.
2. There’s nothing funnier than Bruce creeping over to someone else’s microphone, then overpowering the other guy as spit flies everywhere. (I’m convinced this is why Little Stevie initially left the E Street Band, he just couldn’t take it anymore.) I always thought this would be a good SNL skit — just Bruce walking around and randomly hijacking somebody else’s microphone in various places (a street performer in a subway station, Michael Buffer doing “Let’s get ready to rummmmble,” a stewardess giving the pre-flight instructions, and so on).
3. ”One Headlight” couldn’t have been more in Bruce’s wheelhouse. One of the best examples of a song that would have been twice as good if the band had just given it to the Boss from Day 1 and said, “Look, this could be a hit for us, but it’s a potential Hall of Fame song for you, you have it.”
Some other examples: “See a Little Light” by Bob Mould; “Taillights Fade” by Buffalo Tom (and just for the record, I absolutely love those guys, but that would have been a top-five Bruce song); “Way Down Now” by World Party; “Rain King” by Counting Crows; “Expresso Love” by Dire Straits; the theme to “Beautiful Girls”; “Turn the Page” by Bob Seger; and my personal favorites, “Santa Monica” and “You Make Me Feel Like A Whore” by Everclear. Bruce also would have done much better with “I Am Mine” than Pearl Jam did because Eddie Vedder mailed in that entire album during his “I don’t want to be famous anymore” stage. But this should be Bruce’s next album: “Songs I Should Have Sung.”
4. So what’s the sports equivalent of Bruce blowing Dylan off the stage? I was leaning toward MJ and the Bulls sweeping the Magic in the ‘96 playoffs, with the post-baseball MJ as Bruce and Nick Anderson (already reeling after blowing those four freebies in the ‘95 Finals) as Jakob Dylan. But I like this example better: Jack Nicklaus roaring from behind to win the ‘86 Masters, with Greg Norman and Seve Ballesteros (both of whom choked down the stretch) combining for the Dylan role. Remember, Norman was considered Nicklaus’ heir apparent at the time, and everyone thought Seve was going to become the dominant golfer of that decade; they ended winning three more majors combined and that’s it. Plus, the Nicklaus/Springsteen parallels are almost perfect, right down to their popularity, their respective résumés and the similar points of their careers at the time of the events. That seems like the logical choice to me.
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