Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Entertainment-wise, the big story in these parts is that Bruce Springsteen is coming to the Wells Fargo Arena. Ironically, it's not a full-scale, raise the roof Bruce & the E-Street Band stadium-style show. It's more of a Bruce hootenanny, showcasing sensitive folk songs that will get lost in the massive environs of the architectural abortion that is Wells Fargo Arena. (The sensitive folk songs come from his new album The Seeger Sessions. As in Pete Seeger. When I first heard the title of the album, I thought Springsteen had finally teamed up with Bob Seger for an Overwrought-Singers-of-Seventies-Rock tour.)

Anyway, this news prompts two trains of thought.


As a teenager, I was never really into rock music. I was more of an Ennio Morricone guy. My tastes started to expand sometime in '84, '85. I don't remember how or why I acquired a copy of Bruce Springsteen's album Nebraska--I was in therapy if that helps--but I know it's impact on me was profound. Its portraits of a marginalized America-- a land of small-timers and dreamers, murderers and seekers, working stiffs and wanderers --hit my post-adolescent, death-obsessed self where I lived.

Famously, Springsteen originally recorded this album as a demo, as a way to present his new songs to members of his band. But when he wasn't satisfied with how the songs worked in the context of full arrangements, he simply released his original tapes. As a result, his singing has a relaxed, almost tentative quality to it, a perfect compliment to the songs, the most understated, unforced lyrics he would ever craft.

So strong was this album, I became an unabashed Springsteen fan. True, none of his other albums were as good--parts of The River came close--but, you know, it was all Bruce. But time went on and my interest waned. Tunnel of Love was an album recorded by a rich guy contemplating his own navel, Human Touch and Lucky Town were even worse. And these days when he tries the sensitive folk guy schtick, well it's just embarrassing. I have no desire to hear this new album or see him live.

But for one moment, he was as good a writer as Raymond Carver or Bobbie Ann Mason. Only with music.


Of course, one of the reasons I won't see Sprinsteen this summer is his choice of venue in Des Moines, the Wells Fargo Arena. My reasons for avoiding this location have nothing to do with the place itself (though I've heard nothing but bad things about it) or even the fact that it was shoved down taxpayer's throats against their will, but the fact that it was built over the bones of the River Hills theater.

Ah, the River Hills. Unquestionably the finest place in Des Moines to see a movie. Hell, one of the best places anywhere to see a movie. With its 70 foot curved screen and understated shades-of-blue interior, it was a class act, a Grande Dame, the place where all the biggest movies opened.

And, it should be pointed out, the only place where they opened. In the heyday of the River Hills, movies didn't get the saturation release they do now. In May of 1977 when Star Wars opened--God, I remember it so clearly--the River Hills was one of only 43 theaters IN THE WHOLE COUNTRY showing it. On opening night--and it was night, the evening show was the first show--the line stretched for several blocks. This was in the pre-internet days, when it was harder for there to be any "buzz" around a new movie. But if you wanted to see Star Wars and you lived in Iowa, this is where you had to be.

It seems unbelievable now to think that a major motion picture could play on only one screen in a market the size of Des Moines. But it was a different time. Movies were more of an event, something you did as part of a night out, not a way to kill time.

But times change, and good things go away. More multiplexes started popping up in Des Moines, and studios booked movies onto more screens. If you lived in the burbs and wanted to see Demolition Man--though God only knows why--you'd go see it at that sixplex at the strip mall. Why drive all the way downtown?

I moved away from central Iowa in 1997. The River Hills was still around, but was not even a shadow of its former self, with a small, clueless staff of teenagers who didn't give a rat's ass about a quality presentation, projecting dim, out of focus images on a massive screen and staring at you blankly if you complained.

As the century turned, the plans for a new "entertainment complex" were in the works, and the site was chosen: despite being a real part of Des Moines history and movie history, the River Hills would be torn down. Mercifully, I was living on the east coast when that happened, so I didn't have to see it in person.

So...the Wells Fargo Arena, a location as charming as its name suggests.

Welcome, Bruce. I'm sure your gig here will be, like its venue, barely adequate.