By Jon Bream
4:31 PM CDT, October 30, 2012
They are three of the biggest living icons in popular music. Make that aging icons. Still, their images are indelible, their music timeless and their popularity remarkably undying. In fact, when it comes to ticket sales, these geezers are as hot as Justin Bieber.
Madonna, Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan all are on tour and are filling arenas and concert halls across America.
The Blonde, 54, is on target to have one of the top 10 tours of all time. The Boss, 63, has not only the biggest tour of 2012 but also the biggest of his career. And the Bard, 71, is having a storied year with a Presidential Medal of Freedom and one of his most universally acclaimed albums since the mid-1970s.
Other than being members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, what do these giants of popular culture have in common? Several qualities, actually:
They're visionaries. When they started recording, they emulated their influences — Woody Guthrie (Dylan), the Supremes (Madonna) and, for Springsteen, Dylan — but each developed a distinctive vision. The Bard became the reluctant spokesman for his generation, an agitator in words and music, a self-styled enigma on many fronts. The Boss became a working-class hero who put on epic concerts and rallied behind underdogs of various stripes. The Blonde became a fiercely independent, media-manipulating, outspoken button-pusher who kept dance floors jumping and fashionistas drooling.
Even though their visions are disparate, "they take live performance really seriously," said Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis, who has taught courses on Dylan and Springsteen at the University of Pennsylvania. "They go out there with a sense of purpose, a sense of fun and a sense that you're all there to have an experience."
They have drive and a work ethic. Dylan tried to escape small-town isolation. Springsteen never got along with his dad. Madonna lost her mom at a young age. Is that what drives these superstars? Dime-store therapists might say so.
But no one seems to question the Midwestern work ethic of Dylan (from Minnesota) and Madonna (from Michigan) or the blue-collar pedigree of Springsteen (from New Jersey).
"No one works harder than Madonna," said George Travis, Springsteen's longtime tour director who also helmed a tour with the Blonde One. She puts in countless hours of brainstorming, creating and rehearsing, not to mention time in the gym to maintain that buff body.
The Boss could rival Madge for physical condition. In the 1970s, he became legendary for marathon concerts that often stretched beyond three hours. Now, 31/2 hours has become the norm.
But who can rival Dylan, the ultimate road warrior? Since he began his Never Ending Tour in 1988, Dylan has played more than 2,500 concerts, averaging about 100 a year.
"He plays a lot of secondary markets that don't normally get A-list or iconic artists," said Gary Bongiovanni, editor of the concert journal Pollstar. "Clearly at his age, he doesn't need to do it."
At the South by Southwest Music Conference this year, Springsteen told young performers that "you have to bring it every night." That's a trait all three superstars share, said Los Angeles broadcast consultant Jeff Pollack. "They have a real commitment to their audience. They do what is old-fashioned and new at the same time: Give the fans something special."
They stay in shape. Dylan puts on gloves and boxes. The Boss doesn't eat or drink anything not approved by his trainer/ nutritionist. And both he and Madonna work out like they're training for the Olympics.
"The physicality of it is important," DeCurtis said. "The healthier they are, the better they preserve themselves, the better they look, the better your experience is. There's a big aspirational element to all of this. You want to look up to all three of them."
Indeed, we want our heroes to be forever young.
They're bold. Their moves made headlines that became chapters in the history of rock 'n' roll.
Folk hero Dylan goes electric at the Newport Folk Festival.
Rock god Springsteen goes folkie with "Nebraska."
Madonna goes anti-Catholic in her "Like a Prayer" and "Papa Don't Preach" videos.
"Those (three) don't have any fear," said Dylan's son Jakob, frontman of the Wallflowers. "It's not something you can learn in a music guidebook. Being fearless is just an instinct you have. And you have to trust your audience. People want to see artists task risks, they want to see them be flippant, they want to see them indulge themselves, they want to see them come back, they want to see the quality that was there. I think that's the relationship you have to have with an audience."
They create a mystique. Build a mystery, and fans want to unlock it. The young Dylan made up stories about his background. His interviews are few and far between, his pronouncements from the stage as enigmatic as they are rare. Even his 2002 memoir was as confounding as it was revealing.
Springsteen is clearly more extroverted, often telling tales of his life to introduce songs in concert or giving in-depth interviews to promote his albums. But he doesn't talk about his children and family, and he shares no personal information in his social-network postings.
While Madonna is the master of media manipulation, who really knows the real Madge? Her interviews are like performance art (see her appearances on "The Late Show With David Letterman."). She loves creating a mystery.
"The secret to longevity, as opposed to just being famous, is they've kept something back from their audience," said consultant Pollack. "I think sometimes today artists share too much with their audience. The great ones don't sit down and tell you what every lyric means, and they don't need to tell you they went to Starbucks at 3 p.m."
They've cultivated new audiences. Back in the late 1980s, Dylan picked up fresh followers by touring with the Grateful Dead. Even younger Deadheads are showing up at his concerts in this century. Madonna, too, has piqued the interest of young fans of Lady Gaga, Britney Spears and Beyonce who are curious to see the mother of them all. And of course, Gen Y-ers and millennials weaned on their parents' records are drawn to check out these legends.
They have good business sense. These veterans know about supply and demand. Dylan is fond of playing small, entertainment-starved towns, and he keeps his tickets priced modestly. By contrast, Springsteen and Madonna allow demand to build by touring only every three to five years, in conjunction with new albums.
They don't do greatest-hits shows. All three continue to make new recordings that, while not always classics or big sellers, are credible.
On Springsteen's current tour, he has been performing six to eight songs from his recent "Wrecking Ball" album. Madonna usually offers eight selections from 2012's slow-selling "MDNA." Then there's Dylan, ever the iconoclast, who did not play a single song from his widely acclaimed new album "Tempest" in his first 10 shows after it was released in September.
In concert, each icon has a different kind of impact on audiences — Madonna gives an erotic charge, Springsteen uplifts and Dylan provokes.
"These three artists are not coasting," DeCurtis said. "They're challenging themselves in some way, and that's exciting. That's what people go to see."
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