I was driving down I-81 outside Hershey, Pennsylvania well after midnight, with the rain falling steadily, and I was asking myself why I had done it.
Why had I driven up four hours from Charlottesville, Virginia on a Wednesday afternoon in May just so I could stand in line for three hours in a parking lot, then stand five hours longer in a cramped space amid beer-drinking people in a beaten down stadium next to a chocolate park, in the rain, to watch Bruce Springsteen? Why had I even chosen to attend another Springsteen concert just a few weeks after I had seen him closer to home in Virginia Beach, and less than two years after I had been to not one, not two, but three Springsteen shows a couple of months apart during the 2012 Wrecking Ball tour?
Why, as I am about to turn 60 years old, have I suddenly become a late-in-life Springsteen admirer, follower, some would say junkie, a person who peruses a fan message board where anyone who has been to less than 50, 80, even 150 or more Bruce concerts is considered out of sync with the most important matters in the world?
It’s not like I never who Bruce Springsteen was. After all, I was a student at Boston University in the early 1970s when Jon Landau wrote his famous column in The Real Paper about seeing rock and roll future in the face of Bruce Springsteen after watching his first Bruce show. As a journalism student, I read every issue of the weekly Real Paper, so I’m sure I must have at last glanced at the article. I vaguely knew the name Springsteen as a supposed up-and-comer in rock music, and I probably heard him interviewed on WBCN because I listened to Boston’s alternative rock station faithfully.
But I didn’t need Bruce then.
I loved rock music, but I was a ‘60s purist. Raised during the British Invasion and the influx of popular American rock acts in the mid-to-late ‘60s, I still gravitated toward the performers I had embraced as a teenager. When I managed to scrape together a few bucks to attend a rock concert in the early to mid-‘70s in Boston, I was investing in the Kinks playing “Preservation,” their version of the rock opera form spawned by The Who and “Tommy.” Or seeing back-to-back Neil Young shows, because Neil had begun as a ‘60s rocker with Buffalo Springfield. Or having a night of “nostalgia” watching Bob Dylan and Joan Baez sing Blowin in the Wind together during Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review tour. Or catching Van Morrison singing Brown Eyed Girl for the millionth time.
I carried the belief that ‘60s rock was then and always would be the benchmark of all music. I didn’t need or want any new name to push aside the Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Moody Blues, Dylan or any of them. I needed to hold onto that connection to my coming-of-age experiences, when rock seemed to name the world for what it was, give you the strength to take it on, or stir you toward a vision, however hazy or wacky, of something more, something better. So as Bruce was slowly becoming a bit of a new cult figure along much of the Northeast, I paid little attention.
Flash forward five years. I was living in Bruce territory, working as a sports reporter in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I certainly knew about Bruce then. How could I not? My preferred rock station in Philly would cue up a Bruce tune about every third song they would play. And between songs they would play a promo with Bruce singing, “Growin’ up…in Philadelphia!” I did enjoy Born to Run and Thunder Road and Jungleland and some of the others that would come up more often in a rotation than the latest Top 40 hit on the AM dial. Those days Bruce was popping up in music venues of all shapes and sizes all over the Philly-Jersey area, even during his hiatus in recording due to his contract dispute. I never saw him. Wasn’t even tempted.
I still didn’t need Bruce then.
With rock, I still clung to those ‘60s artists, and I didn’t even listen to rock so much anymore anyway. I liked folk music, whether the ‘60s stalwarts like Joni Mitchell or even the more contemporary folkies. I remember being so enraptured with Phoebe Snow that I would later name my white cat Phoebe. I even allowed some space for classical music. Life was busy, my going-out budget only allowed for Tuesday $1 matinee movies, and, truth be told, I didn’t want to identify myself as a Jersey-Philly person anyway. I was a New Englander in my bones, in my head, and in my heart. And back then you had to breathe Jersey-Philly life to align with Bruce.
Oh, I did give in and buy my first Springsteen album: The River. I absolutely loved the title song, and I certainly enjoyed and appreciated Independence Day, Jackson Cage, Hungry Heart, and a few others. But half the other songs I just couldn’t get into. Then he had those songs about cars and characters who obsessed about them. Yuck! Who sang songs glorifying cars? And in the days of LP’s, it was a real aggravation to keep maneuvering the needle around the duds. I was definitely not drawn to pay money for another Springsteen album. I mean, did The Beatles ever put out an album in which there was even one song that failed to maintain a high level?
By 1981 I had moved out of Bruce Territory and into the edge of the Bible Belt: Charlotte, North Carolina. People in Charlotte listened to country music, and no one ever spoke of Bruce Springsteen. Until, that is, Born in the USA exploded on the scene and the resultant Bruce Mania swept out from the Jersey shore to the whole damn USA. I wrote about ACC basketball for The Charlotte Observer in those days, and I remember our newspaper tracking the Bruce hype when he stormed into our state. There was a full article about the local gym that Bruce took over the morning before one of his Carolina shows. Geez!
Okay, so I did give in. On a whim, because I had a night off between games involving the likes of Michael Jordan, I paid $20 to a scalper for a ticket to witness this Springsteen madness in Greensboro. It was a bit like my album experience: half the songs were great, half of them sucked. And with his silly outfit and the way he stormed on, off, and around the stage, he was so showy, so…pretentious.
I didn’t need any more of Bruce.
In the ‘80s, as I crossed from my 20s to my 30s, I was spending my music money on Mozart and Tchaikovsky. The only rock music act that I had seen once and would pay to see again was The Moody Blues, who had reunited and were adding more hits to bolster their Nights in White Satin heritage.
So Bruce and the E Street Band got bigger and bigger until they blew apart for awhile. I didn’t mourn the breakup or follow what Bruce did solo. I was oblivious. I moved around the country, including a stopover in the San Francisco area just long enough for the ’89 Bay Bridge earthquake, and my musical tastes and needs kept evolving. By 1996, when I was writing my first book, a huge step after only writing things that could be read in one five-minute sitting, I chose as my musical background to write by the sounds of Gregorian chant. When I was hanging out in New Age-like enclaves like the Omega Institute in New York, you didn’t come across many Springsteen fans.
Live marched along. As Bruce says, we lose ourselves in work to do and bills to pay. On the car radio, I would surf between the classical and classic rock, and then I’d punch in my George Winston tapes.
I definitely didn’t need Bruce then.
I got older, wrote a whole bunch of books that help people tell their life stories as author and ghostwriter, got married a second time, and adopted a son from another country. With music, I got the most excited in watching the anticipated rise of a local Charlottesville folk singer named Terri Allard in Charlottesville. My wife and I would travel all over to see Terri—all over a 25-mile radius anyway. Not exactly like Bruce fans scanning the globe for concerts. I barely even knew that Bruce was still recording new music and still playing live shows until I saw a listing for his Charlottesville gig in 2009. Out of curiosity, I bought tickets. It turned out to be only a few nights after the death of E Street Band member Danny Federici. Trained as a therapist, I thought Bruce seemed sad, though he still bounced around the stage and did his water-slicked slide. He also looked older. For that matter, so did I.
Something else stuck with me that night. We were seated in one of the arena’s upper sections and even had binoculars to zero in on the stage. And I saw all those people standing on the floor, so close to the stage. “Wow, how neat it must be to watch a concert from up there?” I thought, but then brushed the idea aside as something I would never be able to afford. And anyway, those tickets must have been only for VIPS. No way regular people could get in there.
So I still didn’t need Bruce…but I did decide that I would keep a light on for news of what he was up to anyway.
And then Clarence Clemmons passed away and Bruce wasn’t sure if there could even be an E Street Band again and something touched me somehow. When I heard that he had recorded a new CD, Wrecking Ball, I went right out and got it, the same way all those Bruce followers must have been doing for these last 30 years and a couple of dozen albums. I played it once. I was impressed. I played it again. I was awestruck. First, his voice was still strong, clear, and powerful. I figured he had lost it a little by now. Second, many of his themes resonated with me. Third, every song—well except maybe one or two clunkers—were of the same very high quality.
I played that CD, at high decibels, over and over in my car. I had not done that for rock music for…too many years to track.
I kept the light on brighter. I tuned into the Backstreets fan group and learned all about “the pit” and how it was actually quite possible to buy tickets for the standing space near the stage, and how to do it. I learned all about wristbands and lotteries and TicketMaster and BTX ticket sellers offering extra Bruce tickets without a mark-up in price. I vowed to have my first pit experience, and on Labor Day night in 2012 in Philadelphia, I was standing five persons back from Steve Van Zandt in Citizens Bank Park. By then I had learned many other Bruce songs from all those years when I didn’t even know he was singing, and I would have sung along in full voice…if I had any voice left. Unfortunately, I lost it all the night before: singing every word of almost every Bruce song while standing in the stadium for the first of two back-to-back Bruce shows, a back-to-back I had vowed to be there for.
I guess I was beginning to need Bruce.
So today I read Bruce concert reviews, buy live DVD’s, and rush to check out the video clips from the latest shows on YouTube. I bought the High Hopes CD not because it was supposed to be good but because it was his latest. I wear a Bruce tour T-shirt my wife bought for me. I took my 12 year old son to his first rock concert, which had to be a Bruce show. I’ve ventured into the pit again, and I lament that Bruce is apparently taking a prolonged break from live shows. I’m still bashful about identifying myself as a Bruce fan, a Bruce convert, a Bruce diehard, or whatever. But it is what I am.
Why? I’ve searched for clues. I think it has something to do with turning 60. When I watch and listen to Bruce, I see a model of maintaining passion, commitment, and dedication in what we do, where our gifts lie, and giving it everything we’ve got and more, even now. I need that kind of modeling as I continue to crank out books as a ghostwriter and the process of writing life stories is just a little…different for me now. I want to pour the best of myself and my abilities to writing the life stories of men and women of all ages and backgrounds, and other purpose-driven books, and I want to keep doing it for as long as I can. But I need reassurance sometimes that I can still do it. As I watch Bruce, I think about how maybe we’re getting older but we’re still going, still doing our best to be who we are at our core for “as many lives as they give us,” as Bruce said recently.
I’m a close follower of Bruce today also because I marvel at his uncanny, wonderful blend of intensity and easefulness. He exudes passion when he sings and plays, and yet his smile and grace in relating to his audience embody an acceptance of who he is, who we are, and how it all fits together in some kind of community. Even when he prances around the stage, crowd surfs, makes faces, waves for his audience to sing along or raise their hands, I don’t see a showy performer over-doing it now. I feel and sense intimacy, and though it is certainly somewhat crafted, it is also real.
I think I’m also drawn to Bruce now because I appreciate his way of capturing a sense of holding onto a spirit of fullness of life in all you do, think, feel, and believe. To me, fullness of life is a core spiritual foundation.
It’s also got something to do with Bruce having been born two weeks after my older brother, from whom I’ve been mostly estranged during our adult years. I don’t know Bruce, but when he stands up there not far from me on that stage, I see something of a big brother figure. And though he has not yet reached out to me for book coaching help on his memoir that he has begun but apparently can’t complete, I can at least say I shook his sweaty hand as he walked the catwalk while singing Tenth Avenue Freeze-out in Charlottesville.
Just being in the pit is certainly part of the draw. It’s quite an experience to be watching these shows so close that I’m waiting for Bruce to ask me to go refill his water bucket where he dunks his head when gets over-heated. More than that, I feel privileged. As I have come to appreciate the full body of his musical work, and watch him pour out his energy into what he has created for three full hours without hardly stopping to catch his breath, I feel like I am watching a Rembrandt-caliber artist up close and personal. Heck, I can even stomach an occasional car song: Cadillac Ranch is definitely okay, though I still cringe at Ramrod.
So I can freely admit that in some respect, I really do need Bruce in my life. Today. And tomorrow. All those years when he was around and I didn’t need him, hardly even paid attention to him, and now it’s changed. Life is like that. Relationships shift and evolve. Passions and desires take new forms. Old needs fade away and new ones sneak up on us, like spirits in the night.
Toward Bruce I feel a special kind of gratitude for…still being there, still doing what he does so beautifully, so gracefully, so passionately…for still being Bruce. “If I fall behind, wait for me,” he writes in one of his songs. So Bruce, as I turn 60 I just want to say this:
Thank you for waiting for me—not me personally, but for the collective pool of those of us who didn’t start out as fans 40-plus years ago but for some reason or other wanted and needed to come along much, much later. I fell behind in Boston, in Philly, and beyond, but I’m catching up now. Thanks for continuing to write, record, and play music with depth, meaning, energy, and fun. Thanks for continuing to perform at such an incredibly high level.
And thanks for instilling in me a strong curiosity, or desire, or, yeah, a need to watch and listen for where you’re going to go to from here.