At age 50, I was a Bruce Springsteen concert virgin. I’d been listening to him and loving his music intensely since 1973. In fact, it’s probably safe to say I lived his music. I ALMOST saw him once, but it doesn’t really count. It was the 1988 Amnesty International Concert at JFK Stadium in Philadelphia, but he came on last, and after a full day in the hot sun and too much beer, the friend I was with (Hi Rita!) insisted on leaving before it was over so we could beat the traffic. I vividly remember standing by my car and hearing him start to play “Thunder Road” and falling back onto the car and thinking to myself, “WHAT HAVE I DONE???!!!”
Years go by, and I still love Bruce, but for reasons that shall remain mysterious to now, he becomes more of a private pleasure. I move onto other musical interests, and the hundreds of concerts I see just never happen to be him. And then I get XM satellite radio (which actually first led me to love country music). But after country music, I begin to fall back on the E-Street Radio station. I start to feel friendly with Dave Marsh again (I remember those early days at Rolling Stone!). I start hearing Bruce songs that I never heard before and that speak to me now as an adult in a whole new way. And I reconnect with the Bruce tribe in a way I had forgotten existed. It’s actually amazing to realize that there is such a large group of people out there who share similar feelings and hope and dreams. I start to dream of being “the Boss” and putting together a set list for my one-hour DJ session on Channel 20 on XM.
So when I heard he had a new album and a new tour, it was a foregone conclusion that I would go. Nothing—nothing—was going to stop me. I got tickets for Good Friday and Easter Monday at Madison Square Garden. And I became one of the thousands of people who listened to each new song, in album order, as it was released online in advance. I even listened to his South by Southwest keynote speech, which was, honestly, one of the most brilliant speeches I have ever listened to. It’s the story of Rock ‘n’ Roll. It’s the story of finding, facing, and not fearing creative power (“You suck!” “You are awesome!”). It’s the story of the evolution and inspiration of a musical genius who has managed to continue to innovate and remain relevant into “fucking old age.” (My words, not his. But he is 62.) Here is what he did say that I wrote down: When talking about soul music, he called it the “Church of the Earth,” which I thought was brilliant. Now THAT is a church I can belong to, I thought!
And that’s what it felt like when I finally got to see him live. The ecstatic joy of feeling union with the divine through music, rhythm, poetry—powerful words that peel away the differences between us and get to the center of what makes us human and alive and in love.
Friday night I saw him from the floor, among the drunken, dancing, seething mass of Bruce fans. It was fun to watch the people around me. Some danced, some played air guitar. Everyone sang. Most were old, but not all. In fact, a fair share of the crowd was little kids being brought by their parents. Bruce’s mom came on stage at the end for “Dancing in the Dark.” It felt like a show that bridged multiple generations—especially to see Clarence Clemons’ nephew Jake step into the spotlight to take up the great sax tradition of the E-Street Band. And he stepped right up.
Monday night I sat behind the stage and saw, literally, a different side of the show. I could see Bruce turn around from finishing a song and change the set list in real time (which is a little religion of its own—people study those damn things!). Every time Jake Clemons finished a solo, he’d turn back and share his victory with us.
What brings people to church? A chance to celebrate life, mourn death, face the truths we try to ignore the rest of the week, and ultimately, for me, to sing. I did all those things. We were crucified and resurrected. We celebrated and we mourned. (I had thought the “10th Avenue Freeze Out” tribute to Clarence wouldn’t be as good twice, and I was wrong.)
Did he play every song I wanted to hear? Of course not. That would be impossible. There are too many songs. And I’m sure my favorites are not everyone else’s. But what I love—and what makes him relevant as an artist—is that some of his new songs are now my favorites, too. “Rocky Ground.” “Land of Hope and Dreams.” “Death to My Hometown.” “Wrecking Ball.”
I must admit, before I went to any of the concerts there was a little voice that said maybe seeing him twice would be too much. Would I be bored the second night? Halfway through the first concert I began to understand. Somehow, Bruce is able to leave you exhausted (and, as Bruce says, “with your sexual organs stimulated”) and yet wanting more. I guess it’s like sex: Having it once just isn’t enough. You get the craving and you need to, want to, have it again.
Now that I’m not a virgin anymore, I understand. And I’m hooked.
See you next time, Bruce.
Bruce is certainly big here in Sweden! He comes here all the time and EVERY time the tickets sell out in MINUTES! It has always amazed me. And, as an American, it makes me proud. He makes me proud. 🙂
Loved your post! This soooo spoke to me!My husband Scott forwarded it to me (he was a classmate of yours at LA). He has always said that going to Dead shows is like going to church but for me, it is Bruce that gives this experience. We’ve debated this topic often! “What brings people to church? A chance to celebrate life, mourn death, face the truths we try to ignore the rest of the week, and ultimately, for me, to sing.” Thanks for putting it into words.
Welcome to the E-Street Nation! We Bruce fans are a cast of thousands-spanning decades/generations/nationalities. I highly recommend his exhibit at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia – From Asbury Park to the Promised Land. Creative American genius.
Bruce is the Boss!
Thank you for including me.
You REALLY got a lot of things right.
Did I actually know you in “the early days of Rolling Stone”?
Something about all this feels like I should have…
Thank you for including me in your essay.
I think you should probably have a long talk with Rita –but don’t do it around any chains or cement blocks. (That was a pretty great show; I was there; you shouldn’t have missed it!)
Did we actually know each other somehow back in “the early days at Rolling Stone”? Someting makes me feel like maybe we did, but on the other side of it, maybe that’s how good a writer you are.
No, we never met. I was just a crazy Rolling Stone subscriber (but now know Jann a little bit) who read every word you wrote. But now, listening to you on the radio I feel like I know you in a whole different way. THANK YOU for commenting! You are the best. I fancy myself an amateur music critic, so hearing from you that I’m a good writer is like getting the ultimate gold star!!!
Yes. You nailed it – I have been a fan since 1973 (my first show was in a local high school auditorium) and I’ve seen hundreds of Bruce shows over the years; in stadiums and arenas and theatres and local bars when he just shows up. It’s so difficult to explain to “civilians” why the pilgrimage is important, but your post is an excellent start. A concert is an invitation to your better angels to come on down and dance with you. And there is nothing like dancing with your better angels 🙂
I’ve seen him twice so far on this tour, I will see him in two weeks in Newark and I am spending the 4th of July “with” him in Paris.
My mother wondered aloud why I continue to do this. I replied that, if every two years I took a vacation and played some of the world’s best golf courses, no one would bat an eye. Rock ‘n’ Roll? A different animal – but not really. Pleasure and exercise and righteous exhaustion….anyway, I babble.
Thanks for this post. I look forward to reading more…
Oh and by the way, I got tickets for the Philadelphia show on Sept 2!!!!
I saw them once in the eighties in a stadium in Australia. Clarence was there of course. Created a life long memory( those are rare) and a life long fan. I get it.
So happy you shared the experience too. Your post brings it all back as if it were yesterday. Hope I get another chance someday soon.
When I was living in New York, flat broke, I went to a free concert at the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center with a friend. It was a concert of relatively well known musicians covering Bruce’s early folk-rock songs (we could only afford free shows!) and I remember it was FREEZING that night. It might have even been snowing and it took a lot of convincing myself to get out in the bitter cold to go. The concert was great, as his early stuff was, and at the end everyone gave a standing ovation. It was really good. Then…no one sat down, and everyone started jumping up on chairs…as THE BOSS himself walked on stage!! It was INCREDIBLE! Here I was getting to see him for free when thousands upon thousands of people couldn’t even pay hundreds of dollars for tickets because they sell out in minutes. I couldn’t believe it. Neither could anyone else in the audience. He then proceeded to play “Jacob’s Ladder” from The Seeger Sessions album part solo, part with all the other musicians. It was a phenomenal night–and I always think back to how I almost missed it!
I SO know how you feel. I’ve been a Bruce fan for decades. Unfortunately, I’ve only been able to see him live twice…first time in the mid-80’s, last time three or four years ago. In my life, I have seen A LOT of concerts/performances and, to this day, I still say Springsteens’ is the best performance I’ve ever been to. Not only is he a great performer, he is a wonderful entertainer. I’ve never been to a concert where anyone actually talked to the audience like Bruce. His concerts take one through every emotion. I’m so glad that you finally got to see him live. It’s one of my personal, life long, favorite experiences that I’ll never forget.
I love how relevant Bruce remains. Seeing him live is like wine – it only gets better as he gets older.
I don’t know if I love this blog post most or the fact my 70+ year old mother read it and forwarded it to me with this note: “When I read this I thought of you and your love of the music by Bruce Springsteen, so had to send it on. Made me smile as I remembered attending a concert by Neil Diamond and my inner joy.” This piece is spot on and echoes almost exactly the way Bruce and his music weaves through 30+ years of my own life. Well done.