Literary Hub

You Gotta See Bruce Live; Then You’ll Understand

They always said, “You gotta see Bruce live; then you’ll understand.” My friends were early birds: bigtime fans who urgently wanted to share their discovery of the rock-and-roll poet from Asbury Park. But somehow, over the years, Bruce Springsteen had been everywhere that I wasn’t. I hadn’t been in Cambridge in ’74 when Jon Landau saw God onstage (although hundreds of people I’ve met over the years insist that they were in the Harvard Square Theater that night). I missed the tours to support Springsteen’s breakthrough Born to Run, his fortunes soaring from the “Who cares?” category to semi-legend. I turned down an invitation to see the now-famous singer and his E Street Band in 1978, choosing instead to explore Boston’s local punk-rock scene. But two years later, things changed when I heard a song called “Cadillac Ranch” on the radio. From the big-room echo on the naked drum kickoff to the cheesy 60s Farfisa organ, it yelled rock-and-roll attitude while chewing bubblegum at the same time. “That’s from The River, Bruce Springsteen’s brand new album,” I heard the DJ chatter, prompting me to get my own copy of the two-record set.

“The Ties That Bind,” “Ramrod,” and “Out in the Street” seized viscerally, while the poet pondering on “Independence Day,” “Point Blank,” and the title track exerted an overwhelming emotional pull. When The River tour reached New England in December 1980, I finally piled into a car with my Springsteen-freak friends for a road trip to Providence. Simply inexhaustible, the singer and his band set standards of endurance only rivaled by the Grateful Dead (who, albeit, took things at a more leisurely and stonier pace). During the three-hour, 29-song, basic set, then nearly 40-minutes of encore, Springsteen ruled the stage, while the E Streeters’ ability to play whatever their leader desired, whenever he wanted it, astonished me.

I witnessed a type of power onstage that I had never seen before. Over the years, countless singers had used the same old devices to cheerlead audiences: exhorting the crowd to clap, prompting sing-alongs, or even pulling individuals onstage. But one of the oldest tricks in the book was to stage a cheering competition between sections of the room. “Awl Reet! When we come around to that part in the song again, I want y’awl over here to shout as loud as you can!” My God, as much as I appreciated his stagecraft, I once witnessed Jon Bon Jovi incite not only the floor, but also the loges and four sections of the balcony into a competition. I excused myself, went to the bathroom, got a beer and he was still at it when I got back! But here was Bruce Springsteen, curly hair all messed up, sweat spouting out of his pores, chest heaving—although his breathing rate had slowed somewhat because neither the singer nor his entire band were moving so much as a muscle. The figures remained stock still, frozen in whatever position they had been in when their leader suddenly threw up his arm and called an abrupt halt to their raging drag race.

“Simon says: Stop!” Seconds passed, the audience laughed at the stunt and applauded. Now it had been a minute or two, still without movement. The crowd shrieked and the volume level peaked—perhaps that would break the spell. No dice. Moments crawled by as everyone’s undivided attention focused on the stage; the band, even the roadies, remained immobile as if suspended in aspic. Then, very slowly, a smile crept onto Springsteen’s face; that was all. When the throng spied it, they shouted all the louder. Then, body still immobile, his eyes glanced left. That side of the arena exploded! The smile got bigger. Then the eyes flicked to the right, erupting that quadrant. Down front: “Yayyyyy!” Left: “Yayyyyy!” Right: “Yayyyyy!” Front, left, right, front, left, right—the cheers followed, chasing the eyes around the hall a couple times. Suddenly, a signal from their leader released the band, which slammed back to life with a volcanic blast. Unbelievable! Bruce Springsteen had commanded the entire Providence Civic Center, front to back, side to side, almost 13,000 people, with just his eyes.

With The River gone multiplatinum and a long string of sold-out hockey arenas a testament to his success, Bruce Springsteen radiated the light of an ascended star perched at its zenith in the night sky. Or so we thought. After dropping back in the pocket to broaden his folk roots on the homemade Nebraska release in ’82, Springsteen launched an atomic bomb on the country two years later with Born in the U.S.A., an album that literally lifted the artist from “mere” star status to that of a cultural icon. It began in May ’84 with the single “Dancing in the Dark” and its innocent, yet memorable, concert video introducing actress Courteney Cox. That song flew all the way to number 2 in America, becoming the first of seven Top 10 singles from Born in the U.S.A. that kept “the Boss,” his popular nickname, on the charts until early 1986 when “My Hometown,” the final vinyl seven-incher from the album, finally dropped off the survey. In the midst of that fantastic run, the title track, which went to number 9 in the winter of ’84, did much more than become another hit: it became an easily misinterpreted anthem. Those who only heard the chorus assumed “Born in the U.S.A.” to be a perfect flag-waving commercial, but the verses revealed a profound comment on the failure of the American “system” as seen through the eyes of an unemployed Vietnam vet. Where was he going to end up? At best he’d be on food stamps, at worst holding a gun to his head. The song was a cry of rage and anguish, certainly not the best choice to pump up a team before the big game, but that’s how President Reagan used it in a speech, extracting patriotic mileage out of a song most people viewed as a worthy substitute for the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

Beginning in arenas in July 1984 and ending 15 months later in football stadiums, the tour to support Born in the U.S.A. grew into a mammoth globetrotting campaign as the album remained high in the charts and refused to go away. A stand of ten August ’84 shows in the Brendan Byrne Arena at Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey, became one emotional high point of the Springsteen juggernaut. An hour’s drive from Asbury Park, these were considered homecoming concerts, servicing 21,000 happy Springsteen followers at a whack. The announcement of the run prompted widespread hysteria as people rearranged their lives to find seats, which was not easy with Internet ticketing still an object of science fiction. Fans clutching sleeping bags staked out ticket windows, and people at home spent long minutes, even hours, waiting on their phones. Fortunately for me, I didn’t need to do either, since Springsteen’s label, Columbia Records, wanted me, a radio DJ in Boston, to witness Springsteen working on his home turf. All I needed to do was find my way to the arena somewhere in the swamps of Jersey, and I’d have a pair of tickets waiting.

I was disappointed when Springsteen only played three and a half hours this time. Jeez, what a slacker—he cut 10 minutes from the show! Any music biz swagger I might have brought into the Meadowlands that night quickly vanished as the tales of chrome, factory girls, poor men, rich men, kings, desperate lovers, and tramps like us transported me out of my presumptions and into reality—romanticized certainly, but without compromise, without surrender. “Born in the U.S.A.” started the set, Max Weinberg’s military cadence and monstrous drum break setting the bar outrageously high right off the bat, but Springsteen controlled the flow and changed the moods at will for the rest of the night with some help from Big Bones Willie, Hazy Davy, Bad Scooter, Bobby Jean, the couple walking out on the wire, the convict in the electric chair, a town full of losers, and those two lanes that could take us anywhere. By the end of his 30th song, a romp on the 60s hit “Twist and Shout,” my arm muscles could no longer muster even a feeble response. I worried that if he came out for another encore, I might end up in the care of paramedics; fortunately the lights came up at that point. My friend and I slapped on our backstage passes and trudged wearily to the designated meeting area.

The backstage room was large, the size of a couple of tennis courts teeming with at least a hundred people with most jabbering excitedly about the show. Some folks, though, seemed unaffected by the pro- found performance. Perhaps they remained till the end to collect the bragging rights of a backstage pass and a visit beyond the velvet rope. “Rocky” came walking by and spoke in my ear, “Stick around; he’ll be coming out later,” and moved on to quietly inform some others. Known by this nickname to his friends, Jimmy Del Balzo would know if Bruce Springsteen planned to step into the room, since he was far up the food chain at Columbia Records. We killed time, making small talk with the few people I knew, grabbing beers before the supply disappeared, and grazing at a bowl of withered chips. The bright overhead lights cast the entire room in a stark glare, a punishing contrast to the carefully considered spectrum of Springsteen’s light show, but the knowledge that “the Boss” would drop by sent a colorful glow of expectation to all corners. After an hour, any poseurs in the space had long since dis- appeared, and now there were only a couple dozen people left. Rocky mentioned that the star was doing an extended interview with MTV, but would appear as soon as he could. “Don’t leave,” he urged, “If he said he’d be here, he’ll be here.” More loitering and not a lot left to talk about slowed the clock to a tedious crawl.

At 90 minutes, there were just four of us left. The other couple began to quibble about leaving, but I had faith that the man who delivered on his grand promises hadn’t gotten there by skimping on the small ones. It turned out I was right: the door opened, our eyes shot to the entrance, and there he was, big smile and blinding white teeth lighting up the room, bulging muscles practically filling it. He looked around bemusedly at all the people who weren’t there and gave us a sheepish “their loss, your gain” grin before striding over to shake hands and even hug the girls. He hung out for 20 minutes, 19 more than I could have hoped, and there were no grand concepts explained or secrets of the universe revealed. No, the talk began with how great the show was and congratulations over Born in the U.S.A., both politely received by “the Boss,” but deflected into queries about our own lives. Who were we? What did we do? How were things going? Our nervousness and awe passed; this actually was an enjoyable and relaxing conversation. No annoyance at having to be somewhere he didn’t want to be or effort to hurry things along danced in his demeanor; it seemed the impossibly fit figure standing there genuinely cared that this blip on the itinerary of his day would be a lifelong memory for us. But, then again, I’m sure Bruce (we were on a first-name basis at this point) got something out of the encounter; after all, he was a chronic people watcher. He had to be. Where else would he have discovered the parade of characters that ended up inhabiting his music, either name-checked in the lyrics or concealed in the backstreets? So, now I had a rock-and-roll fantasy of my own: perhaps I might be lurking in one of those future songs too: the exhausted guy dressed in black hanging out backstage on night number two at the Meadowlands. Well, then again, maybe not.



From The Decibel Diaries: A Journey through Rock in 50 ConcertsUsed with permission of University Press of New England. Copyright 2017 by Carter Alan.



Originally published in Literary Hub.

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