The 38-Year-Old Springsteen Virgin

At 17 I was one of the bigger Bruce Springsteen fans on the planet. I had all the albums, of course. I had Bruce posters — the briefly iconic “Live 1975/1985” cover and the “Born in the U.S.A.” alternate cover shot of him windmilling his guitar, Townshend-style, with the Stars and Stripes behind him. I had a copy of Dave Marsh’s biography that I’d read until it was falling apart. And I had dozens upon dozens of cassette tapes – B-sides, studio outtakes and live recordings that had made their way through the bootlegger underground to me.

I’d been a heavy-metal kid before I discovered Springsteen; now, interested in what made him tick musically, I worked my way backwards through his influences – Dylan, Elvis, and a wealth of R&B, soul and garage bands. And while I’m musically hopeless, he influenced me as a writer, too. I was too young to think I couldn’t write things that could capture the wild yearning opera of “Thunder Road” or “Born to Run,” even without the musical accompaniment that made those lyrics soar. If most of my efforts failed, so what — they were terrific lessons, and part of the apprenticeship every writer must serve. And Springsteen helped in more-practical ways: There’s a great moment in the Chuck Berry documentary “Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll” in which Springsteen is discussing “Nadine” and notes with a laugh that “I’ve never seen a coffee-colored Cadillac, but I know exactly what one looks like.” Pound for pound, that’s the best advice about descriptive writing I’ve ever heard.

The only line missing from my Springsteen resume was the most important one: I’d never seen him live. Sure, I had recordings of concerts that I listened to until I knew every note the E Street band hit and every word from every aside offered to the crowd. I regularly listened to tapes of his most famous radio broadcasts – the Main Point in ’75, Winterland in ’78 – as well as lesser-known shows, such as the four-hour extravaganza taped by friends of mine in Tallahassee in 1984. But I’d never been to a Springsteen show myself – he was always playing near home days before I came back from school, or playing near school days after I left for home. It was always something, a bad luck streak I regarded with mixed amusement and aggravation, but that didn’t particularly worry me. I knew pretty soon something would work out, and I’d be in the audience for that first “1 … 2 … 3 … 4!”

I was right – except for the “pretty soon.” When I finally saw Springsteen, I was a couple of weeks shy of 39. Oh, and my mother went with me.

* * *

In my 20s I somehow lost track of Springsteen. I never stopped loving his gruff, friendly voice, lost my admiration for the E Street Band’s garage-soul strut, or stopped seeing the greatness in ambitious albums such as “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” But my tastes drifted off down other avenues – I was lured away by hip-hop, by punk and power pop and the various flavors of indie rock. In going down those avenues, I lost my taste for music that didn’t strike me as light on its feet, or that ventured beyond those bedrock lyrical themes of girls, good times and bad ideas. Springsteen, meanwhile, seemed to be drifting a bit, too – he’d sent the E Street Band packing, moved to California and, for the first time I could recall, turned out music that sounded like his imitators. (Witness long stretches of “Human Touch” and “Lucky Town.”) After those two, another live album appeared, with an MTV logo on the cover – I regarded it in bafflement and it became the first Springsteen album I didn’t buy. There was a “Greatest Hits” album with an unreleased song that I’d loved (“Murder Incorporated”), but the song was less interesting without the concealing murk of generations of copies. Sometime before “The Ghost of Tom Joad” appeared, I was gone — I’d given my tapes away, and my Bruce listening had dwindled to an occasional spin of “Sherry Darling,” “Crush on You” or one of the scruffy bar-band rockers that ran from profundity rather than chasing it.

By the time I entered my 30s, Springsteen would occasionally come up in conversations with music-mad friends. “I was a fanatic as a teenager,” I’d say, a little wistfully, “but now somehow he doesn’t do much for me.” And then I’d add, still with a touch of disbelief: “I never saw him live.”

* * *

By the time you’re married and a dad, Christmas has become a holiday for children – if there’s something you want during the year (within reason), you get it for yourself, and on Christmas morning you open a couple of articles of clothing and get a couple of books from your wife and your parents. It’s still a nice day, but the surprise and anticipation it had when you were a kid is long gone.

Or at least that’s true most of the time.

Near the end of Christmas 2007, my mother passed me an envelope with my name on it in her handwriting. When I opened the envelope I actually had to look at the sky-blue ticket twice – it didn’t make sense at first.

WED APRIL 30, 2008 7:30 PM

It was $95. That seemed like a lot for a show – particularly to me, who hadn’t been to an arena show in years and had grown used to clubs with $5 covers. My mom said something about how she’d pay for the airfare. Airfare? I was still struggling to catch up. Oh, yeah – Bruce would be playing in Charlottesville in the springtime. I’d have to come down from Brooklyn, wouldn’t I?

I thanked my mom profusely, but I’m sure I was distracted – I didn’t know quite what to think or how to react. At some point years earlier my story had become set: Used to be a huge Springsteen fan, never saw him live. Now that was going to change – I was going to get an experience I’d once burned for, then given up on and now no longer particularly wanted. I was moved by my mom’s kindness and grateful for a Christmas surprise, but I was also a bit worried: Did I really want to see Bruce Springsteen two decades too late and have it not matter?

But packing up things to mail back to New York, I tucked my ticket away in my carry-on. I’m going to see Springsteen, I thought, and smiled. How cool is that?

* * *

The New Year brought work, and plenty of it. April 30 was nearly half a year away, far enough in the future to border on the theoretical. Over the next couple of months I more or less forgot about the Springsteen show, except for those moments I’d spot the ticket in my desk drawer. I better not get on the plane without that, I’d think a trifle nervously.

I did listen to some Springsteen by way of vague preparation – I genuinely loved the roaring, throbbing “Radio Nowhere” from the new album “Magic,” and I also liked the coiled, complicated “Lonesome Day,” from Springsteen’s post-9/11 album “The Rising.” (Though honestly, the music moved me less than Bruce’s story of how he’d been driving along the Jersey Shore – he’d moved back – a few days after 9/11 and had a fan roll down the window and yell “We need you!” With any other artist this would have sounded like slightly deflected self-worship; Springsteen made it sound rueful but also slightly funny, like he’d been caught by a truant officer.)

But mostly I was busy, and so April 30 crept up on me step by step: ticket bought, email reminder from Delta, days off secured at work, pack for the trip. And then I was in my parents’ house and eating dinner the night of the show – the night I’d see Bruce Springsteen.

There were two unexpected wrinkles:

1. My mom’s employer had a skybox in the arena, to which I had access rights.

2. My mom had a ticket of her own. She’d be going with me.

I know, I know.

When I heard these new developments, I pictured my 17-year-old self finally getting to see Springsteen – say, on the “Tunnel of Love” tour – and finding out he’d see the show from a corporate skybox with his mother riding shotgun. I knew perfectly well what my reaction would have been – horror at finding myself the least cool rock-concert attendee in history. Going with your mom? That happened to girls who still had braces and liked Tiffany, or to the social pariahs from junior high who didn’t understand you were better off not going to Judas Priest at all than you were going with your mother.

But there are advantages to no longer being 17.

I’d always gotten along with my folks – as black sheep of their families, they were practically allergic to the habitual trough of family pieties, and that had shaped a family dynamic I knew was odd but had come to appreciate, particularly given the webs of family obligation many of my friends openly resented. My folks and I didn’t talk nearly as often as other parents and grown children seemed to — but when we did I was always happy to pass the time with them. We weren’t silenced by old resentments or embroiled in current disputes – we were genuinely interested in each other’s news and plans and interests.

And moving through my 20s and then my 30s, I’d come to appreciate my mom in a way I hadn’t been capable of before. I’d realized that in a family of writers she was the best one, with a clean, muscular style and a direct, unfussy way of telling a story that could have taught my father and me a lot — if we hadn’t been so busy talking about ourselves. And I’d realized how much I was like her. The things I imagine as my best qualities are all hers: She gave me my drive and my ability to focus and work hard for long stretches, just as she gave me my fearlessness, disdain for office politics and the ability to come across as simultaneously blunt and fair-minded. And the qualities I know aren’t my best but wouldn’t part with are hers, too: My mom, like me, is almost comically stubborn; incapable of hiding disagreement or contempt; given to theatrical bouts of brooding; and has never suffered anyone she considers a fool with even a smidgen of gladness.

On the 10-minute walk from my folks’ house to the arena, I looked over at my mom and realized that while this night might not have been my rock ‘n’ roll dream at 17, it would do quite nicely now. I’d grown up enough to realize my mom was so much cooler than any of the supposedly cool people whose approval I’d once pined for, and I was very glad she was there.

* * *

I’d looked up the setlists for recent shows, and was reassured to see how much they changed from night to night. That suggested Springsteen and his bandmates were having fun and pushing each other. But I was still apprehensive. I’d become used to musicians playing five feet away and sticking around for beers with fans afterwards. This would be quite different – I feared it would be an arena show like the ones I remembered: the dull, safe spectacle of the Rolling Stones in the rain at Shea Stadium in 1989, or a couple of dreadful, encased-in-amber concerts by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers (whom I actually like – just not live) that I’d seen in college.

Happily, the E Street Band wasn’t like that. After a video tribute to the late Danny Federici, they growled their way through “Loose Ends,” an outtake from “The River” that I’d loved as a teenager, years before its official release. The first Springsteen song I ever heard live turned out be one I would have dreamed of hearing at 17, with no chance of getting my wish. They then tore into “Radio Nowhere,” bumbled around a bit with “No Surrender” (apparently an audible by Springsteen, which was also reassuring) and then played “Lonesome Day.” Four songs in and I’d heard an ancient favorite rescued from obscurity, my two favorite new songs, and seen the band depart from the night’s script. Not bad.

And certainly the E Street Band didn’t sound like an arena act. Aside from the mildly .38 Specialesque presence of three guitarists (Springsteen, Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zandt), they sounded more like a club band: They were crisp and tight but let the songs breathe, improvising merrily and looking like they were having a fine time. And watching Springsteen, I felt like I’d seen him before. In a way, I had — I knew his moves from the glory days of MTV. There was his friendly-dinosaur stomp back and forth across the stage, the way he ducked his head to punctuate the songs, and his habit of raising his blonde Telecaster in an Excalibur-style salute.

He sounded great, and he owned the stage. That wasn’t unexpected – Springsteen’s combination rock shows/revivals are key to his legend, after all – but it was breathtaking nonetheless. He prowled his way to our side of the stage and looked up at us with what looked like genuine curiosity and a desire to connect, and I felt my pulse quicken even as the jaded rock fan in me whispered that every arena frontman did that. Then he’d be bounding off to stage right, or back to the drum riser to guzzle water, or striding to center stage to count the next song in like he was sending an army into battle. Not for a second did he betray the slightest doubt that the entire arena was his to command — his confidence never wavered when he was telling tales of life in vans and buses, or letting the audience sing classics and new songs alike. I pointed out to my mom that if you listened carefully you could hear, under the band, the sound of 10,000 people singing along to every word. What was it like, I found myself wondering, to struggle with a song in a hotel room, bang it into shape in the recording studio, let it out in the world and then hear it sung back to you by the population of a fair-sized town? What was it like to hold this many people in the palm of your hand?

The set list jumped around – the E Street Band played about half of the new album, mixed with a good chunk of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” and one-offs from other albums new and old. (There was “For You” from the first album, somehow now 35 years in the past, and three songs from “The Rising.”) After a rousing “Badlands,” the band walked offstage, and I reassured my mom that there would be an encore — probably a bunch of them. I wondered what they’d play, trying to guess along with Springsteen.

It wasn’t at all what I expected – Springsteen reappeared for a hushed take on “Meeting Across the River,” the odd little vignette from “Born to Run,” which then segued, incredibly, into the violin that opens “Jungleland.” Wow, I thought, that’s brave – more than nine minutes of Gotham street opera, with those long hushed interludes that verge on spoken-word.

I’d stayed in my seat for the show, not so much abashed by being in the skybox as I was just happy to drink everything in, nodding my head and smiling now and again. But as the crowd greeted “Jungleland” with a roar of glad surprise, I tried to imagine how many times I’d lain in the dark as a teenager with that song filling the room, whether I was with the high-school girlfriend who was the unfortunate other half of my ridiculous teenage operas, or just alone with my own yearning for life to hurry up and take me somewhere I was sure would be bigger and greater than wherever I was then. I knew every word, every note, and I found myself singing along quietly but steadily. and after a few moments I forgot to be embarrassed by the fact that there were tears pooling in the corners of my eyes and escaping.

Then the house lights came up and the band tore into “Born to Run” and everybody was up, skyboxes included, and I was singing along loudly now, trying to keep up with the band onstage and the man leading it and us. I’d gone my own way, but as it turned out he still had me – and 21 years didn’t feel like very long at all.

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