Bruce Springsteen. There are no words for me to possibly even begin to put it into words. Musically he stands atop the heap for me. He has since 1976 when I snuck out of the house and took the train into NYC to see him play at Madison Square Garden. From the first note there was euphoria in the air. Sheer unadulterated mind-blowing, house shaking, soul saving, history making, rock and roll. In those days, there weren’t a whole bunch of military-fashioned barricades separating the first class floor dwellers with the last row seat climbers. It was raucous rock. I remember Springsteen taking a leap off the stage and running up the floor aisle and up to the second section of seats. No mic. Not like these days when there’s a finely choreographed and body-guard clad run up a few rows by the pop stars of today. Bruce ran, and ran, and ran… all the way into the hearts and mind and souls of the sweaty, screaming frenzied and dedicated fans of this man. He represented, after all, just that. A cry for freedom. Freedom from the front door of your parents house onto what may be the gritty streets to most but represented the freedom of your spirit.
I was 16 from the suburbs of Long Island. Knew just enough to know I didn’t want any part of it, I was thrilled just to touch this paper-wrapped glowing amber stick of smoke and pass it to the right. The smoke of this Garden party rose up like a nuclear cloud of musical magic and the air was filled with a night we all knew we’d never forget.
So here I sit, 34 years later and a couple of dozen of his concerts since then, the memory of that first Bruce Springsteen show etched in my memory as vivid as that day. The times in those first years when your ears rang for two days after, and bands played until, well, until they wore out their catalog of songs and the cloth covers of the well-worn arena seats with the foot-pounded shoe-raveged frenzied fanatics.
Which brings us to the point of many of Springsteen’s impassioned musical cries over the span of his now forty years in the musical hemisphere. Freedom. The USA he so loves. From the days spent sitting on the sand as the sun set so many days under the boardwalk in Jersey watching the ships sailing by on the water. Dreaming of the music he so dearly and clearly wanted to make.
I once asked Clarence Clemons, the E-Street band’s Big Man, if they’d ever had a ‘make it or break it’ talk whenever he’d muse to me about those times. There was no ‘break it’ to Bruce. Never an option Clarence told me.
No retreat baby, no surrender.
It was the 80s which seemingly brought Springsteen from his musical boyhood into learning the ways of the world outside of the confines of New Jersey. In 1984, Bruce released “Born In The USA,” the first album that really saw his music explode onto the mainstream stage. That can be a double edged sword, however. And in this case, at the time at least, it was. I remember seeing one of the shows Bruce did at Giant’s Stadium in his backyard. Going from a group of dedicated know-every-word-to-every-song Springsteen lovers to this football stadium, the feel was foreign to me. The crowd looked different. Jeans and white sneekers. Girls with neon shirts on, guys with acid washed jeans and Izod shirts. Springsteen hit the stage and played and all was well with the world. Until about the third song into the set. Bruce hit the first note of the tune “Sandy” and the crowd started to sit down. I heard one girl sitting to my left in the row in front of me say this must be a new song because she’d never heard it. My heart sunk as I realized these were Springsteen newbies. Jumping on the bandwagon of what Bruce was seen to represent in that year. “Born in the USA” was seen as an ultra-patriotic tune taken on face value, society hearing what they wanted to hear and running with it. When in fact the tune is anything but a rah-rah cheer for America. That year, in fact, Ronald Reagan was running for President and on a stop in New Jersey he played the tune as part of his campaign rally and mentioned how his political philosophies were quite akin to Springsteen’s musical outlook on the world. And although Bruce’s camp put a squash on that notion post-haste, the dye was cast. The videos were made, the masses came to listen to this “new” artist, and the world moved on.
Quite a precursor to much of what has become of the Springsteen’s musical incarnations and personal evolution since that time, Bruce has fought back against what conservative society tried to place upon a musician who is as commercially viable as he remains. He stays true to loving America. Just not an America of such great inequality where only the voices of the rich and prominent reign. Springsteen, although veering for a time a bit to the fast lane of the highway, is now on the path of musical and personal righteousness. In a USA where people can know the words to all the tunes. Not just the hits.