The biggest surprise about seeing Bruce Springsteen April 4 for the first time in 28 years was that there were no fire engines in the parking lot when we streamed out with the 20,000 other fans into the chilly late-night breeze. After all, my favorite rock ‘n roll arsonist had just burned New Jersey’s Izod Center to the ground.
On his first major tour since 2009 and the death last year of beloved sax man Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, Springsteen had driven the 75 minutes up the Garden State Parkway from his longtime home in Rumson to promote his 17th album, Wrecking Ball. My presence there to bear witness to a performer who didn’t get the memo that he is 62, that the 21-time Grammy winner and Oscar owner has nothing left to prove as America’s troubadour laureate was due to my three kids. Nick, the second oldest, had heard his mom complain for years that I’d never taken her to see The Boss in his home state where we’ve lived for 19 years. He took matters into his own hands by getting his sister Mary Allison and older brother Noel to chip in with him on two scalped general-admission tickets for us down on the arena floor.
When I left Texas, a state that has never been accused of having self-esteem problems, to live in Jersey all those years ago I was struck by the lack of identity my new home seemed to have. Indeed, the state suffers outright from an inferiority complex, routinely the butt of jokes on the late-night talk shows not to mention Jersey native Jon Stewart’s frequent “Daily Show” parodies of the Garden State. There’s also the image-wrecking damage Snooki has done.
But, then again, Jersey produced Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen.
I first saw Springsteen electrify a stage in 1980 or so, then again in 1984, both times in Dallas. And I always told my kids that, in my opinion, he now owns the mantle of the greatest rock-song writer of my generation, particularly after the tragically premature losses of Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison.
Our tickets had stated a start time of 7:30 with no warm-up act. We raced to the Izod Center by 6:30 and were inside before 7. While a few roadies climbed rope ladders to man spotlights and cameras above the stage, the arena was virtually empty except for a hundred or so fans on the floor. After procuring the vital concert accoutrements of two Heinekens for a mere $8 each, we strategized where to position ourselves on the floor for the best view of the stage, about 25 yards away. However, with a wife who is, maybe, 5’2”, strategy was kinda a waste of time unless I planned to perch her, Mardi Gras style, on my shoulders, which undoubtedly would have been discouraged by the dozens of concert staffers milling about.
We found a spot along the arena’s railing and promptly met a 53-year-old mother who had brought her 21-year-old son. “He needs to see this guy,” she earnestly told us, as any good mother would. I overheard a fellow, maybe 45, behind us tell his buddy this was his 50th Springsteen concert. While the reserved seats were still largely empty as 8 p.m. approached, the floor was beginning to fill; and even in such a small sampling you could see people spanning every one of the four decades Springsteen has been working on putting a hole in the pick guard of his favorite solid-ash Fender.
The general-admission section had no seats, but they would have been superfluous. After a 30-minute delay, Springsteen suddenly appeared, exhorting, “Get your lazy asses out of those seats!” And nary a butt touched a very pricey reserved-seat cushion all night.
I haven’t yet bought Wrecking Ball; but it was obvious from the show’s opener, “We Take Care of Our Own,” that the album is an excellent bookend to 2002’s The Rising, the latter a documentation of the pain of 9/11, the former a tribute to the resilience of those ravaged economically since then.
For my money, precious few American-born rock acts have weathered so well, much less continued to produce new work. The 61-year-old Tom Petty comes to mind. Maybe Jon Bon Jovi, who grew up 12 years Springsteen’s junior up the road in Perth Amboy and released The Circle in 2009. I’d add Aerosmith, but the boys from Boston haven’t released a new album for eight years as 64-year-old front man Steven Tyler continues to battle his demons and trade bon mots with J. Lo on “American Idol.”
Bruce continues to write and experiment and be heard as if he’d conned Ponce de Leon into revealing the location of that fountain of youth. Maybe it’s because, much like Guthrie and Seeger and Dylan, Springsteen hitched his wagon to the Steinbeckian world of working-class people in an America that increasingly has been polarized economically into haves and have-nots. Unfortunately, there seems to be no end in sight for his source material. As he said in the intro to “Jack of All Trades,” one of the 13 tracks on Wrecking Ball, “There are a lot of people out there who lost their homes, their jobs, their dignity in the worst economic downturn of our lives.” After a reminder to give generously to volunteers outside for the New Jersey Food Bank, he softly growled the song’s opening:
I’ll mow your lawn
Clean the leaves out your drain
I’ll mend your roof to keep out the rain
I’ll take the work that God provides
I’m a Jack of all trades
Honey, we’ll be alright
When Springsteen sings it, you want to believe, even though a cynic might scoff at his populist image when reading about his multiple residences, including a horse farm, or the horse he almost bought for $850,000 for his equestrian daughter, Jessica. Too, T-shirts for sale in the concession areas for a whopping $45 didn’t exactly scream “man of the people;” but Springsteen acknowledged the paradox when commenting on the plight of much of America.
“We opened this (arena) 30 years ago,” he told the audience, referring to a series of 1981 concerts that were the facility’s first paid events. “Back then it was named after a person; now it’s named after a shirt. Times have changed.” Now, so many people struggle, “while rich guitar players get all the breaks.”
Through the night he interspersed six of the new album’s songs with a few from The Rising, which, on paper, was a setlist guaranteed to have you dialing a suicide hotline if not for the simple grandeur of the lyrics and the beautiful imagery. Perhaps the somber material reflected his mood now, performing without his sidekick Clemons, who died of a stroke last June as one of only two members left of the original 1972 lineup of the “E” Street Band. Five songs into the show, Bruce introduced the latest version of the band, sporting a five-piece brass section that featured Clemons’ nephew, Jake, on tenor sax.
"Are we missing anybody?” Bruce asked the crowd. “Do I have to say the names?,” referring to Clarence and keyboardist Danny Federici, who died in 2008 of melanoma. “All I can guarantee is, if you're here, and we're here, then they're here tonight. So raise your voices."
And the minions responded with a roar, with some on the floor waving head shots on sticks of Clarence. Then Max Weinberg, the band’s drummer since 1974, started the runaway-train beat that opens “Candy’s Room;” the crowd, an impromptu Tabernacle Choir, belted the lyrics for all they were worth:
She says, Baby if you wanna be wild,
you got a lot to learn, close your eyes,
Let them melt, let them fire,
let them burn
Cause in the darkness, there'll be hidden worlds that shine
Anne and I had slowly migrated toward the center of the floor, desperately trying to find a crack in the crowd to allow her to catch a glimpse of the considerable action on stage. We found ourselves next to a woman who was a good inch shorter than Anne. At least Anne had company. Fortunately, there were very good elevated screens she could watch while absorbing the sound and fury that I had long forgotten about my concert-going days.
I was just tall enough to see Springsteen and his crew, including his wife of nearly 21 years, Patti Scialfa, between swaying heads and uplifted arms. As a longtime shutterbug, I couldn’t resist sneaking a small point-and-shoot camera into the show, knowing that I’d never get past security with my big Canon and its 300mm zoom lens. In olden times I used to routinely enter concert venues with my camera bag and snap away at B.B. King, Alvin Lee, Ian Hunter and others. Sadly, most of the Springsteen pictures are shaky and of poor quality, but a couple convey a bit of the excitement of the show. I’ll rationalize the soft focus as an homage to French Impressionism.
A shot of the big screen when Bruce sang "Jack of All Trades."
The Boss and wife, Patti Scialfa.
Anne's unfortunate view for much of the show.
Just as we were resigned to Anne being trapped in a forest of shoulders, The Boss disappeared from the stage into the crowd and jumped up on a platform not 15 feet in front of us for a couple of verses of “Johnny 99,” playfully reaching down and grabbing a fan’s beer and swigging it. We could confirm that Bruce, a bit thicker perhaps than in his salad days but in great shape nonetheless, can give any TV evangelist a run for his money when it comes to introducing his flock to the Holy Spirit. Rather than jump down and return to the stage the way he came, he simply fell back on top of the crowd, allowing lucky hands to provide that “human touch” to gently transport him back to the band.
Bruce quenches his thirst with a fan's beer. Note the headshot of Clarence Clemons in the corner.
As good and powerful and cohesive as the setlist had been to that point, perfectly setting up a chilling “The Rising,” it wasn’t until the band finally reached back to the album that put them on the map, Born to Run, and Bruce blew that little harmonica riff over Roy Bittan’s tinkly piano to open “Thunder Road” that I was transported back to my youth. Involuntary tears ran down my checks while looking up at the big screen at the singer and hearing the lyrics:
Darling you know just what I’m here for
So you're scared and you're thinking
That maybe we ain’t that young anymore
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
Turning 56 next month, I’m old enough now to understand that lyric and pray that Bruce was right when he released it in 1975 as a writer much older than his 26 years. As the song approached what would have been Clarence’s classic sax overlay, his nephew stepped downstage, pointed to the heavens, then blew the roof off just as his uncle would have wanted. Bruce bear hugged Jake at the song’s finish, the set’s end.
Springsteen paused briefly to chug a drink amid deafening cheers of “Bruuuuuuuce!” before launching a six-song encore that featured, of course, the iconic “Born to Run,” his most performed song. As a high-school theater teacher, my wife is more of a Broadway musical type than a rocker, disturbingly including Air Supply and Barely Man-enough (read Manilow) in her album collection when we were dating almost 30 years ago. But even she started bouncing up and down when that unforgettable guitar opened that classic paean to freedom without regret.
A photo montage of Clarence flashed on the big screens during the show’s finale, “10th Avenue Freeze Out.” For this, Springsteen returned to that nearby platform, holding aloft his microphone like the Statue of Liberty, legs spread wide, to capture the singing of 20,000 fans who didn’t need the marijuana tinging the air by then for their high.
The show clocked in at just under three hours, an hour or so less than the two marathons I had witnessed in Dallas all those years ago when Bruce would tell the crowd “we ain’t goin’ home ‘til you do.” Perhaps 62 does make you a bit more rational about your body (though he still did his patented running knee slide the width of the stage at one point in the show). With more than 40 tour stops, including a grueling campaign through Europe, before the end of July, Springsteen is taking a page from James Brown’s book as “the hardest working man in show business.”
After nearly three decades, once again seeing the guy who had made the Jersey Shore’s Stone Pony a rock ‘n roll shrine, the guy who had provided a soundtrack for my life astride that platform in front of us like a Titan, I was reminded of the chiseled-in-stone quote from rock critic/producer Jon Landau in a review of The Boss in 1974, my senior year in high school: “I have seen rock and roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
As a “Jack of all trades” these days, I was comforted to see that, 38 years later, Bruce still is.
The luckiest parents in the world.
P.S.: Like me, Springsteen has three children, two in college, one in high school. I hope they treat their dad as well as mine treat me. My two sons and daughter are in the world now, living with honest hearts and an optimism intrinsic to their youth, striving in their chosen fields with a work ethic that astounds but doesn’t surprise me. After all, they had a great example to follow in their diminutive mom, her affection for Barry Manilow notwithstanding. And maybe I didn’t do anything bad enough to screw them up. My vocabulary is too limited to describe my pride in them. Thanks for the tickets, kids. Thanks for knowing what makes your father tick.