Baptized by Bruce: Thirty-seven years late to a great party

Nearly forty years ago, I received my invitation to the Springsteen party in the form of the “Born to Run” album. Last night, thanks to a splendid gesture of generousity from a dear friend, I finally decided to go.

When Springsteen’s break-out release emerged in 1975, putting him on the cover of Time and Newsweek on the same week, my fourteen-year-old music tastes had already developed an affinity for the likes of Elton John, Cat Stevens, and plenty of other stars of the progressive rock radio era, but I hung with a crowd that either didn’t accept Bruce as “the next big thing” in Rock & Roll, or worshipped him perhaps a little too much. In subsequent years, I became an ardent fan of the punk/new wave school, and looked upon Bruce’s growing popularity with dismissive curiosity albeit with a grudging appreciation, but not enough to make me actually buy an album. Certainly not enough to buy a ticket to a show.

By the early 1980s, Bruce dominated the airwaves so much that I hardly felt it necessary to purchase any of his music. When “Born in the U.S.A.” hit, well, forget it. I had eschewed all-things-mainstream by then, and in the mid-1980s, Springsteen epitomized mainstream.

Still, Bruce’s performances became stuff of legend and impossible to ignore. No matter how you might feel about him, his music, or his politics, the accounts of his four-hour, marathon performances inspired a jealous twinge in those of us whose idols all-but-phoned-in their shows. In 1982, I saw The Police and the Go-Go’s, and the combined acts lasted a paltry 100 minutes. Bruce has barely warmed up in that time.

With age, however, comes a deeper appreciation for things dismissed as mere fashion in youth. I had a profile of a typical fan of Bruce as a frat-boy type and with a hair-hopper girlfriend who loved his macho posturing and power chords far more than his actual message. The fact that almost everyone misinterpreted “Born in the U.S.A.” as a jingoistic anthem only supported that. I suspect that more than half the people who bought that album are probably grateful that Bruce isn’t the most enunciative singer who ever lived.

On the other hand, I felt I understood his perspective. I lived some of the lives in those songs. I came from that background. Kids from my neighborhood “got Mary pregnant” and plenty more couldn’t find work. I often had to regard Springsteen as a guilty pleasure, while some of his lyrics cut right to bone. And I didn’t care what anyone said: “Born to Run” belonged in the top twenty of any all-time greatest album list.

Then, yesterday morning, Scott called and offered up the seats. Admittedly, my initial impulse was to turn them down, but it quickly dawned on me that Bruce wouldn’t live forever. Who knows how many tours he has left? Plus, by now, Springsteen is practically a national landmark, a living, breathing face on the Mount Rushmore of American music.

Last night’s show confirmed it all for me. I had sworn off any arena or stadium shows after a 1993 Depeche Mode horror show at the former Great Woods venue in Massachusetts. From that point on, if the band didn’t play a club, I didn’t see them. Springsteen transcends all that. Putting on that kind of performance in that kind of venue takes a special talent, one that makes even the nosebleeds feel close to the stage. You have to look like you enjoy every second, and Bruce performs as if his life depends on it.

Oddly, while watching, I couldn’t help but think of Billy Joel during most of the show. Both started out about the same time, emerging from the musical wreckage of the 1960s to become two of the greatest songwriters who ever lived, and both from the same Northeastern, blue collar traditions. Both men wrote about much the same thing, love, loss, pain, and triumph of the spirit. I envisioned a “two towers” thing — one over Long Island and the other in Jersey. I imagined what a collaboration between the two might sound like and if the two talents ever met.

But where’s Billy Joel now? I last heard him on the Howard Stern program about a year ago, where he graciously gave Howard a nearly two-hour interview telling some amazing stories. He performs occasionally, but when have we seen an album of any kind? His last, “Fantasies and Delusions” came out in 2001, and was a work of classical music. I write this not to pick on Billy, but one can’t help but wonder why his talents haven’t kept him as current as Bruce. Such is the ephemeral nature of inspiration.

Admittedly, I considered another reason to pass on Scott’s offer: The audience. As a Bruce-newbie, I knew that the crowd around me would likely sing out every word to every tune, wouldn’t sit down, wouldn’t shut up. The older I get, the less patience I have for this nonsense.

Several years ago, watching another show in a small club, two guys stood behind me talking amongst themselves almost the entire time, even during the quieter songs. Fed up, I turned around and started watching them instead. The tactic had the desired effect. “Are we talking too loud?” one of them asked. “Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “I thought I came here to see the band, but apparently you two are the main act.” They removed themselves to a more remote spot in the club.

It bothers me when people intrude on the show, but after a short while, I took a deep breath, and absorbed the Total Bruce Experience which almost by necessity includes even the loopiest of fans. I suppose I have my moments as well.

And yes, the show lasted nearly four hours. How a 63-year-old guy works it like he does would make a fan of anyone with a pulse. I still wonder about one thing, though. How come a guy from northern New Jersey talks like a cattle rancher from Wyoming?

By the end of the night, I experienced several “firsts.” My first Springsteen concert. My first stadium show. And because of the subway schedule, the first time I ever left a concert before it ended (though only by about fifteen minutes). For all that, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to a very dear friend. It was a hell of a night.