I’ve been to a lot of Bruce Springsteen concerts, and by a lot, I mean I actually lost count somewhere in the midst of several multi-night New Jersey tour stops. There are so many potent memories—the five-hour marathon, the one in pouring rain, the one in the front row, the Southside appearances, Amnesty International, the Hall of Fame, the Beacon, the endless Meadowlands tailgating and, of course, the first. That was in high school—December 4, 1980; I can still picture the rescheduled date stamped across my ticket—when my friend Maryann told me I had to go. The River had just been released, so I bought the vinyl and crammed, went to the concert, and finally understood. I’ll spare you the conversion details, but what stands out in my mind are those long confessionals (what writer wouldn’t be transfixed by such angst and soul-baring?), and what I didn’t know. What were those refrains everybody sang as they pumped their fists? What were all the songs between The River tracks? What the hell was Jungleland?
I lost no time catching up and, over the next decades, attended scores of concerts, even when, after a while, I no longer felt the same pull, long after I’d unloaded my boxes of Backstreets magazines, concert memorabilia, and buttons to a grateful eBay buyer; after Bruce had gone from confessor to carny showman and back to something not quite in between; after Clarence and Danny were gone. I always felt like I had to, because the time was coming when each concert could be the last. This time around, though, even as my ears registered the tour announcement, I realized my heart wasn’t screaming to go. It fell at a crazy mid-rehearsal time, I was broke, and I thought maybe the Asbury Park album tour—when I finally got to hear “Mary Queen of Arkansas” in concert—was the finish. But then I got a text from Maryann: didn’t we need to go to this one, for old time’s sake? Yeah, we did. Not only that, it was time to take my daughters who’d grown up on this sound.
Having my daughters next to me as we waited for the band to take the stage already meant this one would be memorable. And when the man came out, their reaction was everything I hoped it would be; what surprised me as Bruce played through The River, in order, was my own reaction. It’s been years since I listened to this studio album—when I listen to anything, it’s usually boots—so hearing it this way, remembering the next track, every word, triggered a wash of nostalgia. And then came “Independence Day.”
Anybody whose attended a Springsteen concert with me knows that “Independence Day” is my holy grail, the song I always want to hear, and one that infrequently shows up in concerts. The song speaks to me on so many levels, and tonight, while I didn’t expect a big intro for it, at least I knew it was a guarantee. To my delight, Bruce did take the mic to talk about the song, but not about his difficulties with his father, the hatred, the long nights spent talking to his girl in a telephone booth, or fighting about that damned guitar; instead, he said the song was about seeing his parents’ humanity for the first time, seeing the failed dreams and compromises, and not understanding the blessings that come with those. This wasn’t a tale told by a disenchanted, disengaged, distant teen, but a wise revelation borne of age, parenthood, perspective. Bruce understood it, and so did I. My daughter squeezed my hand, and I welled up.
As this flashback continued, so came the memories. My college roommate, Cindy, was a Grateful Dead fan with enthusiasm equal to mine for Springsteen. Whenever I came back to our room, a Dead album was on the turntable; whenever she came back, a Springsteen one: it was an unspoken battle of loyalties. I remembered other concerts with Maryann, who ultimately had to sell these tickets at the last minute—we all have different priorities now. I remembered taking others to their first concerts—Christine, Thanyalak—attending with Jody and Stephanie (who sent me an “Independence Day” video from the Madison Square Garden concert last month), camp friends, work friends, strangers on a bus. Springsteen has been the connective tissue at so many points in my life, beginning with this record.
The album continued and I mentally ticked off “end of side one,” “end of side two,” amazed that even when there were songs I never particularly loved, I wanted to hear them, and knew every word. Each song—part of a coming of age compilation full of love, sex, tears, longing, and dreams—landed harder with thirty-five years’ hindsight. Before “The River,” he talked about life being full of possibility, who will you marry, what kids will you raise. His “Dancing in the Dark” partner was no Courteney Cox, but a decidedly middle-aged woman who was past those wonderings, a woman reluctant to get on stage and dance; she just hugged him. This new resonance was particularly powerful as Bruce sang “I don’t want to fade away” over and over as the song ended, imbuing the song with melancholy, poignancy, and longing that just didn’t exist 35 years ago. It’s hard not to be reminded that just as two band members were absent from the stage, there are people—including my roommate Cindy—absent from my life now, too. This coming of age album became an album about life. I’m older. Bruce is older. Most of this audience is older. And we’ve all been on the same journey.
When the The River ended and the popular portion began, the spell was broken. That nostalgic haze evaporated into a string of hits, where I was able to sing every refrain that had eluded me 35 years ago, just as they were eluding my daughters now. But as I watched them air drum with Max, swoon a little at Jake Clemons, wave their arms during “Born to Run,” I cherished the present. It felt like the journey wasn’t quite over. I’d felt like these experiences were behind me, that the greatest hits shows could never have the resonance that those earlier cathartic shows once did. But tonight, as it was 35 years ago, The River was magic; I was again converted, connected, and carried away in a way I no longer thought possible. This may be my last best Bruce concert, and I’m okay with that. I know it will never be the same. Because I’m not. Bruce is not. And that’s the whole point.