The enduring power of Bruce Springsteen's music: a fan's journey

I was 17, sitting in my high school cafeteria when I first heard the single "Born  to Run." Carter was in the White House. The Twin Towers stood tall. Gas was 60 cents a gallon. Terrorism was something that happened somewhere far away…. Bruce's distinctive four-chord guitar hook immediately connected with my swirling teenage brain. Even though my dad was a jazz writer, I had grown up mainly listening to John Barry's James Bond soundtracks but THIS? This was different.  Who was this guy? What else did he have?  I ran to my local mall and plunked down a princely $7.99 for Born to Run, almost wearing out my turntable with it. I marveled at the album's rich sound, the vivid, picturesque lyrics and its meticulous craftsmanship.  I mean, who puts a glockenspiel in a rock & roll song?  

A few months later as a college freshman in the snowy regions of upstate New York, two friends and I grabbed seats to my first-ever concert, Springsteen at the Utica War Memorial – a postage stamp-sized venue compared to today's arenas. It was his Darkness on the Edge of Town Tour and although Bruce was popular, he was not yet the global icon he would become.  We had nosebleed seats, but the show seemingly went on forever and by the end we were on a balcony next to the stage.  I remember Bruce standing on a huge speaker, skinny as a beanpole, ripping off his shirt and swirling it in the air as the crowd screamed.  So impressed, I convinced my friends to wait outside the stage door with me so I could SEE this juggernaut in person. The idling tour bus said "Panama" on the destination board and the road manager looked at the small crowd waiting expectantly and said, "If anyone gets through, I'm gonna be pissed."  Clarence Clemons, Bruce's legendary first sax player stood in the doorway, a massive presence in a lime green suit, smoking a cigar… and then Bruce came out and got on the bus with a wave. It was over in an eye blink, and we drove back to Syracuse, ears ringing.  During my junior year the Springsteen hurricane swept into the tiny Rochester War Memorial, reportedly still one of his favorite venues.  My roommates and I got tickets – in the very last row on the floor. He hit the stage with "Born to Run," the crowd rose as one and we couldn't see a thing for the rest of the show. At one point, a hidden doorway opened under the bleachers and an ancient janitor came out, leaning on a broom, watching the proceedings. At the very end, Bruce told the crowd, "That snow you were waitin' for?  I think you got it."  We walked out into a full-on blizzard for a white-knuckle ride back down I85.

The next year, during a semester in London, I scalped my way in to see him at Wembley Arena during The River tour.  The seat wasn't great, but the music was sublime. Roy Bittan's intricate piano work on the "Detroit Medley" seemed to go on without end and Bruce was a fountain of energy, racing around the stage, jumping on the piano and singing his heart out until two roadies dressed up as London Police literally dragged him off stage. (The venue had a strict curfew.)  Years of pre-internet Ticketmaster roulette followed – the demand for Springsteen seats was legendary and there were only two ways to get them: line up for hours at a Ticketmaster machine or call one of their 800 numbers, which quickly became jammed. "All circuits are busy now, please try your call again later," was a frequent outcome.  Decades before Taylor Swift crashed Ticketmaster Bruce did it. Months later I saw a woman wearing a black "I survived the Springsteen Ticketmaster Onsale" t-shirt walking around in Midtown Manhattan.  

I struck out at getting into his historic 10-night stand opening the (now shuttered) Meadowlands Arena but caught a break when he played there in 1984 on the Born in the USA tour.  A college friend worked for the Buffalo Sabres hockey team and Bruce was scheduled to appear at their home base, the long-gone Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. She got me a great seat and having more balls than brains I snuck into the arena hours early to stand behind the stage, hoping to meet Bruce and get a sense of the man creating music that had become so important to me.  The show was just after Bruce's birthday, and I had brought what I thought was a suitable gift – an original Elvis 45 from the 1950s in a vintage picture sleeve. Drum techs worked on Mighty Max Weinberg's drum kit, pounding on it louder and louder until suddenly Bruce was there – just feet away! He nodded hello to the bouncer guarding the tunnel leading back to the dressing rooms and that's when I felt a firm hand on my shoulder. I turned, staring into the humorless eyes of a member of his road crew who asked me in stark terms what I was doing there.  I produced the gold Sabres VIP Press Card my friend had created just for this purpose. "That's worthless," he snapped, "Get the f*ck out."  I did – but not before handing him the Elvis 45, "Can you give this to him?" I hustled down the hall to drown my disappointment in chicken wings.

Other tours followed – the Tunnel of Love Express, the first time I ever got a fabled "Hospitality" pass – from John Hammond no less. Hammond was the genteel Columbia Records executive who discovered Bruce (and Bob Dylan) and who was an old friend of my dad's from the NY jazz scene.  After the show, my girlfriend (now wife) and I stood in a room at Madison Square Garden smelling heavily of wild animals (Ringling Brothers' Circus had just been through) as various members of the band came out to greet their friends. I even snapped a photo with lovely Patti Scialfa. 

And then, E Street Heartbreak – the band broke up.  How could this be?  How could the turbo-charged engine powering some of the greatest music in the rock & roll artform just… stop?  Still, my fascination with Bruce continued.  I caught his Human Touch tour from the very rafters of the Meadowlands Arena and went about life, getting married… working for a leading cable network… producing DVD documentaries… trying (repeatedly) to sell a screenplay to Hollywood. Musically I had discovered other bands, from The Jam and Depeche Mode to the Rolling Stones and Van Halen, but my mind kept drifting back to E Street. Then, in 1999 rumors swirled that the E Street Band would be getting back together for a tour. Ticket demand was biblical – venues sold out in a flash, sales records were smashed.  I developed a strategy of calling in before tickets would go on sale, then trying to chat with the Ticketmaster operator if I could get through. I'd ask about various bands and make small talk until the exact onsale moment and then say "Ok, I need two for Springsteen!" When I got second row at The Hartford Civic Center I was so grateful, I effusively thanked the operator, who laughed before hanging up.  I followed the E Street Band across the country, seeing them 13 times on the Reunion Tour alone while somehow holding down a full-time job. I saw his first ever shows in Atlantic City and Las Vegas (where he hung a pair of fuzzy dice around his neck and sang "Viva Las Vegas" twice!) 

During The Rising tour I had scored a pair of seats on a small balcony above an exit door at Madison Square Garden. Towards the end of the show, with the house lights up, my wife and I were holding each other, and Bruce pointed right at us and nodded, a brief but glorious moment we'd never forget.

Following Bruce was a great way to see the country, from Dallas (Reunion Arena) to Detroit (Cobo Hall), Fargo (Fargodome) to Oregon (Honda Center) and LA (Sports Arena, which Bruce called "The dump that jumps."). We caught two of the very last shows he played at Philadelphia's famed Spectrum which was razed shortly thereafter.  A hallmark of any Springsteen show is the unique relationship he has with the crowd, frequently pausing the concert to tell a story.  Those stories used to be about falling in love and growing up. On 2004's Vote for Change Tour, he talked about the consequences and importance of voting… but on his current 2024 tour, his stories are about how precious and fleeting life is.  At 74, Bruce still looks and acts decades younger, putting on a dizzying 3-hour and 20-minute show at LA's historic Kia Forum. As joyous and communal as the experience was, there's now a touch of melancholy lurking in the dark.  In the preamble to "Last Man Standing," he talks about the death of a bandmate from his first band, The Castiles and how it makes you think of mortality.  Death is no stranger to Bruce – longtime keyboardist Danny Federici and his iconic sax player, Clarence Clemmons both passed away and are honored each show in a video presentation. More recently his beloved mother Adele passed at age 98. A presence at many of his shows in the New York area, Bruce was filmed at several venues dancing with her in the aisle as the loving crowd cheered. His anthemic "Wrecking Ball" is an ode to New Jersey's Giants Stadium, where he played many times, and which reigned supreme for 34 years. (Yes, you made it when you played The Garden, but you really made it when you sold out Giants Stadium!) It's now the parking lot for the even larger Met Life Stadium.  Nothing is forever, not even concrete and steel.  The reed thin dervish I saw in 1978, who bulked himself up to take the world by storm with Born in the USA and the seasoned songwriter who united a shocked country after 9-11 with The Rising is now a grandfather, no doubt the coolest grandfather on earth, but a grandfather nonetheless.  Somehow, the years went by in a flash of stage lights… 

As you stand in the darkness of a concert hall, hearing the songs you know word for word, you flash back to where and how you were when they came out – teenage, college, fatherhood, motherhood, married, divorced, a death, a new life…  through it all Bruce 's music has moved through life beside you like a spouse or an old friend; the safety blanket you reach for when in need. There are a lot of gray hairs on E Street now, with many members in their 70s and even done at a leisurely pace, rock n roll touring is still a grind. So, is this the last dance?  Only Bruce knows and thankfully, he's too busy working. What a ride it's been, and hopefully there are more miles left on E Street.

Previously: The making of Bruce Springsteen's 'Nebraska' is coming to life in a new movie