The question came crossing the parking lot, barely out of Hampton Coliseum that January night in 1985. “So, do you have someone for your extra ticket tomorrow?”
She had turned it down weeks ago, saying she was sure Bruce was great, but she could not imagine seeing someone, anyone, two nights in a row.
After three heart-pounding, fist-pumping hours, and 27 songs, she’d been converted.
But, she knew the answer. It was too late. I had another date.
Over the decades, Springsteen shows have been my church, taking me to the promised land. I’ve seen hundreds and hundreds of concerts. U2, The Dead, The Stones, Los Lobos, Elvis Costello, Prince. Nothing compares to Bruce.
I know, I know. You don’t get it. I had friends who didn’t get it either, until I bought them tickets and they became fervent, lifelong converts.
Springsteen is revivalist preacher and James Brown showman. He is conscience and cheerleader, mirror and projector. He can evoke both our carefree joy and our sacred responsibilities. From hungry hearts to the land of hope and dreams.
His best songs — and there are many — are like the best art. What they mean changes over time. His work, like his audience, has evolved, from the early rock operettas that appeal to our memories to the leaner focused meditations on responsibility, community, and navigating life’s dark mazes.
A song like “The Promised Land” offered an unbroken horizon of possibilities hearing it in the back of an Audi on the way to a Lehigh-Penn game in 1978. By “The Rising” tour in 2003, it was a balm, the possibility of redemption. Now, it’s a reminder to still believe, to still explore, to be present for the ride. It’s my favorite song on my favorite album and it never grows old.
“Most of my songs are emotionally autobiographical, “ Springsteen once said. “You’ve got to pull up the things that mean something to you for them to mean anything to your audience. That’s how they know you’re not kidding.”
He gives an audience not only what it wants, but what it needs. There is no performer who more desperately wants the audience to take his love and reflect it back to him.
“That ticket is my handshake. That ticket is me promising you that it’s gonna be all the way every chance I get,” he told an interviewer in 2012.
Even when he’s tired, hitting the stage is magic. “Suddenly the fatigue disappears. A transformation takes place. That’s what we’re selling. We’re selling that possibility,” he adds. “It’s half a joke: I go out onstage and—snap—‘Are you ready to be transformed?’ What? At a rock show? By a guy with a guitar? Part of it is a goof, and part of it is, Let’s do it, let’s see if we can.”
Depending on the night, he will be soaked with sweat a few songs into the show. The slides across the stage into the arms of the late Clarence Clemons for a kiss are gone, replaced by crowd surfing, letting fans lay hands on, transporting him to the rear of the general admission section and back again.
“I want an extreme experience,” he says. He wants the audience to leave the concert, as he often tells them, “with your hands hurting, your feet hurting, your back hurting, your voice sore, and your sexual organs stimulated.”
At RFK Stadium during the “Born in the USA” tour, the upper deck literally rocked up and down to “Dancing in the Dark.” In Chapel Hill during the “Tunnel of Love” shows, a reserved Bruce in a bolo tie asked “Is it a date?” before launching into “Be True.” At the Richmond Coliseum on “The Rising” tour, friends in the row behind me were so emotional they couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. At the Verizon Center on the “Magic” run, he screamed “Is there anybody alive out there?” before an ecstatic “Radio Nowhere.” At John Paul Jones arena in Charlottesville, I glanced to the side and caught my daughter, at her first rock show, pumping her fist and shouting “Tramps like us…” swept up in the moment.
There’s always rock ‘n roll goofiness. At Nationals Park in 2012, he teased: “Are you done? Are you done? Washington,” he said drawing out the word, “you have just seen the heart-stoppin’, pants droppin’, Earth shaking, hard rocking, curfew hating, Viagra taking, history-making E Street Band.”
Springsteen shows are many things, one merging into the other. Somehow, some way, they give us each what we need that night.
They are nostalgic and topical, fond remembrances of long ago days as self-conscious kids dancing in the dark and pointed reminders of today’s realities facing those shackled and drawn.
When I last saw him at Nationals Park, he played “My City of Ruins,” a song written about his hometown of Asbury Park that took on a vastly different meaning in the wake of 9/11. On that September night, though, it became about ghosts resurrected with the sing-along refrain of “Rise up, rise up…”
“We all have our ghosts that follow us around, walk with us. Not just people, but old guitars, old buildings,” he said. “When you’re a kid, you’re taught ghosts are scary. As you get older and those ghosts who walk alongside of you add up, you realize they walk alongside you to remind you of the preciousness of time, the value of friendship , the goodness of this day. So we’re going to do this tonight for our ghosts and your ghosts.”
The shows are both carefully scripted and spontaneous. “The Rising” concerts brilliantly embraced grief, plunging the audience into despair before finally carrying them along on a frenzied celebration of the hope central to life.
At Nationals Park for the “Wrecking Ball” tour, he walked to the edge of the stage to start the show and said, “This is a request,” before a searing guitar solo opened “Prove It All Night.” He followed with “My Love Will Not Let You Down” and “The Ties That Bind,” which seemed a promise. There was nothing he would not do to transport us over the next several hours.
“For an adult, the world is constantly trying to clamp down on itself,” he says. “Routine, responsibility, decay of institutions, corruption: this is all the world closing in. Music, when it’s really great, pries that shit back open and lets people back in, it lets light in, and air in, and energy in, and sends people home with that and sends me back to the hotel with it. People carry that with them sometimes for a very long period of time.”
Lately, the shows have gotten looser with Bruce taking sign requests and playing stump the band. The E Street Band has swelled to 17 with the addition of Tom Morello on guitar. There is seemingly nothing they can’t play. What favorite gem will they play this night, maybe only this night? In Australia earlier this year, he asked the audience if they wanted him to play more song requests or “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle” from beginning to end (they chose the album). That show opened with a funkiliciously amazing version of The Bee Gees “Stayin’ Alive” (look for it on Youtube).
Speaking of hours, Springsteen shows are marathons. And they’re getting longer. Springsteen, who is 64, has spoken more than once about the light at the end of the tunnel getting closer, though it’s hard to believe he’s mortal. Clearly, he is not going to leave anything behind.
On July 31, 2012 in Helsinki, he played a five song, 30 minute pre-show acoustic set as the crowd was filing in, then launched what has become a legendary 33-song, four hour and five minute show with no breaks (like in the old days at Hampton Coliseum when he’d take an intermission). Note to Farm Bureau Live: don’t even think about pulling the plug at 11 p.m.
At their core, though, Springsteen shows are joyous affirmations of community.
We will break bread together, quietly mouthing the heartbreaking lyrics to “The Rising,” singing and swaying along to “Waitin’ On A Sunny Day,” and eventually finding fist-pumping redemption with the house lights up, screaming that we gotta get out while we’re young, even though we no longer are.
In that moment, time stops.
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.