From the time I was a little girl, I knew that when I got married I'd walk down the aisle to the opening notes of Jungleland.
This is a plan that has not changed. I'm just gonna need to save up for a full string section.
I entered the planet on the same year as Born to Run. I don't ever remember a time that Springsteen was not a major part of my life.
When I was very young, Bruce played Madison Square Garden and my parents went to the show, taking with them my older sister and my cousin, Scott. I had just had an operation on my ears. I was not allowed to go with them. I was about five years old then, and the memories of my early childhood have never been vivid, but I remember that day clearly. I recall the disappointment. I remember being sad. And I hated my babysitter, Kathleen, and couldn't believe I was spending the night being read Berenstain Bears books by her instead of hanging with Bruce, Roy, and Clarence.
My parents bought me a yellow tee from the concert, apparel as a consolation prize. On that day, the shirt reached to my toes like I was wearing a shapeless dress. Today, the shirt is in my third dresser drawer. It is tissue-thin and there are some slit-sized holes from the dryer and from the passing of the years. Bruce's face is still clear, as is the year of the tour: 1980.
Another childhood memory still with me: the No Nukes concert movie was playing at a movie theatre, and my parents took me to see it.
I fell asleep. I was very young; it was a late showing.
I woke up after it had all ended, as my father was carrying me out of the theatre.
"Did I miss Bruce?" I whispered into my father's neck while I was in his strong arms.
"Yes," my father responded.
"Did he play Thunder Road?" I was almost too devastated to hear that maybe he had and I'd slept through the moment.
"No, he played a new song called The River," I was told.
Ah, The River.
The earliest days of my parents' divorce are scored by that double album in my mind, and I guess it's a testament to my parents' actions and to my own protective psyche that the songs I most remember from that time were the upbeat ones: Sherry Darling, Hungry Heart, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), and Out in the Street. Only later would I hear Point Blank and Fade Away and recall that I had heard those songs over and over during that tumultuous time. I don't know why, but the plaintive cries of those songs hadn't stayed with me.
I loved the Born in the USA album, but never the title song. It started to stun me the masses of people who suddenly loved Springsteen. I felt protective of him, and I questioned these new fans. Where had they been during the days I had listened to Growin' Up, a song written before I was born?
Did those people even know what Bruce looked like with a beard and not with a bandana wrapped around his hair or stuffed into the back pocket of his jeans?
My father, a professor, loved No Surrender, especially the first lyrics of the song:
Well we busted out of class
Had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three-minute record, baby
Than we ever learned in school.
That he was an academic who responded to those lines amused me. I've always enjoyed the subversive, even before I hit double digits.
Some things just don't change.
The breakup of the East Street Band was something I didn't understand back then. The Nebraskaalbum also puzzled me. It would be many years until I recognized its pared-down, solemn brilliance.
Human Touch and Lucky Town were barely blips on my radar. It was a Springsteen consumed by not having being satisfied by love and success, and I hadn't experienced either yet. My dad
owned both on cassette, and he played them constantly in the stick shift Mazda he was learning to drive in those days, but on the rides home from Southampton, I'd ask to hear the Born to Run tape instead. I loved every single song -- except She's the One. I respect it now, but I'm still not drawn in by that song, though around age twelve I discovered the soaring genius of Backstreets and finally realized what an "epic" piece of writing was.
Springsteen was one of my first literature professors, albeit one never granted tenure -- and the best-paid faux professor in the stratosphere.
I went to my first Bruce concert during the summer of '92. My new boyfriend scalped tickets for us. I think we sat behind the stage. He played songs from some early albums. He did not play Rosalita. My boyfriend, one of those trendy fans, hoped to hear Born in the USA and Glory Days. He heard both. And when Thunder Road came on, I bawled through it, remembering my father, remembering those days that I would never see again.
I made a lot of mix tapes back then, age seventeen, sitting on my dorm room floor on the blue carpet that had ragged edges. It wasn't only Bruce -- I'd gotten pretty into Pink Floyd and Blues Traveler and Pearl Jam and Neil Young during those years -- but there was always Bruce. He'd make an appearance on every tape, weaved into the rest of the songs, and it was usually a song from the Live 1975-1985 album. It was on that album that I first fell in love with 4th of July, Asbury Park, a song I'd never become attached to on the original album on which it appeared. The live version spoke to me. I think it was the opening sigh of "Sandy," said like a prayer and an apology all at once.
My concert days really began after graduation, when I finally had some money of my own. I started going to at least one show on every tour, driving out to the Meadowlands of New Jersey, usually on a blistering hot day in the middle of summer. I'd go with my sister, and we'd stroll through the behemoth of the parking lot, buying overpriced chicken fingers in one of the stands set up as a mock Jersey Shore. I wore that old yellow tee once -- I was never much a girl who wears concert tees to concerts or Yankee tees to games, but that time I did -- and I was stopped by people far older than myself and they would exclaim that they had been at shows on that tour and that my shirt had to be older than I was.
I would just smile. I've always looked young for my age.
The concerts were expensive and there were months during his tours that I had a hard time making my rent, but the moments spent in those musical cathedrals where I spent hazy evenings being serenaded by the closest thing I believed to be a deity made it all worth it. And I would rediscover songs, dozens of them, that began to speak to my soul and my mind and my thoughts in ways they hadn't ever before because I was changing.
I can only recall one show I went to when Bruce didn't play The Promised Land. I liked the song and I'd always thought Darkness on the Edge of Town was an impressive collection of songs, but it wasn't until my twenties when those songs began to really make sense and resonate and allow me to understand their complicated brilliance. I think it's more cerebral music. I know now that
Springsteen was going through legal and moral issues during the days the songs were conceived and recorded, and I think that maybe it took going through utterly confusing moments in my own life to understand the stakes those songs had for him. It's not simple music; it's a string of auditory examples of being unwilling to compromise, and the strength and the resolution and the defiance finally took hold of me.
I've never been able to settle either.
I never will.
I loved the moment in the concert when Bruce would play the harmonica interlude during The Promised Land, and I got to know where he'd stand on the stage before starting the last verse, and I knew when I was supposed to raise my arms during the song. Those of us who go to his shows just know when the arms go up during Badlands, during Trapped, during The Rising, during The Promised Land.
There's a synchronicity to being a fan. And all of us accept that.
Over my bed today is a large canvas print with lines from The Promised Land. I spent hours choosing the exact shade of grey for the background and the style of font used for the lyrics, but I knew exactly which words I wanted to wake up to daily:
Blow away the dreams that tear you apart
Blow away the dreams that break your heart
Blow away the lies that leave you nothing
But lost and brokenhearted
I've always been a dreamer.
That quality only became a liability later when I fell in love with liars.
The lyrics are there as I go to sleep and when I wake. I backslide sometimes, but they're the closest thing I have to a daily prayer.
The Magic CD is one of my favorites. I like it more than The Rising. The only song I can't really listen to is Girls in Their Summer Clothes. It reminds me of my ex-boyfriend, the one who took me to my first Bruce show, the one I hurt badly in ways I fully understand but just can't forgive myself for doing. I know instinctively that he loves the song, and I hear it and I think of his kindness towards me and how I felt I was too young to be a wife. So I listen to I'll Work For Your Love instead. I like to flatiron my hair while I'm listening to that album.
It has been East Street Radio, though, that has brought me the most happiness in the last several years. I've listened to songs that have always been favorites, and I've discovered songs I didn't know much about. I heard the song Ain't Good Enough and, out loud, I told my father that he would have loved that song. I know this definitively.
I recognize the opening notes of Frankie now, a song I've never heard live. I hear The Promise more than I could have ever hoped for, unless I put it on repeat myself, and really, isn't it just so much better hearing a song randomly on the radio than putting it on yourself?
For about fifteen years now, my favorite song has been For You, and when, out of every song in his beyond-vast catalogue, that song comes on and I hear it from the beginning, I lightly touch my fingers to the screen that projects the song's title and, for just a moment, I believe in the divine.
Just recently, maybe in the last ten months or so, songs from Lucky Town and Human Touch have started to make sense to me. One Step Up is haunting me these days; I wake up with the lyrics churning in my head, even if I haven't heard the song for days.
The line that will not leave my conscience?
Another battle in our dirty little war.
The lyric is so concise and ties up the feeling of misery-tinged desperation in seven little words. It's so real and honest that I find myself blushing when I sing it.
And I don't want to fight dirty anymore.
My newest old discovery has come from revisiting a song that I listened to a lot as a kid, but it only really means something to me now.
The Ties That Bind should have served as a guitar-blasting cautionary tale. When the first verse of a song sums up exactly who you are and the second verse perfectly captures someone you find yourself caring about, listen to the warnings and get out. I didn't. I ignored the crafted words and Clarence's blaring sax -- the musical equivalent of yellow emergency flares -- and I stayed too long. All of the warnings were there, but I was too busy finding the romanticism in the parallels and dancing to my own pain.
The last show I went to, I took my mother. When he played Meeting Across the River, I missed having my sister there. It had poured and there was a two-hour delay, so I knew he'd play Who'll Stop the Rain. He did. Knowing it would happen didn't make it any less special.
That was the show where he didn't play The Promised Land, but he did play It's Hard To Be a Saint In the City, which I'd never heard live. To this day, I've heard almost everything I've wanted to hear at least once -- the nights For You and Candy's Room were included in set lists stand out as some of the greatest nights of my whole life -- but I've still never heard Growin' Up at a show. He often plays it at the show before or the show after the one I see, and hearing the news is devastating every single time.
My friends tell me I have to stop torturing myself with the set lists of shows I don’t attend.
At that last rainy show, he segued from Meeting Across the River right into Jungleland, just as he does on the album, the one that came out on the year that I was born. I've seen these songs played together in concert before; it's a gift each time, and when I hear the lyrics near the end of the sweeping song, something stops inside of me:
Outside the street's on fire in a real death waltz
Between what's flesh and what's fantasy
And the poets down here don't write nothing at all
They just stand back and let it all be
I stood there that night in the dense crowd and I realized certain things:
I'm a person who will never just stand back.
I will always write.
And I'm no longer fooled by fantasy.
I just need to remember all of that when I find myself wandering dream-like towards the darkness and find myself dancing in it alone.