You have to give the man credit. He’d performed for two straight hours – just him, a guitar, a piano, and his wits – but then he stood on the tip of the stage and lightly but methodically pounded the wood of his guitar with an open palm. The sound reverberated around the circumference of the theatre mimicking a heartbeat, my heartbeat.
I’d seen him play thirty-two times now, and this song always appeared near the end of the last set. Thirty-one times, and I’d danced until the soft soles of my feet throbbed unrelentingly in the ridiculous heels I’d ridiculously chosen to encase them in for yet another evening. Thirty-one times, and I stared in amazement as the house lights suddenly blazed bright and full, eighty thousand fellow music-reveling comrades moving against me like a force only for good. Thirty-one times, and I’d raised my right arm at the right time and participated joyfully in a choreographed motion defined by lost inhibition. And then there was that one mind-bending time when both my sister and I, relegated to our scalped seats behind the stage, gazed out into the swarming vista to see if we could locate our mother and stepfather in the throng. My eyes scanned the sections near the front and paused instantly at the sight of a man clapping his hands unironically against the beat and a woman with blonde hair swaying beside him. There! I said to Leigh, and the two of us waved until somehow, almost cosmically, they saw us. Thrilled – stunned – they waved back. To this day, my mother counts those seconds as one of her finest Mommy Moments.
This particular rendition of the song, number thirty-two for me, was different. We all stayed seated. The lone time I raised my hand was to wipe away tears. The lights remained staunchly off except for the glow of a warm spotlight. There was no bellowing saxophone, no thunderous drumming, just a man whose lyrics had scored every single second of my life, a man who had a few tricks left in him yet.
I first heard that Bruce Springsteen was coming to Broadway over Twitter and I instantly thought two things:
1. I probably shouldn’t retweet the news lest other people find out about it and get in the way of me procuring myself tickets.
2. When it came to Bruce, I turned into a fucking lunatic.
My mind grew rushed and frantic – How will I get tickets? What is this “Verified Fan” Ticketmaster bullshit? Could I actually sit front row, finally? – but I knew it would all work out somehow. Listen: I don’t claim to know much, but one thing I’m quite certain of is that should this man appear on a stage within three hours of my living room, I will find a way to be there.
Long and depressing story short, the Ticketmaster thing panned out far better for people who were fortunate enough not to be me. I received all sorts of disappointing texts that informed me I’d wound up on the kind of wait list I’d never even been forced to experience during my college application process. Rumors of new dates and extended runs abounded, but I refused to take a single chance, not this time. Someone I knew seemed like perhaps he’d come through and surprise me, but he’d disappointed me too many times and I knew I had to take this fate into my own hands. Sure, I wanted to do things the…I don’t know…morally correct way, but even through my rosiest intentions, I realized that people who always follow the rules are rarely the ones who wind up sitting close enough to the stage to count the guy’s pores. Me, I’d become his fucking dermatologist if I had to. Me? I would do whatever it took to have the kind of experience I’d already decided had to become a memory.
I caved pretty quickly and ended up spending more on two tickets to a December performance than I’d once spent on my first car, a powder blue Cadillac Cimarron I had called “Cy” because it looked as though an old man named Cy who hiked his pants up to his nipples in Boca should be driving it, not me, a then-twenty-year-old college senior who still didn’t know how to parallel park without anxiously sweating off my makeup in the process. Anyway, I did some investigating and I located two seats in the fourth row of a theatre whose seating chart I’d memorized. I plunked down an obscene amount of money and then reread the email confirmation approximately eight times a day as though to settle the nervousness still bubbling inside of me. You got tickets, I’d assure myself each time I opened the same email. Nobody can take them away from you.
I charted weather forecasts in the weeks before the event and prayed Mother Nature was a fan of the acoustic guitar. I used whatever telepathic abilities I pretend I have to will his personal assistant to purchase shit like Airborne in vast quantities so he’d stay healthy. I had a tank top made with the same lyric that used to be on a personalized shirt of my father’s: “The door’s open but the ride it ain’t free.” I wish I had that shirt of my father’s and that it still smelled like him. I wish he were still here today and that he could accompany me to one of these shows; I’ve experienced every single one without him.
I had a few friends lobbying to go with me. At one point, I thought I’d really end up taking one of them, but reality set in. I invited my sister and I told her the tickets were on me (“Shut the fuck up!” she so eloquently responded) and then I explained we’d be sitting in the fourth row.
“I couldn’t get the front row,” I explained, my voice low, almost ashamed.
“These seats are amazing!” she assured me. “It’ll be like you’re in the first row.”
Thirty-one concerts and I’d never once been near the very front of the stage. I’d sat everywhere else: the lower tier near the side where I could see Roy pounding the piano keys; upper levels where I invariably sat behind the tallest man in the entire hemisphere. I’d gaze down to the shadows of people leaning against the stage and I could feel no happiness for them. I’ve always been someone who is blessedly able to celebrate wonderful things that happen for others, even if they’ve yet to become the very things I want for myself, but my kindness vanishes at Springsteen shows and is replaced by a burning form of jealousy that feels like what I imagine heartburn in a very large man must feel like the day after the Super Bowl. During some of the shows I’d been to, Bruce brought a child onstage from the crowd. He plucked the kid from the depths and introduced him to glory. The kid would sing the chorus of Waiting On a Sunny Day and the audience would cheer and coo at the cuteness while I stared daggers at the child without anything resembling remorse.
Isn’t that kid so lucky and cute? Leigh would ask me, and I would just look at her with a hard blank expression that would cause her to shudder.
I remember watching footage of concerts from the seventies. At least once per show, some hysterical girl, ruled only by her senses, would rush the stage and cling to Bruce’s leg like an amorous Schnauzer until a security guard dragged her off him and tossed her like a rag back into the crowd. I envied those girls. They allowed a primal need to take complete hold. They risked injury and humiliation just so a few beads of their idol’s sweat could rain down upon them. I guess if I could change anything about myself, it would be how I so rarely relegate my sanity to the depths and allow the purity of my desires to consume me.
The reality, though, was I didn’t want to dangle off this musical poet’s leg like an appendage. No, what I wanted – what I craved – was a conversation. I wanted to ask him which song’s meaning had shifted for him most through the sliding passage of the years. I wanted to know if there were certain words that created vivid pictures in his mind. I wanted to tell him that nobody besides my parents had ever taught me more than he had, that he had been defining my life for more years than my father. And I wanted to ask him why he always played Grown’ Up at the show before or after mine and how it could possibly be that I had never heard him play it live in my presence?
I didn’t read any reviews of the show when it opened because I wanted to be swept into the moment without any sort of map. Avoiding the set list became a challenging mission as everyone I knew emailed and texted me articles as soon as they appeared online. Thanks, I’d respond, but I don’t want to know anything before I go. Then I’d add a smiley face so they didn’t think I was being too crazy.
I created a list of songs I hoped to hear and another list of songs I expected to hear. I’d read his autobiography and figured he’d be covering the formation of the band and that probably meant Tenth Avenue Freeze Out would make it in. I knew he’d touch on his once-fraught relationship with his father and that would probably bring forth Factory or My Father’s House. On my own list of hopes were songs I’d never seen him play: Living Proof, This Hard Land, One Step Up, The Promise. One of my finest memories was the time he busted For You out unexpectedly, and though I would have loved to hear it played on the piano, I didn’t expect it.
The reviews are spectacular, a friend told me over the phone. I know you don’t want to hear anything specific, but I wanted you to at least know that.
He has to play Growin’ Up, I replied. He’s telling the story of his life! What better time to play that song?
I have the set list right here. Do you want to know if he does? he asked.
And it took everything in my power to say no.
But the very next day, a different friend sent me a link to the review in Rolling Stone and the email itself included the first line of the article. Before I was able to delete it, I saw the words, “A little over four minutes into Bruce's Springsteen's Broadway show, he stops playing the opening song, Growin' Up, and speaks to the crowd, his voice entirely unamplified.” I was in my classroom when I read it. My students were having the life scared out of them as they watched The Strangers for my unit on how home invasion horror films exploit our society’s most common nightmares and phobias. And it was during a particularly tense sequence that I saw confirmation that the long-elusive song would not only be played, but it would be played first. I gasped so loudly that it caused several students to jump.
“Sorry,” I announced to my students.
“It’s okay, Ms. Kalter,” one of the football players told me. “This is a really scary movie.”
He opens with Growin’ Up, I texted my friend. I’m actually crying!
I know! I’m really happy for you, he texted back – and, just for a minute, I believed him.
Leigh didn’t want any spoilers and I respected that. I kept the excellent news to myself and started counting down the days. It seemed it would never be late December, but suddenly it was and torrential downpours ruled the day itself and yet I’d never been so happy to leave the comfort of my home in my entire life. On the way in, I spoke to my best friend and I finally admitted something I’d only told one other person: that in the weeks prior, I’d had many dreams where I’d actually met Springsteen. The dreams were vivid, and I’d wake up breathless. Okay, fine, during one of those dreams he was a redhead, but that part hardly mattered. We’d met. We spoke. And I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been experiencing some kind of glorious premonition.
I met up with my sister at a Starbuck’s near the theatre and she asked if I wanted something, but all I wanted was to get to there. I was always like that at his shows. I’d arrive hours before he went on, just in case some security guy wanted to whisk me off to a seat near the front or perch me on an amp like I heard Led Zeppelin liked to do back in the day. Such a thing never transpired, but I’m a girl who harbors dreams and the fantasy alone always felt like a really strong embrace.
Outside the theatre, a few dozen people congregated near the stage door. I grabbed my sister and made her wait there in the rain instead of in the covered alcove where the normal people stood. You don’t mind, right? I asked her over the audible sounds of roaring thunder, and she just pulled up her hood and looked at me – once again – like I was a crazy person. About half an hour later, an SUV pulled up and out came Bruce and Patti. I had my phone set to video and Leigh took some pictures as I got the closest to him I probably ever will and he waved and walked out of the rain and straight into the theatre. As soon as the door closed, Leigh took my hand and walked me to where we were supposed to wait. I don’t think she realized that the wetness on my cheeks wasn’t from the rain. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I felt like I’d just found religion.
The video I somehow managed to capture was shaky, but there he was. Over the sounds of “Bruuuuuuuce,” that I imagine follow him everywhere he goes – and that includes CVS – you can hear me mumble “Oh, my God,” and my voice sounds like I’m buried under something heavy.
We had our bags searched and were granted access to the theatre. An usher smiled at our tickets and led us to our seats. We were so close. If I allowed myself a surge of adrenaline, I could have heaved myself right onto that stage without very much effort at all. And then, at the very time the ticket indicated he would, Bruce walked onto the stage wearing a black tee and black jeans and launched right into Growin’ Up.
Okay, here’s the truth: I don’t remember all of what happened once he appeared. I know I broke down immediately into quiet tears of earth-shifting gratitude: because he existed; because I was experiencing a perfect moment; because once, long ago, I’d been gifted the kind of father who taught me that art matters; because I am the kind of person who embraces when a second is magical.
I must have gone through five tissues during the opening song alone, but I didn’t cry again until the end. The show was perfection and he was so close that I could count his eyelashes, but I didn’t launch myself up on that stage and I didn’t shout anything to bring any attention to myself. Instead, I smiled at the selection of songs he played and marveled at how he never rests on his heap of laurels. He chooses to push the boundaries of what anyone even thinks they can expect from him.
With the idea that there has to be someone out there just like me who doesn’t want to know the entire show – it’s comforting to think I’m not the only nutty one here, you know? – I’ll leave out exactly what he played, but it should come as no surprise that he closed with Born to Run. And though I’d heard it live thirty-one times before, this time was different. This time the song impacted me in a different way, clenching my heart until I had to start breathing in through my nose and softly out through my mouth like I was meditating. This time my heartbeat was the drum.
This time I could actually feel the madness in my soul.
I didn’t get to meet him, I sobbed to my friend over the phone very late that night as I sat on my sofa. I’d felt a coming-down sinking inside of me that, combined with all the highs of the afternoon, left me feeling disoriented.
It’s better not to meet your heroes, she responded, and I suppose she has a point, but I still look forward to meeting him in my dreams.
Nell Kalter teaches Film and Media at a school in New York. She is the author of the books THAT YEAR and STUDENT, both available on amazon.com in paperback and for your Kindle. Her Twitter is @nell_kalter and her website is nellkalter.com