- By Beth Arky
On November 21, 1978, I saw Bruce Springsteen for the first time. I was a freshman at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and the wild boy I was dating had scored 13th-row tickets to hear some guy I’d never heard. (Yes, Born to Run had been released three years earlier and The Boss had landed on the covers of Time and Newsweek. What can I say? I’d never listened to him.)
This past April 23, I saw Bruce again — at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, 38–gasp–years after I got my first fix. I brought my cousin Brenda, who was a Springsteen virgin, just as I had been those many years ago. It was a rush watching her joyful astonishment as he played song after song, 35 in all. It was also a reminder of all that has happened in my life, the highs and the lows, in the nearly 40 years I’ve been a fan.
Back in the fall of ‘78, with a bright future lying in wait, I was focused on school, yes, but also fun. Animal House had come out that summer and fraternity toga parties were all the rage; I was wearing only a leotard and a sheet and downing punch when I met Chris, a junior with an appealing gap-toothed smile, a roguish attitude and a fast car.
The last time I’d seen Bruce before Barclays, at Madison Square Garden, my marriage was already on the rocks, but that didn’t prevent me from buying us tickets.
Up until the night of the concert, my musical tastes had veered toward James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, but Chris was exciting and new and I was up for anything he suggested, even when that meant him driving to an empty parking lot late at night, gunning his car and spinning around, tires screeching.
A Fan Is Born
I’m sure Chris must have tried to clue me in to what I was going to experience during that night’s Darkness tour, but when we entered Northwestern’s McGaw Memorial Hall, I had no idea what I was in for. There was no opening act, just Springsteen and the original E Street Band: Steven Van Zandt; Garry Tallent; Roy Bittan; Max Weinberg and Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici, now both gone.
That night, Bruce’s 22-song power drive would introduce me to Badlands, Jungleland, Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to Run. As anyone who’s seen The Boss on stage will attest, it was a jaw-dropping, life-affirming experience; I became a convert and would go on to see him in several venues, including Atlanta’s Fox Theater and Madison Square Garden.
The next day, I went out and bought everything he’d released to date, from Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. to Darkness on the Edge of Town. My relationship with Chris fizzled a few months later, but the ties that bound me to Bruce would stand the test of even the rockiest of times.
I’ll admit to taking a Springsteen breather for several years in between. Born in the USA, released in 1984, would be the last of his albums I would buy for quite some time. It was the same year I moved from my newspaper job in small-town Colorado to an editing gig in Manhattan, where I focused on my career during the day and hit the clubs at night, with Madonna and Michael Jackson supplying the score. I was in my 20s and didn’t have time for marathon sessions spent studying an album’s lyrics till I knew every word, and New York radio did an awful job of showcasing artists like Springsteen.
In my 30s, I married a guy from Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, who’d been exposed to disco while I was dancing in the dark. We enjoyed a lot of music together, led by Lucinda Williams, but he didn’t share my enthusiasm for Springsteen or stadium concerts. So I watched as Bruce came and went, tour after tour. Despite the fact that I was working at Entertainment Weekly, where the music critics would share his latest tunes with me, I lost that part of myself.
Then, in my 40s, we adopted our son; just before his fifth birthday, he was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome. By then, my employer TV Guide had laid me off and all my energy went into being a special-needs mom — an advocate who would fight for the right diagnosis, schooling and therapy. I had no time for Bruce or much of anything else, for that matter, let alone knowing which new album had been released or when he would be touring.
Endings and Beginnings
The last time I’d seen Bruce before Barclays, at Madison Square Garden, my marriage was already on the rocks, but that didn’t prevent me from buying us tickets. We had seen him once before, during happier times, and I wanted to escape my problems with a few hours devoted to singing at the top of my lungs.
But a few years later, I could no longer deny that the marriage was over. Now I’m in my 50s, separated, with my son away at boarding school, and trying to grab hold of the things once again that made me “me.” That has included rekindling long-neglected friendships and rejoining the Bruce brigade.
So there I was that Saturday night at Barclays Center with the rest of the fanatical crowd, which consisted of everyone from bearded hipsters to middle-aged types like me, some bringing their kids along for the ride.
Turns out Bruce is wearing 66 much better than I am 56; while the icon performed in boots for three-and-a-half hours straight, I wore running shoes to baby my creaky knees. But what Bruce and I do share is a lot more life experience. We’ve both become parents, both lost people close to us, both been through the heartache of love gone wrong.
A Rush of Memories
Of course there were the songs that had the rowdy crowd up on its feet for most of the concert, many of which were performed in ’78, The Ties That Bind, Cadillac Ranch and Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) among them. But it was the slower, sadder songs that touched me in a way they couldn’t have 38 years earlier. When Springsteen said The River is about time flowing by, I nearly cried.
Now that my industry has imploded and I’m trying to figure out how to remake my career, Bruce singing “lately there ain’t been much work on account of the economy” cut me like a knife. Meanwhile, Fade Away, which spoke to the death of a relationship, and Hungry Heart, about our craving for love and companionship, touched on my loneliness after the end of a 20-years-plus marriage.
Yet something about the band’s high-octane performance, the adrenaline rush of the crowd, and my bellowing “Bruuuuce!” helped me defy the years. And for that, I’m forever in The Boss’ debt.
Bruce Springsteen – The River (1979) by GMRedskins