An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a lyric to the song "Born to Run." The line is from "Thunder Road." This version has been corrected.
He's the One
I was in Beijing when I got the e-mail from a friend back in Washington.
There was no subject line, so I opened it without giving a thought to the lack of privacy in our office at the Summer Olympics, where a dozen Washington Post journalists shared folding tables that ran the length of the room. With no partitions between us, every phone call home was a shared experience, as was every rant, sulk and spasm of laughter.
Just four days into the Games, I was still struggling to distinguish reality from illusion in a land where state-run newspapers proclaimed sooty skies "blue" and prepubescent Chinese gymnasts insisted they were 16. Then came the e-mail of Aug. 11. It was only six words. But it couldn't have been more baffling had it been in Mandarin.
"Bruce to play Super Bowl halftime."
I read it a second time, then clicked on the link provided, dreading what I might find. It was an entry on a blog titled With Leather, reporting that the NFL had lined up Bruce Springsteen as halftime entertainment for the upcoming Super Bowl, to be played in Tampa on Feb. 1.
I stared at the words on the screen and felt sick.
For most of my life, Bruce had been the constant. His music had carried me through high school, college and graduate school; through 14 changes of address, five newspaper jobs, boyfriends best forgotten and those who linger still. He became my beacon -- the affirmation of all I believed and the object of my devotion -- from the moment I got to see him perform live, at the old Palladium in New York City, on Sept. 16, 1978. And I'd scrounged for tickets ever since, going to more than 100 Bruce shows, plus made countless pilgrimages to bars along the Jersey Shore, where, for magical stretches in the early 1980s, Bruce would pop in, strap on a guitar and rock for sheer fun until closing time.
There were disappointments along the way, to be sure: records that didn't measure up; and a grab for a mass audience in the mid-1980s that reduced Bruce, in my view, to a cultural cliche. But the Super Bowl?
I had covered three Super Bowls in nearly 20 years as a sportswriter. Each time, it marked a low ebb in my feeling about my work, with reporters crammed elbow to elbow frantically filing identical stories about a steroid-fed circus masquerading as a sporting event. The only reason anyone in the press box ever glanced at the field during halftime was to mock the lip-syncing artifice being passed off as entertainment as cheerleaders gyrated in unison and hordes of preselected teens rushed the stage on cue.
Surely, Bruce wouldn't play the Super Bowl. Then again, I had stopped counting the times he had let me down over the years. Slumped in front of my laptop in Beijing, I let out a groan from the depths of my soul.
I was 15 when I first heard his voice in 1975. It was larger than any sound that had ever come out of the clock radio in my Oxon Hill bedroom. And I froze that day, unable to move or do anything but listen, scarcely believing the power of "Born to Run," from the full band's assault on the first note to Bruce's final, defiant proclamation.