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.
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He's the One
He wailed more than he sang, in a voice so coarse and slurred I pictured him with marbles in his mouth. But that imperfection was what wrung the anguish from his lyrics, which were as singular as his enormous sound -- a sound with traces of Elvis, Motown and old soul revues, yet entirely its own. And it seemed to come from its own era -- a total rejection of the vapid music of the mid-'70s, which was awash in laid-back California schlock with lyrics as saccharine as its harmony.
I met my friend Robin, who became my fellow traveler in all things Bruce, when I was 16. Robin had won her copy of "Born to Run" from WPGC radio, and it had "Not For Sale" stamped on its cover. I had spent my $2.20-an-hour paycheck on mine, along with the two Bruce records that preceded it. Robin also had a bootleg record of Bruce's Aug. 15, 1975, concert at the Bottom Line that she'd bought on a trip to New York. We'd sprawl on her living room floor, open the double-album cover and pore over the song titles as the music blasted -- "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," "Spirit in the Night," "Then She Kissed Me" -- wishing we had been there.
Back at my own house, I'd retreat to my room and play "Incident on 57th Street," my favorite song, on my record player each night. It was a romance set against the backdrop of a New York street fight, with Bruce's raspy voice rendering the desperate Spanish Johnny as if he were Romeo calling your name beneath the window. I'd play the song over and over, repositioning the needle every eight minutes until I'd fall asleep. I'd wake up the next morning, the turntable still going around.
What resonated with me was the longing in Bruce's music -- the gulf between what he saw around him and what he yearned for inside. To my teenage ears, Bruce's songs were anthems. And the closest thing to an anthem at National Cathedral School, where I was a senior when "Darkness on the Edge of Town" came out in 1978, was "Rich Girl" by Hall & Oates.
I missed what should have been my first Bruce concert, Aug. 15, 1978, at the old Capital Centre, because of a car accident. Less than two weeks later, I moved to New York to start my freshman year at Barnard College.
Despite the giant cast on my right leg, things got off to a charmed start. Bruce was playing at the Palladium, and I met a guy at orientation who sold me a ticket in the last row, up near the ceiling of the once-grand cinema. It cost $8.50, but Bruce played as if everybody had paid $500 and wouldn't live to see another rock-and-roll show. He was a scruffy guy with a wiry, malnourished look, and he ran himself ragged, hopping on the piano and diving into the front rows.
Bruce killed himself to please. He turned four-minute songs into 12-minute opuses, adding solos for every band member and whispering private tales into the microphone as if we were all confidants -- long raps about fighting with his father, pining for a girl, struggling to make it.
He barreled from one song to the next, including my beloved "Incident on 57th Street." He played songs I hadn't heard, such as "Independence Day" and "Point Blank." And he closed the show more than three hours later with the Dovells' classic rave-up, "You Can't Sit Down." Who could? Everybody in the hall was doing insane dances, sweating as much as Bruce and refusing to go home.
The next night, I grabbed my college roommate and went back to the Palladium, where Bruce was playing again. We didn't have tickets, so we waited in the alley by the stage door, along with a few dozen others. About two hours after the show ended, Bruce came out and talked to every fan there. He signed T-shirts, ticket stubs and, finally, the cast on my leg.
"What happened here?" he asked, after a girl I'd never met nudged me to the front of the crowd and pointed to my leg.
I could barely speak.