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
The Pony teemed with characters. There was Howie, who gave every girl he met business cards that read, "All the redemption I can offer is beneath this dirty hood," a classic line from "Thunder Road." There was Minnie Mouse, who repurposed a student loan to follow a Bruce tour to Europe. Bobby was a New York cab driver who drove his yellow taxi to Asbury every weekend looking for Bruce instead of picking up fares. Ray could pass for Bruce in dim light and had a loud friend named Kevin. And there were Holly, Lewis, little Nancy, the Teenager and the Rat.
I wasn't as exotic, just a girl who went to college in the city. To the freshmen on my hall, I was surely the most negligent dorm adviser in Barnard history, tacking a note on my door nearly every weekend that read, "Gone to see Bruce."
Our glory days were the summer of 1982, when Bruce was a regular at the bars in Asbury Park, playing nearly every weekend from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Some nights, he'd play at Big Man's West, the club that his saxophone player, Clarence Clemons, had opened in Red Bank, N.J. Sundays he was usually at the Stone Pony. Rare nights, he'd play both, cranking out a set at Big Man's and then racing down the shore to the Pony, which stayed open one hour later, with a caravan of fans on his tail.
Had cellphones existed, all of New Jersey would have descended on the bars the moment Bruce's white pickup was spotted circling the strip. As it was, you had to show up on faith. Nobody was going to wander off looking for a pay phone once Bruce showed up.
Other nights Bruce just sat at the bar and talked to the barmaid. No one bugged him. No true fan would dream of crowding Bruce in his own bar. It was enough just to breathe the same air.
One time at Big Man's, a waitress came to the table where I sat with a half-dozen other fans and said, "Bruce wants to buy everyone a drink." We sputtered and stuttered before settling on Heinekens all around. Bruce never came over, but he gave us a slight nod as he nursed a drink at the bar.
I smuggled my empty bottle out in my coat. And it's more prized today than any pressed prom-night corsage could ever be.
Bruce's first transgression was small, but I took it hard. Sometime after "Born to Run," he got his teeth capped, filling the space between his two front teeth that I had come to love. That space was as much a part of his look as the battered leather jacket. Did he think rock stars were supposed to look perfect? Who was he trying to please? I complained to Robin, but she said I was overreacting.
Then came the opening night of the "Born in the USA" tour in June 1984. A half-dozen of us flew to St. Paul for the three-night stand at the city's civic center. To bankroll the trip, I finagled an American Express card by persuading my boss at the tennis shop where I worked part time to exaggerate my salary. (Plastic wasn't doled out so freely back then.) With a credit card to cover the plane fare, the key to making this and other Bruce trips affordable was buying the concert ticket at face value instead of getting gouged by scalpers (hard to do), and cramming as many friends as possible in a hotel room (easily done). None of this struck me as extravagant. There were all sorts of expenses I didn't have, after all. A car. Designer clothes. A drug habit.
In St. Paul, Ray had a fourth-row seat. Holly, a genius at making her way to the front regardless of her ticket stub, was down there, too. I sat farther away from the stage and still recall my puzzlement when Bruce opened the second set by playing "Dancing in the Dark" twice in a row, start to finish. I learned later it was to accommodate filmmaker Brian De Palma, who was shooting the song's music video that night. And the girl Bruce had plucked from the front row to dance with him? She was no fan at all, I found out, but an actress (a young Courteney Cox, in fact) who was paid to look excited. It was the first flagrantly phony thing I'd seen in a Bruce show, and it irks me still.
So does the song itself, "Dancing in the Dark" -- three minutes of disco-infused dreck, written only because Bruce's manager, Jon Landau, insisted that the record have a single suitable for heavy rotation on FM radio.