By Liz Clarke
Sunday, February 1, 2009
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.
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.
"A car accident," I muttered, barely able to look him in the eye. Then I blurted out, "Your music changed my life!"
Bruce just smiled and signed his name on the giant cast in purple Magic Marker. I coated it with clear nail polish the next morning.
Five weeks later, I paid $15 (nearly double face value) for an 11th-row seat to see Bruce at Princeton's Jadwin Gym. Finally freed from my cast, I stood on a folding chair that night and screamed "Fever!" begging him to sing a rarely performed studio outtake that I loved. He walked to the part of the stage directly in front of my chair, pointed straight at me and launched into "Fever."
As Bruce's popularity ballooned, getting concert tickets got tougher. When I'd strike out at Ticketron, I'd turn to scalpers.
During "The River" tour in 1980, I found a guy through the Village Voice classifieds who was selling a pair of tickets to the first night of a two-night stand at Madison Square Garden for $300. I was to meet Joe -- 6-foot-5 and blond, he said -- with the cash at a bar on 34th Street. I'd never held $300 in my hand and was sure I was going to get mugged on the subway downtown.
Joe was easy to spot. We made the transaction, and he proposed a cheaper deal to get me in the second night. For $30 he sold me a New York Rangers ticket that looked a lot like the Bruce ticket. I had to meet him outside the Garden the night of the show and follow him through a turnstile manned by a buddy in on the scheme. I handed the guy my Rangers ticket and a folded-up $10 bill, and he passed me through. But I had to repeat the drill three or four times more, slipping a $10 bill to one of Joe's co-conspirators at every level of the arena until we reached the top, where I was set loose to spend the show dodging ushers because I had no seat.
The next month, Joe offered me a third-row seat to a Bruce show at the Spectrum in Philadelphia at face value. It was scalper's parlance for asking you out on a date. All I had to do was get to New Jersey, where he had chartered two coach buses to ferry scores of top-dollar customers to the show in Philly. I rode with Joe in his Cadillac. As soon as we settled in our third-row-center seats, so close I thought I'd faint, Joe pulled out a plastic sack and planted his snout in a mound of cocaine. I was horrified, adamant that no substance -- not even a drop of beer -- should fog one second of a Bruce concert.
A brawl broke out in the parking lot afterward. It turned out that Joe had misled several of his customers about the quality of their seats, and they were furious. I made it back to New York. And I never saw Joe, or dealt with scalpers, again.
Asbury Park was an easy bus ride from New York's Port Authority. By day, it was a sad, forsaken seaside town littered with shuttered storefronts and suspect motels. But by night, the bars throbbed with music.
Like Asbury itself, the disc jockeys at the Fast Lane and Stone Pony seemed stuck in a time capsule. They didn't play the Clash or Devo or the Talking Heads, all the rage in New York at the time, but instead broke out Wilson Pickett's "Land of 1,000 Dances," Arthur Conley's "Sweet Soul Music" and Little Richard's "Shout." The bands that headlined Asbury's clubs -- John Eddie and the Front Street Runners, Beaver Brown, Cats on a Smooth Surface -- were as crazy about Bruce as the kids who packed the dance floor, all of them keeping one eye on the front door and hoping that, when midnight struck, Bruce would saunter in and play.
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.
"It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go," Bruce conceded of "Dancing in the Dark" years later. "And probably a little farther."
Indeed. I wish he'd never play it again.
It was during the second leg of the "Born in the USA" tour that Bruce did the unforgivable. By then, the album had sold millions of copies and spawned seven Top 10 singles. Bruce was everywhere. Images of his rear end in front of a draped American flag were the 1980s equivalent of the Farrah Fawcett poster that had hung in every American boy's bedroom the previous decade. The whole nation, it seemed, was pumping its fist to the title track.
So, instead of playing in 18,000-seat basketball arenas, Bruce moved his concerts to football stadiums that held three times that -- or more. The first was at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., on Jan. 26, 1985.
I was outraged. Bruce had always talked about rock-and-roll as "a promise." To me, a three-hour Bruce concert was that promise delivered. He fed off the fans, and the fans fed off him. The result was a magical, shared experience that shattered the imaginary wall separating performer and audience. Had Bruce forgotten that promise? How could he interact with fans who were a football field away? It was as if Bruce had suddenly morphed into a rock god with an ego as big as a Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade float.
I boycotted the Carrier Dome show, as I did the one at RFK Stadium and every other stadium on the tour. There was a line I refused to cross in this relationship, and Bruce had found it. All I could do was hope that this phase would pass. Surely he'd get his fill of mass adulation. He'd realize his mistake. I would simply wait him out.
My indignation was forgotten, of course, when Bruce released his next album. In February 1988, I celebrated by driving to the opening night of the "Tunnel of Love" tour in Worcester, Mass. Dozens of Bruce faithful jammed the sidewalk in front of the Centrum basketball arena on a bitterly cold night, huddled around tape decks blasting scratchy recordings of old concerts as we waited for the doors to open. Fans without tickets haggled with scalpers, wads of cash in hand. Fans with tickets hustled for better seats, dying to get closer to the stage. Every few minutes shouts of "BROOCE!" rang out.
And local TV crews chronicled it all, interviewing fans about the miles they'd driven, the price they'd paid for tickets and the number of concerts they'd attended, as if we were all part of some cult.
I was desperate to love the show, having waited nearly three years for a new record. But once inside, I didn't like the looks of it. The stage was set with a park bench and ticket booth manned by a member of Bruce's road crew dressed like a carnival barker. When the lights dimmed, Bruce strode out and bought a "ticket" as cheesy organ music played. Then he launched into the title track, "Tunnel of Love."
The routine was the same the next night, as was the set list, violating an unstated principle of a Bruce show: the promise of spontaneity. I went to a third show, in Chapel Hill, N.C. It was the same again, opening more like a Carol Burnett skit than a concert. The song choices rarely varied; the banter between songs felt scripted. I didn't bother going again on that tour. For the first time in my life, three Bruce shows was enough.
A pattern was beginning to emerge: Bruce shattered my faith. I swore off him. And then he found a way to redeem himself -- like a boyfriend who had strayed but insisted it didn't mean anything.
He did it with the release of "The Ghost of Tom Joad" in 1995, a haunting acoustic record that alienated as many fans as "Born in the USA" had converted. The songs were as far from anthems as you could get. They were word-perfect short stories about castoffs from all walks of American life -- an ex-convict, a laid-off steelworker, a Mexican immigrant. Rendered with minimal melody, they were almost painful to listen to -- as bleak as skeletons bleached by the sun. Whether it was a conscious rejection of fame, I'm not sure. But I was enthralled. Bruce had come back down to earth and was writing in a singular voice again. And I was worshiping anew from a pew in Nashville's 2,300-seat Ryman Auditorium during Bruce's solo tour to promote the record.
More so than the records, Bruce's concerts had usually managed to rekindle any lapsed fervor on my part. And the ticket price had always felt a small amount to pay every few years to renew my faith, reclaim my youth and see old friends whose hearts beat in time with mine.
Then came Oct. 4, 2003. That was the day that, in a grievous error of judgment, I lifted my boycott of stadium shows. It was my birthday. And it was the final night of the "The Rising" tour, which was rumored to be the last for the aging E Street Band.
I had a spot in a cordoned-off area in front of the stage at Shea Stadium and was grateful for it. But the sound was like mud. Bob Dylan joined the band for an encore, but he was halfway through "Highway 61" before I could even identify the song. If it wasn't the worst Bruce show I ever saw, it was surely the most hollow. Something ended that night. I hadn't been true to my principles. Nor had he.
By this time, my disillusionment went beyond the betrayal that stadium shows represented. I had come to doubt the songs themselves. The lyrics were what moved me most about Bruce's music for so many years. But the truth was, they rarely did anymore.
Every record has always had a clunker or two. I winced as early as 1980 over the cotton-candy sentiment of "Crush on You." But more clunkers seem to find their way to Bruce's CDs these days, like "Mary's Place," in which Bruce declares, "We're gonna have a party!" Or "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," in which Bruce vows to "chase the clouds away." The low point came in Scottsdale, Ariz., in 2005. A close friend and I had taken a trip to celebrate her birthday, and someone e-mailed her an MP3 of the title track from Bruce's upcoming record, "Devils & Dust," which hadn't yet been released. We perched over the laptop as if it were Aladdin's lamp, waiting for the magical song to come out. But after the first few couplets, my heart sank. It was atonal and a lyrical mush, recycling familiar phrases that weren't particularly original to start with: "I feel a dirty wind blowing . . . I'm just trying to survive ..." I bought the CD when it came out, but never bothered to unwrap the cellophane.
It pains me to say it, but I think Bruce needs a thesaurus. Better still, an editor -- someone bold enough to send back his first drafts and tell him he can do better. There are several at The Washington Post. Maybe I could recommend one. Failing that, I'd like to propose a list of words he can't use anymore: "gypsy," "biker," "devil," "angel," "highway," "road" and "river," for starters. He has plowed this terrain enough.
Maybe the larger problem is success. Where, exactly, does the working-man's poet turn for material when his every need is met? Bruce mocked the conundrum a decade ago in his unreleased song "I'm Turning Into Elvis (and There's Nothing I Can Do)," whose lyrics are well known among hard-core fans. As transcribed by the fanzine LuckyTown:
Well he came to me last night in a dream looking just like he did in '57/He said, "Son, that guitar is a wonderful thing, but it can be the living devil's friend/On the other hand there's sex-starved women, millions of dollars, and anything you want to do."/I'm turning into Elvis and there's nothing I can do.
Yet for all Bruce's shortcomings, I'm hard-pressed to name a rock star who has handled fame better and does more, both privately and publicly, for the causes he believes in -- whether hunger, veterans' issues, human rights, or the hope championed by Barack Obama during his presidential bid. His decision to perform at the Lincoln Memorial the week of Obama's inauguration was Bruce at his best.
So how, just two weeks later, could he headline the Bridgestone Super Bowl XLIII Halftime Show? Is Bruce trying to make me go away? If so, I'd rather he take out a restraining order than pimp his music.
I could hardly stomach the 90-second preview that aired on "Sunday Night Football" during halftime of November's Redskins-Cowboy game, touted as the "studio premiere" of Bruce's new title track, "Working on a Dream." It was soul-crushing-- an inane decision to set a Bruce song (a title track, no less) to slow-motion footage of football players bashing into one another, their splats and crunches and locker-room rants obscuring the lyrics. Did Bruce approve this? The question was too painful to contemplate. What purpose did it serve, other than to acknowledge that "Working on a Dream" isn't music at all -- certainly not music that leaps out of the radio and grabs you. It's background noise -- at best a jingle that makes a catchy backdrop for something with an entirely different purpose.
Still, I'll buy Bruce's new CD, though I doubt I'll be playing "Working on a Dream" over and over until I fall asleep. I won't be reading the lyrics of the songs more than once or twice. And at the end of the first half of the Super Bowl, when the NFL players trudge into the locker room, I'm cutting off my TV.
Bruce is turning 60 this year. I'm getting older, too, but I'm determined to wait him out. This phase will pass.
Until then, I can't watch.
In addition to covering tennis, motorsports and Georgetown basketball at The Post, Liz Clarke is the author of "One Helluva Ride: How NASCAR Swept the Nation." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.