rebels with a cause: springsteen at giants stadium
One of the few places in the world I can still find magic is in rock and roll. There are just so many factors you cannot dictate, and in this tightly-controlled world these days, that’s a blessing.
In August, I travelled East to the Promised Land, New Jersey, to see the final two shows of a 10-night stand by Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band on August 30 and 31. I hate stadium shows by their very nature. Fan or not, I chose to completely miss the Born In The USA stadium run. (In fact, I tell the story about being stuck in a Giants Stadium traffic jam in August of 1985, while on my way to see R.E.M. at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ. Michael Stipe sang a few lines of “Born To Run” that night, even.) But it’s 2003, I’m a lot less rigid in some of my musical principles, and it was the only way I’d see Bruce this summer. Then the shows started in July, and they were great. Even the most cynical die-hard was won over.
8/30 was, quite simply, pure magic. it was a night of non-stop smiles, moments of complete and total disbelief, where you were immediately best friends with whoever was around you. There was just something in the air, or, to quote Bruce, something in the night. From the opening notes of “Janey, Don’t You Lose Heart” (a semi-rarity), to the first solo in “The Rising,” where he completely and totally nailed it above and beyond anything before, you just knew this was going to be a show for the memory banks, a show that for the rest of your life, you could close your eyes and remember it exactly and instantly. You could just feel the extraordinary energy, you could see the light in Bruce’s eyes (okay. You could from where I was standing. I realize the rest of Giants Stadium that wasn’t in the pit probably couldn’t see that). I think it helped a lot that the crowd in the general admission, SRO pit at the front of the stage was absolutely fantastic, down to the bouncing European fans, over for one last dance, everywhere you looked. But the best musicians take the energy they get from the audience and channel it back to us, creating that endless magical loop. That was tonight. Not to get all hippie or anything, Bruce and the band just fed off the rolling waves of energy coming from down front.
“Candy’s Room,” and the crowd in the pit shouting the words along with Bruce, with as much power, passion and conviction as that song’s ever had, a moment where the audience was truly one with the artist. “Trapped” followed, and it was just more of the same, the crowd shouting the chorus so loudly Bruce looked almost startled. It was powerful and compelling, and I don’t even like that song all that much! “Because The Night” is nothing short of incendiary, with a solo from the hands of the gods. You think I’m exaggerating? You wouldn’t if you were there. If you were there, you’d be telling me I wasn’t capturing it accurately enough.
Later in the show, an additional microphone is brought out and we’re all abuzz – who can it be? – and out walks Emmylou Harris – EMMYLOU HARRIS?? Who joins Bruce for a beautiful version of “Across The Border”. “Thunder Road” reappears – this setlist standard had been MIA for quite a few shows – and I was glad that I didn’t realize until the next day that the dedication was to a Bruce fan who died in the Twin Towers on 9/11. This guy had a Bruce license plate, was known for being a fanatic, and stayed behind to help everyone in his office get out. Bruce got wind of this, and sent a videotape of himself performing “Thunder Road” – his favorite song – to be shown at the funeral. The story was all over the Jersey papers when it happened, and caused pretty much everyone to be sitting at their desks at work crying, reading about this.
Another microphone is brought out AGAIN, and Bruce mentions “a cool band from Philadelphia”. The guys from Marah walk out, and you think it’s going to be another standard, it’s gotta be, right? And then those opening notes of “Raise Your Hand” – oh my god, “Raise Your Hand?????!” and all you can think is, “oh my god, I cannot believe this is happening,” which I think I must have said and thought at least a dozen times during that song. It’s an old, soulful setlist favorite that we haven’t seen in years.
I wanted to hear ‘Seven Nights To Rock” more than anything. This absolute barn-burner of a cover had been an encore staple starting in Europe, and I wanted to hear it so badly. Just when I thought we weren’t going to get it tonight, after “Born To Run,” here it is. It goes on forever and it’s hard and driving and pounding and just plain rocking. The crowd went nuts, even though they had probably never heard it before. It’s that kind of song.
And just when you’ve had enough, just when you think you can’t take it any more, out of nowhere comes “Pretty Flamingo.” The near-mythological cover that was debuted for the first time since the 1978 tour at the already-legendary 8/11 show in Philadelphia. A song that is so freaking legendary it wouldn’t even make my list of “Songs I Would Love To Hear” because you think it’s just not possible. To me, “Flamingo” represents a whole other side of Springsteen that we don’t get to see any more, those early days of rambling talks to the crowd, of a joy and an innocence that we no longer have. He used to tell this long story about a girl he used to see walking down the street, and how he never had the nerve to go talk to her, and that all these years later, he thought about hiring a private detective to find her. It’s a silly story, now, kind of corny, I guess, but charming and wistful and heartbreaking all the same. Even without the rap now, “Pretty Flamingo” was still a song that made the entire stadium (by all reports) stand still and shut the fuck up. No lines of people walking out for beer or bathroom breaks. They knew they were seeing a piece of history.
“Rosalita,” the song that everyone loves, and that Bruce was known for for years and years, and then disappeared – Bruce not being comfortable with it (or so he’d tell the endless fans who would ask him why it was gone whenever they had the chance) – became a permanent part of the stadium shows with the first Giants Stadium show this summer. I can’t remember the last time I heard it myself, probably 1988. And I knew he had been playing it, but I guess I kind of forgot about it. So when the band kicked into it after “Flamingo,” I was honestly caught off guard. It was just like an old familiar friend returning home. It’s such a fucking happy, purely joyful song, it always caused pandemonium and sheer jubilation, and in 2003, it still does. All I could think was, “This is just the most fun. How can anyone not like this?” He played it like he meant it, too, without any grudges or sighs or rolling of the eyeballs. That’s the thing about Bruce – if he’sgoing to play something, he’s going to go balls out and PLAY IT. I know people don’t think that “Thunder Road” has any power or presence any more, but I have to disagree. It’s not going to be the same as it was in 1978, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t heartfelt or delivered with meaning. Same with Rosie.
8/31 was a great show, with a setlist for the gods, but didn’t have the same spark as Saturday. But we’re talking the difference between an 8.5 vs. an 11 – not that significant, really. Tonight, the rarities just kept pouring out, one after the other, to the point that you were glad for a “Glory Days” so you could stop and catch your breath. Opening with “Cynthia,” which had never been done before (and was allegedy by request from a woman of that name, a diehard who was front and center). “Night” tumbling down and and making me feel the way I did the first time I heard the Born To Run album:
And the world is busting at its seams
And you’re just a prisoner of your dreams
Holding on for your life
because you work all day
To blow them away in the night
I’ve been involved in dozens of discussions about how much of Bruce’s audience today (and really, always) has gone to his shows to forget their lives and their responsibilities and to just lose themselves for a while. People stuck in dead-end jobs, with lives that are less than they want them to be. For them, the shows are momentary refuge. Singing along to “Night” on 8/30 – “You work nine to five and somehow you survive till the night” – I realized that I couldn’t separate myself from that group any longer. I was one of them, whether I liked it or not, and I decided that there really wasn’t anything wrong with that.
The opening notes to “Spirit In The Night” and my hands are in the air, old-school, I couldn’t even tell my sister what it was because I was so overwhelmed that it was happening. However, nothing prepared me for the moment when we heard those looming, ominous chords that open “Lost In The Flood”, the details of that story coming to life so vividly in front of me:
That pure American brother, dull-eyed and empty-faced
races Sundays in Jersey in a Chevy stock super eight
He rides her low on the hip
On the side he’s got Bound For Glory
In red, white and blue flash paint
He leans on the hood telling racing stories
the kids call him Jimmy The Saint
And the piano and the drums and the guitars all rain down like thunder, huge loud majestic sounds pouring off the stage. It’s epic, plain and simple. I’ve never seen this one live, and it was stunning. And just when I thought we’d seen it all, those soulful opening notes to the legendary “Kitty’s Back” caused a minor riot in the pit. “It’s alright,” the chorus repeats, over and over again. The call and response here is traditional, ritualistic, the same as it’s been for 30 years. There’s something warm and wonderful and comforting in that part of the shows, most notably in the older songs. I took a first-timer to a show in Montreal back in April, and we sat behind the stage. She was almost overwhelmed with the level and intensity of audience participation, and I told her that it was pretty much the same anywhere and everywhere. And as a participant, to me, at least, it never gets tired. It’s one of the things I love the most.
The moment when the lights come up for “Born To Run” and you turn around to see 55,000 people on their feet, singing along with you, to one of the greatest songs ever written in rock and roll’s history. It’s a sight that cannot fail to give you goosebumps. If it doesn’t, you’re just not alive. I was telling my sister, “Turn around and look at this now, because you will likely never see it again.” I hope I’m wrong, but who knows these days?
And then, they’re done with the standard encores, but he clearly doesn’t want to leave, there’s still some unfinished business here, and he knows it. The most popular song requested over the two nights, I saw big banners even up in the 300 level asking for it: his cover of Tom Waits’ “Jersey Girl”. There’s a version of it on the 1975-85 box set that gives me shivers, when he sings the line “Down the shore, everything’s all right…” and the (Jersey) crowd cheers loudly in recognition. The stadium lights are still on, everyone’s still on their feet, no one is heading for the exits to beat the traffic out of the parking lot tonight. Everyone knows this one and everyone’s singing it, and even the ones who don’t know the words know what it is, and appreciate the symbolism, the last song of the 10 night New Jersey stand, “Jersey Girl”. I am not that ashamed to admit that I am crying hard and openly, tears streaming down my cheeks, even though I’m loving every second of it, cannot believe that I am standing five rows from the stage with my sister, watching and listening to Bruce sing this song. I am crying because the whole night was overwhelming, because it’s the last show of the stand, because it was (as of that moment) my last show of the tour, crying for every long forgotten or still remembered guy who ever called me his Jersey girl. The diehards would have rather seen another rarity, the average fans would have loved another hit, but there was no other way he could have closed these shows. It was simply and truly a moment of beauty, and tribute, and appreciation.
The other night, my friend Heather said, almost offhandedly (we were talking about Neil Young’s Greendale, actually) “Hope is the new rebellion,” and there was just something so – right – in that statement. There is so much blackness and sadness and loss and dreariness these days. Hope is not fashionable; it’s not hip or trendy or cool in the slightest. But Bruce has always dealt in hope, and it’s one of the things I always looked to him for, and got from him, and it’s probably why I’ve spent so much time and effort the past two years in going to see him. Just call us rebels with a cause.
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