the last dance : springsteen at shea stadium, 10-4-03


10/4/03, Shea Stadium. The last show of the Rising tour. The last dance, as Bruce referred to 7/1/00 (the last Reunion tour show at MSG), and now, here we are once again. 7/1/00 was different in that the Reunion tour was already a miracle in and of itself, and we really didn’t know if we would ever see those 9 people together onstage again. Three years later, a new album and a whole tour under our belts, there was slightly more hope this time.

I journeyed East in August to see the final two shows of the Giants Stadium stand. When they went on sale, we really believed that would be the end; by the time the shows began, we knew that there would be yet another leg, the baseball stadiums, and then, of course, Shea. I have all these emails in my outbox where I determinedly insist I Am Not Going To Shea, that I’d had a fine year and didn’t need to go.

Then we had the week where we lost both Zevon and Johnny Cash. Suddenly, even the most steadfast holdouts were checking frequent flier miles and the balance on their credit cards, and just going. My compromise was that I was only going if I had a free plane ticket, and I would only go out for 10/4. “Only” 10/4.

I arrive in New York tired, recovering from the flu, and worn out. I almost didn’t go, calling my sister on Friday and insisting that I was too sick to go. “Go,” she said, after listening to my litany. “Because if you stay home, you’ll be sick, but you won’t have seen Bruce. If you go to NY, maybe you’ll still be sick, but you won’t miss the last show.” I pause, not expecting this reaction from her. She is The Responsible Sister. “I just know you, you’ll hate that you missed it.”

Of course, she was right.

I abandoned any dreams of landing a miracle GA for this last show; I had grabbed B9’s the day they went on sale ‘ not great, but at least on the floor. Day of show, when I came to terms with the fact that I was in no shape to hop on the 7 train at 8 a.m. and go get in the drop line, the miracle appears in the form of A6’s, dropped around 1 p.m., and snapped up by my co-ticketholder. Front floor section. It’ll do.

I spent the afternoon resting, since I didn’t have to meet my companion until 5. But I was antsy. I wanted to get out there, and I was staying in Astoria so it wasn’t that far away. I headed out around 3:30, and was in Flushing by 4. As I get off of the train, I can see a crowd of people gathered on the opposite platform, looking into the stadium. As I walk down the stairs and am about to leave the station, something tells me to just go see what’s going on on the Manhattan-bound side.

Thank god I did, because what was going on was soundcheck. Crystal clear, with an elevated viewing platform into the stadium, stage clearly visible, Bruce appearing on the big screens, wearing the ever-present Dolphins cap. I take position as the band is thundering through “Code of Silence.” I don’t like reading about soundchecks and rarely make a special effort to try to hear them. But today just seemed different. I am up there with random curious onlookers, some who recognize that it’s Bruce and are treating it as a free concert, but most could care less and leave after a few seconds. I am delighted beyond belief to have happened into this.

The song stops, there’s some chatter I can’t make out clearly, and then an organ and Bruce starts to rap about being in love. I recognize the vamp and I freeze in position as he begins to sing.

“Back In Your Arms.”

If you don’t know it, it’s this heart-wrenching, truly soulful and deeply felt ballad of lost love and regret. A song that only the diehards really know or care about. It was never released until the Tracks box set, and even that isn’t the best version. The ultimate version, in my humble opinion, is the one that is portrayed on the “Blood Brothers” DVD, the story of the band getting back together around the time the Greatest Hits cd was put together. (It’s so powerful that Bruce was recently asked by a fan how fresh the hurt was when he wrote the song; Bruce’s answer was not very ‘ he just wanted to write and sing a soul song.)

In my dream my love was lost, I lived by luck and fate
I carried you inside of me, prayed it wouldn’t be too late
Now I’m standin’ on this empty road where nothin’ moves but the wind
And honey, I just want to be
Back in your arms, back in your arms again…

I have never heard him sing this song. Ever. I have never even come close. I have imagined it endlessly, imagined it being one of those instances where your heart stops, where everything stops, where you are seemingly frozen in time. It is heartbreaking in every way possible.

You said once I was your treasure and I saw your face in every star
But the promises we make at night, oh that’s all they are
Unless we fill them with faith and love, they’re empty as the howlin’ wind
And honey I just wanna be
Back in your arms, back in your arms again…

So here I am, by myself, alone, in the city of my awakening (not my birth, that honor goes to New Jersey), the city I long for and lament. I am standing on a windswept subway platform filled with families and random Saturday travelers, witnessing this incredible moment, this treasure, this – gift. This song, of all the songs I could hear in a soundcheck, today, at the end of this tour, at the end of this year. “Back In Your Arms.” It was like it was my own private serenade, and it was one of the most beautiful, serendipitous occurrences ever. But it was also bittersweet, in that there was no one near me to commiserate or share the experience with. I forlonly call a friend back in Portland, babble something senselessly to her and hold the phone up.

The song ends, and there’s a pause onstage. I am brought back to reality by the rain and the wind and finally noticing that there are trains rattling down the tracks behind me. I snap out of my reverie and head down to the stadium, as “Johnny 99” roars out of the stadium next.

Several hours later. It is raining in full force. I have been walking around the stadium, running into friends and acquaintances every few feet, buying that vitally important last show t-shirt. It is time to head inside, time to be part of the ritual one last time. And ritual it is, from the moment Bruce sings “Come on up for the rising…” and we all hold our arms up in the air, to that driving intro, powered by Max”s drums, and anchored by Bruce’s “1,2,3,4!”, echoed by the crowd every night, that brings us into “Lonesome Day” ” it’s so ingrained in me now that when I listen to the record, I expect to hear “Lonesome Day” after “The Rising” and I will count down myself when no one’s around – to the “Turn it up!” chant that is now crucial to “Mary’s Place,” to the “whoa, whoa, whoa” chant that is now an integral part of “Badlands,” to holding up 7 fingers in the air the minute the last notes of “Born To Run” end and we know that “Seven Nights To Rock” is next – it was all there, and then some. Being out of the pit for this show hurt for that reason, because when you’re there, it is call and response, it is an exchange of energy, everyone knows what to do and does it without even thinking. It might sound hokey or forced or just plain stupid if you haven’t been there, or don’t understand. But it’s always been like this ‘ different songs, different tours – and it’s as much a part of the shows as the music is.

“Code of Silence” opened, forming a trilogy with the previous nights’ openers – “Souls of the Departed,” “Roulette,” and now “Code”. I love when people try to berate Bruce for speaking about politics onstage; it’s like they never ever bothered to listen to the actual songs. Those three songs as openers said far more than any PSA or explicit statement (and I’d argue that every single one of those is damn explicit already).

Given that “Roulette” opened night two, I had zero expectation that I’d get to hear it again. So my joy when Max kicked into those syncopated drumbeats that open the song was boundless, me pummelling my co-ticketholder on the arm, excitedly, as the Three Mile Island-inspired tale of panic, flight and desperation soared through Shea. “Night” came next, the perfect companion, although I view that song as offering more hope than “Roulette” does. (But that’s what Bruce has always been the master of, finding the light through the darkness.)

It wasn’t feeling like a last show. Even when Bruce invoked the “last dance” label shortly before “Waitin” On A Sunny Day” (requesting, “Hey, Stevie, cheer me up!” Usually at that juncture he’s making a wisecrack about how that song features the “vocal stylings of Little Steven Van Zant,” which is an understatement to say the least), but otherwise, it just wasn”t feeling all that definitive or final or conclusive. I hadn’t been at Friday’s show, but just the setlist alone made it clear it was a powerhouse, with a clear theme and tone that Bruce managed to maintain throughout the entire show. Tonight was a little more all over the place.

‘You’re Missing” reappears after an absence, and as soon as it started we realized how obvious a choice it was, for the last show in this city. “Johnny 99” appears, the same version I heard at soundcheck. I really wasn’t sure about this rockabilly version, it seemed almost too cheery for the subject matter. But Soozie was on fire, and at the end, Bruce beckoned her to the front of the stage, and then Danny came down with the accordion, it all gelled, they just came together and rocked the fuck out. It was a combination Zydeco barn dance and old time hootenanny and it was a stunning display of musicianship.

The Tunnel of Love songs had started to creep back into the setlists over the past few weeks; we know now that it had everything to do with the fact that Bruce had been working on the tracklist for the Essential cd. Whatever the reason, it was great to hear “Tunnel of Love” cascade off that stage. I missed the horn section, though, and found myself singing it in my head. “Because the Night,” yet another chestnut of a powerhouse, where you are guaranteed to witness the Gunslinger of Central New Jersey in action. It burned at Giants Stadium and tonight was no different.

We reach “Mary’s Place,” and at this point, the finality of the situation had started to sink in. I enjoy the song, and have cast my vote for it to be an evergreen from The Rising. It was fun as always, although the band introductions seemed kind of rushed. At the end of the intros, instead of the audience launching into an “E Street Band” chant (although people were trying), the “Broooces” kind of took over. This time, he let them go on for a while, which is the first time I’ve seen him do that this tour – he usually cuts it off pretty quick if that starts. And i have to say that at that moment, he actually really looked kind of misty… which didn’t help our cause much either.

Then, that organ riff starts, my eyes light up, and I tell my companion that this was the song that had so excited me at soundcheck (he didn’t want to hear what the songs were, so I generalized greatly). There it is. “Back In Your Arms”. For real. Live and in front of me. Hearing it at soundcheck the way I did didn’t distract from the in-context experience in the least. I didn’t care how far away from the stage I was, or think about how much at that moment I wanted to be in the pit up front. I just found my space and my connection to the stage, and it was, exactly, everything I’d ever hoped for.

“Light of Day,” that Reunion tour staple, reappears, and I loved hearing it again. The tourist favorite, “Bobby Jean,” followed. Now, while I don’t hate this song as much as others do (and even then, the complaint is usually that there are so many incredible songs he could be playing instead), it’s not exactly riveting. So I decide to do something I’ve never done, which is walk away from my seat. I am starving and decide to go get a pretzel, which is ironic in a sense since I am always criticizing people at concerts who feel the need to barrel down your row at the most inappropriate moment (Keith Richards’ solo sets being the most egregious examples) to get a snack. But what the hell – I’m in a stadium, how far am I going? It’s not like I won’t be able to see and hear everything, and it is “Bobby Jean” after all, the chances of some amazing happening taking place that I’d miss out on are slim and none. It was kind of interesting to stand there on the side for a moment, and be an observer and not an active participant.

But I am back in my seat well before the house lights come to life and illuminate the stadium for “Born To Run”. I do not understand how any person alive on this planet cannot be blown away by that moment, when the lights come up and you’re singing along with 20,000 or 50,000 people to one of the greatest songs ever written in the history of rock and roll. I will never, ever, ever, get tired of this song or that moment. It finishes, and I defiantly thrust my 7 fingers into the air, I don’t care if no one sees it but me, and sure enough, “Seven Nights To Rock.” I’m still of the opinion that this is one of the greatest covers he’s ever done. Sure, I love the standard covers he’s done over the years, and some day would love to see “Rave On” or “Summertime Blues” again, but I just thought it was dynamite that he pulled this chestnut out of the closet and turned it into one of the highlights of the stadium shows. It’s a song that everyone can instantly connect with, whether you’ve heard it before or not. It’s easy to sing along to, it’s infectious, and it just kicks ass.

So, things have been pretty standard by now, as far as Bruce shows go. Not that it hasn’t been great and even fantastic at some moments, but if you’ve seen 10 shows this tour, you haven’t exactly been blown away just yet (although “Back In Your Arms” came pretty fucking close). The band comes back onstage after the first encore break, and I am standing there, expecting the usual encore, when Bruce says something like, ‘I’d like to bring out someone who’s been a great inspiration to me, my friend…’ and as he says the words “Bob Dylan,” BOB MOTHERFUCKING DYLAN walked out on that stage, and the place goes utterly apeshit. I could not speak; I could not breathe; I couldn’t even manage to go “Holy Shit!” or pound anyone on the arm. “Oh, my god,” is all I apparently kept saying. It was something that was absolutely magnified and made better by sharing it with someone, anyone, whether it was someone you knew well, a distant buddy on the end of a cellphone, or absent friends whom you had with you in your heart. Or even the random guy behind us wearing a Bob Dylan shirt, who had the biggest grin on his face at that moment. Just like we all did ‘ including, and especially, Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen, who looked for all the world like a 16 year old kid. It didn’t matter that we couldn’t hear Bob’s guitar. It didn’t matter that his vocals weren’t miced adequately (the audience was singing ‘Highway 61″ loud enough that it didn’t matter all that much). It was, again, one of those once-in-a-lifetime happenings that you will talk about and remember forever.

“My City of Ruins.” One of my most favorite things to watch this tour was the little side step Bruce would do with Clarence during that song. It was just so – simple, and so powerful, and, erm, very sensual in a way. It was touching, too, just kind of watching him share that moment with the Big Man. (My sister always said she wondered what they were talking about ‘ ‘So, Bruce, what you doin” after the show?” “Well, I thought I’d go to Wendy’s…”) On another related note about small moments, Bruce’s affection towards Patti tonight was just spilling over.

“Rosalita” is still some of the most fun you can have legally. I understand why he retired it, but I was equally glad to see it return, and when I witnessed it for the first time since back in the day (8/30, my first Giants Stadium show), I just couldn’t believe how great it sounded. A long-lost friend returning home. “Dancing In The Dark,” that anti-Born In The USA version, the all-ROCK-all-the-time version, the one I witnessed at its debut in Tacoma over a year ago. I can see the pit is pogoing on the breaks and I want to be there so badly. I console myself by pogoing anyway, and at the end, easing into the aisle and pogoing around in circles like a three-year-old. “It’s the last time I can do this,” I shouted, laughing my ass off.

I’m making my way back to my seat as a cavalcade of special guests lines up on the stage; after Dylan, it was going to take an awful lot to get our attention, and it was the usual suspects anyway ” Garland Jeffreys, Willie Nile, Gary U.S. Bonds. From the riff Bruce hit, I am thinking that it’s going to be “Raise Your Hand,” which wasn’t that out of the question, it’s a good mass participation number. But, then ” “OH MY GOD! WHEEEEEEEEEE!!!!” and I leap back out into the aisle to dance my ass off to “Quarter To Three,” another old standard that we haven’t heard in eons. Some of my most favorite moments ever at Bruce shows were during “Quarter To Three” or the Detroit Medley, when I’d be out in the aisles with my then-boyfriend or just the girls, dancing around like fools, just dancing and dancing and having the time of our lives. It was always a big, important part of the shows to me, when it’s just about having fun. It is supposed to be fun, ya know? I mean, along with Dylan and “Back In Your Arms” and “Roulette,” the everlasting memory I will have of this show is going to be me being an idiot during “Dancing In The Dark” and boogying my ass off in the aisle during “Quarter To Three.”

“Twist and Shout” was an obvious pick, given the venue, and it was a trainwreck, but a happy one. It finishes, and the crowd is screaming and waving, and I had heard there was one more song soundchecked, and there is only one song that can possibly be next. “One more,” I say to my seatmate, and he looks as me as though I’m insane. Then there’s a hush onstage, followed by that solemn, quiet introduction to “Blood Brothers.” To me, it felt like the entire fucking stadium shut up during that first verse. Even if they didn’t know what the song was and didn’t understand the significance of it, you could feel that it was Something, and people were giving it respect. There weren’t even any mass exoduses to beat the rush or catch a train. It wasn’t maudlin. It was quiet, it had presence, it was genuine, it was heartfelt, it was a promise and a statement – but not a final one. I stood there with my hand on my heart, drinking it in, watching Bruce and Clarence and the rest of the band stand at the front of the stage, holding hands, watching the tears on Clarence’s face and the ones clearly shining in Bruce’s eyes. Nothing could have followed that. Or should have.

And then, the ride was over.