Monday, April 23, 2018

My 40 Years of Bruce: A scrapbook

Both the first and most recent times I saw Bruce Springsteen - almost 40 years apart - I sat left of center.

Most everything else had changed.  When we started this dance, I was a high school senior; now he's a senior citizen (and I'm still only 12 years younger). We both had kids (though mine seem more interested in his music than his). He moved his act uptown from the scrungy Palladium (RIP) to a posh Broadway theater, along the way putting a wrecking ball to the original Giants Stadium.

And the face value of my ticket went up from $8.50 (though my scrawl in my scrapbook indicates I actually paid a scalper price, $32) -- to $400. The Times, They Are Ka-Chinging.

The Ties That Bind (and cost big bucks)
I've seen Bruce live maybe 3 dozen times - fewer, to be sure, than the hardcore diehards, but still, more than any other musician, in venues large and small, from acoustic to full strings and horn section - even when he sacrilegiously disbanded the E street band for a tour ("Shayne Fontayne on guitar!" Really?).

I had his poster in my college dorm room, own more Bruce bootlegs than all other artists combined, and sprang for most of his recent overpriced boxed-set-remixed-reissues (even though I will probably never slog my way through all the peripherals, right).

Poster I had in college
But as his core E Street band members have started to die off (Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici) and the others - unlike Bruce - have started to show their age from the wear and tear of his marathon shows, I started to feel my Springsteen concertgoing experience becoming something of a replica of the real thing. Not Vegas, not a tribute band, but just less freewheeling. He was still putting out the energy and spirit on stage (a mutual high that he admitted in interviews he was addicted to - as were we all), but I was missing the unpolished spontaneity and quirky personal discursiveness that had helped attract this sheltered suburban kid to his wild-eyed yearning romanticism.

Well, Bruce has been also thinking about (and working on) himself - including publicly, first for my friend Peter Ames Carlin's bio Brucein which Springsteen not only was unusually open about his private demons, but allowed those in his life to speak without NDA restraints; then for his autobiography, Born to Run (recommended in audio form).

I had long joked that as Bruce hit his 60s, instead of exhaustingly touring worldwife, he should just take up residency and just play a month a year at an arena in Jersey and his fan base would make pilgrimages to see him. (In recent years, Billy Joel and Jerry Seinfeld have both done versions of this.) Now Bruce has hit on a plan that satisfies his musical and introspective urges, and one that leaves the E Street Band off the hook: this solo Broadway run, five shows a week, sold by lottery trying to thwart scalpers (as if), opened October 3, 2017 for "8 weeks only" but has been extended three times (as of this writing) to December 15, 2018.

15 months only! (so far)
It's not a rock and roll show, though he does play some of his biggest hits on piano and guitar. Instead, hearing Bruce's elegiac travelogue through his life and career, I found myself newly moved, as he described looking back wistfully at the time when his life was ahead of him like a blank page.  He spent as much time talking as he did singing, and he candidly admitted the man who wrote "Racing in the Streets" was very late to even learning to drive, and that the rebel who wrote "Born to Run" and swore to escape his "death trap" hometown, now resides a stone's throw away. He brought out his wife, Patti Scialfa, for a couple of songs. He revisited the meaning of his friendship with Clemons.

As I sat there, I also realized that, when you spend 40 years in the company of a sentient artist, you accumulate a lifetime of memories - even if the relationship is one-sided (I have only met and spoken to him once - more on that below).

Just as if you live in New York long enough, nearly every block and corner of Central Park you walk in holds a special memory - if you see enough Bruce, it becomes its own narrative of your life, with the inevitable tragedy, comedy, and every now and then, a glimpse of salvation.

I know everybody's got their Bruce stories, but these are mine.
Since most of them predate cell phone cameras, this is my scrapbook.

1977, sophomore year. I'm at Steve Hertz's house. He's a senior and, LP's spread everywhere, has been playing deejay to help upgrade my musical taste from the mainstream I'd embraced so far (Beatles, Stones, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Eagles, Yes, Fleetwood Mac, Queen. ELO, ELP).

Steve puts on a song: "You know this?"
Of course.
"This is the original. Isn't it so much better?"

The song is "Blinded By The Light."
I only knew the version I'd heard on the radio, by Manfred Mann's Earth Band (in which the confused Brits sing "revved up like a douche" instead of "deuce").

I dunno -- a little tinny sounding? I am still not sure. (!)

Eventually Steve wears me down. And when he graduates, a senior in the next class, Eric Alterman, imparts an even bigger Bruce fandom knowledge (as well as inculcating me into the Clash and Elvis Costello). He would later write a fan's appreciation book.

Soon I am tuning in to Springsteen's live radio broadcasts and taping them on my cassette deck,
and trading others with collectors. (Of course, all these recordings can now be found on YouTube with the click of a button, but at the time, the sheer effort was part of the fanatacism.)
In the fall of my senior year, I finally got to see Bruce live. After a long legal wrangle with his former manager, he released Darkness on the Edge of Town in June 1978 - a long three years after Born to Run won him simultaneous Time and Newsweek covers.

And yet after playing his first headlining shows at the Garden that summer, in the fall he returned to the 3000-seat Palladium (the size of the Beacon) for three more shows, and I luck into a transformative experience. I believe the only reason I landed a ticket to the show on September 15, 1978, is that someone else couldn't go - my much-cooler-than-me classmate, Eddie Zalaznick (he'd been playing guitar and in bands since fifth grade, for fuck's sake).

I'd never seen anything like it. It was like a revival meeting, and for a not particularly religious suburban Reform Jew, I had found the closest thing I had to a preacher I could follow. I had to look up the setlist (thanks, internet). He opened with Darkness on the Edge of Town -- one of only two times he's EVER done that - - and a bootlegger informs he dedicated it to Muhammad Ali, who had just won a fight. I do remember Bruce's incredible energy for epics like "Kitty's Back," (apparently the first time he'd played it in 3 years, done to shut up a fan who kept yelling for it), his Elvis-like stage charisma on "Fire," and his knowledge of music history - he played "I Fought the Law" and "Mona" and "Quarter to Three." (Update: In response to my post, I discovered a friend of a friend had shot these photos of the gig.)

Vintage Southside Johnny Lyon

In January, 1979, off the road and preparing to record what would become The River, Springsteen played a private birthday party for Clarence Clemons at a small club in Fair Haven, New Jersey, called Lock, Stock and Barrel.

Through some kind of Bruce grapevine, I heard that Southside Johnny, a blue-eyed Jersey soul singer who Springsteen had written songs for and shown up on stage with (right), would be playing the same club, sitting in with a local guy named Stormin' Norman. I led a road trip with my high school girlfriend Andrea, my friend Peter now at college, and his girlfriend Evy. We drove two hours from Scarsdale to Fair Haven, hoping Bruce would show.

He didn't. But playing along with Southside were Clarence Clemons and E Street bassist Garry W. Tallent. It was amazing. Andrea went home with one of Clarence's reeds and an autographed picture of Southside.

Back home, I took full advantage of my power as yearbook editor-in-chief, and among the layouts of my 420 classmates' headshots, I snuck in Springsteen's 1967 Freehold High portrait (stolen from People magazine, I think).
When I arrive at college, I aspire to deejay on the campus radio station, WHRB. But this being Harvard, instead of just "hey gang, let's put on a show," there's an elaborate "comp" process to weed out the less than worthy applicants, concocted and proctored by upperclassmen. Kind of like a frat hazing for nerds. I have to answer a long written exam to show off my knowledge. ("Who are the glimmer twins?") But I have to laugh when asked to fill in the blank of the lyric,
Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a ---
Of course I knew the answer - "teenage diplomat" - thanks, Steve Hertz. 

Just a few weeks into my freshman year, September 21, 1979, I road trip back to New York to attend one of the "No Nukes" benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden. The E Street Band had been off the road for 8 months. The price was high (it was for charity) -- a whopping $18.50. We had to sit through *4* opening acts (Sweet Honey in the Rock, Ry Cooder, Chaka Khan and Jesse Colin Young). And Bruce then only played 85 minutes. 

But what an 85 minutes. It included, I believe, the first public performance of the song "The River" 
No More Nukes! More Bruce! 
The "Jackson" singing "Stay" is Jackson Browne. (Amazingly in his review, the Times' pop critic, John Rockwell, misidentified the song -in which "Stay" is said dozens of times - as Jay and the Americans' "Come a Little Bit Closer.") (Even more amazingly, the way I know this is because the review is Scotch-taped in my scrapbook above the ticket stub. On the Times website, the mistake is conveniently MIA - a whole line of type is missing.) 

I was a college sophomore when Bruce hit the road for The River in 1980, and luckily, being in New England and New York, was able to follow him around like a Deadhead. I saw him over Thanksgiving break at Madison Square Garden on November 28, in Providence on December 11, and in Boston December 15 & 16. 

The Providence show, the seats were so good, and the sound so good, that I made my own bootleg -- with a mono tape recorder - and took my own photos (with an SLR camera!). 
Photos by David Handelman
The most memorable show experience that tour, though, was something like a Christmas miracle - though I guess some Scrooges might call it a horribly illegal scam. 

It was December 29, 1980. I had already seen Bruce four times in the past month. But I'd missed his return to the Garden, and he was playing again so nearby, at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island....

If you look carefully at my stub above (bottom left), it's actually says Dec 28 and has a Sharpied 
Funny story. 

I have no recollection how this happened, or how in the days before the internet, we even learned about it, and it would NEVER happen today. 

But there was a scam in which we obtained taped-together discarded stubs from the previous night, had to find one specific entrance gate at the Coliseum, and have the guard who was part of the scam rip our "tickets" and we got inside. 

We had to stand the whole time, but who cared? 

Only one other time did I successfully sneak in. I was driving up the Jersey Turnpike and spied Giants Stadium all lit up like a spaceship. I remembered - Bruce was playing.

I drove into the parking lot and got out of the car and listened. I walked up to the gate. Nobody was guarding it. I walked inside and got to see all the encores. Amazing.

Emboldened, the next night I drove back around the same time with a buddy, sure I could duplicate my experience. No dice. We sat outside and listened.

Jackson & Daryl
May 1985 - I'm attending the Cannes Film Festival and see Jackson Browne and Daryl Hannah park their car and walk along the Croissette. 

Later that day, I learn in the press room that Bruce has suddenly married model Julianne Phillips.

 I am flabbergasted. I don't know who to share this with, or how. (This is before cell phones, before the internet. )
Bruce & wife #1, 1985
I decide to scribble a note, "Bruce got married!" and walk back to Browne's car and leave it under the wiper. I have no idea if it got to him, but on that day, I believe I invented a very primitive form of Twitter. 

I joined the staff of Rolling Stone in early 1987, making my access to buying house seats easier, like when he played an acoustic set in tandem with Jackson and Bonnie Raitt in November 1990 to benefit the Christic Institute. 

I was too far down the totem pole to be assigned to interview him. But in a way that made me happy -- it kept me a pure fan, kept him a purer icon instead of a job (or, possibly, a disappointment). 
Still, I did enjoy it when my boss, Jim Henke, came back from being on the 1988 Amnesty International Human Rights Now! tour with Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Tracy Chapman, and Youssou N'Dour, (left) and told people Springsteen "looks just like Handelman!" (For the record, I didn't quite see it.) 

I am gonna skip my experience of the 1992-3 "Other Band" tour. Sorry, guys. Roll of the Dice.

My one and only personal interaction with Bruce was thanks to Rolling Stone, but indirectly: My RS colleague Sheila Rogers had left to be a producer for Late Night with David Letterman. And I eventually left to be arts editor at Vogue. 

On June 25, 1993, when Dave was about to leave NBC for CBS, she called me at the office. (Again,  before cell phones.) She was whispering. 

"Can you get over to 30 Rock? There's a surprise final musical guest. It's Bruce. You can't tell anyone."

So I got to see Bruce play "Glory Days" up close.
After people were milling around backstage. He was just....there. 

I walked up to him and thought quickly about what I should say. I wasn't going to gush like everyone else. I wanted to give him a message. But what? Finally, I blurted, 

"You really should release 'Murder Incorporated." 

Here's the thing. Long ago I had heard a many-generations-muffled cassette version of a studio outtake by Bruce from the 1982 Born in the USA sessions that it sounded unlike anything else he'd ever done - more hard-edged punk. 

I could not understand most of the lyrics, but I thought it odd that he'd never done anything with it. So I made my fan request. 

"Yeah, there's a lot of stuff we've recorded," he said, cheerfully. Nevertheless, I persisted. "But that one is really special," I said. 

I went to a landline phone backstage and called my then-wife. "I just met Bruce!" I enthused. Then Bruce was again hanging with nobody to talk to. 

I remembered reading a story in Rolling Stone when I was a teenager about Bruce meeting some fan in Jersey who invited him home to his house to meet his mother -- and Bruce doing it. 

So I made another request. I asked him to get on the phone to my then-wife. I only heard his side of it.

"Hey. Yeah yeah yeah, no that's okay. No, that's okay. Yeah yeah." 

He handed the phone back to me. I asked her what she said. She told me "I apologized for you making him do that."

LO AND BEHOLD, two years later, in 1995, Bruce released a Greatest Hits album, with four new tracks to entice buyers who already owned everything: "This Hard Land," "Blood Brothers," "Secret Garden"-- and "Murder, Incorporated." 

In the liner notes, it said
I was so excited. Bruce had clocked our brief conversation! (And David Browne, reviewing the album in Entertainment Weekly, said "Murder, Inc." was the best new song. )

Then I read an interview later where he cited some dude who went from show to show waving a banner asking for the song.

Fine, so we both helped.

When you see him multiple times, you've seen "Born to Run" every time, so songs like Murder Inc, covers, and rarities start to become markers for shows. During the CD revolution, many, many bootlegs from past years started to circulate and I remember nearly crying when went to my friend Sal's upper west side shop NYCD got three boxed sets of ALL covers.

And for this reason, one of the most memorable shows I saw was during his 1999-2000 E Street Band Reunion Tour (the first time they'd toured in eleven years!), in Philadelphia on September 24, 1999, the day after his fiftieth birthday.

He opened by playing a voicemail birthday message from a friend of his mother over the sound system  He quoted W.C. Fields saying "All things being equal, I'd rather be in Philadelphia," and launched into "Growin' Up" - which he hadn't played on that tour - and later played tour debuts of "Does the Bus Stop on 82nd Street?" "The Fever" (one of my favorites, an old outtake  he gave to Southside Johnny and rarely plays) and "Blinded by the Light." I was high for a week. (Of course, it's now available on disc and youtube.) 

Having kids is a fun way to relive your youthful enthusiasms and pass them on. I played Bruce in the car stereo for my two daughters. But - like most fans - they really started to understand his power when they saw him live - first on the DVD made of the reunion tour, "Live in New York."

One particular screening in February, 2002, was particularly memorable.

Their mother and I had separated, and I was living temporarily in my friend George's apartment.

They came over and during "(Just Around the Corner to) The Light of Day" we danced wildly. I felt giddy that this was all gonna be okay. I swung them around, lifted one of them up -- and my back froze.

I collapsed on the floor in a heap. I couldn't stand. I had herniated a disc. It took several months of physical therapy, but I was back on my feet for his next tour.

In October, 2003, When my older daughter, Helen, was 9, she got to see Bruce in person at Shea Stadium. She loved it, though of course he was farther away. (She says her main memory today is feeling the whole stadium shaking underfoot.) Though she knew a couple of the songs, as others began and the crowd roared, she'd turn to me and say, "What song is this?" 
Helen at Shea Oct. 3, 2003
So when we got home, I cut her several CDs in the order of the setlist so she could learn them. I titled them "What song is this?"

Nancy texting at MSG 2006
Helen was also at her sister Nancy's first Bruce show 3 years later, at Madison Square Garden in June 2006, when Springsteen was touring with his "Seeger Sessions Band." 

It was boisterous fun, but not really a Bruce show, and Nancy, then eight, fell asleep before it ended.

By his next tour in 2007, I had met Sydney, the remarkable woman I am with to this day. She only had one deficit - she had never seen a Springsteen concert. 

We rectified that on October 10, 2007, boarding a bus at port authority to the Continental Airlnes Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. Though Bruce was featuring songs from a recent album I wasn't crazy about, he also dug deep into the catalogue for "Thundercrack," "Incident on 57th Street" "Adam Raised a Cain," and - more prophetically, "Reason to Believe" and "She's the One." 

We also got to see him in 2009 at the old LA Sports Arena, when he dug up "Backstreets" and covered "Raise your Hand" and "Proud Mary." 

A month later, November 2009, I was back in NYC and in the crowd at the Garden, to see him perform his second album in its entirety, "The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle." Because he plays them less often, those songs are special to me.

In June 2011, his longtime saxman, Clarence Clemons, died of a stroke. I worried the band would never be the same.

Bruce cannily found the only man to replace him - Clarence's nephew, Jake. A job took me to LA so I missed the tour's NY shows, and then I was in NY when he played LA.

So on May 2, 2012, I schlepped out to Newark and was so moved that I actually wrote to his longtime publicist, Marilyn Laverty, about the experience.
"I have been seeing Bruce for 35 years and there's always a moment during the show where he lifts me up -- for whatever reason -- to a higher ground. I actually had several such moments last night, especially "The Weight" and "My City of Ruins" and the Clarence film. It's been a rough month for a lot of people I know and the Bruce message is undeniable and reaffirming."
Marilyn wrote back "Glad you dug it...even the veterans are saying last nite was one of the best ever!"

Bruce and Adele
Though I may no longer be a religious zealot about him, I still find communing with him and the band an important spiritual touchstone. In March 2016, we brought Nancy (now 18 and old enough to appreciate it) to Madison Square Garden for a show in which he played "The River" start to finish, included "Because the Night," "Meeting Across The River" into "Jungleland."

During the encore of "Dancing in the Dark," His mother Adele, age 90, came up to the side of the stage and danced with him. He finished up with "Shout".

Nancy turned to me in astonishment. Yup.

Four plus baby bump to be Born in the USA
When Springsteen's Broadway shows were first announced, I signed up for the lottery but was pretty sure I wasn't going to pay $700 -- I love him, but I'd rather fly to Europe. I failed the first several times. And after hearing that he shushed people from singing along, I wondered if I ever got in, if it would be too reverential for me to enjoy.

He kept extending the run - and I scored two $400 seats for April 10, rationalizing that they were for Sydney's and my birthdays. We happened to be going the same night as two 30something friends (right), who are expecting their second child, so that lucky kid was getting a first Bruce show in utero.

When the lights went down, and Bruce came out, he started talking in the discursive way I hadn't seen him do in years. Even though it was obviously prepared, it was something I realized I'd been missing as the years went on, when Bruce spent time personalizing the songs and performance. When discussing his family he revealed that his mom is still alive at 92, but has been suffering from Alzheimer's for seven years (so, including the time we saw her dancing.)

As Bruce recapped his early years nostalgically - missing the time when life was a blank page that could go in any direction - I wouldn't say the years slipped away. Instead, they accumulated, to something more profound. The shared experience that keeps us all going in hard times. He brought out Patti Scialfa, his wife of nearly 30 years and mother to his three kids (whom he didn't mention, though he did salute the Parkland Florida kids who are trying to reform gun laws).

During his moving tribute to Clemons, and local Jersey musicians he'd known who'd died in Vietnam, I thought about my two earliest connections to Bruce. Eddie Zalaznick, whose ticket I had claimed to see that 1978 Palladium show? He, his French wife and their three pre-teen sons all perished in the crash of a chartered Egyptian plane in January 2002. And Steve Hertz, who first swayed me away from Manfred Mann, took his own life in May 2014.

Thinking about them, as Bruce quoted MLK about the arc of life bending toward justice, I felt overwhelmed with emotion - as I often have at Springsteen shows for four decades. I thought about our pregnant friend in the theater, bringing another soul into this rocky ride on earth.

Then Bruce sang "Dancing in the Dark"- his big pop hit. But acoustic and slowed down, it suddenly becomes a very different song. A mournful plea:
I get up in the evening
And I ain't got nothing to say
I come home in the morning
I go to bed feeling the same way
I ain't nothing but tired
Man I'm just tired and bored with myself
Hey there baby, I could use just a little help

Then Springsteen, who had successfully hushed the crowd except for applause and laughter, got to a certain point in the song. He sang, "I need a love reaction" - and leaned out to the crowd, cupping his ear.

We gave it to him.

Thanks, Boss.


David said...

Wow! Completely epic.

I somehow never heard the stories about Jackson Browne and about your mom. Both gems.

Mainly I’m marveling at my own stubbornness — and stupidity — at never having seen Bruce with you, especially in those college days!

Anonymous said...

This is wonderful, David! Quite a history you have with Bruce.

Sal Nunziato said...

Thanks for the shout out. This is great stuff. Makes me wish I kept a scrapbook or a diary. I do have a great story about the ‘78 Palladium run. You’ve inspired me to write about it.

Unknown said...

Loved this very moving piece. I saw him for the first time 10 days after you and reviewed it for my school newspaper. I'd post that review here if I knew how to do that.

lori said...

Thanks for bringing me back to such great memories!

Unknown said...

Thank you so much for this, you took me through my own memory lane of concerts.

Dean P. said...

Thanks for the trip, David. Enjoyed it. And there is a resemblance.

Audrey Kalman said...

Wow--thanks for this, and for including the music. It definitely took me back (though, I blush to say, I never saw Bruce live).

Unknown said...

Your mid-show visits to Giants Stadium reminds me of when I used to work at 30 Rock...every once in a while on the way to the Port Authority, if the timing was right, I would sneak into a Broadway show as intermission was ending.

Monica said...

Beautiful. Thanks for sharing -- and happy birthday!

Ron Ostrow said...

I've only seen Bruce a couple of times. The first time was at Cornell during the Darkness tour. It was either late '78 or early '79. We saw him open the Staples Center in 1999 and my wife credits that concert with causing my unborn son to turn. And we saw him at the Wiltern for the Tom Joad tour. We got tickets (but not together) from people who left during the show. The usher refused to seat me in the correct seat and for some reason sat me in the third row next to Jason Alexander.

Anonymous said...

Great Read

Profesora said...

David this is so wonderful. And the way you end it-- beautiful. "As Bruce recapped his early years nostalgically - missing the time when life was a blank page that could go in any direction - I wouldn't say the years slipped away. Instead, they accumulated, to something more profound. The shared experience that keeps us all going in hard times." It does! Thank you for taking so much time to put into perspective the many ways in which you cared for and were kept going by this truly great artist.

Jim Watt said...

Fantastic, David! The magic is to be there when it happens. Music recorded is like a photograph: a reminder of the real thing. But when you write about it, I'm there, too. Gracias Gracias

Unknown said...

David, what a great essay. That's quite a history.

You've seen him A LOT. I saw him at the Bottom Line in ‘75, and at another, small-theater show soon after that, but I regret having unaccountably missed him in '78. By '84 I was happy to have checked out of the shows (those crowds), and by '88 I was thrilled to be back—for good.

Another artist I idiotically stopped going to see for several years: Bowie. Saw him in '74 and '78, but then not again till the "Glass Spider" tour. And that was it. How I wish I’d caught another couple of performances.

David Handelman said...

Postscript: On my actual birthday, Bruce(on a night off from Broadway), joined Michael Stipe and Patti Smith onstage at the Tribeca Film Festival after a screening of a doc about Smith.

sarah said...

I love this so much. A lifelong Bruce fan, I was convinced at 19 that I would marry him. Not to be :), but I finally met him years later. He was a big fan of my ex (singer/songwriter) and invited us into his dressing room after a show at Staples Center, and the three of us sat and talked for over an hour. A definite highlight of my life - along with getting pulled up onto stage to dance with him to "Dancing in the Dark."

lilygc said...

Great read -- thoroughly enjoyable and delightful. I learned a lot. I only saw him once in concert -- December, 1980. Thought it was at the Meadowlands but it appears to have been in Providence or CT instead. I was cracking up about your seeing him three times in a row during a Harvard semester. Must have been a fellow English major to pull that off ;-).

Anonymous said...

Strung loose, a caboose, you know the runner in the light.

Jonathan Lemkin said...

I’m pretty sure post-divorce and pre-Sydney, I dragged you to the original location of Zankou chicken, then to Dodger Stadium, fed you in the parking lot and then to see Bruce from about the 12th row. But you were in kind of a fugue state. I remember a lot of knee slides and the garlic sauce.

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