Happy Birthday, Boss: 'When You Listened to Bruce, You Became Cool'
Tha Author, doing his best Springsteen
One serene New York summer night a little over 40 years ago, I took a hit of acid and went to see Bruce Springsteen for the very first time. My expectations were as high as I hoped to be at around the same time Bruce and his band hit the stage. I hoped Bruce would leave me soul-shattered, in the best possible sense. The anticipation probably started in January of 1974, when I first put the needle down on The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. I was in my last year of prep school, living in the suburbs and looking for something even more important than hip. Something authentic. Songs that had certainly been hinted at on Bruce's debut, but had not quite won over a kid caught between nice half-Jewish boy and juvenile delinquent, thankfully without any of that pesky jail time.
I hadn't yet heard Van Morrison's Astral Weeks, certainly one of this record's antecedents. Which, in its Irish-acoustic way, mixed soul music with street poetry, even adding strings, like an old Drifters record. Songs about Ladbroke Grove, transvestites, and tantalizing jailbait on Cypress Avenue wouldn't have worked for me at 17. But Bruce's tunes did. From the second I recognized his Steve Cropper-style funky guitar and began to visualize his vaguely familiar but completely compelling street kids, I was a goner. The opener, "The E Street Shuffle," was enthralling enough. But when the next track, "Sandy," came on, the feeling was so extreme and wordless, it felt like -- no hyperbole -- some sort of spiritual transfiguration.
There were records before and after I may have loved as much, but with the possible exception of the Beatles' debut, none of them made me feel like I was morphing into the guy I wanted to be. I didn't just love Bruce's mush-mouthed singing, his playing, his bar band; I loved the rapscallions and reprobates in his songs. As with just a few of the novels I'd read, I wanted to live in this record and be one of these people. Suddenly my jeans didn't seem tight enough. I needed a white T, a crucifix, a leather jacket. I needed a nickname, a Puerto Rican girlfriend, a church in which to confess, a trash man who bopped along my avenue, dressed, absurdly, in satin. I wanted to live on a street with a bar on the corner and have a huge hip black best friend. If my absurdly painted Camaro got stuck in the swamps of Jersey, I wanted to be the guy who didn't think of the towing charges; I'd just think it would be cool. "Cool," in fact, was the operative word. Whatever your clothes, your hair, your vocabulary, your various affiliations, when you listened to Bruce, you became cool. It's hard to think of another record in those days that gave you that illusion.
Seeing Bruce in August, at the Schaefer Music Festival with my quiet drug-dealer friend Jeff, was, unlike so many highly anticipated activities of that time (sex, for instance), actually better than I expected. Not only did Springsteen look great, with his Chuck Taylors, tight black pants and high school letterman's jacket, he reminded lots of us of something essential that performers had been in the mid-'60s but not much longer. In the days when Jackson and James sat in chairs, when even the estimable Band had played brilliantly but stood stock-still, Bruce did something revolutionary: He moved. He did dances I hadn't seen since my days of watching American Bandstand. He shimmied, he frugged, he did the Twist. Like a shoo-in for the Actor's Studio, he used his body to amplify, comically, tragically, what it was like to get stuck on the Tilt-A-Whirl or to be in thrall to New York City for the first time, as he got hit on by hookers and listened to his trash man sing. Clarence Clemons, as big as a black Statue of Liberty (which he kinda was), sang his parts beautifully. The band played tightly, and unlike the Dead or Poco, wore everything from white suits and fedoras to Hawaiian shirts and blue jeans.
As a musician myself, I think what finished me off was the moment that Bruce broke a string on his beloved Fender Esquire in the middle of a song. This was before Bruce was rich. I don't think he owned another electric guitar. A roadie brought out the string, and like a guy lacing shoes while telling you a funny story about his dog, Bruce took out the bad string, threaded the new one in (while the band comped behind him), and, performing this act like it was his thousandth time, started singing, "The E string's connected to the B string, the B string's connected to the G string..." I'd never, ever seen a musician change a string mid-song, like he was enjoying it, with the ease of a guy reeling a newly caught trout into his boat. This act alone was worth the price of the show.
I remember, as Central Park got dark, that aside from all the songs of his first two albums, Bruce played an epic new thing called "Jungleland." It would be changed by the next year. But in the summer of 1974, when he was still word-drunk and Beat-influenced, it had lines like "Colored girls cry like violet angels/In Port Authority halls." I remember thinking, at that very moment, that in three weeks I was due at college.
And now I didn't want to go.
As you might know from Springsteen lore (including the sad bit about Anne Murray being booed off later), Bruce played his usual two-hour headlining set. He did a bunch of encores. And reminded all of us how much we had missed. "Twist and Shout" and "Sha La La" -- all that fun, danceable rock 'n' roll -- we had traded in for introspective junkies, singing ballads about their quiet walks in the countryside.
When the set was really over, my pal Jeff, in his customary tinted glasses and satin cowboy shirt, and I were too blown away to talk. At least, until we got into the actual park.
"The trees are dancing," I said. "Shit, I think one of them is singing, too."
"It's the acid," said Jeff.
It hit me that the music had been so intense, so funky and forceful, that I'd probably been out of my skull for the last 75 minutes. But I saw no trails, heard no weird echoes, had no trippy thoughts. I was too busy being reconverted back to myself: an actual rock 'n' roller. That feeling overwhelms any drug you've ever taken.
So, Bruce, thank you. You're turning 65 today. But I'm one of the folks you've given gifts to. This is just my way of saying thanks. You still liberated me. Gave me the thought that if you could do that crazy shit onstage, in front of 5,000 people, I could probably do what I wanted to do. Happy birthday.
One more thing. I think you played an early version that night of a new song called "Born to Run." I don't know if either of us, or any of us older fans, are running as fast as we used to. But we are still moving forward. So thanks, Bruce. That is due, in no small part, to you.
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