As published in the Providence Journal, May 17, 2014.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are playing the Mohegan Sun Arena this weekend, and single floor tickets are going for more than $2,000 at StubHub. That made me think of the first time I saw Bruce. As a high school junior in 1977, I scored a second row seat for his Alumni Hall show at Providence College. The ticket cost me $7.50.
I had been listening to Bruce since 1973, after a cousin gave my older brother “The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle.” I wasn’t crazy about the album at first. But Springsteen’s voice and lines like “the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin’ fortunes better than they do” kept me dropping the needle. The more I listened to Innocent, the more I liked it.
And then “Born To Run” thundered onto the music scene. With its anthemic songs and romantic escapism, the album spoke to me like nothing I had heard before. Maybe it was the iconic imagery — screen doors slamming and dresses waving and Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. Maybe it was the common ground I had with Bruce: Roman Catholicism, Italian ancestry, an urban upbringing in the Northeast, the beach (or shore, in his case) right down the road. Or maybe it was only rock ’n’ roll — and I liked it, liked it, yes I did.
Still, everyone told me I had to see Springsteen to get what he was all about. And, as I was about to learn that night at PC, they were right.
You could still light up in Alumni Hall then; the place was thick with cigarette smoke, and other smoke, too. The girl sitting next to me offered a joint, but fearing a scene out of “Reefer Madness,” I declined. As the lights went down, I didn’t want to miss a thing.
The opening song, “Night,” detonated with grinding guitars, pounding drums and a wailing sax. Springsteen’s hand, curled to a chord around the neck of his guitar, was instantly dripping with sweat. I had never seen a group work so hard — and this was just the first song! These weren’t some rock stars down at the Civic Center, aloof and distant from the crowd; heck, by the third song, Springsteen was in the crowd. And then I got it: Bruce was one of us.
As I walked — danced, really — four blocks home down River Avenue after the show, I reclassified every concert I had seen. There was Grand Funk, Three Dog Night, Alice Cooper and Chicago. And then there was Bruce. It wasn’t even close.
In my first year of college, I met a guy who was a big fan of Billy Joel. I told George if he liked the Piano Man, he’d love the Boss — he should give a listen. I’m glad he did.
George would soon be a rising star at WBRU, the student-run radio station at Brown. That’s how he got a backstage pass when Bruce came through Providence on The River tour in 1980. I missed the show — I was away at school in Ireland. Upon meeting Bruce, in an act of supreme generosity, George mentioned that I had turned him on to Springsteen’s music — and that I was out of the country.
A four-by-six-inch index card sits in a safe deposit box in a bank vault in East Greenwich. The scrawl on it reads: “To John, Sorry I missed ya! Thanks for spreadin’ the faith! Bruce Springsteen.”
When George gave me the autograph, I was speechless. It had all the intimacy, and the commitment, of the best Springsteen songs.
I won’t be going to see Bruce at Mohegan. My brother-in-law tried to get tickets the minute they went on sale, but the Ticketmaster gods weren’t with us.
The last time I did get to see Bruce was back in March 2003, when he played the Dunkin’ Donuts Center in Providence. It was almost 26 years to the day of my first Bruce concert.
Unlike Alumni Hall at PC 2 1/2 decades before, the Dunk was almost smoke-free and lacking in strange smells. That was a good thing: I had brought my two sons, then ages 9 and 11, and aspiring musicians themselves. When the house lights came up during the “Born To Run” encore and Clarence Clemons hit his solo (something we had blasted in the car countless times), my boys were ecstatic — transfixed and transformed.
I had kept the faith and was still spreading it.