Bruce Springsteen turns 67 today. Proving without a doubt that age is merely a number, The Boss has been touring the last several months, continually breaking his own record for longest concert appearance. His shows on this tour have been clocking in at over four hours. I’ve seen him twice, and both times the shows were exhausting for the audience. Each time I wondered if I’d give out before the band did, and considering I was 15 and 16 both times, that speaks to the band’s stamina.
I got on the Springsteen bandwagon late. As with most of the music I enjoy, I was simply born too late to be in the right place for its release. I remember “Hungry Heart” being on the radio in 1980, but it wasn’t until the incessant airplay granted to “Dancing in the Dark” (plus that video with a very young Courteney Cox dancing on stage with Bruce gracing MTV) that he really caught my attention.
In the summer of 1984 I had three friends named Dave. (“Dave’s not here, man.”) All of them – and I – discovered Springsteen right around this time, just a few months before our sophomore year of high school ended. As I was wont to do, once I found an artist I liked, I was moved to get to a record store and explore the back catalog. Born to Run was recommended, of course – that was the album that led Springsteen to the covers of both Time and Newsweek in 1975. (The last sock hop of the year in 1984 we got the DJ to play “Born to Run.” It immediately cleared the dance floor, but we enjoyed it.) But his debut LP, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., was the one that I really wanted to hear. I had just found my inner Dylan around that same time, and saw a list of “new Dylans” in Dave Marsh’s Book of Rock Lists. The pronouncement was made based on the Asbury Park LP, an album that only sold about 25,000 copies when it was originally released. (His second album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle – the one with “Rosalita on it” – didn’t fare much better. Lightning struck on album #3.)
I picked up Asbury Park and dropped the needle on it, and was treated to “Blinded By the Light,” a song I remembered from Manfred Mann’s #1 version in 1977. This felt different. I could understand exactly what was being said. Turns out there’s no douche in the song, despite generations of listeners mishearing the words. (Manfred Mann covered three songs off of the album, later having a minor hit with “For You.”) The next track was the one that hit me. “Growin’ Up” was the tale of a young man reminiscing about being an even younger man, concerned with appearances, enjoying the company of a female companion who maybe wasn’t the best match for him (“she couldn’t sail, but she sure could sing”), and trying to find where exactly he fit in among the institution – his high school – that controlled his life. In 1984 I was carefully trying to craft an image for myself (who isn’t at fifteen?) and lacked the female companion, but was certainly at odds with what my school wanted me to become. Meetings with the guidance department at my high school would go something like this:
Them: “Your test scores in math and science are excellent.”
Me: “I think I’d like to become a writer. I feel like I have something to say.”
Them: “Great. So do you plan to major in math, or science? You know, University of Illinois has…”
Me: (not listening, taking a “month-long vacation in the stratosphere”)
Ultimately I continued as a Mathlete, went to college, and declared a major in chemistry with the intention of pre-medical study. Eventually I found my place, and found myself playing records on the radio and writing promos and creative ads for clients. It made me very happy to do so, and I didn’t end up at the University of Illinois.
Back to the summer of 1984: on a whim, Dave B. and I went to the Ticketmaster outlet to see if Springsteen tickets were available for the July 18 show at the Rosemont Horizon. We waited until July 18 to do so and were amazed to grab two seats at the back of the stage. We were still young enough that we needed his mother to drive us to the show. Walking through the parking lot we were approached by a guy with a backpack. “Could I ask you guys a question? What radio station did you have on on the way here?” I replied WMET, which was the favorite that summer. “Excellent. I’m from WMET, and I’d like to pay for your parking.” With that he pulled out a fat stack of five dollar bills, peeled one off, and gave it to us. I don’t recall whether or not we gave it to Dave’s mom, who actually paid for the parking.
The show began about fifteen minutes late. There was no opening act. The lights went down, and a spotlight appeared on a man blowing into a harmonica. I recognized the opening notes to “Thunder Road” and began to cheer. When it came time for the vocal to start, the man remained silent. The crowd all sang in unison. “The screen door slams… Mary’s dress waves….” I realized I needed to brush up on my lyrics. He sang for over three hours with no intermission. He changed the lyrics of “Rosalita” to say “But my record, Rosie, just went to number one” and the crowd roared with approval.
This was taken care of by the following summer. We camped out in the parking lot of Orland Square Mall to wait for a place in line to get tickets to the Soldier Field show. All the Daves came along to that one. By that show, I even knew the words to songs from Nebraska, singing along to “Open All Night.” By that summer I was sixteen, I had a job at a gas station, and I could drive myself to the show rather than depend on my parents. I was a month away from my senior year of high school. I had a hard time picturing a future self with my “feet rooted firmly in the earth;” I just wanted the “nice little place in the stars.” Growin’ up had indeed begun.
UPDATE: Bruce did a show in Brisbane, Australia on 2/16/17, and a kid from the audience who loves the song stole the show. Worth the watch here.