Bruce Without Me: The Ties That Bind

I will not be seeing Bruce Springsteen on Broadway this season. I’ve calmly come to terms with this sad, stubborn fact. It isn’t for want of trying. I simply can’t find a ticket (that I can afford). No one I know in Broadway’s internecine theatrical cosmos has even responded to my queries. And I mostly, totally understand why.

This has left me to dream about Bruce. Not fantasies. Rather, a revisiting of my long ago reality with him.

I haven’t seen a Springsteen concert in many, many years. In fact, I’ve never seen him in a stadium or other mega venue. This really dates me, I know. My memories of Bruce are ancient and intimate.

I was 17 the first time I heard his name. I was working in the Pocono Mountains the summer of 1975 with a bucket and mop in the kitchen of a sleep-away camp. My friend Josh played the cassette of Greetings from Asbury Park for me late one night in our shabby little cabin. I was riveted, and not just because I had grown up spending summers on the Asbury Park boardwalk. The music sounded like fireworks to me, spiraling embers of rock and roll, jazz and soul music, illuminating all of these musical essences while detonating them into something entirely new.

This Springsteen guy was playing a bunch of shows in August, Josh informed me, at The Bottom Line in Greenwich Village.

I was practically on the next bus.

I scored a ticket out on Mercer Street from a kid who looked even younger than me, for a sum that amounted to my summer’s wages in the mountains, though today it wouldn’t cover the Ticketmaster surcharges, never mind a Springsteen ticket on Broadway.

Bruce Springsteen on the tiny Bottom Line stage, with his extended E Street band crowded all around him, was a presence unlike anything I had ever seen; joyous, tarnished, sweaty, sanctimonious, theatrical and gut wrenching. His every gesture, both musically and physically, was rock and roll poetry. His voice penetrated every raw crevice of my young soul.

He played for over two hours. I left absolutely wrung dry, exhausted and changed. Looking back, I realize I caught Springsteen within weeks of my escaping, just barely graduating, from a high school that had terrorized and traumatized me, while making me feel responsible for my own mistreatment. It would take me decades to fully grasp that it wasn’t my fault at all. Springsteen at the Bottom Line provided my first dawning sense of what personal affirmation felt like. I also got to hear “Born to Run” and “Thunder Road” for the first time. The polarities of their bliss and fury were balm to me.

My failure in high school had precluded my getting into Columbia College, as I’d sort of hoped I might. I wound up instead at Rutgers, the university of the state of New Jersey, where my parents lived. There were small compensations for this displacement and disappointment including a girl I will call Rhonda, who I met more or less mid-semester. Rhonda was blonde, about five-foot-two in heels, and as pushy as she purported to be preppy, with a Dorothy Hamill bob and a Jersey rasp in her voice.

Rhonda loved Springsteen. We connected the moment she told me about a Springsteen show she was going to up at Seton Hall University; in the gym, no less.

December 11, 1975. Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band in a college gym.

Nirvana.

We danced all night till a quarter to three just about, bouncing on hardwood, in and out of painted foul lines. It felt like a prom without chaperones, I imagine. My all-boys high school, of course, had no prom.

I saw Springsteen once more during the ensuing months at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, a dive music bar (still standing) where accolytes like me congregated hoping that Bruce Springsteen might show up. One night he did, sitting in with the house band, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, for a few songs, playing guitar and chiming in on backup vocals. It was enough.

Over the next two years, as Springsteen extricated himself from a stifling management deal that blocked him from any new recording, I extricated myself from Rutgers, gaining acceptance to Columbia College on my second try. In September 1978, I reconnected with him at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, New Jersey, my hometown. I don’t easily admit to having been born in Passaic, New Jersey, which, as a town, is really a punchline (Johnny Carson frequently used it in his Tonight Show monologues).

Growing up, I’d been taken to Walt Disney movies at the Capitol Theater. Seeing Springsteen at the Capitol was a step back in time for me and a step up in concert scale for him. Everything about him had magnified. The blazingly improvised feel of his perfromances now seemed brilliantly routined; his stories, his solos, his schtick, with all those climaxes. I had absolutely no complaints. My sense of him as a rough diamond had simply acquired spectacular polish.

I wouldn’t see Bruce Springsteen again for four years. In 1982, I was briefly living in Los Angeles, occupying the former home of a great, forgotten African-American lyricist named Andy Razaf, sifting through the papers in his garage for a biography I would write about him called Black and Blue. One night I took off to the movies with a couple of friends. The movie was Francis Ford Coppola’s historic bomb, One From the Heart. As we were taking our seats in the very empty theater, I spotted Bruce Springsteen quietly strolling down the aisle with a really beautiful young woman who, I realized, was his then-girlfriend, Julianne Phillips.

I barely watched the film. I studied Bruce’s reactions to it instead. When the lights came back up, I hustled my friends into the lobby to casually await his exit.

He was the last person out. I took a breath and introduced myself. His grin was wide and sincerely welcoming. I introduced my friends. He introduced Jullianne Phillips. Her expression suggested that this sort of thing happened a lot and that was okay.

None of us was in a hurry. Bruce, in his familiar croak, answered my questions about his presence in L.A (Julianne was shooting a music video), his next album (it would be all-acoustic), our shared friendship with the writer Dave Marsh, whom I’d worked for during my internship at Rolling Stone magazine. Marsh, I knew, was writing a biography of Bruce Springsteen. I told Bruce about my biography of Andy Razaf. He seemed delighted.

I walked him to his car. He stood there in the L.A. moonlight with the door open and wished me well. I wished him the same. He waved through the window, gunned the engine and peeled out. I felt impossibly glad watching him drive away. I feel that way today still. I never saw him again.

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