A first-person essay after Saturday's Springsteen show by sometimes-CP contributor Brian Taylor
It’s rainy and cold and there are people drinking tallboys around the Fifth Avenue side of Consol Energy Center, spilling out of the TGI Friday’s outdoor area and moving down toward the entrances. Apparently a Springsteen show, like a Bloomfield parade or a Steelers game, suspends open-container laws in the immediate vicinity.
I sacrifice a tallboy to my anxiety and my umbrella to the security gods (whose patdowns are much more chill than the TSA) before I’m allowed inside. There are so many people here.
The tallboy isn’t doing its job, so I stop at a concession stand to buy a double rum and coke for $15. I make a mental note not to bother checking the, well, I guess it’s less a merch table and more one of several souvenir shops. The credit card machine beeps an error and the woman reassures me it is not a problem with my card. "These machines have been on vacation, they’re not used to working."
"A lockout will do that to you!" I say. It works. I thank her, take my drink and my card and head for my seat.
There are a lot of dads here.
I feel like a tourist. (I always look for reasons to feel like a tourist — no club that would have me as a member and all that.) A sea of tour t-shirts, past and present, tucked into jeans wrapped by braided belts. A couple red bandanas — one guy’s gone all-out, denim vest and jeans. I’m wearing a western shirt and a down vest that my dad put in his closet in the late 1970s and that I took out around 2003.
Springsteen shows are large — two or three or more hours long, with songs that segue into one another. (The band holds a note, the Boss counts them in and they’re off again.) Fans collect live performances of the songs; people can tell you which songs they’ve seen, which ones they haven’t, where and when. I’ll be happy with any one of my Holy Trinity of Springsteen songs: "Thunder Road," "Rosalita" or "Sherry, Darling." He doesn’t play any of them.
I didn’t expect "Thunder Road" once a friend of mine informed me that when tour dates coincide with Obama stumping appearances (like the one earlier in the afternoon at Soldiers and Sailors), it’s usually missing. I don’t ask for specific statistics, but I’m sure I could get them. (He’s also informed me that, according to an iOS app, Springsteen has never played "A Good Man is Hard to Find (Pittsburgh)" in Pittsburgh.) It’s the kind of manic dedication I associate with jam bands and baseball fans. I wonder if a lot of the people in this audience are accountants.
I’m pretty far from the stage. Not as far as I could be, and (thankfully) not behind it, but most of my experience of the performance comes from watching the three giant monitors suspended over the stage, each displaying well-shot images of the band and the pit. Lots of signs requesting songs or declaring that this is their first E Street Band show. These folks cheer when he asks who is at their first E Street Band show. I am at my first E Street Band show, but I haven’t brought a sign and anyway I am up far too high on a far too steep slope and have been drinking far too much to stand and shout.
I have nothing to compare this to, no frame of reference for this arena rock. Springsteen, to me, is a storyteller. When I was becoming conscious of music, he was putting out Human Touch and Lucky Town and that Jerry Maguire song (I am about six months older than Nebraska). He was a Born in the USA LP next to the Osmonds in my mom’s record collection, Live 1975-1985 on cassette in my parents’ closet (which you WILL NOT touch, young man!) I had almost an entire decade of anti-Springsteen attitude to undo by the time I started looking for things to connect me to this place, this once-a-working-man’s-town (the Springsteen I love comes from the same time as Steel-Curtain-era Steelers, and sports have never been my thing), to the late '70s/early '80s, to my past. I’m not sure massive arena show is conducive to that.
I should have expected some issue, as this is the Wrecking Ball tour and I don’t really like Wrecking Ball all that much. (It’s too new, too now - I need the distance of time to appreciate rawness, maybe I’ve still got a bit of the 1990s in me.) The set is Darkness on the Edge of Town-heavy (five songs from that album, only four from Wrecking Ball), and most of the set’s 27 songs (six of which made up the encore) are from Born in the USA (1984) or earlier.
So I guess the inclusion of "Glory Days" in the encore isn’t that surprising. I’m pretty sure he shouts "Night of the Living Grusheckys!" before bringing out Joe and his son Johnny. At this point, I think there are like six or seven guitars on stage. Are they all plugged in? I guess you need a lot of instruments to fill up that amount of sound space, and, well, everyone looks like they’re having a good time up there.
I think that’s what people are here to see. Old friends having a good time amid that spectacle - that scale. You hope it’s more medicine show than snake oil sales pitch, but it’s not like this is his first tour where thousands of seats sell for around $100 each. Springsteen’s music has always sold redemption. Explicitly in cars and women and music, and later, when his protagonists end up being trapped, too old to run away, there’s always a hook or a poetic lyric that aims to make the shittiness easier to bear.
During the last song of the night, "10th Avenue Freeze-Out," he announces "This is the most important part!" before singing “And the Big Man joined the band." After that lyric, the song goes on hold while the video screens show a montage honoring the Big Man, Clarence Clemmons, and other members of the E Street Band and the Bruce Springsteen entertainment complex who have died in recent years. The montage ends, and the band drives through to the end of the song.
I get the feeling that for a lot of the people in the audience, people who are on first-name basis with the members of the band (I get this feeling that by calling him “Springsteen” rather than “Bruce”, I’m committing some kind of faux pas, of not allowing myself to get attached in the way others have), are really responding to that emotion.
When I interviewed Owen Ashworth of Advance Base last year about, among other things, his love of Springsteen, he said, "it just sounds like family to me." I think he’s onto something there. For some of us, that’s a small group of friends and relatives. I guess for some folks, having that family be thousands-strong isn’t a source of anxiety, it’s a source of strength.