Friday, April 3, 2009

The Faith That Can Save Me

On a bootleg recording of a 1978 concert, Bruce Springsteen admitted to the crowd that he had been kicked out of parochial school for pissing on a desk. Not bad. I had never been to anywhere other than public schools, but my mother busted me and my best friend for peeing in our rubber rain boots when we were in second grade. Nothing wrong with it.

When I left graduate school to take a job with an association of creative writing students and teachers, my boss would sing Springsteen lyrics all day. Good Liam Rector, a poet from New England, boozily belted out lines from My Hometown: "There was a lot of fights between the black and white/There was nothing you could do." Rector, who was struggling with cancer, took his own life a few years ago after championing writers and The Boss for decades. To Liam I owe my introduction to Bruce and the E Street Band and swear forever friends.

A year later, I left Virginia to take a visiting professor's job with the English Department at the University of Illinois. I taught two sections of undergraduate fiction writing by day, spent my evenings in the Esquire Lounge with two graduate students who got dewy at the idea of seeing Bruce--which they had been doing along the Jersey Shore since he started at the Stone Pony.

Lauren and Pat (who went on to become full professors in English) spun Bruce albums on the stereo to my utter consternation. I liked the rock okay, but couldn't see their devotion; besides the band was jangly with accordion and glockenspiel sounds of the boardwalk which meant nothing to me; and Bruce's long speeches between songs seemed like a terrible pose.

For three summers we stuck together, Lauren and Pat and I. We drove hours up to Chicago to grab last-minute seats behind the baselines at Wrigley. I had the touch: I scored dozens of prime ducats simply by walking up to the ticket window just before the first pitch. Once we nearly got tossed for riding an umpire. It was boozy, too.

Finally, I agreed to see a show when the band was playing the Rosemont Horizon in the suburbs of Chicago. We had terrible seats, I hated the mugging between Bruce and Clarence, and whined all the way home. But I did like road trips, so we piled in the car and drove from Champaign to Philly for the Amnesty International shows with Bruce, Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Tracy Chapman. And by the end of the show, the moon busting out over the open night above RFK stadium, the band played Jungleland and I was a goner.

I have not missed a single E Street tour since. And I'm late to the scene. Stand in line for a place in the orchestra pit before the stage at any show and Boss fans wear their pedigrees, reciting their total number of shows, recreating from memory the set list of songs the band played on any given date. (Yeah, I drove all night, too.)

Nearly 20 years after finally seeing what Pat and Lauren had been clamoring about, I joined them again in Jersey, for the opening of The Rising tour in the Meadowlands. You could gaze across the Hudson at the bleak south Manhattan skyline, robbed of its two towers, as you walked the parking lot of E Street die-hards who had been tailgating for days.

I met my friends again in the Midwest for the tour, taking in shows in Columbus and Indianapolis on successive nights. To get a spot in front of the band meant (back then) that you had to get on line days before the show, where fans took down a list of names of people in the order that they arrived. You were in a fatigue spiral by the time the band took the stage.

By the end of the Columbus show, I had my shoes off, dancing in my socks, when Pat tapped me on the arm. We were leaving before the encore, to drive in the freezing rain across Ohio to Indy where we'd jump on line for the following show. I ran for the car, a rental I had picked up at the airport, hopping on one foot, then the other, as I put on my shoes.

It was about 2 am when we took the exit off the interstate in a light snow flurry, making it to the Conseco Field House just as the line was lengthening around the sidewalk. The car in front of us braked suddenly--to release its passengers to the line--and I ran into it, crinkling the hood of the rental. I turned around in my seat, but Pat and Lauren--true friends , but (face it) Bruce fans--had already leaped out, leaving me to deal with the car. Fortunately, it was insured.

When the roadshow moved to California, I bought an extra ticket online from two women from the Bay Area. They became my second set of Bruce angels: Susan and Phyllis. They're unabashed fanatics, racing to the back of the arena before the show to get an autograph or log a Bruce sighting, pressing to the stage to touch him as he mugs with the crowd.

We were in my local gym the day of the show when Phyllis and I saw the Big Man--saxophonist Clarence Clemons--working out with a trainer. We had to go on over and shake hands. And that night he gave us a wink and chest thump as we danced beneath the stage. I got an email later from a friend who had seats above, declaring me "Mayor of the Pit."

We've been to a good dozen shows now together, Phyllis and Susan and I, and in the summer of 2008, we were joined by Pat and Lauren in the pit in Missouri as my Bruce world turned full circle. Billy, who runs the bay area Bruce tribe called "This Train" scored seats to a Cardinals game and we combined baseball and Bruce: my loves. We rode in the cramped capsule that rose up the limb of the Gateway Arch, eyed the Midwest skyline, then rode down, packed in the small cab with two strangers, and we sang Badlands at the tops of our lungs in the echo chamber of the great arch, learning with great regret at the bottom that our companions were professional opera singers, held hostage by fanatics.

That night I yakked giddily with hoops coach Pat Riley in the pit, where he danced with his wife. But I lost the last of my knee cartilage in St Louis, dancing with too much weight on my bones for nearly four hours, hobbling off the concrete arena floor to the car that took me across Missouri to night two in Kansas City, where I danced another three hours on the damaged leg. Doctors say it's now a case of bone on bone and I'll need a complete replacement. There was nothing you could do.

Doctors say I'll be fine afterward and the pain will go away. I can't wait to see how the knee holds up on tour.

Lauren, it must be told, has left the university to take a job with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


Mon-sewer Paul Regret said...

Of course you met Pat Riley in the pit. You're the Zelig of your day!

Char said...

I have a bum right knee so I can sympathize...hope the replacement goes well.

Midlife, menopause, mistakes and random stuff... said...

I followed you over from A Cuban In London and I'm so glad that I did. I hope you don't mind? It was something about a Springsteen comment that made me jump over.
I'm a loyal fan. When The Boss came to Phillips Arena to play his acoustic tour I couldn't get to ticket master quickly enough.
Prince and I sat 4 rows right in front of him as he sat, played his guitar and sang for 3 hours.....
WOW, how awesome was that?
I will definately be back and if you have a moment or two of your life that you'd care to waste, please visit me at my blog.
Please have a weekend filled with love, you and laughter and....

Steady On
Reggie Girl

Starlene said...

You, my friend, are a fan...the likes of which I've never seen! What adventures! There's something you may know the answer to. When I was young I took Kung Fu from a woman named Marilyn in the Poconos, PA. There was a man in my class for about a month...tall, long black hair. I think his name was Mick. I seem to remember he had something to do with Bruce? In one of his bands maybe?

Gabby said...

Sorry, Starlene, don't know of anyone named Mick from the band. I looked up the history and in bands named Earth, Steel Mill, and the Castilles--early Bruce bands before the E Streeters--there were no players named Mick. He may have been a roadie.

Anonymous said...

Gabby my friend, I would drive all night...just to buy you some orthopedic shoes.


Jim said...

I grew up 1 town over from Bruce's hometown. Everybody growing up around there now has a "Bruce" story, real or imagined. I first saw him right after Born to Run was released. It was my first concert and I had 3rd row isle seats. Nothing since then has even touched it. Nobody does it like Bruce.

Jennifer said...

I'll have to send this post to a friend of mine on the East Coast who makes a point of seeing Bruce whenever he tours (but no venue hopping). He's also a committed Dylan devotee (I mention this because every time we talk or e-mail lately, it seems like he's just seen or has plans to see one or the other). And he's a baseball fan.

A Cuban In London said...

I thought I had left a comment last week when I popped over but now I realise that I didn't, so, sorry.

The link to the video you left me on my blog made my night. I love The Boss, although came to his music late in life. Except for 'Dancing in the Dark' and 'Born in the USA' there was no much Springsteen around when I was growing up.

The tale is just as fantastic as your memory of that bootleg record.

Many thanks.

Greetings from London.