I was on my way to my girlfriend A’s house last spring, trying to decide if I should “break up” with Bruce Springsteen, the morning tickets went on sale for his recent shows in Chicago. I was hustling to get to her house on time to log in to Ticketmaster. I had seen Bruce on almost every tour for the past twenty-five years, but I was thinking of skipping this one, even though he’s past seventy and these might be his last big shows.
My relationship with Bruce was very much tied up with my relationship with my ex-wife. We had seen him ten, maybe twenty times. I saw my first Bruce show with her, at the United Center in Chicago, when Bruce was touring in the late 1990s. We saw him at Madison Square Garden, at Giants Stadium, in Wrigley Field and Sox Park, in Kansas City and Las Vegas. We even saw his solo show on Broadway.
When we were engaged, in the days leading up to the wedding, my ex and I still didn’t have a song to dance to. Driving home one night, in her Chrysler K-car, I suggested we use the ballad Thunder Road - the slower, more "slow danceable" live version. It’s an emotional love story of a song. We had to hustle to find it on CD in the days before iTunes. Our friend Mike had it and we copied it to our playlist. That ended up being our song.
So this recent spring day, when tickets were going on sale for a show at Wrigley Field, I was trying to decide if I should go. Every experience I had with Bruce in concert had been with my ex-wife. I didn’t know if I could move on from that.
In the car, on the way to my new girlfriend’s house, I realized something important. Bruce had already been on tour for a few months. I knew my ex had been to Kansas City recently, with her boyfriend, who she had been dating for quite a while. On Bruce’s page I saw he had had a show in Kansas City. She must have been there with her boyfriend. If she was sentimental about our past, it didn’t prevent her from moving on. The feelings I had that connected us to Springsteen, that was maybe stopping me from experiencing the joy of perhaps his last big tour - if she had those feelings it didn’t stop her from seeing Bruce.
But my feelings are mine, hers are hers. My sentimentality defines me. I don’t know what process she went through, what she goes through, if any, when dealing with the past. I struggle with it.
Anyway, I got to A’s house as ticket sales were going live. I had been seeing A for about five, six months, and she didn’t understand my ambivalence. I mentioned that I had some mixed up feelings about seeing Bruce but didn’t really explain why. I had a pair of tickets in my cart, thinking I would take my older boy, who had never seen Bruce. I discarded them.
And here’s the thing A did. She went on-line with me at the same time. She had never seen Springsteen, and wanted to bring her older son. She found four tickets and just bought them. Saying the four of us would go, she and her older son, me and mine. I was immediately grateful for her decisiveness, but also anxious. I hadn’t told her yet about my history with Bruce and my ex, especially Thunder Road. How might this affect our new relationship?
We had a weekend away, our first real trip together, a few weeks before the concert. We played Bruce in the car. I came clean about why I had been so hesitant to buy tickets. She understood. And I also started explaining and describing my bigger, broader history with Bruce Springsteen, and as we talked I started to “take back” my relationship with The Boss.
As a kid in the seventies and eighties I was familiar with Springsteen’s music, and after the Born in the USA album I was definitely a fan. I didn’t have all the albums, though - I was a little too young to have bought them as they came out, (except for maybe Born in the USA). But when he released his Live collection in 1985, I was sixteen, and I asked for it for Christmas. That 40 track selection changed my life! My mother got it for me on cassette (and I think for my sister Heather on vinyl!). I nearly wore it out. It was Bruce the way he was really meant to be heard - live - blasting in my ears on my Sony Walkman. I fell in love with that music, and fell in love with that version of Thunder Road especially. (And other songs like The River, and No Surrender, and Candy’s Room . . .)
But I never saw him live, as a teenager or young adult. I had a few opportunities in the late 1980s but my friends weren’t interested. Then Bruce went solo for a bit, and didn’t tour as much as he had, or how he had, with the E Street Band. And I got distracted by other New Wave bands, younger music, and local Chicago music after I moved to the midwest from Long Island.
In grad school I met my friend Mike, and besides bonding over sports, especially the Michael Jordan Bulls and the White Sox, we realized we also had a mutual love for Bruce Springsteen. We were in film school, and not many of our colleagues were into such blue-collar interests. We would hang out at this great bar called the South Loop Club and watch the Bulls beat up my hometown Knicks. And we would drive around in his Toyota Celica and listen to Bruce. Mike has been with me at many Bruce shows over the years, sometimes as seatmates, sometimes on the other side of the stadium! But we always check in with each other as we share the experience.
Talking to A as we drove for that weekend away together, I realized that my relationship with Bruce belonged to me! It preceded my marriage. I had many Springsteen memories with my ex, but also many other memories - of sharing the music with my sisters, and my friends. Bruce was mine as much as he was “ours.”
When the time came for the show, I admit I started to get nervous. I wasn’t sure how I would react. I listened to all of Born in the USA with my older son in the car, on our own road trip, and I cried during every song. It’s such a sad album, even the pop songs. And it’s so sentimental.
The night of the concert we decided we would carpool. My girlfriend and her son would drive to our house, and the four of us would drive to the show, find parking, and drive home. It gave me a chance to play some favorite songs that I knew he would perform. And I LOVED it. I had three people in the car that would see Bruce for the first time. They didn’t have the old memories I did! We would be experiencing it together, and that would be our special memory.
And of course the show lived up to every expectation. Bruce was great, a little older and slower but still full of energy and passion. The crowd sang along, and I sang until I was hoarse! I got to share it with my son, A with her boy, and A and I were able to steal some moments for ourselves. I even caught her bouncing along to Dancing In the Dark, even though she doesn’t dance!
And naturally I found my buddy Mike, and his older daughter! And another colleague from my job, who said “of course you’re here, it’s Bruce!” How could I have even considered missing that show?
How do we live in the past, and the present, at the same time? How do we keep what made us emotional, and sentimental, what made us feel something so deeply and emotionally, when we must also put that aside and make room for new feelings? It’s so hard. Especially with things like music and performers that we love. But my experience that week, with seeing Bruce through the eyes of loved ones seeing him for the first time, I really felt as if I was, too. I’ve seen Bruce so many times, many of the shows have become a blur. But this one, this newest one, I think I’ll remember a little more clearly.