Late last year, I was able to get together with a close, long-time, friend. It was only for a few hours, but it was enough time to renew what has been a relationship extending more than three decades. Although I’ve seen him only a dozen times over these years, our connection has been one of the more intimate of my life.
But, here’s the thing. I’ve never actually met him.
This was just one of the thoughts running through my mind as my daughter and I waited for Bruce Springsteen to take the stage in San Jose last month.
As the anticipatory energy of the crowd rose, I thought back to the first time I heard Springsteen. It was in 1976 and I was working the graveyard shift stocking shelves at a local grocery store. With store management home asleep, my compatriots and I would tape down the transmit button of the store intercom microphone and lean it against a portable radio tuned to a local FM station. Then, we would peg the volume to speaker-cracking levels in an attempt to fight off lethargy in the early hours of the new day.
For the most part, the music throbbing through that intercom system was a 1970s musical wasteland alternating between the vapid (“Do you like pina coladas?”) and the hormonal (“Cat Scratch Fever“).
Then one night, something stunningly different came over the speakers; something that forever changed my relationship with music. That song was “Jungleland“.
“Barefoot girls sitting on the hood of a Dodge,
Drinking warm beer in the soft, summer rain.”
Who writes lyrics like that? It was so captivating that I found myself sitting on a box of canned goods in the middle of the grocery store aisle and just listening. In nine minutes and 33 seconds, in a neon-lit, empty supermarket, Bruce Springsteen sang a novel to me.
A few years later, I found myself with a few friends sitting around a wobbly table in an empty, rundown outdoor cantina in a small beach town in Mexico. As the cervezas flowed under the warm starry night, the bar owner walked over and punched in a song on the jukebox. Then he, and his pet monkey, joined us carrying a tray full of shots of Cuervo. As the music played, all of us (including the monkey) tossed down our drinks while singing “Rosalita” at the top of our lungs, with an exuberance that is only found in youth.
In the years that followed, I discovered that Springsteen’s music reflected passages in my own life and feelings about societal and personal issues that I sometimes had difficulty articulating. In 1984, it was “Born in the USA”, which brought attention to the way in which our nation had ignored the personal sacrifices of the military. As the son of someone who served in Vietnam, it had a personal resonance. Later, I found my heartbreak over a lost relationship mirrored in albums like “Tunnel of Love” and “Brilliant Disguise”.
Months after the events of 9/11, I found solace in the songs of the “The Rising” with it’s appeal for reflection and sorrow – and not fear. Then it was “Devils and Dust” with its depiction of the plight of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. And most recently it has been in songs from “Wrecking Ball” about the devastating human impact from the recent financial crisis.
As the 64 year old Springsteen and his legendary E Street Band took the floor in San Jose, I looked over at my daughter. Her face was illuminated by the stage lights and glowed with anticipation of the unknown. Then Springsteen took his place in front the microphone and began singing “Land of Hopes and Dreams”:
“Grab your ticket and your suitcase
Thunder’s rolling down the tracks
You don’t know where you’re going’
But you know you won’t be back….”
And, for the next three and half hours, we rolled down those tracks together, my daughter and I, sharing a musical journey together with an old friend.