Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Going Back to The River

I wasn’t even supposed to be at the Spectrum on Tuesday, December 9, 1980. My original plan was to catch Bruce at the Boston Garden on December 15 or 16, but between exam schedules and difficulty getting a ticket, I had to settle for an 8-hour bus ride to Philadelphia. I had never really been to Philly before, though I grew up only a couple hours’ drive from the City of Brotherly Love. And I had only traveled long distance by bus a handful of times. This trip was definitely going to be an adventure.
I awoke and went about my usual morning routine. I must have turned on the radio at some point. There might have been a news report, or maybe the DJ made an announcement. Last night in New York City, former Beatle John Lennon had been shot dead. So many questions popped into my head – how had this happened? Who was responsible? And as the horror of the news began to sink in, I began to wonder whether the show at The Spectrum – the “First Bruce Show” I’d been anticipating for weeks – would even take place.
But I didn’t have time to give it too much thought. I had a bus to catch. A bus that would take me from the verdant Hampshire Valley of Western Massachusetts into Springfield, where I would catch another bus to the very city where this atrocity had taken place - I had to change buses again at Port Authority Terminal in NYC.
It was already grey and cloudy as I headed from my dorm to the bus station in downtown Northampton, and as I recall, it stayed that way throughout the next couple of days. By the time I arrived in New York City, a misty rain had been falling for a while. I gazed sleepily out the window as we pulled into Port Authority, and saw only wet streets, people going on about their business. Any response to Lennon's death that was going on in the city that day was happening elsewhere.
Continuing on south into Philadelphia was disorienting, strange. Darkness had fallen, and I was eager to be out of the near empty bus station on Arch Street. I hailed a cab and a short time later arrived at the sports complex on South Broad, a sprawling and forbidding place anchored at one end by the concrete oval of JFK Stadium and Veterans Stadium on the other. In between was The Spectrum, an arena I had only seen on TV. My seat was about 15 rows behind the stage, dead center, and I still couldn’t believe that in an hour or so, I would be in the same building with Bruce Springsteen. It was different then-athletes, musicians, politicians-you didn’t see them everywhere like you do now. Being there in person meant something.
I don’t remember many specifics from that night anymore, only that every song seemed imbued with newfound meaning, particular lines jumped out and grabbed you by the throat with an immediacy and a relevance never dreamt of by their writer:

Point blank/ They must’ve shot you in the head
‘Cause point blank/ Bang bang baby you’re dead

“Stolen Car”, “The Price You Pay” and on and on – how was it possible these songs could mean this much on this particular night? And yet they did. It was a long time before I learned of the fierce debate that had taken place in the hour or two before Bruce and the band took the stage that night, a discussion which saw a shocked and disheartened Springsteen, who had talked of postponing that night’s performance convinced by an impassioned Steve Van Zandt that the show must go on.
Just as it had shocked and saddened those of us in the audience that night, the news of Lennon’s shooting had affected Bruce and the E Street Band deeply and profoundly. For people of a certain age, the long-ago Sunday night in February when John, Paul, George and Ringo made their American television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show had been the proverbial “Big Bang” – that life-changing moment after which nothing would be the same. Kids around the country had formed hundreds of bands in the weeks and months following that seminal broadcast, and the E Streeters had been among them.  They, like many of us in the Spectrum that night, were lifelong fans, and John’s sudden and tragic death had taken with it part of our collective past. And it had brought with it the inescapable conclusion that this senseless violence could happen to them—to any of us—too.
The usual pre-show crowd buzz was tempered that night by a palpable dread. Would the show bring release, or would it further expose a gaping wound? The tension was unbearable. At length, the house lights dimmed, and the band made its way to the stage. After a roar of recognition, a hush fell as Bruce approached center mic. I couldn’t see his face from where I was seated, but he spoke haltingly, unsure as we all seemed to be, of how to process what had happened and of how to address it with the audience. 
“I'd just like to say one thing...and it's a hard night to come out and play tonight when so much's been lost....the first record...the first record that I ever learned was a record called 'Twist and Shout')......and if it wasn't for John Lennon, we'd all be in some place very different tonight.”
Interrupted once or twice by cheers that were as probably much about moral support as about the Beatles reference, he continued. “It's...it's an unreasonable...world and you have to live with a lot of things that are just unlivable .... and....it's a hard thing to come out and play but there's just nothing else you can do...” And with that, he counted off for “Born to Run.” Three-odd hours later, the show ended in true James Brown fashion with an exhausted Bruce being semi-dragged back out to the mic one final time by his onstage foils, Steve Van Zandt and Clarence Clemons. They played “Twist and Shout.” Most nights, the exhaustion was mostly an act, and the Isley Brothers cover was the regular set-closer. But on this particular evening, nothing seemed simple or clear. 
When I left that The Spectrum that night, so many questions still burned in my brain; the rollercoaster ride of the last several hours had not done much to resolve a lingering fear that some deep and profound change was afoot in the land. But for that one night, it seemed that maybe we could all share those fears and all that sadness and still dance with unbridled joy and raise fists in triumph and maybe the horror of the previous night’s events would be just a dream. Each song played that night had spoken some deep emotional truth beyond anything we could have imagined. The pace of life was so much slower then, and it seemed weeks before I learned all that had happened in those days in early December, 1980. Mourning a public figure was, even for a person of John Lennon’s stature, a far more understated affair. But for that one night in Philadelphia, it was all we could do.

And so, on another winter’s night some 35 years later, I was back in the same city to celebrate the same album with (mostly) the same cast of characters. I had had my doubts about Bruce’s artistic trajectory, about what this tour even meant. But it had all dovetailed too perfectly; I had the chance to revisit that long ago night when everything changed. What would those songs mean to me now, and what did they mean to Bruce and the band? 
At the Wells Fargo Center in 2016, The River was played with a lifetime of skill, but with less pure adrenaline. The songs didn’t drive forward so much as pause and breathe. But afterward, what I was struck by more than anything was that once again, each song seemed imbued with meaning above and beyond the immediate. Like they had on that long-ago night at The Spectrum, particular lines and turns of phrase hit me like a sucker punch to the gut, seemingly written for just this moment in my life.
A handful years after the River tour, Springsteen had said of the record:  "Rock and roll has always been this joy, this certain happiness that is in its way the most beautiful thing in life. But rock is also about hardness and coldness and being alone ... I finally got to the place where I realized life had paradoxes, a lot of them, and you've got to live with them.” At the midpoint of his life, the record was about finding your place in the world and then reckoning with the ramifications.
For the 2016 resurrection of The River, something else was on his mind. During the performance of the album in Philadelphia, Bruce told us that the record was, to him, about time: how it seems limitless in our youth and increasingly finite as we age. How you’d better reach out and grab the things in life that are important to you before they slip away: 


You can run through all the nights and all the days
But just across the county line
A stranger passin’ through put up a sign
That counts the men fallen away to the price you pay
And girl before the end of the day
I’m gonna tear it down and throw it away
I had dreaded this show, wondered whether it would tarnish my treasured memories of youth, if Bruce and the band were up to the challenge of this demanding material. In truth, I wasn’t even sure I should be there. What was the purpose of reaching back for a moment that had long gone? But part of the lesson of The River is understanding and acceptance of the passage of time; it’s a reckoning with its relentless, unforgiving, ever-quickening pace.
As time passes, you gain more understanding of yourself and your place in the world. Getting older also means accepting inevitable loss – of friends and family, of places you loved, of memory itself. The passage of time is also transformational; as you let go of the past, you are freed of it. And no one is exempted from these truths. 
Certainly Bruce and the band have been changed by the passage of time. They once played each show as if their very lives depended on it. Now, all these years later, priorities are dramatically different.  Much of the short time they have left is spent with loved ones, in pursuit of other interests. But the time they have together as a band is surely more precious than ever to them now because its end is within sight.
And so it was that an older, wiser and perhaps more cynical version of myself attended that Friday night show in Philly; no longer able to dance and sing and clap to song after song as I once had, I mostly stood still, taking in the music and the crowd and pondering the long road that had led me back to The River.
And I was reminded of what Bruce’s music has always been about: being alive and present every single moment of your life. It’s the things that are right in front of you – your life right now — that matters. And you had better deal with it.
In 35 years, I had traveled so long and so far only to end up back where I had started, with this band and this music, in this city. But driving home, as the last echoes of a different Isley Brothers classic rang in my ears, it all seemed just about right.

1 comment:

  1. Really well written, thanks for sharing, Lisa.