The Springsteen Phenomenon

Certainly, Bruce Springsteen’s popularity extends beyond the borders of his own Garden State, yet the hype that surrounds him here is impressive.  His popularity is written on many a New Jersey sleeve (or tattooed on an arm. Yep. Seen it).   While sitting in customary Route 3 traffic, I have heard the heavy brass of his late saxophone player, Clarence Clemons, blaring through the open windows of an adjacent car.  I have – with my tongue planted firmly in cheek – joined in an impromptu sing-a-long of Tenth Avenue Freeze Out at our local King’s supermarket.

It seems to be a mutually endearing relationship: Bruce chose his native New Jersey as a home base for him and his family, and references to Jersey run amuck in his lyrics. (This is how I learned that people in New Jersey don’t go to the beach, but they go “down the shore,” where, apparently, everything is all right).

I am not a New Jersey native.  I started this blog as a stranger in a strange land, yet will wholeheartedly admit no true, discernible cultural difference can be found between my not-so-bucolic hometown of Bristol, Connecticut and much of New Jersey.  Both have the distinctive blue collar roots from which Bruce’s poetry blooms.  I remember the New England jovial version of Brucemania which surrounded his Born In the USA tour, which included a stop at the Hartford Civic Center.  I was not allowed to attend.

This curious New Englander finally got her chance a week ago, when Bruce performed his River Tour to a sold out crowd at the Prudential Center in Newark, for which I obtained tickets by some stroke of dumb luck via Ticketmaster online.  With a click of the button at the allotted time of 1o AM, I asked for the “Best Available” seats, and got two in the nose bleed section.  Turns out the entirety of the stadium, which is home to the New Jersey Devils hockey team, sold out in less than ten minutes.

I prepared for the concert by watching videos of swooning fans reaching out to an agile Springsteen as he crooned a gravelly tenor into a microphone.  There were women of every background and age being pulled onstage to “dance in the dark,” including his mother, his daughter, and even a four year-old who bafflingly knew the chorus to Waitin’ On A Sunny Day.  OK.  I get it…  This guy knows how to connect to his audience.  But more: he’s a hometown, good guy, lacking any trace of narcissism that seems to be the trademark of so many other rock stars.

Teetering on a steep balcony over 20,000 like-minded folks who came to see Bruce in his native habitat, I was about to satisfy that curiosity.  Qualifying remark: this was my first big stadium show.  I have no experience seeing Some Big Rock Star in Some Big Stadium.  Previous concerts for me have been limited to smaller venues, with lesser known performers, or ones that had past their prime.  I preferred an intimate show, where I could sit in my accustomed Connecticut reserve and comfortably, quietly enjoy the music that held personal and private significance.  I didn’t need to wear it on my three-quarter-length sleeve.

20,000 people howling Bruuuuuce! in unison?  Amusing.  First name basis and all.  Then the screams…  Jumping up and down, dancing like it might be outlawed tomorrow.  I couldn’t possibly get this excited about someone to whom I didn’t make love or give birth.  I couldn’t join the choir; I didn’t know the words.  And how can the guy behind me know EVERY DAMN lyric to EVERY DAMN song?  Maybe I was just feeling left out.

Surrounding spectators, who I observed like an anthropologist, were either clinging to their loved ones, or swaying in a solitary trance.  One of my fellow concert goers likened the experience to going to a church service of rock and roll, where one worships The Boss.  He took no breaks for close to four hours. At 66 years-old, he even allowed his sycophantic fans to pass his body from a mosh pit back to the stage, an exaltation of supporting hands.  One can even touch his denim garment, for the price of floor seats!

I was converted when the stadium lights were illuminated to reveal his disciples as he performed Lonesome Day, a tune which Salman Rushdie once declared as the best piece written about September 11th.  I was overcome with emotion hearing 20,000 voices sing, “Let kingdom come, I’m gonna find my way, through this lonesome day…” One quarter of all casualties of the terror attacks on the World Trade Center were New Jersey residents, and although there is some debate as to the meaning behind the lyrics, which might be construed as a depiction of more personal loss, the message received by this crowd was one of collective understanding, joyful noise, a healing: even for those that didn’t touch his garments.  And yes, I suppose, many in attendance were so engaged because they probably did make love with Bruce in their ears, perhaps were celebrating in the audience with that same partner, maybe even gave birth with him, too.  Seems as though even the youngest fans know the lyrics, and understand the value of coming together for a few hours, to lose the stiffness and praise Bruce.

Jersey exuberance: 1.  Connecticut Puritanical reserve: 0.