Last night, I experienced full-throated, give-it-everything-you’ve-got, love-the-world-and-then-some joy at a deafening volume for over three hours. Ken, Forest and I went to see Springsteen and the astonishing E. Street Band in Kansas City. From our perch near the very top of the stadium, just to the left side of the stage, we had a bird’s eye view of 17 musicians blowing everyone’s hearts open.
When Bruce came out, I felt like I always do when I see him: like we know each other. Because he’s dropped into my dreams on occasion for decades, I half expect him to find me among the thousands, my face probably the size of an apricot in the dark, and call out, “Hey, good to see you again.” It’s not like I have this dream friendship with other famous people (although I have had some great chats with Barack and Michelle), but with Bruce, it’s personal. I’m from his school district; I grew up in Manalapan, which is a stone’s throw from Freehold; Asbury Park was all of our ideal adopted second home; the shore was our shore.
While in high school, I tried not to like Springsteen, but when I was 15, and “Born to Run” hit the charts and our psyches, it was hard to pretend he wasn’t a god among those of us trying to feel our way toward adulthood in Monmouth County, NJ. By the time I headed west to land the rest of my life hundreds of miles away, I couldn’t help but claim Springsteen as the best part of being from Jersey. He so infused our sense of self and world. One night, while going to the University of Missouri, I met up with my friend and fellow Monmouth Countian Kathy, and our pal Joe for a Springsteen party. Having little money, we pooled our pennies for generic vodka and powdered milk and danced for hours with frying pan to “Thunder Road” and “The Jungle.” It was heavenly in that Darkness-on-the-edge-of-town meets Blinded-by-the-light kind of way.
Last night was heavenly in a no-holds-barred burst of such intense happiness that I stressed my voice by yelling out songs along with Bruce and most everyone else while also crying from the sheer ecstasy of it. It wasn’t the joy of having someone else illuminate some new way of being or even the outrageous happy landing of all dreams come true. It was something far more valuable and real: homecoming.
Hearing/seeing/feeling the pulsating beat rushing through my body when the band performs isn’t just a Jersey homecoming deal; it’s a far more universal arrival. It also isn’t tethered only to the moment of being a part of thousands on their feet, likely feeling some variation of the same thing that overtook me; it’s a kind of rock’n’roll revival for the soul of who we truly are beneath the ideas we have of ourselves individually and our culture collectively. Springsteen has said repeatedly over the years that he writes and sings what he finds at the edges and buried in the center about America.
So what actually happened? Bruce and the band started the show with a powerful version of “Kansas City, Here I Come,” which resonated with many of us in Kansas City because of what happened in 2009, when Springsteen was last supposed to perform here. The sudden death of Bruce’s cousin Lenny in a KC hotel led to one of the few times Springsteen canceled a show. We were here then too, finishing pizza near downtown, when Kelley called to say the concert was called off less than an hour before it was to start. Kansas City, here I come brought everyone to their feet.
From the homecoming call of the band came the wild roller coaster curves into the past with songs such as “Incident at 57th Street” (we’re talking about a song recorded in ’74), a request and, it turns out, Lenny Springsteen’s favorite song. Bruce did some of my favorites in concert too: “Candy’s Room,” “Because the Night” “She’s the One,” and it turns out, just about everything else. I kept hitting Ken on the leg, wide-mouthed, to proclaim it was another of my favorites. From “Downbound Train” to “Badlands,” and “Hungry Heart” to “I’m on Fire,” we all sang our hearts out.
Several moments were especially beautiful: when introducing “My City of Ruin,” Bruce said he wrote this about Asbury Park, his adopted home. He said all that was destroyed would be rebuilt better than before, and that we should come. “There’s an ocean there, and you can get in,” he told our cheering crowd. But as he sang “As the sweet veils of mercy drift through the evening trees” followed by the simple chorus that repeats “My city of ruins,” he was also shining his light to all Sandy destroyed and how loss is at the heart of what comes next.
There were great jokes and dancing with the crowd, falling back on a sea of hands and being carried across the wide river of people, pulling women on stage to dance with Nils Loftgren and the dreamy Jake Clemons (Clarence’s nephew), and a little girl who, when handed the mic, just looked suspiciously at Bruce. When he cradled her to hand her back to her parents, he said, “She’s scarred for life.”
The encore brought Bruce out in the darkness to tell us that cancelling the show last timewas exceedingly rare and hard, and then dedicating to Lenny the dark and sinewy song “My Beautiful Reward,” with these lyrics:
Tonight I can feel the cold wind at my back
I’m flyin’ high over the gray fields my feathers long and black
Down along the river’s silent edge I soar
Searching for my beautiful reward
Searching for my beautiful reward
In the all-house-lights-blazing “Born to Run,” despite lyrics that included “it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap,” on the big monitors Bruce was himself in a state of unmitigated joy. Then, in the final song, “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” Bruce walked to the slim platform between the crowds on the floor, and sang repeatedly, “When the change was made uptown,” and then, “Now this is the important part” as he lifted his mic to the sky and the big monitors showed Clarence Clemons through the years playing with Bruce. The Big Man held steady on his sax while in concerts from the 70s as well as the 90s in which Bruce clowned and raced across stages, laughed and danced, and even kissed Clemons at the end of one song. In the middle of the images, a beautiful shot of Danny Federici flashed into us.
I remember reading Bruce’s talk after Clemons died, saying that it isn’t over, and it will never be over. Meanwhile, throughout the concert, although he’s less than half the age of Bruce, he brought us the same long call to the core notes and hues of his uncle. The whole concert gestured toward the ghosts we love, and Bruce even spoke of this at several points, reminding us of how we can lift up that love and made of it something that keeps spirit alive.
Driving home, despite the hour it took to get out of the stadium and then out of the parking garage, I felt cleansed and new, ready to fly with my feathers long and black because of having received my beautiful reward.