This past weekend I made a whirlwind trip to Kansas City for, yes, a Springsteen show. Drove there on Friday, went to the show Saturday, drove back home Sunday – a total of about 960 miles round trip. I got what I expected – hours in the car to listen to music and sing at the top of my lungs where nobody will hear me, some time spent with friends I don’t see often enough, and an absolutely fantastic concert (see my review on Blogness). I also got some surprises along the way, all of them good ones, all of them occasioned by kindness.
Yep, that is me with Little Steven, aka Stevie Van Zandt, aka Miami Steve, aka Silvio Dante, aka someone who has been one of my heroes for many years. I had the incredible good fortune to be offered a pass to his pre-show meet & greet, and so I doubled my lifetime count of E Street Band members I have met (readers of my previous blog will recall that I met Max Weinberg when he came to Indianapolis with his big band a couple years ago). He was exactly like you expect him to be: relaxed, funny, a little sarcastic, charming, and definitely the center of attention in the room.
They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, because you will inevitably be disappointed. But that hasn’t generally been my experience. I mean, I don’t expect them to walk on water. I’m old and I’ve seen a few things and I’ve gotten over thinking anybody walks on water. I haven’t met anybody, ever, who was fully incapable of being a jerk now and then. (Okay, I never met Mother Teresa, but I bet she lost her sense of humor a lot.) I think sometimes people have ridiculous expectations when they meet somebody they admire. It’s a real test, sometimes, to just make yourself stay in the moment and enjoy it for what it is. I’ve had varying levels of success with that (not that I’ve met THAT many famous people, mind).
The thing I have always admired about SVZ, perhaps most of all, is that he seems to be someone who’s determined to be exactly who he is at all times, no matter what, and not try to change himself to fit somebody else’s idea of who he should be – even his own idea of who he should be. He’s been known to piss people off by making political or artistic statements, by wearing what he likes to wear, by doing all kinds of things. And the sense that I got (in the oh, minute and a half that I got to chat with him, and the half-hour or so – ok, I don’t know, I wasn’t exactly checking my watch! – that he was in the room with the group of us that were there that night) was that he’s someone who is very comfortable with who he is. Yeah, being who he is has paid off pretty well for mister rockstar/actor/DJ/record label guy. But you get the impression that he’d be the same person regardless. If he were, I don’t know, a factory worker or an elementary teacher instead of a rockstar, he’d probably be out there supporting local bands in the evenings – as it is, his “local” is international in scope, and when he discovers a band he loves he has the means to help them get a wider audience instead of just being one guy going to their shows and maybe dragging his friends along sometimes. Just for example. There are things that he cares about pretty deeply, and you get the sense that he would care about those things whatever his position in life happened to be, it’s just that he’s got the wherewithal to care about them louder than most people do.
I could be completely wrong about the guy, of course. This is just what I’ve surmised about him from following his career(s) for a few decades, and from the deep sense of authenticity I got from him in the brief time we were in the same room. (Okay, we were also in the same room for three hours afterwards, but the Sprint Center arena is a REALLY BIG ROOM and he was pretty busy at the time.) I’m sure he is thoroughly human. I’m sure he has bad days, and I’m sure I don’t ever want to piss him off. *grin* But he inspires me to try to be more authentic myself, to let myself care deeply about the stuff I care about, and to work hard while still managing to laugh a lot of the time. Not a bad sort of hero to have, methinks.
[And before anybody else asks. No, I do not have any advice to give you on how to arrange for a meet’n’greet with anyone in the E Street Band or anyone else. I really have no idea how these things usually happen. Mine came about via the good fortune of being in the right place, in the right time, and perhaps with the right attitude about such things although who knows. All I can say for sure is, enjoy the experiences you get and be kind to the people you meet, and you won’t have too many regrets.]
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Getting to meet someone I admire so much was just one of several memorable kindnesses that were extended to me over the course of the weekend. I was a lucky, lucky girl. I got to spend time with some friends I don’t get to see often enough, and I got to meet some new friends I liked a great deal. Even the crescent moon over the gleaming silver Sprint Center seemed to be shining down with a particular benevolence on Saturday night.
After the meet & greet I found my way to the arena floor and, because it was the sort of weekend when things happen easily (like walking near the arena and turning around to realize that a Twitter friend that I’d hoped to meet just happened to be walking right behind me), I almost immediately located two different groups of friends at the back of the pit. I said hi to both groups, filled them in on a bit of where I’d been and what I’d been doing; and then because I had to choose one group to hang with during the show, I chose the ones who were over towards the side of the back of the pit. There was a lot of room there, which meant we’d have room to dance and an unobstructed view of the stage. And since I probably would have been hanging with these folks during the lottery anyway, I was in the same spot I would’ve been in regardless, which assuaged any lingering guilt feelings I might have had over my good fortune that evening.
Given the events of the evening, I will never be able to be objective about the show itself. I was in a happy place and there wasn’t anything that was going to shake that. Luckily, it’s easy to say that the show was great and feel confident about that. Personal highlight for me was “Incident on 57th Street” – an early song I absolutely love, and one I’d never gotten in concert (and consider that, although I haven’t been to nearly as many shows as a lot of folks, my first Springsteen show was in 1978 so I go way back). I may have hyperventilated a bit when the song began, and it was just gorgeous. I’m now down to two “all-time favorites I’ve never heard in concert” songs: “The Promise” and “Lost in the Flood.”
My other highlight was “My Beautiful Reward,” which opened the encore. Bruce dedicated this very rarely-performed song to his cousin and road manager, Lenny Sullivan, whose unexpected death forced the last-minute cancellation of the Kansas City show in 2009. It was hauntingly beautiful, exquisitely performed with a spare arrangement featuring Soozie Tyrell and Nils Lofgren, and clearly deeply felt by Bruce. I still had a lump in my throat when the lights roared up and “Born to Run” ripped the arena wide open – I think it might have been the first time I wasn’t ready for the full-on celebration that song always elicits.
Since I was in the very back of the pit, I had a great view of Bruce whenever he sang from the platform between the pit and the main GA floor. I’ve seen the “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” tribute to Clarence Clemons a few times on this tour, and it’s always moving as the audience gets its chance to celebrate the Big Man’s memory. The recent addition of the late Danny Federici to the memorial slideshow has made it bigger and better, I think; a celebration of everything about the E Street Band that is now lost to the past – just as time causes all of us to lose aspects of our youth.
Bruce always stands on the rear platform, mic held high to catch the audience’s cheers, and silently watches the slideshow. I’ve thought a lot about those moments – how it must feel to him to look at what are in a sense old family photos in front of thousands of screaming fans, what led to his decision to perform this particular tribute in this particular way. Because it is, make no doubt about it, a performance. I’ve seen fans commenting as though Bruce is putting his private grief on display as he watches the images – and I think it’s way more complex than that. I think it’s very possible that what he feels at that moment may be anything but grief (it’s been a couple of years, and he’s been through this tribute many many times now, and it can’t possibly be the fresh raw wound that some fans seem to want it to be) – but I think that he is performing grief in such a way that the audience, and for that matter the band, and for that matter Bruce himself, can access grief from the past, or the future, or the depths of the present.
I guess this is old news to people who are performers, but I’m just beginning to understand it myself – even though I’ve had some small experience with performance via poetry readings. I know that when I read a poem, I’m not exposing my deep inner self or whatever; I’m voicing a made thing that has, in a funny way, a life of its own outside of me even though I wrote it. I’m pretty sure it’s the same for a singer. He doesn’t have to feel terribly sad in order to make the audience weep during “My City of Ruins” – he only has to embody the feeling of sadness, which is a different thing. By offering up the grief performance of the “Tenth Avenue” tribute, Bruce is offering access to a set of feelings that the audience may choose to participate in. Which is not to say that it is a dishonest thing – and here we are, back to authenticity again. The feelings, even while being a performance, are very real. It’s like the important difference between facts and truth. Bruce may not necessarily be offering facts in his songs, even the ones that sound pretty damned autobiographical. But he is, absolutely, offering truth. And in the case of a Bruce Springsteen performance, that truth is conveyed in the music, in the lyrics, in the tone of voice, in every muscle of his body (he is perhaps the most physical performer I’ve ever witnessed, taking bodily risks as he crowd-surfs, making himself physically vulnerable to the audience, pushing himself to muscular limits).
Sometimes I am very aware of the performance as performance, as Springsteen enacts the persona of Springsteen. Now we’re going to have Goofy Bruce, now Mighty Rocker Bruce, now Serious Intense Bruce. It’s not that he is being inauthentic, but he is definitely in character. And sometimes, at moments, despite all that I know about it being performance, the truth of it shines so brightly that it makes me catch my breath. During “Tenth Avenue” in Kansas City, there was one of those moments: as a full-face portrait of Danny Federici filled the screen, Bruce reached his hand out towards it as if to touch — as if he could reach through time and mortality and use the genius of his physicality to touch his lost friend again. Yes, performance. Yes, he may even have rehearsed that precise gesture. But it was authentic, it was truth, and it pretty much broke my heart right there.
And in a weekend filled with acts of kindness and generosity, maybe that was the biggest one. Bruce isn’t standing there on that stage saying to the audience “Hey! I’m having feelings! Look at me!” (Okay, he’s definitely saying “look at me” sometimes – a performer’s got to have an ego! – but bear with me.) No – he’s saying “Here. I made this thing out of feelings and memories and muscles and sweat. I made it for you and I am giving it to you now, here, tonight. Keep it in your heart and maybe you can use it for something someday.”
Maybe that is kindness. Maybe that is even, in its own way, love.