With just a few shows left to go this year on Bruce Springsteen’s current Wrecking Ball tour (if you are on or can get to the West Coast, GO – some shows are better than others, but what that means at this point is that they vary from great, to greater, to ridiculous), and with the emotional residue of the holidays upon us, I find myself reflecting a lot on the overarching themes of this tour. Loss, survival, ghosts.
It has been fascinating, over the five shows I’ve attended and the many I’ve heard and read about, to watch how the songs and the shows (not to mention the band itself) have evolved. The setlists have loosened up dramatically, but that doesn’t mean they’ve veered from the essential themes. “My City of Ruins” remains at the heart of it. Unveiled at the Apollo Theatre show (which I was able to listen to live – thanks, SiriusXM; I knew I was saving that free trial for a good reason), it was clear that the song would be something special on this tour. The horn arrangement was, and still is, gorgeous and adds so much emotional texture. When Springsteen declared “Roll call!” and introduced each member of the band, I thought it was a little early in the show for band intros but was willing to go with it. Then: “Are we missing anybody?” made me catch my breath – and again, to make sure we all understood: “Are we missing anybody?”
(It wasn’t until Atlanta, my first Wrecking Ball show, that I realized the moment also included spotlights on the places where Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons would have been standing.)
And then the promise: “If you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here.” Which, of course, reduced me to a soggy mess of tears as I listened that first time. I was more prepared for it in Atlanta, but it still wrecked me a little.
As the tour went on, the song evolved – not the song itself (which retained the stunning horn and choral arrangements, always underpinned by a particularly graceful Garry Tallent bass line) but the interlude. I’m not sure exactly where along the way Bruce started talking about ghosts. The first time I heard it, it made me catch my breath. Here’s how he said it in Chicago:
It’s great to be here at Wrigley Field, because this is a song about ghosts. When you come into old buildings, old cars, old ballparks, they carry so many ghosts of so many people that left their blood and their sweat in the dust and on the ground. This is a song originally about my adopted hometown struggling to get back on its feet, but since then it’s become about a lot of other things, and one of the things it’s become about is ghosts… ghosts… ghosts. You get older and a lot of ghosts walk along with you. Which is good. When you were a kid, you know, ghosts were scary. But when you get older they remind you, they walk alongside of you and remind you of the value of time and the preciousness of love and of life. Old ballparks, old cars, old guitars, old houses, old people. So we’re gonna do this tonight for our ghosts, and for your ghosts. May you walk with them well, and listen to what they’re telling you.
Listening to “My City of Ruins” on my way to a family Thanksgiving gathering, the message struck me all over again. Like any family, ours has missing pieces. And of course, this is always particularly apparent over the holidays. The rituals that aren’t quite the same, the voices that aren’t there.
This year I found myself the last one up on Thanksgiving night after everyone else had gone to bed. I sat down at the kitchen table to have a snack of cold turkey breast with a little salt, the way my dad always used to. He and I were the late-night people in the family – in fact when I was very small I once declared to my mother, “When I grow up I want to be a night owl like Daddy!”
My dad died in 1994. As I sat there eating my midnight snack, I thought about how he would have been up late with me, and imagined what we might have been talking about. Music, maybe. He was a musician and put himself through grad school in psychology by playing, though he gave up playing professionally when he got his doctorate and took a faculty position in a new state far from his musical community. Although our musical taste wasn’t identical he always encouraged me to love music and to go to concerts. In fact when I was an undergrad I once complained that I couldn’t afford to go to a particular show, and though he didn’t have much to spare (thank goodness for scholarships and part-time jobs), he started sending me a small allowance every month specifically so I could indulge my musical needs.
I sat there at the empty table for a while, sitting with my ghosts in the quiet, sleeping house.
Then I felt the need to acknowledge the empty place a bit more publicly, somehow. So I picked up my phone and tweeted, “I miss my dad.” And wouldn’t you know, of all my Twitter friends, it was a musician who responded. Ghosts everywhere, man. Ghosts everywhere.
The other thing Bruce Springsteen does now during “My City of Ruins” is to ask for some quiet. It’s not the traditional “moment of silence” in memory of someone, but a time to just sit with the ghosts – whoever yours may be – and listen to them, honor them. Given the predilection of an arena containing 18,000 rock fans to make some noise, and the unfortunate way a quiet moment makes a few folks think “hey, if I scream right now, Bruce will hear me and only me!” – he’s had variable success in accomplishing this quiet. In Kansas City it happened for just a moment: a soft, quick hush across that huge arena. Just a moment. Just long enough to breathe.
It reminded me of how silence is an essential part of music: you can’t have the beat without the spaces in between. And just so, the missing pieces are what make a family. We have ghosts in common, and sometimes we find the same silence to acknowledge them. Are we missing anybody? Yes, we are, and that’s what makes us human together. We should treasure our ghosts, and honor how they remain inside of us always. And to quote Mr. Springsteen: May you walk with them well.