Category Archives: Springsteen

Always Go to the Show: Bruce Springsteen in Pittsburgh, 9-11-2016

So, I’m a little late with this. But more than six months later, this show – and my experiences surrounding it – still resonates with me, and I’ve been meaning to write about it, so.

Those of you who know me in real life probably know that I’m not the most spontaneous person on the planet. When it comes to travel, especially, I plan ahead. I’m usually the person with two browsers and a smartphone churning away at the moment tickets for a big show go on sale, and by the end of the day I’ve got a hotel room booked, my route google-mapped, and probably some idea of which friends I might meet up with while I’m there.

Well.

After seeing what I thought would be my last Springsteen show of the River 2016 tour, August 28th in Chicago, I realized I really, truly hadn’t had enough. I needed just … one … more … fix. I looked at the few remaining dates on the itinerary, and realized that Pittsburgh was driveable. It wasn’t CLOSE, it was about 400 miles from home, but doable in a day. The hotels near the arena were all either booked or expensive – but I looked on the outskirts of town and found a decent deal on a Hampton Inn in Bridgeville, just west of Pittsburgh proper. It’d mean I wouldn’t have to negotiate a strange city after 400 miles of driving, and I could get back on the road that much faster the day after the show; driving a half hour to and from the venue seemed reasonable to me. I triple checked the hotel’s cancellation policy and booked the room.

But then there was the small matter of a ticket. They’d gone on sale months ago. I didn’t want to drive 400 miles each way only to sit up in the rafters, I wasn’t about to pay hugely inflated scalper prices, and although I am well aware that one can usually nab something at the last minute for most big shows, I am too chickenshit to drive that far without a ticket in hand. (I am too good at “but what if??” for my own good.)

I had never bought a ticket on the secondary market before. I have ethical issues with scalpers who use high-end technology to buy up seats when they go on sale and then resell them, at a significant markup, to people who were trying to get them but got shut out by aforementioned scalpers. It ain’t right. At the same time, there are occasionally legit reasons for regular fans to resell tickets – case in point, when my cat Bear was terminally ill and had just taken a turn for the worse, I was stuck with an expensive ticket to see Bonnie Raitt in Louisville, and it would have been nice to have been able to recoup some of the money I’d spent on that. Sometimes, especially shortly before the date of the show, you can even score tickets for less than face value from people – or scalpers – who just want to recoup something.

Anyway, my point is, I wanted a Pittsburgh ticket, and I wanted it bad – and after clicking around for a while, I found one I could live with. It was in the 5th row, behind the stage, pretty much smack behind Max Weinberg’s drum kit. I’d always wanted to sit behind the stage for a Bruce show; I’d heard you could see a lot of the interactions among band members, and I knew from experience that Bruce always goes around to the back and plays directly to those folks some. This ticket had a couple more things to recommend it: it was marked up a bit from face value, but not too badly; and the person selling it was willing to break up their pair and sell it as a single. (That is usually not the case, even when buying directly from Ticketmaster/LiveNation/whoever. I’ve been denied some great seats because it won’t let you leave a “stranded” single. Grrr. I mean, I get it, but… grrr.)

This all went down less than a week before the show. For me, that is SUPER spontaneous. I bought the ticket on Tuesday. The show was on Sunday. On Saturday morning, I hit the road for my first-ever trip to Pittsburgh.

Turns out, as 400-mile drives go, it’s a pretty easy one. Interstate all the way. Plenty of rest stops. And on that Saturday, some fairly gnarly weather. You know you’re having second thoughts about driving when you pass the storm chaser parked on the shoulder taking photos of the wall cloud just north of you. Um, yikes. Lucky for me, I have radar apps and I know how to use them; I’d been planning an extended picnic-lunch stop along the way, but I was staying just ahead of the storm front, so I kept the pedal to the metal. The now-weakened storms rolled through Pittsburgh about an hour after I got to the Hampton. Good job, me!

I spent the morning of the show relaxing at the hotel. Obsessive that I am, I kept checking Ticketmaster just … in … case. (5th row behind the stage was going to be lovely. I was fine with it. But if I could get something better….) Around noon or so, I just missed out on a seat in the front row behind the stage. And then a little while later, there went another. Dang! But about 2 pm, a minor miracle occurred – a single, front row behind the stage, practically dead center. It seemed Ticketmaster was releasing that row of seats in ones and twos, possibly to keep scalpers from buying up the whole row. It was pretty much the exact seat I’d dreamed of getting. I bought it, and put my 5th-row seat up for sale on the same secondary site from whence it came. A few short hours later, while I was having a nice pre-show dinner with friends, I got the notification that it had sold. I took a small loss on it, but I was fine with that. I had my dream ticket in my hands.

Bruce Springsteen in Pittsburgh from behind the stage

What. A. View.

Like all the shows on that last U.S. leg of the River 2016 tour, this one kicked off with “New York City Serenade” with a string section – something that had utterly blown me away in Chicago, from way back by the soundboard; seeing it up close in Pittsburgh was heaven. One of Springsteen’s prettiest songs, and I don’t mean that as weak praise; it truly is a thing of beauty. And then – well, I knew Bruce would pay tribute to 9/11, since this was the first time he’d performed on that actual date since “The Rising” came out. I’d figured he’d play a particularly heartfelt version of the title track from that album (a concert staple for him) and one or two other “Rising” songs. I wasn’t expecting him to go from “Serenade” right into “Into the Fire,” which literally made me gasp and drop into my seat with the emotional force of it. Then after maybe the best performance of “Lonesome Day” I’ve seen, “You’re Missing” was another stunning, gorgeous gut-punch, replacing the late Danny Federici’s iconic organ solo with a lonesome harmonica wail. Then “Mary’s Place,” and an absolutely ferocious “Darkness on the Edge of Town” served as an outro to the 9/11 tribute.

Knowing I was going to be close to the stage, I’d brought a sign – something I hadn’t done in years! – which said “After all these years we are still just kids wasted on SOMETHING IN THE NIGHT.” I would’ve loved to have heard that song, but more than that, it was a tribute to my very first Springsteen show back in 1978, when I saw some folks up in the nosebleeds with a giant bedsheet reading “just kids wasted on something in the night” (back then it was more of a statement than a song request). Some nights, Bruce takes sign requests. Some nights, he’s on a mission to tell a specific story, and he doesn’t pay any attention to signs. I love those nights most of all, so I wasn’t sorry that he ignored my request. (Since I was in the front row of the section, I figured out a few songs in that I could hang the sign on the railing in front of me, so I wasn’t blocking anyone’s view with it, thank you very much! You can spot it in some of the videos out there on YouTube, though late in the show when I knew it was past time for any possibility of requests, I took it down.)

My sign:

After the 9/11 tribute section, it was on to the oldies. Inspired I guess by Bruce’s soon-to-be-published memoir, this leg of the tour had been featuring some really fun performances of early E Street songs, and Pittsburgh delivered on that promise – including a gleefully fierce Stevie/Bruce guitar duel on “Saint in the City” and a searing “Lost in the Flood.” The band was firing on all cylinders and then some. And then – he’d done it a couple times since Chicago, but dare I hope? – “Incident on 57th Street” drew to a close and Bruce grinned, teased us all by drawing out the ending, and… YES! Right into “Rosalita” just like on the record, something that doesn’t happen often in concert because “Rosie” usually ends up in the encore. (I’m looking at the setlist again as I write this and am kind of stunned all over again to think I heard all these songs in one night – and all played with total relish, gusto, and ferocity!)

There were a couple more surprises yet in store for that show. After “Because the Night” (which never, ever gets old for me) Bruce took us back to the 9/11 theme with a beautiful “My City of Ruins.” As the song rose up, audience members started holding up their glowing cellphones until the whole arena was a glittering night sky. Absolutely spontaneous, absolutely heartfelt, and one of those moments you want never to end. “The Rising” came right after, and though that song had gotten stale for me over the years of hearing it at every single show, on this night it reclaimed its original power and resolve.

To open the encores, Bruce says, “Somebody gave me a copy of the Constitution of the United States.” The audience cheers. “Well… it does say ‘Fuck Trump’ on the front of it.” Even louder cheers. “And this was his request. We haven’t played this song in a long time…” This led into an absolutely gorgeous solo acoustic version of “Long Walk Home,” which for the pre-election political climate was beyond perfect. Bruce must have thought so too, as the song became a regular for the last few shows of the year.

Sitting behind the stage, by the way, was an amazing experience – especially being so close. I got more Bruce “face time” than I usually do even when I’m in a very good side-stage seat, Stevie Van Zandt turned around frequently to play to us, and Jake Clemons prowled around the back of the stage a lot too. It was great seeing a bit of what goes on behind the scenes as well, seeing band members getting ready for the next song, seeing the wardrobe person prepping things (bringing out the “Boss” cape for the “The Boss has left the building” shtick late in the encores, setting out a couple fresh pairs of shoes for band members to change into upon leaving the stage) and the guitar tech putting away instruments after their last use of the night. The crew is incredibly efficient. I probably wouldn’t recommend the behind-stage seat for someone’s very first Springsteen show, but for someone like me who’s quite familiar with the show, it was SO cool to see someone bring out a big shopping bag and take it underneath the stage and realize “oh, that’s the Boss cape in there.”

Bruce Springsteen & Max Weinberg on stage, with me right behind them

There I am. (I didn’t take this one, obviously)

And the giant shiny red cherry on top of the ridiculous sundae of that night (this is my favorite part and I saved it just for you few hardy souls who’ve made it to the end of this unforgivably lengthy post). Several years back, I wrote a poem about my first Springsteen show in 1978, which will probably always stand as the greatest concert I have ever witnessed, and about the second-greatest concert I have ever witnessed – which was most of the same guys, thirty years later, in St. Louis in 2008. From 2009 to 2016, I carried a copy of that poem with me every time I went to a Springsteen show, on the off chance that somehow I would find a way to get it into his hands.

In Pittsburgh, I initially thought to tape the poem onto the back of my “Something in the Night” sign, in case I was able to pass that to him on the stage. When it became obvious that wasn’t going to happen, I stuck the poem in my back pocket. Late in the show, I realized that he was going to exit the stage right in front of me (there’s a trap-door sort of deal towards the rear of the stage, with stairs going down that lead to a whole hive of activity underneath the stage; the band enters and exits here). I watched as various band members departed following the final encore, cheering and applauding; some of them looked up to acknowledge the crowd, some were just focused on getting the heck out of there (after a nearly four-hour show you can not blame them). Max Weinberg – for whom the show is an incredible physical effort; the guy is a beast! – took a while to leave and made his exit in an immaculate white bathrobe.

It was a few more minutes before Bruce emerged, sweaty and spent. He looked up to acknowledge the cheering, and when he was looking in my general direction I gently floated the folded poem down to him, like a paper airplane or a falling blossom. I held my breath, knowing that many many rock stars would just ignore something tossed down to them like that, knowing he had just run a rock & roll marathon and probably could barely see straight, thinking that at best an assistant would come along to clean up various detritus a little later and might pick it up then. But. He. Picked. It. Up. And he looked right at me, and I called out, “Thank you!” (it may have come out as a squeak…) and he walked away with that poem in his hand.

Friends, I was over the moon. I stopped at the merch table and bought a t-shirt because I didn’t want to leave the building just yet, that site where so much magic had just happened. And I’m not quite sure how I managed to drive myself back to the hotel, or how I managed to sleep that night.

I will probably never know if he read the thing (I’m pretty sure he just wants to collapse after an intense marathon of a show like that, not sit around reading poems, and it would be awfully easy for it to have just gone missing in the process of packing up to leave) or, if he did, whether he liked it. (Yes, I did put contact information on it; I’m not one to squander even the slimmest chance. But I had no expectation that anything would come of that.) And that’s okay, actually. But I do like to imagine that maybe he read and appreciated it. And if for some reason I never get to another Springsteen show again, I will always remember that in the last moment I saw him, he was walking away with my poem in his hand. (Holy shit, y’all.)

Worth the 830 miles I put on my car that weekend? Worth the ticket drama, the money, the shaking myself out of my fondness for overplanning? Um, YES. Hell, this Pittsburgh show was worth it all from the first notes of “New York City Serenade.”

I once said, “Always go to the show!” and certain of my friends quote me on that a lot. But it’s true.  You never know when you might get to spend a few minutes at a pre-show meet & greet with Little Steven… oh yeah, THAT happened in Pittsburgh, too! It is always a big treat to be in that guy’s presence, however momentarily – he is amazing. And as I write this, it’s the eve of the 9th anniversary of the last time I saw the late and much-missed Danny Federici on the E Street stage. You never know when it might be your last dance.

And you never know when you might finally get your chance to make a tiny paper-airplane dream come true.

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Personal Notes on Springsteen’s “River” Show

You can find my more formal review/recap of the show over at Blogness on the Edge of Town. But while it’s fresh in my mind, I wanted to jot down a few more personal notes about my experience of Bruce Springsteen’s Jan. 19 show at the United Center in Chicago, featuring a beginning-to-end performance of “The River” album.

Full album shows fascinate me. On the one hand, I miss the insights I sometimes get from the mixture of old and new material – how newer material can reach back to converse with the old, shedding new light on both. And it’s a different experience knowing, for at least a good part of the show, what song is going to come next. On the other hand, if an album is carefully constructed, it tells a story that is more than the sum of its parts (songs). There’s a cohesiveness to the performance that can be revealing and informative. And, well, even I don’t spend as much time as I once did just putting on an album and listening carefully to it from beginning to end. I listen to playlists, I put stuff on shuffle… it’s different.

And “The River” is for sure an album I’ve spent a lot of time with as an album. When it came out, I was in college, living in the dorm, prone to a bit of drama (as most 19-year-olds can be). When I had a solitary evening, I’d often dim the lights in my dorm room, maybe light a candle or some incense (both, as I recall, forbidden in the dorm… such a little baby rebel I was), put on an album I loved, and just immerse myself in it. Oftentimes, “The River” was that album. I was especially obsessed with the song “Point Blank,” lifting the needle at the end of the song and moving the arm back to listen again. (Which was so much more deliberate an act than clicking a “repeat” button.)

My least favorite song on the album was “Wreck on the Highway.” Just morbid and depressing, I thought, set to an inexplicable tune – not exactly bouncy, but melodic and pretty, and a little singsongy. Certainly not as mournful as lines like

There was blood and glass all over / And there was nobody there but me / As the rain tumbled down hard and cold / I seen a young man lying by the side of the road / He cried “Mister, won’t you help me please”

oughta be. I mean, singing merrily away about “blood and glass all over”? Shouldn’t the music be darker, gloomier? Maybe some good angry punk stuff? And why end the album on something so damn gloomy anyway? And then the narrator just goes home and looks at his girlfriend and thinks about this stupid wreck that he’s obsessed with for some reason. What the hell, Bruce.

Well. I was nineteen. And I thought I knew a lot, but as anyone who’s been nineteen and gotten over it knows, I didn’t know much.

The concert was on January 19th, 2016. The 20th was the 22nd anniversary of my father’s death – some 14 years after “The River” came out. I remember watching my mother that week, realizing for the first time that signing up for a lifetime commitment with another human being meant committing to seeing them through the whole dying business too, if they got around to dying before you did. And realizing what that meant – the pain and difficulty of it, yes, but also the pure privilege and honor of bearing the weight of that journey. So this was on my mind a bit at the concert. Yeah, time tends to fold in on itself a bit when you get to be middle-aged. I’m learning that.

“Wreck on the Highway” comes right after “Drive All Night” on the River album. A lot of people love “Drive” as a hopelessly-romantic love song. “I swear I’d drive all night again, just to buy you some shoes.” But the song opens:

When I lost you, honey, sometimes I think I lost my guts too. / And I wish God would send me a word / Send me something I’m afraid to lose.

One, he’s not just singing to a woman; he’s singing to someone he has ALREADY LOST. Maybe he lost her and got her back again, but maybe not. “I swear I’d drive all night again… I just wanna sleep tonight again in your arms.” Is he singing to someone he’s lost to something more than infidelity? Is this a grief song?

In Chicago Tuesday night, Springsteen introduced “I Wanna Marry You” as being a song about the fantasy of what marriage might be like, not the real thing. (It was never one of my favorites on the album, either. Funny that.) But wishing for “something I’m afraid to lose” comes, I think, much closer to a real understanding of commitment. Who knows whether Bruce understood that when he wrote the song – he’s certainly said in many interviews that he didn’t understand love and commitment until some years later. When you commit to someone for life (whether that’s marriage, or any other form of deep lifelong emotional commitment with a peer [as opposed to, say, your children – who you expect will outlive you anyway]), you’re saying: Losing this person is my deepest fear. And I’m committing to staying with them until that fear becomes reality. I’m willingly accepting the near-certainty of my greatest fear coming true.

That’s pretty weighty. And that’s the understanding of marriage that Springsteen arrives at in “Wreck.” It’s not the fun-and-games part of love, it’s not the unrealistic interpretation of marriage we see in “Marry You,” it’s not even latching on to someone just because, well, two hearts are better than one. It’s something a whole lot scarier and harder and truer than that. It’s something that acknowledges mortality as fully part of the deal – and mortality, man, that’s hard to take.

Springsteen closed out the River album portion of the show, as the last notes of “Wreck on the Highway” played, he talked about how he’d realized the album was also about time:

“One of the things I was writing about on The River was time,” he said. “A friend of mine [who] was around last night said that time catches up to us all. You’ve got a limited amount of time to do your work, to take care of your family, try and do something good.” (from Rolling Stone’s review of Pittsburgh show)

For sure, talking about time and mortality is not new for Springsteen – that’s what the “Wrecking Ball” album is all about, after all, and plenty of his other songs from the past couple decades. And anyone in the demographic he and I share (roughly 50-70) has seen some of their heroes and some of their loved ones die, knows that there’s more of that inevitably coming, and is probably grappling with how best to deal with that part of life. It’s sadly fitting that the first two shows of this tour included songs played in tribute to fellow musicians who’d recently died (David Bowie and Glenn Frey).

Mortality, man. We don’t sign up for that willingly. But when we love someone, the kind of love that means we plan to stick together, we are willingly taking on not only our own mortality but theirs. That’s crazy (says the longtime spinster who’s perfectly happy about that situation). But it’s also pretty damned profound.

And that’s the long story of why the song I least liked on “The River” when I was nineteen or twenty is probably the most important song on the album, and why the damned thing ends with such a melodic bit of gloom. Because that’s life, you know? Life.

Which is what rock & roll is all about.

_______________

A couple of other takeaways from Tuesday night’s show:

  • Whether I’m elbows on the stage or battling altitude sickness up in the rafters, an E Street Band show gives me something no other concert does. It feels like home. Sometimes the furniture gets rearranged while I’m away, but it feels like a place where I just belong. I sink into the show, settle into it, like the most comfortable pair of shoes that make my feet happy. Which is not to say that I just sit there. They’re dancing shoes. They’re rock & roll shoes!
  • As for the people NOT on stage: Hanging out with the friends I’ve met through Springsteen’s music is maybe the best part of these shows. I knew this already, of course, but it’s good to be reminded. I don’t think I would have met any of these people without this connection, although we have so much more in common than just the music and the concert experience. They are creative, compassionate, interesting people and they make me laugh like nobody’s business. Love y’all – you know who you are!

Here’s “Wreck on the Highway” from Pittsburgh. Yes, the people chattering should be smacked upside the head immediately.

 

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Greetings from the Polar Vortex

photo of icy treesAnd greetings to anyone who might still be following this blog! Yes, it’s true, I’ve been frozen in the polar vortex… we haven’t had it as bad here as folks just a few miles to the north, because when the storm came through on Sunday we skated right on the rain/snow line for quite a few hours. I woke Sunday morning to about two inches of snow, but then it changed over to rain… and sleet… and slush… and snow… and freezing rain… and some big fat white globs that rocketed straight down from the sky and looked for all the world like a giant horde of birds was flying over and pooping on us. Every time I looked out the window, we were getting different precipitation. I fully expected frogs to start falling from the sky at some point.image of radar display showing precipitation

Eventually it started to change back over to snow, and I went outside to clear the 2-3 inches of pure gross slush off my windshield and other parts of the car before it froze solid overnight. That was a very, very smart move on my part. This morning I saw a guy across the street trying to chip about 2-3 inches of pure gross frozen-solid slush off the windshield of a mini-van with what looked like a kitchen spatula. He was also not wearing a hat (the temperature was hovering around 5 below zero at that point), so I’m thinking he might not have been the sharpest snowflake in the tundra. But I felt a little smug as I looked out at the perfectly clear windows of my own car.

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late, right?), the temperature dropped below zero shortly after midnight Sunday night/Monday morning, and stayed there until around 11 am on Tuesday. We didn’t get the foot of snow that Indianapolis got, but our roads are covered with bumpy frozen slush, which has its own … er … joys? Campus was officially closed both Monday and Tuesday, which was fantastic, as I am relatively sane and didn’t really want to venture outside in the 30-below-zero wind chill. I have been very, very lucky in that my furnace never gave out on me, I never lost power (a lot of people did), and my pipes didn’t freeze. It was on the cool side in the house even so, but I bundled up in fleece and blankets and enjoyed the heated throw I bought on Saturday for the occasion – as did the cats. I have basically spent most of the last three days underneath various combinations of lap cats. It’s been very, very nice.

3 cats on top of electric blanket

note the box in the background, which has not been opened & contains a brand new space heater bought for the occasion. If my furnace had given out during the polar business, I was PREPARED.

 

High Hopes album artSome people bake cookies when they have a snow day… I apparently write album reviews. If you’re interested in knowing what I think of the new Springsteen album, you can read my review over at Blogness on the Edge of Town. It won’t surprise anyone that I mostly like the album; when I write about music I’m actually less interested in the kind of review that pins the album with a certain number of stars or whatever, and more interested in just delving into it and asking “what’s going on here? what does the artist’s intention for this music seem to be, and does he succeed?” Especially with someone like Springsteen, who’s earned my respect and trust as an artist over the years, I make the assumption that he knows what he’s doing; I am more interested in examining the trajectory of the album and poking at it to find out what makes it tick. I’m not articulating this very well, I think. And I’m not really a music reviewer; to the extent that I have a strategy for doing that sort of thing, it comes more from what I’ve learned about workshopping poetry than from anything else. Anyway, I have a lot of thoughts about the album that didn’t make it into what I wrote, so stay tuned for more, perhaps.

Stay warm and safe out there, everyone – if you go out, wear your hat and mittens and for goodness’ sake clear the snow off of ALL your car windows before you drive! (I shoulda been a mom, huh?)

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Are We Missing Anybody?

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.

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Crazy Kindness: Some thoughts on love and authenticity

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.

Anne Haines and Steven Van Zandt

Anybody know this guy? He seems cool.

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.]

* * * * * * * * * *

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.

Bruce Springsteen and projected image of Danny Federici

photo / Stephanie Korby @PenskeMaterial

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.

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Learning to ride the waves: Indigos, Springsteen, Obama

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks. Concerts, crazy weather, and oh yes, a little election…

Indigo Girls in concertOn 11/2 I saw the Indigo Girls for the first time in a couple of years. I am not wild about their most recent album, but always enjoy seeing them in concert. I was in the front row (which seldom sucks) at the Buskirk-Chumley Theater in Bloomington, which is one of my favorite concert venues; it’s a renovated old movie theater, large enough to feel like a show but small enough to feel relatively intimate. I’ve seen a lot of great shows there.

The Shadowboxers opened – young band out of Atlanta. I have to admit that their music is not completely my cup of tea; they’re a little bit pop for me, but they did what they did very well. Good vocals, nice harmonies, good energy onstage. I can imagine them doing well on radio and garnering a pretty decent audience. I was reminded of how I felt about fun. when I saw them open for Janelle Monae, actually, and that was right before they got so popular you couldn’t avoid them.

Indigo Girls’ set was higher-energy than I’ve seen from them the past few times, due at least in part to having the Shadowboxers as their backing band. I love seeing IG with a full band, and it had been a while! They pulled out a few songs they don’t usually do without a band, like “Trouble” and “Tether” (which was absolutely killer) and an exceptionally funky “Shed Your Skin.” Quite a good show overall.

Bruce Springsteen & Steven Van ZandtAnd then there was the next night: Mr. Springsteen in Louisville. I’ve already written up some of the musical highlights over at Blogness, so I won’t rehash those here. Instead, a few more personal thoughts.

Louisville is only about 80 miles from home for me, so it was lovely to see a Springsteen show without having to fly, drive for hours, or even get a hotel room. I’d persuaded my friend Karen to go with me, so we left in the morning in the midst of a cold rain and arrived in downtown Louisville in time to meet up with some other friends for lunch. (Side note: the Bluegrass Brewing Co.  is terrific! Nice selection of beers, and good food for both vegetarians and carnivores – I had some vegan bbq wings that were very tasty, and Karen’s bison burger looked great too.)

We watched a sleet/rain mixture outside the windows for a while, and when that let up, we headed across the street to the arena to get our wristbands. (For those unfamiliar with the process, General Admission ticketholders obtain numbered wristbands, which are given out from 1-4 pm. Then at 4:30 you have to be back at the venue, where they draw an allegedly random number; the person whose wristband matches that number gets to be first in line. It is not a complicated procedure, although some audience members and some venue staff try to make it complicated sometimes.) Then we had a couple hours before we had to be back, so – back to the BBC for dessert and coffee. (Bourbon bread pudding with caramel sauce, for me – fantastic.)

And then back to the arena, where venue security did not seem to know which end was up. Usually they line up wristband-holders in several queues by number – the 100s here, 200s here, and so on. There were some barricades set up to create queues, but there was nothing else going on. We all milled about, then security tried to sort us into lines … sort of. Basically we stood there smooshed together (which is really fun when you are 5 foot 1 and mildly crowd-phobic, let me tell you – especially when somebody nearby is being rude enough to smoke). Fortunately we were under an underpass; I say “fortunately” because the nasty cold rain started up again, so we were dry, although it was noisy as hell under there.

Finally they announced how many wristbands they’d given out (six hundred and some) and how many would be allowed in the front part of the GA floor, aka the pit (300) – and drew the number. We did some fast math and figured that our group had missed the pit, but not badly; we’d be within the first 40 or so people onto the back part of the floor after the pit people went in, which meant we had an excellent chance of being right on the back rail – a great place to be, actually. So we were content.

pit wristbandsAnd then they started letting people in, keeping track of wristband numbers, making sure we were in order. This is the part where you start feeling a bit like cattle, but it’s also the part where you are closer to getting into the actual arena. They checked my number, scanned my ticket, inspected my small shoulder bag… and then… slapped a second wristband on me. A pit wristband. We were all a bit dumbfounded, realizing that after not making the pit, suddenly … we’d made the pit! Apparently they decided to let more people in than originally planned, and we were lucky.

Then there was more waiting. And more waiting. Did I mention there was waiting? I don’t really mind the waiting, to be honest; even when I’m at a show by myself, by this point I’ve made friends with the people around me in line, and we usually find enough common ground to be quite congenial. When you’re with friends, it’s actually kind of fun. You speculate about where you will end up on the floor, scheme about which side of the stage to head for, text distant friends to let them know you’re in the pit… then before you know it, you’re being ushered into the arena.

I’d been of the opinion that we should head for the back of the pit, where there’s a smaller stage set up and where Bruce usually stands to sing at least a couple of songs. I figured we’d have a chance at being “up close and personal” for a few minutes that way, and probably a little better visibility for us short people than we’d have packed into the center of the pit. Others in my party wanted to go for the center of the pit, so I followed along. As we settled into our spots and sat on the floor to (three guesses) wait some more, I’m afraid I got a little cranky and snappish; it looked like I was going to have some tall and broad people right in front of me, and I dreaded having one of those shows where I never get to see the actual stage. Also I’d only had about four hours of sleep the night before, so I was a bit of a toddler who’d missed her nap. (I’m learning, after all these years, that sometimes the same events can bring out both the best and the worst in me. I am such a Gemini.)

Springsteen with the horn sectionI shouldn’t have worried. Once the band came onstage I could see well enough, though I occasionally had to crane my neck around one person or another. And the show was intensely energetic! The third song was “Hungry Heart” and this is where Bruce usually goes to the platform in the back of the pit and then crowd-surfs his way back up to the stage. And, well, we were right in line. Bruce checked in with the people at the platform, made sure they were ready to catch him, then turned his back and fell gracefully onto the sea of waiting hands. Don’t steer him off to the side, I pleaded silently… and then, there he was. Okay, so you don’t necessarily have a lot of options as far as which particular little bit of Bruce’s anatomy presents itself to you when he crowd-surfs over you… and, well, sorry, Bruce – we probably should have been properly introduced before I laid hands on your, er, posterior. What was I supposed to do, DROP HIM?!? No. Certainly not.

The crowd-surfing thing, from underneath, was actually kind of wild. I’d seen it from up in the seats, and I’d seen it from over to the side of the pit, but I’d never actually taken part. The rush of people trying to get closer to the man himself is intense. There were people pressing at me from three sides, and then as Bruce – the eye of the hurricane – passed overhead the tide shifted and I was being pushed in the other direction. It felt like being wiped out by a big wave and just having to trust that you will surface head-up when it passes. Surface I did, and there were different people around me than there had been before the surf, but my friends were still nearby and I actually had a better view from there on because a couple of the taller people had been shifted over to the side a bit.

It was a show of extremes. “My City of Ruins” had me in tears, thinking of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation and about how much I regret not having visited the Jersey shore before. “Streets of Philadelphia” was a song I never would have expected to get in Louisville, and it was intensely emotional for me; that song came out right around the time my dad died, and lines like “my clothes don’t fit me no more / I’ve walked a thousand miles just to slip this skin” are a devastatingly poignant description of what it’s like to see someone gradually fade away. The song was beautifully performed and it wrecked me. Then the transition into the most ferocious, determined “Atlantic City” I’ve ever heard, into a soaring “Because the Night,” into the always-primal “She’s the One” – that might have been one of the finest four-packs I’ve ever gotten at a show.

Springsteen & Van Zandt - the clowns! I’ve never been to a Springsteen show I didn’t love. I’m not sure I would put this one in my top five of all time, but it was certainly one of the most intense in a way, one of the most present and participatory shows I can recall. And you know, it was strange – but good – to end up in my own home a couple hours later, instead of in a hotel room or somebody’s guest room.

On Monday, the guy whose posterior I’d been standing underneath on Saturday night was flying around on Air Force One – accompanying Barack Obama to campaign rallies in Madison, Columbus, and Des Moines. I saw pictures throughout the day of this and you know what, it blew my mind a little bit. I wanted to go back to 1978 and tell that shy 17-year-old holed up in her room writing bad poetry that someday, that scruffy rockstar whose posters were hanging on her wall would be flying around on Air Force One with the President. (Not to mention that writers for Slate and the New York Times would be assigning said formerly-scruffy rockstar some measure of the credit for a presidential campaign victory. Whoa.) And that she would, despite being a perfectly respectable (oh hush) middle-aged lady, still be standing in line for hours and getting as close to the stage as possible and going absolutely crazy at that same guy’s concerts.

I don’t think she would believe me. I think she would probably demand to find out what I was smoking.

I won’t try to go back and tell her that the President Bruce would be flying around with would actually be a couple of months younger than me. And African-American. My face doesn’t like being laughed in all that much. 🙂

Next stop… Kansas City!

Bruce Springsteen

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(Not a) Jersey Girl

Flooded neighborhood in Seaside, NJ

Seaside, NJ. photo/Office of the Governor

I’ve been to New Jersey a time or two, but never spent any time “down the shore” as they say – unless you count the time I visited a friend in Delaware and we took the Lewes-Cape May ferry because it seemed like a fun thing to do (and I’d never been on an oceangoing vessel before). We turned around and came right back, so that doesn’t really count anyway. And I’ve really only been to NYC once, over twenty years ago.

But still – the images of devastation from Hurricane Sandy are hitting me hard. Like any diehard Springsteen fan, the Jersey shore is dear to me, with landmarks that are familiar even though I’ve never visited in person. (When will I learn that “I’ll get around to doing it next year or the year after” is a line of thought guaranteed to end in regret?)

I watched the storm roll in on CNN and the Weather Channel – and on Twitter, where one by one my east coast friends tweeted “there goes the power” and went silent to conserve battery. It was a strange sense of being simultaneously very connected and very disconnected. Since text messages often go through when neither voice nor data will, I offered to receive texts from friends and pass along information to loved ones who might not have the ability to text or receive texts themselves – a sort of information bucket brigade. A couple of friends said they might take me up on it, though neither ended up needing to, but offering made me feel a little less helpless. As the days go by and it becomes more and more clear just how devastated the area is, though, I feel more and more helpless. I’ve done what I could in terms of trying to share information on Twitter – retweeting info about open gas stations, places to charge cellphones, etc. – and have been grateful to see friends checking in that they are OK (cold and dark, in some cases, but basically OK). I’ve made a tiny donation to the Red Cross, and will try to make another when I can. Meanwhile I’m living more or less my normal life – going to work, feeding the cats, voting (Indiana has early voting now so I went on Saturday) – and it feels kind of weird to be living a normal life when so many of my friends are literally battling the elements.

What can you do? This so-connected world is both larger and smaller than is really comfortable… so small that my heart breaks for people and places I’ve never laid actual eyes on, too large to be able to reach out to help. The human condition, twenty-first century style.

All I can do is to keep living my life, I guess. To that end – tomorrow night I am going to see the Indigo Girls here in town, and then Saturday I’m zipping a couple hours south to Louisville to see Bruce Springsteen, who will undoubtedly sing a few songs about the Jersey shore. (If you’re home tomorrow night, by the way, there’s a hurricane benefit show on TV and Springsteen is one of the headliners – and the E Street Band will be serving as the house band. Should be worth watching, and maybe make a donation while you do so?) That’s the world, I guess: terrible things happen and you feel helpless and at the same time you go on, you make what connections you can and you go on and live your life.

You can make a donation for disaster relief at the Red Cross website. I’d be interested in recommendations for other organizations doing relief work, as well.

EDIT: Here’s a nice list of ways to help courtesy of the NBC news show “Rock Center.” Includes the Humane Society, which is working on animal rescue – important work that sometimes goes overlooked in funding.

Here’s Springsteen & the E Street Band from Rochester NY on Wednesday night. Bruce introduces “My City of Ruins” by talking about the Jersey shore and how it will rise again. Video is shaky, but audio is good.

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