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.
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.
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.)
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.”
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.