Years ago, on that former forum, I posted about the first time I heard - or was aware that I was hearing - Bruce Springsteen. Like everything I wrote there, that story's been swept away by petty hands, so I suppose telling it again is about the right place to start...
I remember that end-of-summer afternoon like it was yesterday, but it was long ago - the last week of August 1975. I was nine-years old and going through some late-summer blues. My best friend Jesse was away on a two week visit with his dad, my mom was on a streak of short-tempered days and my bicycle had a flat tire - and I had no money for a patch kit. That day, with a towel slung over my shoulder, I walked across town, over the river bridge to a modest neighborhood I thought of then as the rich part of town. I had made a new friend at the library the day before - a kid named Mike Renetti. A mutual love of space adventure stories made us fast friends and we sat at a corner table and talked until the librarian shushed us, shushed us again, then finally told us to leave. He wrote his address on a scrap of paper and invited me to come to his house and swim in his family's pool.
"It's a real swimming pool," he said, "Not one of those above-ground tubs."
There was a tone to his voice, a smugness which made me realize that maybe I did not like my new friend as much as I thought I did. I had a feeling we would not remain friends for long, but I accepted his invitation. An afternoon away from the block and my mom's August temper, splashing in a pool of cool water on a blistering day was a hard thing to turn down.
I wonder sometimes. If I had turned down Mike's invite, would I be the obsessive Springsteen fan I am today?
Mike Renetti turned out to be as big a jerk as his prideful tone had hinted at, but the swimming pool was nice, and his mother served us chicken salad sandwiches, chips and soft drinks. Mike made a comment about my cut-off jeans and bragged about his fancy swimming trunks and his idea of fun in the pool consisted mostly of splashing water in my face and doing cannon-balls off the pool’s concrete edge. He wore out quickly, though, and read a comic on a lounge chair while I floated in the pool on an inflatable mattress. His sister, high-school aged and mysterious in a red bikini, swam for a bit. When she had enough sun and enough of my gawking glances, she toweled off and went in the house. I saw her open an upstairs window, then disappear behind thin curtains as the summer air filled with the tentative sound of a lone harmonica and a tinkling piano.
At nine, I was not much into music. I listened to whatever my mother played on her cabinet stereo system in the apartment, or the dashboard AM radio when we went on rides in the car. Elvis, twangy country, golden oldies, current pop hits. I had no favorites, I owned no records, and I had no idea how vital music would become to me over the next couple of years, but on that August afternoon, listening to the music roaring out of that teenaged girl’s bedroom window, I was captivated.
Lying on the air mattress, eyes closed against the bright afternoon sun, I felt as if I were floating in a darkened void. There was only the music and the theater of my mind. I was too young to fully appreciate the passion and pathos of those songs – I knew that even then – but I was old enough to hear the yearning in the singer’s voice, the sultry power of the saxophone, and I embraced the mythical realism of the story-songs. I was no hot-rodding romantic, no backstreet rebel or dime-store hoodlum. I was just a kid, realizing for the first time that rock and roll could be serious business, as engrossing as any book or movie. Listening to that music, I was sure all teenagers must be like those on the record, living secret lives late, late at night, and I was sure one day soon, I would take my place among them.
The afternoon leaned into evening, and I walked home, humming brief refrains of those greaser melodies. I was never invited back to Mike’s house again and before the summer days gave way to Autumn and school, I all but forgot about that magical record.
When I was twelve years old, I remembered everything.
Music suddenly mattered, not only to me, but to all my friends. Radio and records took the place of cartoons and comics. Rock stars with low-slung guitars and Cuban-heeled boots were my new idols – cowboys and pirates were left behind. I thought of my sudden intense interest in rock music as a rite of passage from childhood to adolescence. I slept with the radio on, spent what money I had on albums and 45s, listened to American Top 40 every Sunday morning.
I heard Bruce Springsteen again, bawling from my bedside radio about the Badlands, about living it every day, and I remembered the songs that had captivated me three years before. I bought Born To Run and the new record, Darkness On The Edge Of Town, and they consumed me. I played those records until I knew every word by heart, until the vinyl crackled and popped, until all my friends were sick of Bruce Springsteen. And then I played them some more.
Springsteen’s music was different than the other rock and pop songs I heard on the radio. It was more substantial, more realistic, more important. The music had a maturity that I had yet to attain, but by twelve I was reading adult fiction from the library, the youth section abandoned forever, and Bruce Springsteen was the rock and roll equivalent of the authors I was reading at the time.
He had something to say. Something I needed to hear.
Only two people understood my obsession with Springsteen’s music. My friends didn’t get him, my mom didn’t like his voice and my brothers thought he sounded old. Mike, the local record store clerk and my older cousin Louanne – they understood because they loved Bruce’s music, too. It was Louanne who took me to my first Springsteen concert, all the way in New York City when I was only twelve, against my mother’s wishes. I took a beating when I got home, but it was worth it.
At that concert, I felt for the first time, the true exuberance of being alive. Crammed into that darkened space with all those older kids and young adults, a diminutive figure beneath the hazy clouds of marijuana smoke, I was as transfixed by the dancing, cheering crowd as I was by the band onstage. In that sea of swaying bodies, in the midst of that seven-piece band, Bruce Springsteen shined brightly, a singular force of poetry and power and I knew that I had found my hero. I’d had heroes as a boy, but they were the common fictional heroes of children – pirates and cowboys, spacemen and knights. Bruce Springsteen was real, as real as me and all the men I ever knew, and he made me dance, sing, think, cry and laugh. In those several hours, his music wove itself into my soul, becoming forever a part of the tapestry of my life.
That music has been with me ever since. Springsteen had his first top-ten hit my freshman year of high school and his music filled my room in the afternoons and evenings after school. Two years later, when my mother took sick and died, The River probably saved my life. Springsteen was more than a songwriter – he was a world-builder. Across his records he created an alternative New Jersey, a place where I was not bullied at school, beaten by my mother’s hands or bereaved by her death. In my mind, loose on the boardwalks and backstreets of Springsteen’s mythical America, I was free of the abusive aunt who took over where my late mother left off, free of the ghosts I carried and the guilt that made my heart a haunted house. It was that imagined freedom that convinced me to seek the real kind and I set out on the road in 1982, my Springsteen tapes tucked in my duffel bag.
Those years on the road, Springsteen was always with me. His songs became my anthems, his characters my mentors and friends, his voice the voice of a father I never had. When I was lonely and afraid down some dark highway, that music made me brave and gave me comfort. Riding in some eighteen-wheeler, cheap headphones wrapped around my ears, the music of Bruce Springsteen was the soundtrack to the true America I was rolling through. Three things kept me alive through six years on the road: my knife, the kindness of strangers, and the music of Bruce Springsteen. I wouldn’t blame you if you thought I was exaggerating, but I’m not.
I came off the road, I went to work, I began to grow up. Bruce helped me do that by allowing his music to grow up ahead of me, to shine a little light on the adult troubles and joys yet to come. Having never been raised by a man, I had only the vaguest idea of how to behave as one, but Springsteen, learning the trick himself, taught me how to walk like one.
It’s a long walk through life and Springsteen’s music has been with me all these years. He sang of love and heartache when I was trying to find my own romantic way; he sang of hope and glory when the whole damned country was heartbroken; he sang about the very roads I’d traveled in my wandering days and always, always, like a song written in my own soul, he sang of the hope of a home. And a homecoming.
When music means that much, it’s hard to separate the singer from the songs, the human from legend, the artist from the art. Springsteen – the image of him we all created with his consent and encouragement – meant as much to me as the music. I wore the same workaday clothes he wore, worked to craft words the way he did, and created my own image in the shadow of his, not one that made me feel like him, but one that made me feel like a character in one of his songs.
I could have done worse in choosing a hero. I might have picked a reckless fool who died young, the way I once thought I would. I chose a lifer. Springsteen had commitment, purpose, confidence. I needed those things. He was a dreamer, a poet, a seeker. I am all those things. He’s let me down a time or two, of course. I was disappointed when photos emerged of him, not long married, romancing Patti Scialfa on a balcony in Rome, but all these decades later they are still together, with a family and a loving home. He was human, after all, and even in his lowly cheating on his wife, he eventually taught me that we’re all just men and women, born to make mistakes. He broke my heart when he fired the E Street Band, but he brought them back in the nick of time, just when I needed them most, and I’ve seen more shows since the reunion than I did before the split. He was human, after all.
He never made me angry, never hurt me deeply, until recently. I suppose it’s my own psychology – that part of me that will forever be just a scrawny welfare brat from the shitty part of town – that causes this latest grievance to be so, well, grievous. I never expected that Bruce Springsteen would price me out of a concert. After all those nights in all those arenas, convincing me that my presence there was as important as his, I never thought I would feel as if I didn’t belong at a Springsteen concert; as if I hadn’t earned it, wasn’t good enough or successful enough to be there. After all those invitations to climb aboard the train, all those assurances that I didn’t even need a ticket, the reality has been revealed. I do need a fucking ticket and I can’t afford it.
He’s still my hero. We’ve come too far together to abandon him now. Hell, I couldn’t if I tried. We created the myth together, Springsteen and I (and you, too), and I’ll maintain my part of it. I’m that fan, calling out from the darkness of the crowd.
“I love you, Bruce.”
And he’s the big star, the idol I built so large, calling back from the stage, as truthful as any man could ever be.