Part One: 1980
In December 1980, I was 16 years old and living in the small mill town of South Berwick, Maine. Maine School Administrative District #35 was comprised of the two towns of South Berwick and Eliot, where Marshwood High School sat on it’s cinderblock ass. In spite of being roughly (some of them very rough) 50 miles from the tony city of Boston, Massachusetts, southern Maine was a desert of culture for any reasonably curious person. The saving grace for ravenous music obsessed youth was the fact that FM radio powerhouse WBCN reached it’s dirty rock and roll hands up across the state borders and into the farms and fields of southern Maine. WBCN with it’s chaotic and profane spirit was the radio station that broke Bruce Springsteen in that part of the country. Bruce worked up from clubs through theaters and into arenas and Boston has remained a stronghold for him ever since. When the station announced that Springsteen would be playing at the massive fifteen thousand seat Boston Garden on December 15th and 16th, I bought up as many tickets as I could afford from a scalper in nearby Portsmouth, New Hampshire and made dubious arrangements to get myself to the shows.
I’d seen Springsteen in 1978 [my first rock and roll show] at the Music Hall in Boston on his Darkness On The Edge Of Town tour, but I was 12 years old then. There is big difference between being stunned in your sneakers as a 12 year old and stomping your work boots in time as a 15 year old. The road between twelve and fifteen is vast and littered with condoms, empty beer cans, roach clips, your parents car and a handful of dollars from your own sweat. And possibly a dawning of your own perceptions – of the world surrounding you and where and how you fit into the world you’ve inherited.
Many of the details of the 1980 shows are lost to me now, but I remember a group of us went down to the show together. Though only 50 miles away, Boston was a universe apart to kids like us from the green fields, shoe shops, and two lane roads of southern Maine. I went to both the December 15th and 16th shows. It was glorious. By that time, rock and roll had become big-business and bloated on it’s own excess. In spite of the technicolor scream of the punk movement, mainstream rock was a pale and feeble wealthy old man complaining about the temperature of the Barolo. Springsteen was the first rock star of my generation – who sang to me about my own people. I obsessed over The Who and The Clash as much as I obsessed over Springsteen, but they were British and singing to something outside my experiences. The anger over class struggle and identity that Pete Townshend so eloquently and forcefully wrote about on Quandrophenia was like a brick in the face – a powerful experience, but not exactly familiar to me.
The Who were almost scary. I saw them at the Boston Garden exactly one year before Springsteen on Dec 16th 1979. Keith Moon was gone and buried at that point, but I’ll never forget how ferocious the band was – like they were at war alongside you. There were even moments when they played like they were at war with you. At one point during that Who show, someone threw a firecracker onstage and Townshend started screaming things into the microphone that I’d never heard anyone say before. The Who were absolutely astonishing, but they were also otherworldly to me. I couldn’t even find the chords to their songs on my guitar. I couldn’t play a single measure of a John Entwistle baseline from a single Who song on my Fender Music Master bass – not a single measure.
The Clash were cut from a similar (if slightly more life-sized) cloth for me. I loved this band. I didn’t understand it – but I loved it. Like The Who, they were distinctly from a place and that place was emphatically not Boston – never mind the C-90 cassette length drive north to South Berwick Maine. That much was clear to me. The summer after the Springsteen shows I saw The Clash at Bond’s Casino in NYC. Riveting is an understatement. These shows were the rock and roll equivalent of a religious war – complete with dress code, strict [and flawed] philosophy, politics and a sense of armageddon that hung in the air like smoke from a bomb. You want to hear a band that believes what they are singing about? Go find some audio from one of the Clash shows at Bond’s Casino in 1981. But again, this was not the world I knew. Joe Strummer was singing from a perspective I knew nothing about. I’ve been to Brixton since and through the eyes of an adult (with an adult’s empathy and understanding), I have a better understanding of what Joe was singing about back then. Springsteen, on the other hand, was singing songs about people I recognized. Yes, he had played the roll of the romantic urban gutter punk on Born To Run, but by The River he had stripped away the romanticism and represented something familiar and recognizable to me.
Springsteen was the first songwriter who sang to me about my own people in my own language. The experience was maybe not as exciting as The Who, but it went deeper. My reaction to The River was twofold even at the time. I loved the sound of the record, but it felt too long to me. For the first time, it felt like a Springsteen record had filler on it. I believe, at the time, part of this was a decision to try to compete with the rampant bootlegging going on. Before the The River had even come out, several of the songs had been available. I’d picked up a red vinyl 45 of “Sherry Darlin’” from Sessions Music in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (At Sessions, they were hidden behind the counter, you had to know to go up and ask “can I look at the boots?”). The shows, however, on The River tour were a totally different experience. Like The Clash, Springsteen sang like he believed and there was a feeling of almost religious experience in the performance. It’s a difficult thing to parse, but there was something about a Springsteen show that felt personal in a way that other great rock acts didn’t convey. Watching The Who absolutely thrilled me, but also made me feel smaller, and in awe of the power I was witnessing. Watching a Springsteen show was inspiring. It made me want something better than what I’d been born into. The show gave me a feeling of power in the ordinary and the idea that with just what I had in front of me, with my own two hands, I could make something meaningful and that my very ordinariness in itself had some kind of meaning. It’s a comparison that’s been made before, by more eloquent writers than myself, but on December 16th in 1980 I was in the 14th row at the massive, sweating, stinking Boston Garden and I was at church. I’ve seen better and more exciting shows before and since. I’ve heard amazing musicians weave magic in the air and I’ve seen thrilling high wire acts at the very edge of their capabilities leaning out into the yawning abyss. But I’ve never seen a show that made me believe more than those two nights in December of 1980. I watched someone build something, I paid attention, and then I started off down a very long road, learning to build my own version.
Part Two: 2016
A few months back, I saw some post or another announcing that Springsteen was touring behind The River again. Out of curiosity, I looked up the tour dates and noticed I was going to be off the road for a few days in April just as the tour was dropping down in Columbus, Ohio. My European tour was going well enough that I had a few extra Euros in my guitar case. So I reached out to a friend who works for Bruce and made arrangements for tickets. Then came the hard part: who to share this experience with. I first asked my brother, but the timing was off. I decided the obvious and natural choice was my longtime friend and co-writer Slaid Cleaves. Slaid and I have been friends since we met on the bus on my first day of second grade at School Administrative District #35. He likes to say we recognized each other as the two “singer songwriter” types in the district. That’s probably true, although Slaid and I didn’t get actually around to writing together until we were 25 years old – half of my life now. Like most graying friendships, we’ve weaved in and out of each others lives over time, the one constant being an ongoing conversation about music and songwriting and it’s place in our lives as the years have unfolded before us. Slaid was the perfect choice to go see Bruce with me in 2016, because he also had his 16 year old head spun around at the Boston Garden in 1980.
The show was amazing. Of course the thirty-six years since 1980 have had their way with me, so it was a very different experience. Having pursued a life in music, I’ve looked behind the curtain and seen the powerful and mighty Oz… so some of the mystery is gone now. There are many people who never understood the Springsteen thing. I have musician friends who have never been fans and I understand. Springsteen can be an unrepentant clown and he’s really never been cool. I’m talking about the kind of cool that Lou Reed possessed. Springsteen has never been a performer who was cool enough to not care and he’s never been an iconoclast or ironic. Springsteen never pushed at rock and roll’s edges or challenged its confines. He celebrated rock and roll as the release of the confines themselves. Part of the reason that Born To Run resonated so powerfully for me when I was a kid was that Springsteen got the romantic urban street punk role wrong in exactly the same way I did. He wasn’t a city kid. He was playing out a rural, idealized vision of what he thought that character was. That real character was Willie Deville with his nose full of cocaine, Lou Reed heavy lidded on heroin, or Joey Ramone with his face in a bag of glue. Have you ever been through the part of New Jersey Springsteen is from? It might as well be South Berwick Maine. In 1960, fewer than 5000 people lived in Freehold, New Jersey and it is roughly the same distance from New York City as southern Maine is from Boston. Yes, there are a lot of differences between the two but you get my point.
In recent years, I’ve questioned why people are still so drawn to Springsteen. He hasn’t released what I would call a “great” record in many years, though there are bright spots here and there in the recordings. I’ve wondered if maybe it’s simply nostalgia and I suppose for some folks it is as simple as that. Having just witnessed the show, I can say that it’s not that simple for me. Yes, there was a deep pull from the past and there were moments my mind pulled forward that skinny 16 year old kid who was utterly mesmerized at the power of the art form but there was more than that. There was also the ongoing conversation I’ve been having with Springsteen since my brother first forced me to sit still and listen to just one song (Born To Run) before going back to my copy of Led Zeppelin 2. It’s a long conversation. It includes growing up, morality, a sense of purpose in the world, relationships, the shadowy nature of truth, ambition, inspiration, community and believing in something. I suppose that’s why it felt like church to me in 1980 and again in 2016. Hallelujah.
“Still at the end of that hard earned day people find some reason to believe.” –Bruce Springsteen
“Some things you’re born to, some things you gotta learn. Broken homes wrecked cars, scars and welding burns” –Rod Picott / Slaid Cleaves