I begin with a few words not my own. Set the scene. Offer a bit of context. Or at least prove that it's not just me.
Excerpted transcript from the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors presentation/celebration:
Jon Stewart: "I am not a music critic. Nor historian. Nor archivist. I cannot tell you where Bruce Springsteen falls in the pantheon of the American songbook. I cannot illuminate the context of his work or its roots in the folk and oral history traditions of our great nation. But I am from New Jersey. And so I can tell you what I believe, and what I believe is this: I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby. Yes. And they abandoned this child -- as you can imagine at the time, interracial same sex relationships being what they were -- they abandoned this child at the side of the road, between the exit interchanges of 8A and 9 on the New Jersey Turnpike. That child is Bruce Springsteen.
I didn't understand his music for a long time ... until I began to yearn ... until I began to question the things that I was making and doing in my own life ... until I realized that it wasn't just about they joyful parade on stage and the theatrics. It was about stories of lives that could be changed. I was working in a bar in New Jersey as you would imagine, in central Jersey right off route 1, and every night when I closed the bar, I would get in my car, and I was driving at the time a 1976, off brown Gremlin. The Gremlin was a car that was invented for two reasons: one, birth control for young males, and two, it was invented so that the Pinto wouldn't feel so bad about itself. But I would get in my car every night, and I would put in the music of Bruce Springsteen, and everything changed. And I never again felt like a loser. When you listen to Bruce's music, you aren't a loser. You are a character in an epic poem ... about losers. But that is not the power of Bruce Springsteen. It is that whenever I see Bruce Springsteen do anything, he empties the tank. Every time. And the beautiful thing about this man is he empties that tank for his family. He empties that tank for his art. He empties that tank for his audience. And he empties it for his country. And we on the receiving end of that gift are ourselves rejuvenated, if not redeemed. And I thank you."
I remember hearing of Bruce Springsteen when I was younger. I remember the popularity of Born in the U.S.A., but, having grown up in a house where the soundtrack was classical, jazz and a bit of folk, popular, rock 'n' roll music was a mostly foreign language to me. I listened to what was easily accessible on the radio and mostly just goggled at the "alternative," cutting edge music that my friends listened to because I couldn't understand most of the lyrics, and it generally sounded like noise to me. I just figured that I wasn't cool enough to get it.
I remember being something of a fan by the time Human Touch and Lucky Town arrived on the scene -- the title track of each are two of my favorite songs to this day -- and those two recordings formed the foundation of the relationship, but it wasn't until I was well into college that I became a truly devoted follower. And it happened at a very specific moment.
While I don't remember the specific cause(s) of that day's stress, the overall level was through the roof. I needed escape. I needed out of my own head. I detached the speakers from my little boombox and set them on the floor facing each other. I lay down between them, closed my eyes and listened to The Ghost of Time Joad from beginning to end, letting the music and the lyrics just flow into my ears and through the rest of my body.
From that moment on, Bruce Springsteen (with or without the E Street Band) has been my refuge, my haven, my muse, my perspective, my drug of choice. Whatever was happening, whatever I was going through -- good or bad -- there was Bruce ... and eventually Patti, Nils and Soozie in their own rights. In fact, Patti has had almost as much of an impact on me as her husband has.
My first live Springsteen experience was in 1999, in Boston. I paid an obscene amount of money (given my income level at the time) for two tickets, and the experience was worth every penny. I don't have too many isolated, specific memories from that concert other the feeling of the music and the words rising up through the soles of my feet, and the tears which sprang to my eyes during "Thunder Road." I left the arena thinking that either no one should have that much fun doing his job, or everyone should.
It was amazing, but it is the second concert that I attended which is my next specific, vivid memory, taking place almost exactly ten years later, also in Boston.
Part of the Magic tour -- I attended by myself -- and it was one of the best nights of my life. I hadn't been sleeping well. Work was extremely stressful. There were various kinds of chaos in my world, much of it self inflicted. I couldn't really afford to go, but I missed the Rising tour, and it was one of those times when I decided I needed to do something about actually living my life rather than just getting through it.
People expressed concern that I would venture into Boston at night on my own and tried to convince me that I should take someone with me. All of their concern made me a little nervous about my little adventure, but my relationship with Bruce was very personal and intimate. I wasn't much interested in sharing. This was something I was doing for me.
So I scalped a ticket, got brave, drove to the Sullivan Square station and hopped on the T. My seat was high, but I had a clear view of the stage. Every light went out in the place, and I was barely even able to register just how dark it was when the question "Is there anybody alive out there?" snarled through the sound system and shivered through me from the soles of my boots to the roots of my hair. The subsequent opening chords of "Radio Nowhere" assured me that I was indeed alive, more so than I had been in quite a while. In the next breath I surrendered completely to the music, letting it swallow me whole.
I only got a few hours of sleep that night, but I slept like the dead and awoke refreshed and rejuvenated, still feeling alive.
I hadn't listened to Magic beyond "Radio Nowhere" (which had been released as a single prior to the release of the entire album), so I wasn't sure if not knowing all of the words to all of the songs would be a detriment, but I appreciate it more having heard some of the songs for the first time live. The concert was a fantastic introduction.
My only regret was that I didn't pony up for a ticket for the second night. I didn't make that mistake again. On the Working on a Dream tour, I attended two concerts in Boston, one in Hartford and one in Mansfield. I even braved the insanity of Gillette stadium in Foxboro. Not sure if I will ever do that again, not even for Bruce. The new stuff grows on me -- especially Magic -- but it is hard to top "Jungleland" in concert or the full rock band version of "Ghost of Tom Joad" or the electricity of Nils' solo in "Youngstown." That man knows how to make a guitar scream poetry.
Right about the same time I attended the Boston Magic tour concert, I picked up Patti Scialfa's most recent release (probably as a result of same), and I have come to love her music almost as much as I do her husband's. She's got some lyrics which speak to me strongly. From there I have branched out into Soozie Tyrell and Nils Lofgren as well, but I always return to Bruce and Patti.
Because of the way that Bruce channels music, is music while onstage, especially with the band, my preference is for live performances, or recordings thereof ... with one notable exception. The Seeger Sessions surprised me. It was a revelation. They weren't playing music. They were making music. I love it more than the concerts I have heard from the Sessions tour.
Now, with the passing of first Dan Federici and more recently Clarence Clemons, the recordings -- whether of a live concert or a studio session -- take on yet another level of meaning. They have become a memorial, a monument and a legacy to a relationship bonded by the music and the lyrics which told their "New Jersey fairy tale." The final sentence of Clarence's introduction to his book Big Man and Tall Tales is "Without Scooter there is no Big Man." While the loss of Phantom Dan was certainly painful, I can't help but wonder what might be next for Scooter without the Big Man, but I will be watching and listening to find out.