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The ties that bind

Remember the night you saw your first Bruce Springsteen concert?

By Times staff writers
Published November 4, 2005


Since he was a scrawny kid rocking away in New Jersey bars, Bruce Springsteen has forged a legend as the artist you have to see live. As the blue-collar bard returns to Tampa tonight, six Times writers and one photographer remember their first time with the Boss.

INDIANAPOLIS - FEB. 26, 1977

A steady rain in the afternoon, then a freeze at dusk, and suddenly the streets of Indianapolis were draped in ice. I was 19 and home for the weekend from Indiana University. An old friend dragged me down to the convention center for the show; I only went to humor him. On the way we must have seen 20 cars slide into one another. In my VW bug, we crawled past the fresh wrecks, holding our breath.

At the convention center, we found no shortage of good seats. The ice storm had kept almost everyone home. Then the lights went down, and the band came out, and I forgot everything else. I could not take my eyes off Springsteen. He was so scrawny, it looked like a solid bass line could have knocked him off his feet. Somehow, though, he held the stage like no one I had ever seen. He obviously did not care if there were 5,000 people in the crowd or only 500. He and the band were going to play like there was no tomorrow.

They opened with Night, I remember that. And then they went into Rendezvous, and then, during the third song, Spirit in the Night, Springsteen jumped into the audience with his microphone and started wading through the rows. He got about 3 feet away from me and my friend, then climbed onto a chair and slid into the last verse, surrounded by bodies pressing close.

Janey said it was time to go

So we closed our eyes and said goodbye to gypsy angel row

Felt so right

Together we moved like spirits in the night

It sounds quaint now, almost stupid. But the gesture Springsteen was making instantly dismantled my every defense. The rest of that night, it felt like he was calling up things I'd always carried inside me, but not known how to say. To paraphrase another of his lyrics, he was teaching me the missing words to a prayer that, until that moment, I'd never had the faith to believe.

In the 28 years since, I've seen Springsteen dozens of times, in theaters and arenas and stadiums scattered from one corner of the country to the other. I've seen him in Germany, in a park that used to be on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall. I've seen him with both my little sisters and both my little brothers, with my dad and with my mom, not long before she died. I have a picture of her outside that last show, squeezed among her kids, smiling into the beyond.

Tonight I'll be at the Times Forum with my two sons. Who knows. Maybe they'll find some missing words of their own.

- THOMAS FRENCH, Times staff writer

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - AUG. 7, 1999

They came from Red Hook. From Rahway. From downtown Cherry Hill.

The purest of the pilgrims, birthed in the same rich soil as their preferred prophet.

Jerseyites. Garden Staters. Backstreeters all.

Blinded by his light since '73.

I, on the other hand, came from Washington, D.C., a newbie, an out-of-state plate, a casual admirer in a Jungleland that accepted nothing less than zealous devotion.

Wandering the Meadowlands that late-summer evening, I felt like the lone human left in Invasion of the Body Snatchers; I kept expecting Donald Sutherland to pop out of nowhere, point at me and unleash that horrific pod-person howl.

Except he wouldn't howl. He'd sing I'm Goin' Down.

I wanted to belong. I wanted to blend. I wanted to walk on over to that barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge, hand her a warm beer, and say, "Wendy let me in, I wanna be your friend."

But I knew that the barefoot girl - born and raised in Piscataway, no doubt - would see right through me. You're mixing up your references, she'd yawn. Get your songs straight. And unless you have a bootleg of If I Was the Priest in your back pocket, go away.

The show saved me, of course. He saved me. And who didn't see that coming? Point Blank, Light of Day, Bobby Jean, all rousing, all-American. I sang along. I welled up. I gave myself away willingly, happily. He didn't play for four hours like in those rumored days of old, but he certainly managed an epic feel in a little under three.

After the event, as I waited in line for the men's room, I relished that temporary tinnitus in my ears. It was the buzz of victory.

I finally had a Springsteen show under my belt.

The barefoot girl would be mine.

- SEAN DALY, Times pop music critic

TAMPA - NOV. 9, 1975

On Nov. 9, 1975, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band played their first Florida show ever, at the Tampa Jai-Alai fronton. Just two weeks before, Springsteen had been on the covers of Time and Newsweek, and he was touring on Born to Run, the breakthrough album that would make him a star.

At my house, we had been wearing out copies of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle for a couple of years.

My brother Gerry Mullaney, who had been playing guitar in rock bands since he was 14, discovered Springsteen first. I was so crazy about his lyrics, I was using Incident on 57th Street and Blinded by the Light in the poetry classes I taught as a graduate assistant at the University of South Florida.

But this was our first chance to see one of Springsteen's legendary live performances.

We squeezed into the fronton with a standing-room-only audience of more than 4,000. I sat between Gerry and our friend Larry Jackson, the drummer in Gerry's band. Every time the E Street Band did something they liked, they would elbow me and shout, "Did you hear that?"

The next day I would be black and blue from all those jabs.

But the show was so fabulous I didn't notice. We spent almost all of it on our feet, dancing and sweating and singing along. When Bruce sang in Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out (a song released just days before), "When the change was made uptown/And the Big Man joined the band /From the coastline to the city/All the little pretties raise their hands," all 4,000 of us raised our hands and hollered.

As vivid in my memory as the songs are Springsteen's introductions to them, hilarious shaggy-dog stories and poignant fables and tall tales about the band's history. Sometimes they were longer than the songs they introduced, so brilliantly told I still miss them when I go to his concerts these days.

But what I remember as clearly as if it were yesterday is the very first moment. A skinny kid with a dark mop of curls stepped into a lone spotlight on a dark stage, backed by nothing but a heartbroken harmonica and a delicate piano line, and sang in a voice as intimate as a whisper in my ear.

The screen door slams,

Mary's dress waves.

Like a vision she dances across the porch

As the radio plays.

Roy Orbison singing for the lonely,

Hey, that's me and I want you only.

It's still my favorite song.

- COLETTE BANCROFT, Times staff writer

TAMPA - A FEW YEARS AGO

My first Bruce Springsteen concert changed my life for a couple of hours because I would have been somewhere else if I hadn't gone to the show.

He played at the St. Pete Times Forum a few years ago; I didn't save the ticket stub or buy a T-shirt or anything, so I don't know the exact year.

As I recall, he was a hard worker. He played and sang for more than two hours and even jumped off the speakers, which I thought was gutsy for a 50-year-old guy wearing boots. I remember he sang Glory Days, which goes:

(Something something something something something something) back in high school!

(Something something something something) make you look like a pool boy!

We all sang along with the part about glory days passing you by.

I liked it when he let the guy from Conan O'Brien play drums and the guy from The Sopranos play the guitar.

I'd definitely go see him again, but I can't tonight because my son has a Little League game.

- MIKE WILSON, assistant managing editor/Newsfeatures

HAMPTON, Va. - MARCH 2, 1981

How scary is this: I once spent three cold nights sleeping on the sidewalk to get Springsteen tickets - and I had never even seen the guy perform.

Back in February 1981, I was a freshman at the University of Maryland and was very much into the Washington area music scene. A couple of friends from school (surprise: they were from Jersey) told me that tickets would be going on sale the next week for an upcoming Bruce show in Hampton, Va., and that I had to go see the man.

This was a few months after The River album came out and the single Hungry Heart had propelled Bruce beyond a cult following and into the mainstream. His shows sold out arenas within an hour. And back then (pre-Internet, that is) the deal on tickets was, to quote the Boss, "If ya wanna play, ya gotta pay."

For us, that meant getting in line outside a Hecht Co. department store in downtown Silver Spring, Md., on a Friday afternoon and staying there until tickets went on sale Monday morning. That was more than 60 hours of using the bathrooms at businesses, drinking beer at night (then using other, ahem, facilities as bathrooms) and being bored senseless during the day.

But the wait proved worth it: We scored seventh-row floor seats.

A month later, on March 2, 1981, we took the three-hour roadie to Hampton for my first Springsteen concert. There was a major buzz going through the crowd waiting for the show to start.

When the lights went down, the roar that erupted was like like having a wall of sound shoot through your body as Bruce and the band took the stage and immediately tore into Prove It All Night.

Although I was a veteran concertgoer and had seen rock's biggest names, including the Stones and the Who, I had never experienced anything like this. The energy and passion were remarkable, both onstage and in the crowd. Seeing Bruce is a participation sport: You sing, you dance, you only sit when he tells you to. Twenty-eight songs and three-plus hours later, I was as sweaty and exhausted as the Boss.

I was hooked.

And more than 24 years - and close to 40 Springsteen shows - later, I still am.

- KEITH ST. CLAIR, Times night city editor

LOS ANGELES - MARCH 21, 1994

Be nice to the boss and doors open. Open a door for the Boss and you feel his magic.

I'm the only contributor to this memory collection who hasn't seen Bruce Springsteen perform live. Not that I didn't try.

Back when fans camped overnight for tickets, I once arrived too late, with tickets selling out before my turn at the counter.

Twice I did score ducats: On one occasion, a recent knee operation made a Tallahassee road trip and four-hour show on crutches seem like a bad idea; the other time, it was in my best interest to sell the tickets, probably for something relatively unimportant, like eating and paying bills.

My brush with Bruce occurred years later - at the 66th Academy Awards in Los Angeles.

It was my first time at the Oscars. Reporters arrived at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion several hours before show time, formally dressed to be crammed three floors above the auditorium, watching on TV and waiting for winners to answer questions.

The back entrance was reserved for unglamorous mortals. No red carpet, just a narrow, nondescript door. I reached for the handle, slightly startled when the door opened toward me. Be polite and hold it open for whoever's exiting, I thought.

The first person walking through was Springsteen, who had just finished a sound check for his Oscar-nominated song Streets of Philadelphia, which he'd later perform on the show. I recognized him, but my tuxedo and tied tongue kept me from saying anything.

Springsteen was talking with someone in his entourage, but he was polite enough to mumble "Thanks" for my gesture. "You're welcome" couldn't escape my throat. I stood frozen like a penguin doorstop, unable to take my eyes off this rock legend until he was out of sight. My first celebrity sighting at Hollywood's grandest event erased a lot of regret about missing those concerts.

The Boss won his Oscar that night. He either skipped the print reporters' interview room or I was distracted by my deadline. But I had already heard everything I needed from Springsteen: his cinematic songs, his lived-in voice and a word I'm now pleased to return for those memories:

Thanks.

- STEVE PERSALL, Times film critic

Bruce Springsteen performs at 7:30 p.m. today at the St. Pete Times Forum, 401 Channelside Drive, Tampa. $56.75-$76.75. (813) 301-2500.