I don’t know if the following story is true, but I choose to believe it anyway: Just shortly after 9-11, someone in the New York area apparently hung a bed sheet outside their apartment window which said, “Where are you when we need you, Bruce?”
If there’s a better snapshot of just what the music of Bruce Springsteen means to his fans, then I can’t think of one. Even the fact that such a legend would exist says it all about how Springsteen fans view him and his music. We expect him not just to sing, but to speak to our concerns: global and personal.
Whether someone in that apartment ruined some of their linen or not, it worked; the next year Bruce returned with a comeback of sorts, his 2002 album “The Rising”, which stands today as some of the only music dealing with 9-11 worth listening to.
Are you surprised that Bruce had a comeback album? Or that he was ever even “gone” long enough to have one? Or maybe that he’s even still around? If any or all of these are true, then The Throwback Machine brings to you, from the Jan. 26, 1981, Journal Gazette, this entertainment page ad for his then-upcoming concert at The Assembly Hall.
If there’s any rocker who thought they could sell an album just with a close up picture of his face, or as was the case with 1984s “Born in the U.S.A,” his backside, then I can’t think of one. By my count, at least 10 of his studio albums feature either his big ol’ face or just a shot of the man himself leaning up against a wall, a car, or saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
Astute Bruce fans can timestamp what tour he’s on just by picture alone. And if it’s a disheveled, stubbly, slightly hangdog-ish Bruce in close up, then it’s none other than 1980s “The River”, his only double-album. If you aren’t versed in all things Bruce, then maybe this will help. It’s the one with “Hungry Heart.” You know, the one where he says “Baltimore Jack” and where his vocals are sped up a notch? Allright, it’s the one you heard at County Market while you were grocery shopping -- does that help?
If we can talk about me for a second, I consider the music of Springsteen to be the fourth pillar of my rock and roll development. My parents bought the three-cassette “Live 1975-1985” box set for me as Christmas gift when it came out and I liked it for sure, especially the huge book of photos. But 10 years of live material was a lot for a 7-year-old to digest, although I really loved “Cadillac Ranch” and I remember the line in “Fourth of July, Asbury Park” about Sandy’s jeans made me feel funny.
If my Lake Land College days were dominated by The Who, David Bowie, and Lou Reed, then right around the time I moved to Carbondale, Springsteen took it from there. In between Columbia House Record Club and a record store that I’m almost certain is long gone, I powered my way through the entire Springsteen discography, which at that time pretty much stopped at those two albums in the ‘90s where he hung around L.A. singing Adult Contemporary while wearing shades and with his shirt unbuttoned, and that one record where he grew a goatee and sang bleak acoustic songs about the American Southwest.
My friends were all aware of my Springsteen “phase” and they all knew that if you called Clint, he’d be bringing Bruce along with him. This connection sometimes worked both ways, such as one night, while hanging out in my little apartment in Carbondale, I got a call from a friend of mine who had moved nearby from Mattoon, and who was dying of boredom in Du Quoin and asked if I wanted to stop by. Her incentive was she had HBO at her boyfriend’s house and they were premiering the big Springsteen “comeback” Live in New York Concert. Sold.
All I could think, later that night, as I made that lonely drive back to Carbondale on desolate Route 51, was what her mindset must have been; homesick and bored, flipping around the channels, and seeing Bruce jumping on top of Roy Bittan’s piano and thinking, “Clint lives in Southern Illinois too, why not call him? He likes Springsteen, doesn’t he?” So yeah, I guess that means Bruce and I are pretty much the same guy, right? Ahem.
The Boss has been releasing albums and touring constantly ever since that “comeback”. I mean, it says something when you can mount a tour just off of a box set release, and he’s done that twice so far. I’ve kept pace with him over the years, of course. The last time I saw him performing live on television was him, alone on an outdoor stage at night, just him, a guitar, and a harmonica holder. It was the evening of on Nov. 7, hours before polls were set to open nationwide.
He played the classic “Thunder Road” and then whipped out, “Long Walk Home,” a more obscure recent song. And what’s more, he played both of them urgently, but still somewhat sadly, almost as if he was trying to tell us something. The crowd seemed to acknowledge and appreciate the unexpected shift in mood, even if they weren’t expecting it.
One thing’s for sure: Watching the national and reading the local news this week, I look at myself in the mirror at the end of each day and see a face that looks just as dazed and worn-over as the one you see in that advertisement. Suddenly, I totally understand. He’s The Boss, after all, and he’s smart enough to tell us what we need to hear. And that night, maybe he sensed something about us as a country that we’d learn soon enough. I don’t know if this is what he meant, but again, I choose to believe it anyway.