“At 15 it’s all tomorrows. At 73 it’s a lot of goodbyes. That’s why you have to make the most of right now. ”
—Bruce Springsteen, opening night of the 2023 E Street
Band tour, Tampa, Fla.
Funny. I was 16 when I first heard Bruce Springsteen, his 1975 masterpiece “Born to Run.” I think the opening bars of “Thunder Road” made me who I am today. It was all tomorrows for sure. That was just before the infamous Time and Newsweek covers, the last week of October 1975, which both made his career and ruined his outlaw reputation forever. My favorite boyfriend mocked him after that. I’ll never forgive him. (We’re still friends.)
I’m way closer to 73 than 15 now and I know exactly what Springsteen was saying Wednesday night in Tampa. Especially because we all lost two to three years of our blessed, irreplaceable social lives to Covid, and I never felt it more than Wednesday night. I saw friends I haven’t seen since 2019 or before—so exhilarating. The incomparable E Street Band seemed changed: It’s not that they necessarily looked almost seven years older since I last saw them together in 2016—though some of them did. It’s that they looked new to one another—fresh, eye-blinking, head-shaking new. They’ve been practicing together in New Jersey, but they hadn’t been together out on stage in front of tens of thousands of roaring fans. And when they came out, for two hours and 41 minutes, that showed. I loved it. It felt like they did too.
Interestingly, the band didn’t cluster quite the way they used to, didn’t hug and mug together at the front of the stage nearly as much. Because of Covid, they definitely didn’t come down and greet the fans, although they beamed their love to us. Sometimes it felt like a giant science experiment. Will we give these 70-plus-year-old geniuses Covid? Will they spray Covid on us? What are these 70-plus-year-old geniuses still doing out here performing? (I’m sure the Florida Men™ in the audience, and there were more than a few, didn’t give a shit.)
I can’t write about growing old with Springsteen—I did that 11 years ago. He’s been grieving his departed loved ones since the E Street Band’s Danny Federici died in 2008 and we lost Clarence Clemons in 2011. The 2012 “Wrecking Ball” tour was dedicated to them. I wrote about it here. Someone who works for Springsteen put it on his site and on his Facebook page. It was one of my most-read pieces ever. I hope you’ll take the time to read it. It’s a little maudlin, a little overdone, but that’s how I felt coming home from that show.
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I feel like this impulse now, to record this ritual of loss, is a rerun. But I guess my trying to say something new isn’t unlike Springsteen’s trying to do so a decade later. More people have died. He’s closer to dying. So am I. So we can’t stop trying.
The band’s last album, “Letter to You,” came out in late 2020, during Covid. It’s full of death, but not Covid death. Normal, past-70s death. The deaths we signed up for. Still, titles like “Ghosts,” “Last Man Standing,” and “I’ll See You in My Dreams” felt different when they emerged that fall of 2020. They felt designed for the moment.
“Letter to You” came out just before I lost my closest high school friend. Not to Covid; it was a stroke that was a long time coming. But it was during Covid, which meant just a Zoom funeral and a long-lasting sense that his death isn’t real. He’s still in my phone. I have our last dumb texts. We promised we’d grow old together. But I’m growing old with Bruce instead. And I don’t even know Bruce.
Years earlier: Waiting in a long, long line to get into the Pit (more on that later) for that 2012 mourning tour, my sister and I (more on her later) made some friends. As it happened, we all wound up standing together at the foot of the stage, just below the band. When Bruce did his tribute to Danny and Clarence, I lost it and cried with one of my new friends. He and his wife and my sister and I became pals—they were crazy dog people, like us, and crazy San Francisco Giants fans, also like us. We went to dog parks and Giants games and holiday parties together. But he died what I would have to call a death of despair during Covid in 2021. An extrovert who played guitar at senior homes at least weekly, a live music aficionado, a sports maniac, a raconteur; all of that shut down, isolating him in a two-year quarantine. I missed him so much Wednesday night.
I found myself wondering how many other E Street fans have been lost in these three years. And how many who didn’t die directly from Covid would have been saved if they got to go to what Springsteen himself has called a kind of religious experience. Never more than in “Land of Hope and Dreams:”
This train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
I said, this train, dreams will not be thwarted
This train, faith will be rewarded
This train, hear the steel wheels singin’
This train, bells of freedom ringin’
Or maybe they’d have been saved by some other fantabulous band’s convocation. Or a sports extravaganza. Or a wedding. Or even by going to a funeral in person.
Believe me, I’m not anti-mask, or anti social-distancing, certainly not anti-vaccine. We endured a genuine pandemic, a once-in-a-lifetime killer disease. I despise the people who’ve politicized the limits we’ve endured. But I also acknowledge that those limits were hard to endure, and some of us didn’t make it.
So. The Pit, and my sister.
At some point, and I don’t know when, the organization—I can’t call it the band because it’s an amorphous behemoth—created a three-tiered admission situation. You bought seats—that’s straightforward. Or you bought general admission tickets, and things got iffy. If you won a lottery, the day of the show, you got a wristband that let you stand right up front below the stage. It was called the Pit, which sounds like a level of hell but is actually Heaven. If you didn’t get into the Pit, you had to stand for many hours behind a gate very far away. Bruce is Catholic, so I know he knows: Behind that Pit gate is my idea of purgatory. Awful. (I am aware that I switched these labels up in my piece 11 years ago. We evolve.)
Once there was a Pit, my sister and I always tried for the Pit. So in Tampa, yes, I was in the Pit. People admire my stamina, standing, dancing, screaming for at least six hours. But it’s just stubbornness. My lower back aches days later.
I’ve got a few more shows to go on this tour. A group of my early Salon women friends formed a pack of chaste Springsteen groupies and began going to shows together back in the 2000s. Gone are the days when four women could jump on the Ticketmaster site at 10 am (7 am for me when I lived in San Francisco) and have a good chance of grabbing some tickets each at face value, which back in the olden days was somewhere around $100. This tour, we’ve scrambled for months to get tickets to the Madison Square Garden show—four moms, five daughters, ranging from 33 to 8. The younger girls had this taken out of their college funds, but they’ll thank us. The oldest one will pay me back, eventually.
But none of these girls or young women want to deal with the Pit. My sister and I are the oldest, and we’re proud. Look for us standing up there in Milwaukee next month. I’m blessed by so much—a daughter, a career, amazing friends, a band that sustains me. Plus a sister.
Did I love everything about the opening night show? Yes. But.
I thought the set list was conservative. I guess opening night set lists always are—later, bands deviate, and this veteran band did not that first night. I know they will as they get more comfortable. (And on Friday they added “Thunder Road” and “Darlington County.”) Opening with “No Surrender” threw me back to Springsteen’s first official partisan act: campaigning for John Kerry in 2004; his album Magic captures the despair of that loss. (He went out again for Obama, twice, for Hillary Clinton, and then Joe Biden.) But it was an eclectic set, and I will always want much more from Springsteen’s first three albums. I’m that age. If I can only pick two, it would be “For You” (I’ve never heard it live!) and “New York City Serenade.”
But the man has put out at least 21 studio albums plus 23 live albums and official live show releases, not to mention an infinite number of bootlegs some of us still listen to (if you’re reading, Bruce, your version of Dylan’s “I Want You” from the February 1975 Main Point concert would make my entire life). Pleasing everyone? Can’t be done. I’m just happy I love so many later albums. Tunnel of Love, Magic, Wrecking Ball, and yes, Letter to You. So I’m happy and I plan to stay happy, no matter how many shows I get to see, no matter what he plays.
I was also happy to see the pause for Danny and Clarence, again, toward the end of “10th Avenue Freeze-Out” in Tampa—the same place in the show Bruce did it 11 years ago: “When they made the change uptown, and the big man joined the band…” Then came photos on the big screens of Clarence and Danny. I would like there to be the old ritual hymn from the 2012 tour: “If you’re here, and we’re here, then they’re here.” Some people were singing it aloud in the Pit. Maybe that’s enough.
I don’t know how long he and the band can keep doing all of this. I don’t know how long I can. Nothing is promised to us. I’m grateful I got what I did in Tampa—love, camaraderie, “Backstreets,” my band looking joyous and fierce, Nils Lofgren spinning and playing his soulful guitar, my sister and I still rocking the Pit, our friends out on the runway awaiting takeoff for future shows. “That’s why you have to make the most of right now,” he told us. Thanks, Bruce, for helping us out with that.