Bruce Springsteen & the Beautiful Rewards of Seeing Him and the Band in Concert: Everyday Magic, Day 649

Last night, I experienced full-throated, give-it-everything-you’ve-got, love-the-world-and-then-some joy at a deafening volume for over three hours. Ken, Forest and I went to see Springsteen and the astonishing E. Street Band in Kansas City. From our perch near the very top of the stadium, just to the left side of the stage, we had a bird’s eye view of 17 musicians blowing everyone’s hearts open.

When Bruce came out, I felt like I always do when I see him: like we know each other. Because he’s dropped into my dreams on occasion for decades, I half expect him to find me among the thousands, my face probably the size of an apricot in the dark, and call out, “Hey, good to see you again.” It’s not like I have this dream friendship with other famous people (although I have had some great chats with Barack and Michelle), but with Bruce, it’s personal. I’m from his school district; I grew up in Manalapan, which is a stone’s throw from Freehold; Asbury Park was all of our ideal adopted second home; the shore was our shore.

While in high school, I tried not to like Springsteen, but when I was 15, and “Born to Run” hit the charts and our psyches, it was hard to pretend he wasn’t a god among those of us trying to feel our way toward adulthood in Monmouth County, NJ. By the time I headed west to land the rest of my life hundreds of miles away, I couldn’t help but claim Springsteen as the best part of being from Jersey. He so infused our sense of self and world. One night, while going to the University of Missouri, I met up with my friend and fellow Monmouth Countian Kathy, and our pal Joe for a Springsteen party. Having little money, we pooled our pennies for generic vodka and powdered milk and danced for hours with frying pan to “Thunder Road” and “The Jungle.” It was heavenly in that Darkness-on-the-edge-of-town meets Blinded-by-the-light kind of way.

Last night was heavenly in a no-holds-barred burst of such intense happiness that I stressed my voice by yelling out songs along with Bruce and most everyone else while also crying from the sheer ecstasy of it. It wasn’t the joy of having someone else illuminate some new way of being or even the outrageous happy landing of all dreams come true. It was something far more valuable and real: homecoming.

Hearing/seeing/feeling the pulsating beat rushing through my body when the band performs isn’t just a Jersey homecoming deal; it’s a far more universal arrival. It also isn’t tethered only to the moment of being a part of thousands on their feet, likely feeling some variation of the same thing that overtook me; it’s a kind of rock’n’roll revival for the soul of who we truly are beneath the ideas we have of ourselves individually and our culture collectively. Springsteen has said repeatedly over the years that he writes and sings what he finds at the edges and buried in the center about America.

So what actually happened? Bruce and the band started the show with a powerful version of “Kansas City, Here I Come,” which resonated with many of us in Kansas City because of what happened in 2009, when Springsteen was last supposed to perform here. The sudden death of Bruce’s cousin Lenny in a KC hotel led to one of the few times Springsteen canceled a show. We were here then too, finishing pizza near downtown, when Kelley called to say the concert was called off less than an hour before it was to start. Kansas City, here I come brought everyone to their feet.

From the homecoming call of the band came the wild roller coaster curves into the past with songs such as “Incident at 57th Street” (we’re talking about a song recorded in ’74), a request and, it turns out, Lenny Springsteen’s favorite song. Bruce did some of my favorites in concert too: “Candy’s Room,” “Because the Night” “She’s the One,” and it turns out, just about everything else. I kept hitting Ken on the leg, wide-mouthed, to proclaim it was another of my favorites. From “Downbound Train” to “Badlands,” and “Hungry Heart” to “I’m on Fire,” we all sang our hearts out.

Several moments were especially beautiful: when introducing “My City of Ruin,” Bruce said he wrote this about Asbury Park, his adopted home. He said all that was destroyed would be rebuilt better than before, and that we should come. “There’s an ocean there, and you can get in,” he told our cheering crowd. But as he sang “As the sweet veils of mercy drift through the evening trees” followed by the simple chorus that repeats “My city of ruins,” he was also shining his light to all Sandy destroyed and how loss is at the heart of what comes next.

There were great jokes and dancing with the crowd, falling back on a sea of hands and being carried across the wide river of people, pulling women on stage to dance with Nils Loftgren and the dreamy Jake Clemons (Clarence’s nephew), and a little girl who, when handed the mic, just looked suspiciously at Bruce. When he cradled her to hand her back to her parents, he said, “She’s scarred for life.”

The encore brought Bruce out in the darkness to tell us that cancelling the show last timewas exceedingly rare and hard, and then dedicating to Lenny the dark and sinewy song “My Beautiful Reward,” with these lyrics:

Tonight I can feel the cold wind at my back
I’m flyin’ high over the gray fields my feathers long and black
Down along the river’s silent edge I soar
Searching for my beautiful reward
Searching for my beautiful reward

In the all-house-lights-blazing “Born to Run,” despite lyrics that included “it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap,” on the big monitors Bruce was himself in a state of unmitigated joy. Then, in the final song, “Tenth Avenue Freezeout,” Bruce walked to the slim platform between the crowds on the floor, and sang repeatedly, “When the change was made uptown,” and then, “Now this is the important part” as he lifted his mic to the sky and the big monitors showed Clarence Clemons through the years playing with Bruce. The Big Man held steady on his sax while in concerts from the 70s as well as the 90s in which Bruce clowned and raced across stages, laughed and danced, and even kissed Clemons at the end of one song. In the middle of the images, a beautiful shot of Danny Federici flashed into us.

I remember reading Bruce’s talk after Clemons died, saying that it isn’t over, and it will never be over. Meanwhile, throughout the concert, although he’s less than half the age of Bruce, he brought us the same long call to the core notes and hues of his uncle. The whole concert gestured toward the ghosts we love, and Bruce even spoke of this at several points, reminding us of how we can lift up that love and made of it something that keeps spirit alive.

Driving home, despite the hour it took to get out of the stadium and then out of the parking garage, I felt cleansed and new, ready to fly with my feathers long and black because of having received my beautiful reward.

In Memory of Clarence Clemons: Everyday Magic, Day 355

As many of you heard, Clarence Clemons died Saturday evening, leaving many of us East Street Band devotees with the stark reality that it’ll never be Scooter and the Big Man on stage again, mugging as they lean into each other, Springsteen with his electric guitar and Clemons with his saxophone. Their collaboration was one for the ages, based on a kind of love rooted in respect and rock and roll. It also broken racial barriers at a time when bands were almost always segregated.

Both Clemons and Springsteen tell the story of how they met: Bruce was playing a club in Asbury Park when Clemons came to check out this band he’d been hearing so much about. There was a huge thunderstorm, and when Clemons opened the door to the club only to have the wind grab the door off its hinges and fling it down the street, bouncers from the club running out after it. Bruce looked out to see a 6’4″ Black man standing in the doorway with lightning all around. At that moment, according to each of them in many interviews, they fell in love.

I fell in love with the band after I left New Jersey, too determined not to fall into Bruuuuuuce-mania while living in the same county (same school district even) where Bruce and some of the band grew up. Liking Springsteen was like believing in a high power, and so, as a teen, I was determined to buck that system. But sometime in my first year in Missouri, a flood of feeling overtook me when I heard “Meeting Across the River,” and I realized that “Born to Run” as well as other albums were seared into my soul. I was Bruce-branded, and so I crossed over.

I remember meeting Clemons — like many people in NJ who can tell you stories about meeting some member of the band at some point — in a diner in Red Bank, NJ well after midnight. I was attending nearby Brookdale Community College, and the Big Man walked in and sat down to order some food. “There’s Clarence Clemons!” my friends nudged me. “Go say hello.” But we were too shy. Paying for our check on the way out, I looked toward him, he caught my eyes and nodded. I nodded back.

Mostly, though, I loved watching him and Bruce perform together, and lately in the “Live in London” DVD, I can watch them up close. This is where I discover what I always suspected: they were still in love 40 years after they began, leaning into each other, nodding knowingly at one another, and giving one another kisses at the ends of some songs. In one interview, Clemons said, “It’s two strong, very viral men finding that space in life where they could let go of their masculinity to feel the passion of love and respect…Friendships are based on that, and you seal it with a kiss.”

To commemorate Clemons, I had my own private memorial service, watching the dvd as well as many youtube clips, and seeing — from a 1978 performance to a more recent one — a love that could never grow old, and now, with the passing of Clemons, that will never die. Meanwhile to everyone who loves this band and this man, remember these lyrics from “The Ties That Bind”: “You’re walkin’ tough baby, but you’re walkin’ blind to the ties that bind” Long may these ties bind.

Driving Nowhere In The Dark: Everyday Magic, Day 260

When I say I drove nowhere in the dark last night, I’m not talking metaphorically, or at least not just. I got in the car, thinking I should do west and turn whenever, and see if I wanted to go anywhere. In the end, I just drove for an hour through Berlin, Barre and into a small town I didn’t catch the name of. I followed a curvy road that hugged the  mountain then stretched alongside a vast valley of snow. I went higher and higher, a little worried the slim road would end, and did, in fact, have to make some 360 degree turns to go the other way.

I have no idea where I went.

Playing E. Street Radio full-blast, Bruce Springsteen singing a slightly warped version of “Born to Run” recorded from before he got the timing down and got famous, I drove. The darkness cleaned out my mind. The speed dropped away my thoughts. The music erased where I was in time.

Eventually, I found a familiar road, a turn into the obvious way back to Goddard, and I took it, the crescent moon riding side saddle the whole time.

This Is My Life: Climate Disaster, Gonzo Cartoons & Rock'n'roll (Holiday Edition): Everyday Magic, Days 159-160

Ken passionately tells me just how bad climate change is, how it’s exceeding all expectations, and with the effects of La Nina, next summer promises to be another above-average hurricane season with a 50% chance of one hitting the east coast. He’s sifting through scientific reports on the internet, critically examining projections with Daniel.

I walk down the hall to Natalie’s room, where she and Forest beg me to sit and watch some totally gonzo cartoons with them. There are animated men arguing, then exploding into fire; complaining sharks; miniature dancing men and more. “Wait, wait, it gets better,” they tell me, laughing so hard they can hardly speak while I stare at the screen, not getting it.

In my room, Bruce Springsteen is singing “Jungleland,” and soon Forest comes in to show me something else on the computer, mention he knows Dad is talking about climate change, but he’s trying to block it out. I nod in agreement. “No one is really talking about this,” Ken told me earlier. True also. And yet.

And yet the world is going to hell in a handbasket at alarming speed, and at the same time, there’s gonzo cartoons and rock’n’roll. “These are the materials,” Adrienne Rich writes in one of my favorite of her poems, “An Atlas for a Difficult World.” She goes on to say the materials are “wreckage, dreck and waste,” but also the frog’s call in the night, the moon rising, all the beauty and change and earth and sky happening simultaneously.

My mind isn’t big enough for this, my heart either. Yes, there are “whispers of sweet refusal but then surrender” in Springsteen’s song, the news Ken shares, the ongoing turning of the world. This is my life at this moment and beyond this moment. An infinity of things to do, people to save, urgencies exhaling with every breath of every being. And also the rushing water music of the piano in this song, the cat sleeping on Ken’s Dr. Seuss pajama bottoms, the kids — all three at this point — laughing together as they watch a video on Natalie’s computer. I tell myself each breath is a way to feel this life, to release it and take it in.

Christmas Carols 24/7, Springsteen or Show Tunes: Everyday Magic, Day 157

First off, if you love Christmas carols, I apologize already, and also issue this disclaimer: I love a few of them too, especially “White Christmas,”  anything Bobby McFerrin-ized, or of course that great John Lennon song. If you love hearing Christmas carols 24/7, I support you — truly — but with the caveat that such a passion is akin to my passion for show tunes or all-Bruce-all-the-time. I love hearing the score to “Carousel” while cleaning the house or “Westside Story” while driving from here to Topeka, but I have found that most of my loved ones don’t exactly share this passion. Actually, they tend to look for sharp objects when I turn up Gordon McCray or hit the button to replay “Darkness at the Edge of Town.”

So when I turned on the radio today, I was trying to open my little heart a bit to the wonders of Christmas carols, especially since that song “In excelsis deo” was playing. I was reminiscing to my kids about how we used to sing the chorus as “Sooooooooooooooooooolar Power! In..ex…pen…sive…energy!” I told them how we used to sing the one where “shepherds watch this flocks at night” with the words “shepherds wash their socks at night.” But I digress.

The Christmas carol morphed into another one, something about Christmas time in the morning, and eventually, in my numbed-out state, I heard, “Mom…..Mom…..Mom…..” until I paid attention enough to answer. “That song is making me die inside,” Daniel said, and I snapped out of my carol stupor and put on Etta James.

This is all to say that Christmas carols can be great, but this week, they’re everywhere: radio channels, stores, and in between places. How would life be if, everywhere I went, someone was belting out show tunes. Would it get old after awhile, or would life just be continually coming up roses? Or what about Springsteen songs 24/7? Would it work for us as a culture, or would we all be especially born to run?