There are two pits for General Admission at Madison Square Garden: the one at the very front, allowing you the closest access to the stage; to get into this one, you had to show up early in the day and get a special wristband, and then come back later and be entered into a special lottery, and only if you were really lucky did you get shuffled into the pen containing the most dedicated fans around. Then there’s the second pit, the one I’m in, a little further from the stage, holding all the general admission folks who couldn’t do the whole lottery thing, presumably because they got up at ass o’clock to get on a train from Boston and it’s technically a work day so they telecommuted all day from the aforementioned train and various Starbuckses and libraries around New York so they don’t lose their vacation days. You know, I’m assuming.
Despite being further back, the energy in the second pit is palpable. This is a bit of an unusual setup for me. When I go to Drive-By Truckers or Blitzen Trapper shows, I’m right up front, usually touching the stage. Back here, I expected things to be a little more blasé … but this is Bruce Springsteen. At least in the leadup, everyone back here is pumped and ready. Of course there are two gigantically tall humans in front of me, but if I stand just right, they serve as a window rather than a door, and I’ve got a direct sightline to the center mic. Now, if only Bruce stays in one place the whole night, I’ll be fine.
He takes the stage about an hour after I arrive and the place goes nutso berserk. Everyone on their feet, arms in the air, cheering either inarticulately or shouting the name that sounds too much like “boo!” to the unsuspecting ear: BRUUUUUUUUUCE! Every time I tell myself I won’t do it. Every time I’m wrong. Hell, I’m wearing the shirt of the show to the show. I don’t care about being cool anymore. I just want to have the time of my life.
Launching right into “Meet Me In the City” – one of the outtakes off The Ties That Bind: The River Collection – and Madison Square Garden is right there, already screaming the words along and knowing the call and response near the end of the song without having to be told. It’s like when he went out for his first Rising show and everyone in the audience knew the words already. Tears spring to my eyes because my emotional availability is sometimes a liability. The band is in full form, chugging like a steam train down a track whose destination feels familiar but is never quite the same. After “Meet Me” pounds to a close, Springsteen comes to that center mic, beautifully composed between the heads of my two Amazonian compatriots, and explains a little of what writing The River meant to him. I’m not going to transcribe from memory, but the gist and the feeling was that this was the album about trying to find his place inside the world in which he lived. The prior albums were all about being an insider, but The River was about finding yourself in a society in which you had to define yourself. So that’s why, at least partially, it meant so much to me back in those dim days of 1993, when I lived alone and was searching, searching for some reasons and explanations as to why and how my life turned out this way.
Here’s what you don’t get from message boards, especially one as psycho bonkers as the Springsteen one: the feel of the place, the knowledge that you’re both a part of something big and that you’re experiencing this singularly, as an isolated person, and Bruce is singing directly to you. He’s singing about cars and girls, two things I know so little about, but it all feels like my experience. Out in the street, I walk the way I want to walk; I know about how the cool of the night takes the edge off the heat; hell, oo oo, I got a crush on you. The message boards – boy howdy, guys; they’re all about conspiracy theories and how Bruce won’t stop lying to us and how the “well is dry” and it’s weird as fuck. But here, in the thick of it, it’s nothing short of transformative. How, in a fun little rockabilly song like “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” can he perfectly address the weird nuance of being so sexually frustrated you feel mean? That’s so specific and odd to sing about, and he does it with the same smile and incongruous joy that he would sing about existential futility in “Dancing in the Dark.”
During “Hungry Heart” – he always lets the audience sing the first verse entirely, then he repeats it, because baller – he tramped off the stage and up to the riser between Pit One and Pit Two. I was so close – almost close enough to touch, but we all remember that time during the Rising tour when I reached up and grabbed his hand in the middle of “Mary’s Place” and was so awestruck I didn’t know how to let go. He ended up shaking me off without skipping a beat. I didn’t take many pictures of the show – I wanted to live inside it – but I took a picture of him right next to me, before he leapt off the riser and crowd surfed back to the stage. He’s in his sixties, guys.
I will give a shout-out to some of the denizens of the Second Pit, who paid the same amount I did to get here and who decided that their conversation was far more important than Bruce Springsteen. I knew it would happen during some of the slow songs, but come on, folks, I’m trying to wrap myself up in the song that perfectly encapsulated my previously complicated relationship with my father, I don’t need to know about what Helen did at that PTA meeting. I was on the verge of asking, “I’m sorry, is Bruce Springsteen interrupting your night?” when someone behind them shouted, “Hey shut the fook up!” New York, you’re my savior.
Note: the song, “The River” is perfect in every way, especially live, and especially when the people in front of you are as invested as you are. I’m pretty much sure tears came to my eyes during the entire first two sides of album, and we weren’t even on “Point Blank” yet.
Given the second pit’s macroaggressions, I was prepared to suffer through the final three-song suite, which are all slowish numbers that require a little more attention and care. I think Springsteen must have anticipated that, because he recast them: “The Price You Pay” is epic enough on the album, but in concert, it’s another “Backstreets,” it’s another “Born to Run.” Here, live, it attains the Biblical promise and intent of the lyrics, even though it’s just about people trying to get by. The album’s final love song, “Drive All Night” has the potential to be dismissed; long stretches are just repetitions (“You’ve got, you’ve got, you’ve got, you’ve got my love, girl; you’ve got my love”) or frankly bizarre declarations (“I’d drive all night, just to buy you some shoes.”) What happens here is that the song becomes all about buildup, slow, meditative, desperately and subtly erotic … and then the band crashes in, and it’s all release. It’s a song that took me awhile to understand on the record, but here in this setting, it’s the closest to auditory sex Springsteen gets this side of “I’m On Fire.” He finished off The River with a somber, bleak rendition of “Wreck On the Highway”: no gussying this one up, no concessions for an arena audience. It gets dark and stays dark, because that’s the way he wants you to feel this one. If he’d decided to play the entirety of Nebraska after this one, no one would blame him.
He didn’t, though, maybe because he knew we all needed a little cheering up. “So that’s The River,” he concluded, and then hit the place with a one-two-three punch of “She’s the One,” “Candy’s Room,” and “Because the Night.” Everyone was up and dancing. One of the flannel giants in front of me turned to me and said, “Can you believe how cool this is?” “I can’t!” I shouted, and then we both joined in the chorus.
Then, oh man. There are moments that come into your life that are so elevated and unique that you can barely credit them as they’re happening. My favorite song of all time is “Brilliant Disguise,” a song whose meaning has shifted for me since I first discovered in when I was 18, but has never stopped meaning just as much to me. It’s the intersection of surety and identity, and how those two things are never as solid as we think they are. In Springsteen’s book Songs, he refers to this as the sequel to “Stolen Car,” which he’d played earlier during the River set, and hearing them bookending like tonight, it makes sense: “Each night I wait to get caught, but I never do” pairs so well, so hellishly well with, “so when you look at me baby, you’d better look hard and look twice / is that me baby, or a brilliant disguise.” Who am I? Why am I? What the hell have I done?
I have never seen the song live, and suddenly, here it was, and I was this close, and those words I’d memorized over half a lifetime ago were drifting into me from the source. I was unprepared and overwhelmed. Never has not understanding who you are and what you mean to other people been so thrilling.
Then there’s the raucous bam-bam of “Wrecking Ball” and “The Rising,” two songs that the message board assured me were “over” and “not worth listening to” and “no one really even likes.” You wouldn’t have known it from everything going on in Madison Square Garden: everyone from the pits to the nosebleeds on their feet, singing along and dancing if they had a mind. This occurs to me over and over, but it never fails to stun and thrill me: the audience’s total embrace of Springsteen’s newer material is nothing short of astounding. I wouldn’t say “Wrecking Ball” got the exact response as “Thunder Road,” which came next, but it thrilled everyone to their feet and everyone knew all the words. Is there any legacy performer for whom this is true?
We closed things out with Bruce spoonfeeding us what even the casual fans wanted: “Born to Run,” “Dancing In the Dark,” and “Rosalita,” with a grand finale cover of “Shout,” one final blast before we all had to return to the normal lives we lived that aren’t interpreted by a master songsmith. I couldn’t leave for a little while, too enthralled by what I had seen and experienced to really move. I wanted to absorb it. I wanted to keep feeling it.
Of course these moments are fleeting. They have to be. No one can live forever on nerve endings and elevated consciousness. Eventually we come back down to earth, and while it’s a somewhat duller, somewhat less thrilling life in the shadow of three and a half hours of pure passion and excitement, we take at least a little of that with us, and spread it into the world. If that’s the price you pay, I can live with it.