On Monday night I attended my twentieth Bruce Springsteen show since the millennium dawned; it was my second time catching the E-Street band in recent weeks, as they continue to tour the East Coast and Midwest performing their 1980 double album The River, in its entirety. I rocked out at both shows (in NYC and Albany) with a very visible baby bump — although I’m not nearly as cool as the super-pregnant fan who was lucky enough to win a Courtney Cox style dance with The Boss in New Jersey. Clearly, though, her experience and mine shows that Springsteen superfans are both born and made, and the phenomenon transcends generations.
Indeed, Springsteen concerts are alway notable for being the rare cultural experience that genuinely unites subsets of Baby Boomers, Generation X, millennials and now even the kids of the latter. But in some ways that’s the least remarkable aspect of the experience, paling in comparison to the evolving, intense decades-old relationship between an artist and his still-growing base of fans.
My family’s collective Springsteen obsession started with cassette tapes on road trips thanks to my dad, and continued into the realm of live shows thanks to my intrepid mom, who took a sleeping bag out to Nobody Beats the Wiz’s Ticketmaster window — remember those days? — to wait on line in the early morning after the E-Street announced their long stand of reunion shows in New York City. It’s become the stuff of family lore: a second cousin saw her sitting out on the street wrapped up for warmth, stared at her, and walked on, sure the resemblance between this rock’n’roll vagrant and his relative was coincidental.
That 2000 “Live from New York City” set of shows was as controversial as it was memorable, because it contained the song “American Skin (41 Shots)” a lament for the killing by cop of unarmed immigrant Amadou Diallo. Diallo’s death was also the subject of my very first political rally, as it happened; in New York, that era was the last major period of awakening about police violence before the past several years and Black Lives Matter have brought the ever-present issue back to the fore. Because of the song, the NYPD threatened a boycott, which shows how much and little has changed in our discourse in the ensuing years.
“American Skin (41 Shots)” remains a hauntingly relevant topical song that prefigured Springsteen’s ability to channel the darkness of current events into music with his two best later-period albums: The Rising, which is one of the few artistic responses to September 11 that largely holds up, and the darker Magic, a meditation on Iraq and the Bush era full of songs that are almost too painfully evocative. But even more than both those albums, their accompanying tours yanked me into the vortex of superfandom, where I still dwell today.
My favorite two genres of live performances are lyric and storytelling oriented singer-songwriters (Leonard Cohen, Dar Wiliams) and big arena shows full of mega- hits and devoted fans (Jay-Z, Pearl Jam, Beyoncé, U2). Naturally, Bruce is the artist who combines both elements most seamlessly; more remarkably yet, his concerts, even the stadium shows, have almost no special effects besides the artist and his fabled bandmates, who are still able to get tens of thousands of fans to howl and clap in unison with little more than a familiar beat or guitar riff.
The steadfast devotion from fans is striking, but what makes these shows most memorable, perhaps, is the stamina they require from everyone involved. These recent River shows are three and half hours long; that’s the same length as performances of Hamilton and La Bohème I caught this winter, and unlike the theater or the opera, a rock concert demands standing up and dancing for most of the show with no intermission (and in Springsteen’s case, not even an encore break.)
This means Springsteen shows are a marathon of sorts, with audience-member emotions and energy dipping and cresting along with the music, peaking towards the end with an inevitable “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark” and “Rosalita” trifecta that leaves ringing ears and hoarse voices as the crowd surges towards the exit ramps. I relish these lengthy shows even more in our digital age, because they force a visceral experience on participants; you simply can’t stay on your phone for too long before a major anthem like “Badlands” or “Thunder Road” sweeps you up in its mixture of audience-led choreography and spontaneous energy.
I remember standing on my seat at Madison Square Garden that very first time and feeling my mouth fall agape as thousands of fans pumped their fists in sync to the chorus of “Badlands.” I realized that there was a highly ritual element to this I would have to learn. Now, with my muscle memory, I know all the little concert “extras” that fans bring to the songs: Bruce imploring us to “let me see your hands!” during the climax of “Born to Run” (at which point everyone raises their fingers and twinkles them) the way the crowd waves its arms back and forth during a certain line in “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” extra vocal flourishes during “Dancing in the Dark” and “Out in the Street,” and more. The only way to describe it is like being part of a massive members-only club with traditions that are so easy to learn you can pick these participatory tics up on the spot; an immersion both egalitarian and exclusive at the same time.
Over the years, thanks to my insistence on attending a steady stream of stadium and arena shows with my family, my partner, and friends, Bruce’s stage antics have begun to feel more kitchsy and less spiritually profound to me than they once did. I’m not sure whether that’s partly because he’s stopped being as overtly political and fiery on recent tours — this is a guy who used to rant about “illegal rendition” onstage even as his bro-ish fans groaned — or just because the sheer number of times I’ve seen the show reveals the theatrical element to it all. But it some ways, that matters less and less; I’m older too, and I don’t need to be shaken to the core as much as distracted, compelled to sweat and wear out my vocal cords. I feel grateful every time a new tour is announced after a few years, and I tend leave each concert as I did on Monday night, satisfied to my utter core, but with my fingers crossed that I’ll get to experience the unique alchemy one more time in the future.