I’m half a football field away from Bruce Springsteen as he plays “Meet Me in the City,” and all I can think about is my father.
I’m thinking about his vast vinyl collection, and how, when I was a kid and he wasn’t home, I would go through it. I would look at the colorful covers, try to see if there was a band I knew, play with the zipper on the copy of Sticky Fingers. I’m thinking about how, when he moved recently, I made sure that Bruce Springsteen’s ass, front and center on his copy of Born in the U.S.A, was visible to the entire living room. I’m thinking about how I know more of The River than I thought I did, because my dad has a longstanding habit of blasting certain records on the weekends. So many Saturdays I was awoken by jazz, blues and Bruce.
“Is my dad a Bruce Springsteen fan?” I text my stepmom while waiting in line for Springsteen’s Pepsi Center show Thursday night — recalling that album with Bruce’s beautiful butt and my father’s working-class East Coast roots.
“Daddy was listening to Bruce before you were born,” she responded. Certainly. The River, which Springsteen and the E Street band have been playing in its full, bombastic, heart-wrenching glory on this tour, came out in 1980. My father was still living in his home town of Pittsburgh then. He had just married his first wife. My brother was still two years from being born, and I was a decade and another marriage away. At the time, my dad was working at his father’s brewery, back home after years on the road, Kerouac-style. I wonder if he felt resigned to that life, like a broken character in a Springsteen song. If he felt hope in the woman who would become my brother’s mother. As Springsteen launches into “Hungry Heart,” I wonder if my dad and that woman danced to it together. If he and my mother did, if he and my stepmother still do.
Springsteen introduces “Independence Day” with the following: “It’s about when you’re startled by your parents' humanity and you’re at an age when all you can see is the adult compromises they made, but you’re still too young to see the benefits of those compromises.” I’m staring out into the crowd during this monologue, seeing dads and their toddler daughters, grown sons with older fathers, grandparents and grandkids. I’m thinking about whether those kids know what Springsteen means yet. If they see their parents as heroes or mortals. If it’s the latter, do they understand the anger, the resentment that comes with that view? I'm thinking about the anger and resentment my brother and I sometimes still feel — complicated, enduring emotions toward a stoic figure we may never really know.
As Springsteen sings — beautifully, he sounds great — the haunting title track, I’m thinking of the Allegheny, the river that runs through Pittsburgh. Wondering whether, when my dad stared at it, he reflected on the vastness of life the way I do when I’m home in Texas and see the Guadalupe. Was that where he retreated when he was younger and life got tough for the first time?
I say all this because it’s hard to think about Bruce Springsteen, even when he’s literally right in front of you, without thinking about everything that surrounds the idea of Springsteen. He is one of the few figures in music whose significance and influence far surpass the man himself. Everyone has a memory of a certain song, a certain concert, a certain moment that relates back to Springsteen in some way or another. I know I could spend thousands of words describing how his voice perfectly transitions from goofy party animal to deadly serious. How, as a lifelong Conan O’Brien fan, I fangirled harder for Max Weinberg than the Boss. How saxophone solos are always cool and how everyone collectively lost their minds when the band, with the house lights fully up, played “Born to Run,” and “Dancing in the Dark” back to back. But you already know all that.
Maybe you were there Thursday night. Maybe you saw Springsteen decades ago at Red Rocks, or in New York City or Jersey. Maybe you’ve worn out your copy of The River, or, like me, learned to love it through your father. Learned to see life a little differently because Springsteen sings about the streets you know your parents once walked down. Because you’re a punk kid from working-class roots who, like Bruce, is just trying to find a way to process and express the chaos, beauty and heartbreak of life.
Because that’s the thing about Bruce Springsteen. He’s my dad and he’s your dad, and his songs are about my parents or your parents or that kid you knew in high school whose world fell apart before he or she even turned eighteen. He’s the band you blast on long drives and long runs and on the Fourth of July, even though we all know “Born in the U.S.A” is dark, because damn if it isn’t easy to clap along to.
Springsteen played The River in full because he said it was “his coming of age” record. He came of age as a musician with that album, and so many people after him have come of age listening to it. On Thursday night, everyone revisited their youth, reflected on their adulthood, shouted, cheered, danced, cried and bonded as generations of Americans — as Springsteen fans. Hell, in a life so hard, maybe that’s all we can ask for.
Check out the full slideshow of Bruce Springsteen concert photos here.