“We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”
–Bruce Springsteen (“No Surrender”)
I was not a Springsteen fan at the time of the concert. I grew up in New Jersey, and that had seemed qualification enough when my boyfriend, Keith, asked me if I would go with him.
I gripped Keith’s shirtsleeve as we stumbled our way into the venue, from the mass of thousands who stood outside of it, past the glass double doors, and finally landing inside the continued chaos within the atrium of Brooklyn’s enormous Barclays Center. We fought our way through the disorder, up escalators, and past souvenir stands and food carts with long, winding queues.
I heard a fan say, “Did you hear he opened Saturday’s show with ‘Purple Rain’?”
At nearly every turn, I bumped shoulders with yet another fan wondering aloud, will The Boss tribute Prince again?
It had been five days since we heard the news. Keith spent the weekend playing Prince for me; I only really knew the hits. “Have you heard this one?” Keith shouted, over and over, voice flying easily through the small space of my apartment. He filled me in with songs and then videos. “This one,” he said. It was Prince, playing tribute to George Harrison after his death with an epic rendition of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” “Look at George’s son,” Keith pointed. “He’s losing his mind over how good Prince is.” We laughed. On screen, Dhani Harrison laughs, too, in spite of the somber reason they’d all come together.
That Monday night, Prince was on our minds again as we stood in a sea of ripped jeans and retro band t-shirts, big-haired, denim-jacketed women, and occasionally tattooed middle-aged men, all of whom appeared to have recently been plucked out of a backyard barbecue and tossed into the mass of thousands for Bruce Springsteen’s last stop on The River tour.
We made the steep descent to our seats as a low rumble lifted its way through the arena, down through the crowd on the floor, and then louder, up into the higher tiers. In another moment, Bruce jumped out on stage. The stadium remained bright: thousands of people lit up in an unflattering fluorescent glow as the band tore into the first track on The River, “The Ties That Bind,” their sound amplified as it reverberated throughout the enclosed space, lyrics echoing through the thousands in the crowd: “You walk down the street, pushin’ people outta your way…”
The overhead lights dropped and the spotlight was recast on Bruce; we in the crowd faded to nothing more than his shadow, replicated 18,000 times. In the course of that one song—three minutes—I found myself entranced by Bruce’s fans, as they grew entranced by him. Their moves predicted his next, ingrained after thirty-plus years of loyal devotion, rock’s equivalent of a secret handshake. The crowd of thousands—largely in their forties, fifties, and sixties—shirked exhaustion. They screamed the lyrics and pumped their fists and danced in the aisles. They fascinated my twenty-seven-year-old self. I’d been exhausted from a run-of-the-mill Monday at work. Now, the crowd’s spirit enlivened me.
Camped out at an East Village bar after the show, I explain this feeling to Keith, who’s only a couple of years older than me, and wonder if he felt the same. Maybe, I tell him, I was struck because of how regular they looked. These were no teeny-bop festival-goers in cut-off shorts and flower crowns. These were people who looked like my parents, or my parents’ friends, or my friend’s parents. And maybe I was struck because of how carefree, how light, they seemed, even though I knew that you don’t really get to middle age without experiencing something tragic, some form of loss, at the very least an understanding of grief. Maybe I knew this because it wasn’t Prince I was thinking of, but another death Keith and I had just learned about, one that hit much closer to home.
With the music, the audience’s everyday stresses and past or present anguishes fell away. “It was like they were watching their friend,” I say to Keith. “You could see it in the way they responded to the lyrics. Bruce understood them. Or rather, they believed he did.” The distinction was irrelevant.
In the concert’s opening, Bruce had defined The River as his coming-of-age album. It was an album that held the paradoxes of life—tracks of joy next to sadness, love next to heartbreak, hope quickly tainted by regret. He was older when he wrote these songs, approaching thirty, and the glory days of “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run” seemed full of youthful innocence, if not naiveté, by comparison. It felt silly to me, as a Springsteen fan of approximately four hours, to tell Keith that I felt Bruce understood me, too, but I realized somewhere in the middle of the show that Bruce was the same age when writing those songs as Keith and I were as we listened. Maybe I was just caught up in the moment. But if that were true, so was everyone. There was something beautiful about that to me.
Keith tells me about an interview he once watched with Bruce that stuck with him: rock and roll, Bruce said, is not about anything that had happened before, or anything that had happened after. The promise of pop and rock is the never-ending now. “Right now,” Bruce said, in the 2010 documentary, The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town. “You need to be alive right now. Those three minutes, it was all on. You were lifted up into a higher place of living and experiencing and there was this beautiful and ever-present now.”
“You know,” Keith says. “During ‘Bobby Jean’ I actually started to cry. People think it’s a song about some girl, but Bruce is actually saying goodbye to the E Street Band. He knew he was ready to go solo. It’s a farewell to his friends.”
In the song, Bruce croons: “Well, I came to your house the other day, your mother said you went away.”
We’re silent for a minute. “Were you thinking of Sam?” I ask.
Keith looks at me and nods. His dark eyes show an acute sadness, a visible pain the stoic Keith I know rarely displays, etched into the subtle lines on his face, drawing down the corners of his mouth, transforming his trademark wide smile. It’s not just the goodbye part of the song, he tells me. “He goes looking for Bobby Jean. He didn’t even know Bobby Jean was already gone.”
It had been just over two weeks since Sam’s shocking, sudden death. When Keith called me with the news my first thought was, You went to school together? Sam was your age?
Keith had been traveling with friends when they were all punctured by the news, which came in the midst of a celebration—his best friend’s thirtieth birthday. I was at my childhood home when he called to tell me. I hung up the phone, Keith’s words from 3,000 miles away swirling around me and settling like dust, covering everything, even the spaces I couldn’t yet see. Not even a month earlier, I had found out via Facebook that the eighth student from my high school graduating class had died. My classmate, Derek, had lived around the corner from me growing up; we rode the bus to school together for over ten years. Seven out of the eight deaths from my class of over 600 students were caused by accidental drug overdose or suicide. My town’s school district is the sort where people come to relocate their families so that their kids can receive a good education in a quiet, untroubled town. And eight of us, from my class alone, were dead before their twenty-eighth birthday.
As my ten-year high school reunion looms, a student from my class recently created a “Class of 2007” Facebook group. The comments in the group were at first largely overtaken by a discussion about those we’ve lost, which turned into a larger conversation about addiction and depression. “The elephant in the room,” someone noted gravely, which wasn’t entirely true. Nearly everyone on the thread had something to say, a two-sentence solution. The prevailing and overarching message was a noble one: if anyone needed someone to talk to, if anyone who needed help was reading these messages, he or she needed to remember that they could reach out to any of us, at any time, no matter how long it had been since we had spoken. “This is an epidemic, and we need to stop it!” the comments cried. But after a few days, the comments stopped and the conversation moved forward to party planning and venues.
In the days after Sam’s death, Keith and I went for a long walk—over twelve miles—across New York. Along the Manhattan Bridge, on a crisp and bright spring day, as the Q train rattled along beside us, we mentally counted the friends of his and mine that we hadn’t spoken to in months or years. Were we supposed to reconnect with everyone, we wondered? “We can’t reach out to someone just because we’re scared we might wake up one day to learn they’ve died,” I said to Keith. I doubted my own words and I felt that he did, too. The truth was that we didn’t know what we were supposed to do.
The only thing Keith and I knew for certain about Sam’s death was that he had been alone when died. But we theorized other things: he’d been scared; he’d been sad. Often, Keith would tell me that he felt guilty because Sam hadn’t been in his life much in the months and even years leading up to his death. Sam had sent Keith a brief text message—nothing more than a hello—past one in the morning on a Thursday night a few months before his death. When Keith answered in the following days, asking how he was doing, wondering when they could next hang out, Sam never responded and Keith never heard from him again. Keith never said it out loud but the question hung between us; the blame turned inward. Had the text been a cry for help?
I knew it was this text Keith thought of when he heard Bruce sing: “Now I wished you would have told me/I wished I could have talked to you/Just to say goodbye, Bobby Jean.”
The last time I saw Derek was at a bar down the Jersey shore, shortly after college graduation. I hadn’t seen him in four years. He was still living in the house down the street from me and was happy to learn that I was living at home, too, as so many from our graduating class had already moved away. He suggested we hang out more, but I never took him up on the offer. I didn’t think we had much in common. I was dating someone else at the time and didn’t want to upset my boyfriend by pursuing the friendship. I moved closer to the city a few months later and never saw or heard from Derek again. When he died, I revealed this story to a friend of mine, who also knew Derek, as if in confession. I’m not sure what I was trying to suggest, except perhaps that if I had gone to see him, he might still be alive.
I don’t know what might have happened had I gone to see Derek as he suggested to me, nearly five years ago. What I do know, without question, is that probably dozens, if not scores, small armies of other people in Derek’s life, were asking themselves the same question, picking apart the last time they had heard from him, what their response had been and when. It’s an oversimplification to suggest, as some had on my high school Facebook group’s page, that the victims could or should have just reached out to us for help. But it also suggests a more dangerous line of thinking: that we might have been able to stop something that was so much bigger than ourselves. It wasn’t fair to us and it wasn’t fair to Derek or Sam to suggest that a text, a phone call, a visit from someone who had become a stranger, might have saved them. To do so would be to trivialize a very difficult battle between life and death.
Music contextualizes our feelings, clarifies them, gives them new meaning. Sometimes, like switching on a nightlight in the pitch dark of my childhood bedroom, I remember that even if Bruce had gotten Bobby Jean to talk to him, to tell him what was going on, Bruce was still going there to say goodbye.
I understand, now, why Springsteen fans go to his shows over and over again. That night, I saw the spirit of the concertgoers as a testament to the power of human interaction. In solitude, it’s easy to forget that I am not alone in grief, that my feelings are universal, and surmountable. But when I allow myself to trust that everyone has gone through something—and trust me, everyone has—I have felt as I did at Barclays: exhilarated by the spirit, by the sheer life of the people around me. Immersed in the ever-present now, I was reminded that despite the certainty of grief, people can still be lifted up by a melody.
In the finale of Bruce’s show, there was a shift in the audience at the opening to a familiar song, not immediately recognizable in the context of where we were. I felt Keith’s grip on my arm. A stillness fell over the crowd. Keith’s hand drifted from me to snap a photo as the crowd united, illuminated under a purple glow.
In the final moments, Bruce jumped out on the floor and danced among his adorers, touched their hands, hugged them. Amid the joy, one of the screens over the stage displayed a slideshow of photos, members of the E Street Band who’d passed away. They were friends to Bruce, people who felt like friends to many in the crowd. The beat picked up. Bruce called out to us, beaming, thanking us. He laughed as he rallied us home to “Shout.” The song was endless, Bruce finding new and inventive ways to lengthen it, encouraging us to keep singing, keep dancing, keep feeling: Living now, right now.
It was almost midnight and Bruce was teaching us how we heal.
Names have been changed.
Rumpus original art by Elizabeth Schmuhl.