I know, I know, I’ve been slacking big time on the blog front! (Not really, it’s been a conscious break because I’m hard at work on the next novel and trying to make a major dent in it before I go back to work in a week and a half…waaaaahhhhh!)
But it’s August 11. And eight years ago today was a spectacular day, so it deserves to be discussed.
Bruce fans already know exactly what I’m talking about. And the rest of you are now like, aw crap, it’s a Springsteen post. But you’re already reading, so you might as well keep going.
Long story short, I was about to start my first year of teaching and had all of the new teacher orientation stuff on August 11. But my uncle Mike (the BIG Springsteen fan in my family–although to be fair, he got a HUGE head start on me considering that I wasn’t even born yet when he started going to shows), had offered me two tickets to the final night in Philly on the Rising tour, and I was bringing my dad as my date for his father’s day present.
|My uncle wearing a “Born to Run” shirt, holding me as a baby (with my grandma)|
I told everyone at the new teacher orientation that I had a “doctor’s appointment” that I couldn’t get out of (hey Uncle Mike is a doctor, it works… kinda…) and bailed early, went to my parents’ house, and my dad and I left for Philly.
It was only my third Bruce show ever at that point, and now that I’m thirty shows in, I can still say that it was one of the very best I’ve seen, if not THE best. And it was just such a special night overall. I was there with three of my favorite men (my dad, Uncle Mike, and Bruce), for an incredible show, but I think my favorite part of it was how happy my dad and uncle were to see how excited I was to experience that show. I remember having no idea what he was playing when he opened with “From Small Things,” singing along with them to Incident and the look of sheer glee on my uncle’s face when Bruce went into Pretty Flamingo (which I had never even heard of at the time), and the excitement of the band trying to figure out how to play “I’m Goin’ Down” after so many years for the guys with “those fabulous homemade signs.”
Because it was such a special night, when I was writing my first novel, Beyond the Palace, I knew I had to put that show in there and it became a really pivotal chapter in the book. Which was only fitting because it was the sense of magic and community that I felt at the August 11, 2003 show and the last show on the Rising tour at Shea stadium that really got me thinking about writing the book in the first place.
So here is the excerpt from Beyond the Palace that takes place eight years ago today. If you were there, I hope this helps you recapture how great it was. And if you weren’t, well, learn from that mistake and never, EVER miss a Philadelphia Bruce show.
(Just be aware that it’s a middle chapter, so if you haven’t read the whole book, you may not get some of the references. And I cut the end off the chapter so as not to spoil anything!)
Even now, after everything that’s happened, if you asked me to make a list of the best days ever in my whole life, I would put August 11, 2003 at the top. It was one of those perfect days, in which nothing can go wrong. Maybe it wasn’t as good at the time as it seems looking back on it now, but in the end, it’s the memory, not the reality that stays with you. And my memory of that day is that it was exquisite.Of course, you don’t know that you’re going to have one of those days when you wake up. I woke up pretty miserable. It was a Monday morning, which is never good for anyone, and it was the night of the third show in Philadelphia. But I woke up in my apartment, not in Philly.Laura and I had gone to the Friday and Saturday night shows, but I reluctantly told her that I couldn’t afford to miss another day of work to stay over for Monday’s show. I had an important staff meeting Monday afternoon and it just wasn’t going to work. I told her to go without me, praying she would say that no, it wouldn’t be the same without me. Eventually, she relented and, realizing that I was serious about not being able to go, she said we could watch the setlist at my apartment to try to recapture some of the excitement of the show we were missing. It was a poor substitute, but it was better than sitting at home alone, drinking beer and watching TV.So, despondent at the prospect of a new week at work and having to miss a show that was within driving distance, I trudged off to the office.And I’ve never spent a longer day there. Every second that ticked by felt like an hour. And even though I was busy, this little voice in the back of my head kept nagging me that maybe I really could have taken the day off and gone to the show. I can’t explain it. I had been to more than forty already in less than a year, but with each subsequent concert, I felt like I had to be at the next one or else I would be missing the experience of my lifetime.But at 1:53, just as I had finished the PowerPoint presentation for that afternoon’s meeting, I heard the most beautiful sound drifting in from the outer office. It was Laura laughing. It couldn’t be, and I knew it wasn’t really her, but I went to my office door to look anyway. And there she was.She was sitting on the low wall that separated the reception area from the offices, impossibly cool in denim capris and a black tank top, with the requisite summer day sunglasses perched on her head. Not remotely appropriate office attire. But Laura could blend in at a black tie affair in sweats. It was always all about attitude with her.Two of the senior partners from my office were standing near her, Bill leaning against the wall, Scott opposite her, and she was laughing at something one of them had said. Coral, our nosier-than-nosy receptionist was still at her seat, but was peering around her computer in a way that said she had clearly given up on even trying to pretend that she wasn’t listening to every word that was being said. Phil and Grace, two of my coworkers, had left their offices and were standing in the space between their two doorways observing the conversation as well. You would have thought that we had never had a client here before. But then again, Laura didn’t fit the mold of our usual clientele. Nor had I ever seen anyone sit on that wall. Or both Bill and Scott come out to talk to anyone who wasn’t wearing a suit.“There he is!” Laura cried with delight when she saw me and she hopped off the wall, with a hand on Bill’s shoulder to steady her descent. She threw her arms around my neck and kissed me lightly on the lips in greeting. I was too surprised to move. It was just a peck. But it was on the lips. I had no idea what was going on. Then she turned back to Bill and Scott, who were smiling indulgently. “You’re sure it’s alright?” she asked, looking a little worried. I was floored. Laura never asked permission for anything. Ever.Bill nodded but Scott spoke. “Of course, sweetheart, go and enjoy.”I turned to Laura. “Go where?” She smiled and pulled two tickets out of her back pocket.I was amazed. We had sold our tickets on Saturday night when we decided we weren’t going to the Monday show. And somehow she had gotten two more GAs. And not only that, she had gotten my bosses to tell me to leave work early to go.“How—?” I started, but she cut me off.“Ticket drop. Now come on, we’re going to have to speed to get there in time to get in line for the lottery!” She had to be lying. If she had gotten the tickets through a drop on Ticketmaster, she would have had to pick up the tickets at will-call at the venue. That was how tickets worked on the day of the show. There wasn’t any way to get tickets the same day except at the venue, which meant that she had clearly gotten them somewhere else. But I didn’t ask her. Accusing her of lying would have seemed fishy to my bosses. And she wouldn’t have answered me anyway.I looked questioningly at Bill and Scott. “I’ll do your presentation if the PowerPoint is done,” Bill said. I told him it was, and he told us to leave so we could make it in time.I emailed the presentation to Bill and got my keys and briefcase. Laura took my hand as we started to leave, but Bill stopped us as we walked out. “That’s some girl, you’ve got there.” Laura beamed up at him and he smiled back. “You kids have a good time tonight!” And somehow, it didn’t even sound patronizing when he said that. I normally would have been pissed to be called a kid at the office, where I tried as hard as I could to act like a professional. But he sounded like he could have been her dad telling us to have fun on a date.In the elevator, I asked how she had done it.“Easy,” she said, pulling her hair up into a ponytail. “I just asked to speak to the partners and I told them that I was your girlfriend and it’s our six month anniversary today and I’d gotten tickets to tonight’s show as a present for you. They actually seemed thrilled to get rid of you,” she said, with that wicked smile I loved.I couldn’t help it; I pulled her to me and hugged her. I half-expected her to squirm out of it. But she didn’t.Because I took the Metro to work most mornings, we didn’t have to deal with having two cars, and it was such a beautiful day that there was no question about whose car we would have taken anyway. It was a convertible day if I had ever seen one. But crossing the garage to her car, I realized we would have a timing problem anyway.I checked my watch. It was 2:14. We really needed to be in the parking lot by 4:30 to have a shot to be in the pit, because of the lottery system, which had replaced the fan-run list the earlier shows on the tour, and it would take us two-and-a-half hours to get there from my office in DC. Maybe, if we drove like demons right now we would have the smallest chance of making it in time. But even that was unlikely. And I was dressed for work.“Shit,” I said finally.“What’s wrong?”“We’re not going to make it in time.”“Sure we will. As long as we hurry.”“I’ve got to change; I can’t go like this and I don’t have clothes with me.”Laura smiled. “It’s a good thing I’m a genius,” she said, batting her eyelashes at me. She pushed the button on her keys to open the trunk and she pulled out a small pink Adidas duffel bag, which she tossed at me.“What’s this?” I asked, opening it. In the bag were my shorts, which she had mentioned the week before that she had grabbed by accident when we stayed in Jersey after one of the Giants Stadium shows; my favorite Rolling Stones t-shirt, which she had stolen months ago to sleep in; and the old sneakers that I had forgotten in her trunk, when we changed to dry shoes after one of the rain shows. For the second time in fifteen minutes, I didn’t know what to say.“I washed the shorts,” she said. “They smelled like smoke.”“You?” I asked with a smile. “You did laundry?”“What’s wrong with that?” she asked. “I’m quite domestic.” Then she started laughing. “Whatever, okay, fine, I’m not domestic at all. But I do know how to do laundry!”I didn’t thank her. It’s one of those tricks I had learned in the past nine months. She could be ridiculously sweet and thoughtful. That was, in fact, the real Laura. But she hated being called on it. And thanking her made her realize that she wasn’t keeping up the act. She would pull back when I did that, which was, of course, a setback in whatever our odd relationship was. And as odd as it sounds, I liked the duality of her. It kept me on my toes. It had taken me a long time to decide which parts of her were real and which weren’t, and I still screwed it up frequently. But not that day.I changed in the car while Laura drove, and a bootleg from the third Giants Stadium show saw us the whole way there. We had made the same drive on Friday night, but this was better because it was so completely unexpected. Better because it was such a beautiful day. Better because we were playing hooky from work. It felt like we were kids skipping school. Laura, in fact, pointed out that that was exactly what we were doing when we got to the line about it in “Rosalita.”When I think about Laura, I think about her that day. It’s how I want to remember her. Never the fighting that would come later, or the loss, or the pain. Not even kissing her or waking up next to her. But only as she was on that one perfect day. She was so completely alive. The sun hitting her shoulders and the gold in her hair, bleached there by her refusal to put the top of her car up when it wasn’t raining that summer. And maybe a little un-discussed help from her hair stylist. I want to remember her laughing and singing, loudly and badly with the music. Throwing her fist into the air during “Badlands” and “Born to Run,” and insisting that I do the same, which prompted odd looks from the other drivers around us, which turned into knowing smiles from other drivers as we got closer to the venue. Maybe she really was that beautiful that day. Maybe I just thought she was because I loved her. Maybe I just think she was now, looking back. But it doesn’t matter, because it’s how I remember her.The clouds started threatening us once we crossed into Delaware. They had been chasing us since Baltimore. But around Wilmington, the first drops of rain started to fall.“Should we pull over and put the top up?” I asked, finally, as Laura eventually turned on the windshield wipers. A look of concentration crossed her face as she studied the horizon.“No,” she said. “If we keep moving at this speed, we won’t get wet,” which was true, as the wind resistance keeps rain from falling into the car until you stop. “And I think we can get past the clouds first.” I smiled. She looked over and smiled back at me and the speedometer crept past 80 miles per hour. And as always, she was right.We beat the clouds around the Pennsylvania state line. Of course, they would catch up to us later, but there was a certain thrill even in just outrunning the rain. Nothing could stop us. And we not only beat the rain, but we made it in plenty of time for the pit line. And our luck held with the ticket lottery because we wound up in the front, right near Little Steven and Patti. Laura’s favorite side if we couldn’t be dead center. We stuck with Jeff and Ellen as we walked in and wound up next to them in the pit.We had all huddled for shelter in the parking lot when the rain started, but it had stopped by the time we were filing into the stadium. No real tailgating on pit nights, because you could get out of the pit if you had to go to the bathroom, especially during “Mary’s Place,” when Bruce extended the song to twenty minutes and did the band introductions; but if you gave up a spot at the front, you were never getting it back. We had entered, what Laura called, “Camel Mode” before we even got to Pennsylvania. We would take bottles of water into the pit, because we would need them desperately by the end of the night, but no drinking until we started sweating. Laura’s rules. We even figured out a system for the water bottles, because at Giants Stadium, and a few other venues, they only let you bring water bottles in with you if you didn’t bring the top, and they took the tops off the bottles they sold there as well. Laura kept extra caps in her purse, which we would put on our open bottles as soon as we were inside.But unlike Friday and Saturday nights, which were swelteringly hot, the rain had cooled the temperature down to a comfortable seventy-four degrees, according to the new Eagles stadium’s scoreboard, by the time the show started. The sun was still out when Bruce followed the band to the stage.Laura grabbed my hand and squeezed it as Bruce came out and said into my ear, “Here we go.” I loved the excitement level. We had done this a million times. But every time was as exciting as the first. For me as well. I cheered and yelled “Bruuuuuuuce” with the rest of them like my life depended on it. And I waited for the opening notes of whichever song Bruce would play to start the show. While it was sometimes predictable, such as “Who’ll Stop the Rain,” when it was raining, waiting to recognize the first notes of that first song was intense and exhilarating. And Laura and I played a game of seeing who recognized the song he opened with first.But that night, that recognition didn’t come. I had never heard the song that Bruce opened with. And based on the look of mixed confusion and elation on Laura’s face, she had never heard it before either. She turned to me finally. She wasn’t going to ask what it was, so I asked her. But she didn’t know.I turned to my right and saw that Jeff has his arms around Ellen and they were singing along. How on earth was there a song that even Laura didn’t know? I caught Jeff’s eye. I wouldn’t have asked him what it was during the song, as that would be a breach of concert etiquette. But he volunteered the answer anyway. “’From Small Things,’” he shouted. “River outtakes. Dave Edmunds covered it.” I yelled back my thanks and turned to tell Laura what I had learned.“Has he ever played it before?” she asked. I relayed her question to Jeff, but Ellen answered.“Just in clubs a couple of times. Never on tour.”A huge grin spread across Laura’s face. “History in the making,” she said and turned her full attention back to Bruce.He jumped from “Lonesome Day” into “Night,” a moderately rare song off Born to Run, which I loved. It was about how you force yourself to survive your days in a job that you don’t like because your real life starts at night. It reminded me of the life I had with Laura, even though it wasn’t one of her favorite songs.Next came another new one to us. “Be True,” which he hadn’t played in the US on this tour yet. If you’ve never been to a Bruce show, I’m not sure I can really explain what came over us at the beginning of that song. We danced, we sang along, we threw ourselves into it like he was playing it just for us. Yes, we knew he was playing it because he wanted to and he was playing it for Philadelphia, just like he played “Atlantic City” next because it mentions Philly. But when you’re there at one of his shows, no matter how many other people are around you, be it a thousand or a hundred thousand, he’s playing for you. And when you’re in the front of the pit, he’s less than ten feet from you, playing a song he almost never plays, just for you. So when he tells you to show some faith because “there’s magic in the night,” you know what he means because it’s true. You’re seeing that magic right then.As if to prove my point, after some of the requisite songs from The Rising, Bruce heard people yelling for “Thunder Road” and he played it, even though he had already played it there Friday night. And we screamed as he pulled out his harmonica and we sang the song right back to him, just like every audience has since 1975 when he started telling us to.The band retreated off stage as the main set ended. We weren’t worried; they were coming right back. The norm was two encores, and for the last show in Philly, there was no doubt that those encores would be incredible. I wrapped my arm around Laura’s waist during this and pulled her closer to me. She was damp with sweat and I was too. It may have been a cool night, but the pit is always hot. “If you could hear anything in the world next, what would it be?” I asked into her ear. She leaned into me and closed her eyes, deep in thought. Then she twisted her neck up to say it into my ear.“Incident.”He had played it a handful of times, but never at a show we had been at. But when Bruce and the band came back to the stage, Bruce asked for requests, which I had been pretty sure he would do after seeing him listen to the requests for “Thunder Road.” I yelled “Incident” as loud as I could. He heard someone else first, but didn’t catch what they had said and joked with them, asking for “something we know.” Jeff had heard me and he and Ellen joined in requesting the same song, as did several other people who had heard me and agreed.And Bruce nodded, then told Roy, the piano player, to start. At the opening notes, Laura tore her eyes away from Bruce and turned to me. She didn’t say thank you, but then again she never did. And she didn’t have to. It was in her eyes. She turned back to the stage, but she took my arms and pulled them tighter around her waist. I glanced to my right, at Jeff and Ellen, who had seen that. Ellen smiled at me and I grinned broadly back.I could have held her like that forever. The smell of her perfume coming off her hair, Bruce a few feet in front of us, one of the most beautiful love songs ever written being sung for us, at our request. Remember in Field of Dreams, when the kid asks if he’s in heaven and Kevin Costner says, “No, it’s Iowa”? It was like that. We were at the Linc! I hate the Eagles and I was standing on their field. But heaven is where you find it. And we had found it.We broke apart to dance when Bruce played “I’m Goin’ Down” for the guys holding up request signs about twenty feet behind us. We had seen the signs earlier in the night, and Jeff had warned us before the show started that he would be shocked if Bruce played that, even in Philadelphia, because he hadn’t played it since the Born in the USA tour. And when he started it, Bruce confirmed Jeff’s position as more of an expert than Laura, by saying that the band hadn’t played the song since 1986. Jeff laughed and shook his head. The E Street band wasn’t on tour in 1986, and Jeff knew that. We laughed when he said that he didn’t even know which guitar to play it on. And we danced and sang along. And cheered Little Steven on, even though he clearly got a little lost in the middle. And our faith was rewarded, because Steve kissed his guitar pick and tossed it to Laura when the song ended. She blew him a kiss and he blew one back at her.“Think he recognizes us yet?” Laura asked. I told her he had to, as she pocketed the pick.It was the most incredible show we had been to on the tour.But instead of going straight into “Rosalita” after “Land of Hope and Dreams,” Bruce started something else. We heard Ellen and Jeff screaming, and Ellen jumped up and down like Laura, a girl half her age, had at “Be True.” Jeff saw us watching and smiled. “He used to play this as an intro to ‘Rosie’ in the seventies,” he explained as he held Ellen and swayed with her. “Hasn’t played it since the Darkness tour.”Laura smiled and closed her eyes. She leaned back into me and I put my arm around her waist again. We had heard versions of Bruce covering Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” on bootlegs, but never live, as he hadn’t played it since the year after we were born. Then again, my parents had gone to a couple of shows when my mother was pregnant with me. Maybe I had heard it before after all.As the last note hung on the air and the first note to “Rosalita” clung to it, opening the song, Laura turned and kissed me.In real time, I know that it must have been less than thirty seconds, because the kiss had ended by the time Bruce started singing. But if I didn’t have the bootleg of the show to prove that it was that short of a time, I would believe it could have been forever.I had never decided that I loved someone before having kissed them before. Well, okay, excluding my fourth grade teacher. But you know what I mean. To be honest, before it happened, I couldn’t really imagine how it could. We had come so far past the point where I could have plausibly made a move that I figured that if it was ever going to happen, it would be because we were ridiculously drunk. Although nothing had happened yet while ridiculously drunk. And even if it did, we would have probably ignored it the next day. Because she didn’t feel the way I did. I’m not stupid. Once you’re in the friend zone, it’s up to the girl to make a move if she wants something to happen. Very few guys have girl friends who they wouldn’t sleep with if the occasion arose. So if a girl, who really is a friend, wants more from a relationship, she’s the one to take it there. And if she doesn’t want to, she keeps you at arms length for the sake of the friendship. And while Laura could be affectionate, she was like a cat. It was when she wanted it, and only when she wanted it. If I tried to pet her when she wasn’t in the mood, there was no chance of it happening. While I had spent months aching to make a move, I never found the right time when she would have allowed it. And I knew her well enough to know that if I did it too soon, I would lose her altogether. And that wasn’t a risk that was worth taking. Even if we could never be more than friends, having her in my life at all made my life better. And I would have done anything that it took to keep her in my life.But she kissed me.I think.I know I didn’t start it consciously. So it must have been her.But that didn’t matter.Girls make a bigger deal about kissing than guys do. There’s that awful Cher song about how you can tell everything you need to know from a kiss. I don’t believe that’s true. But for the first time ever really, I started to believe that there was a chance for us. Somewhere in her, she wanted to be with me too. And that night, I believed I could wait forever if that was what it took.By the time Bruce started singing, she had turned back to the stage. She was watching Bruce and dancing to the music, but Little Steven had seen the kiss and winked at me. It’s stupid, I know, but I treasured that wink as Laura would treasure the guitar pick he had thrown her and the kiss he had blown to her. Bruce’s guitar player and right—er, left-hand man as it were, approved of my choice of girl. And I didn’t question what would happen next, because I knew it wouldn’t be anything else that night. And that night, it didn’t need to be. It was perfect as it was.We weren’t planning to stay over in Philadelphia, and I had to be at work the next morning, although Laura’s appearance at my office would mean if I came in late, no one would question it. But we didn’t rush to leave the sports complex’s parking lot. It had been cool right after the rain, but the night had turned warm and muggy. The air was so thick and heavy that the sweat we had worked up refused to evaporate, and Laura’s hair along the hairline was damp. We walked slowly off the field and out into the parking lot, unwilling to let the night end.Most of the crowd seemed to be doing the same thing. We had parked deep in the lot, which meant that we weren’t getting our car out for a good half hour anyway, so we walked down the steps of the Linc with Jeff and Ellen, discussing the show.Laura was glowing. She kept dancing a few feet in front of us and spinning around and coming back to me. Every few seconds, she would recount another favorite moment of the show. “And I can’t believe he played ‘I’m Goin’ Down!’” she would yell suddenly. Or just “‘Incident!’ He played ‘Incident!’ Full band and everything!” She started singing “Be True” as we walked toward the parking lot. Jeff and Ellen were as amused by her as I was. This was one of my favorite times with Laura, after a great show, when she was happy. After some shows, she became quiet or sullen, because she knew there wouldn’t be another one for a little while. But when she was like this, there was no one in the world like her.We reached her car and Laura hit the remote button to put the top down before we got there, but tossed me the keys. She never asked me if I wanted to drive home, or if I was tired, or if I minded driving her car (although no one in their right mind would turn down the chance to drive that car). It was one of those things between us that was so special. She might not let me touch her camera, but she always let me drive her car. If I made a list of reasons to believe she loved me, that would be on the list. Of course, the reasons not to believe it list would be longer. But, no matter what the circumstances, as Bruce would say, “people find some reason to believe.”I started to get in the car, but Laura stayed by the trunk. “Pop it, will you?” she asked and I obliged. She pulled out a small cooler, shut the trunk, and climbed on top of it. “Wanna put on some tunes and have a beer?”I put the same Giants Stadium bootleg that we had been listening to on the way up to the show back into the cd player and climbed onto the trunk next to Laura. We had done this a few times after being in the pit. Post-show tailgating.We didn’t talk for a while. We just sat there, soaking up the night and watching the crowd. Adam and Jen, a couple we had met at the Meadowlands, were walking a few rows over and Laura called to them. They were about our age and we had hung out with them for the first two Philly shows, but then told them we weren’t coming to this one. They sat with us and helped us lighten our beer load a bit. Eventually, we realized that it was just the post-gamers like us in the parking lot because it was past midnight. Adam and Jen were driving home to New Jersey, and we decided that it was time for us to leave as well. I realized, as we pulled out of the now nearly deserted parking lot, that this would be our last Philly show on this tour. It could be the last Philly show for years. The first time we had talked to each other had been in this very parking lot. Everything had changed since then. And I was sure that so much more would change before we would be there again. But that was ahead of us, and that night, I wasn’t thinking all that much about the past or the future.