Bzzzzz Bzzzzz Bzzzzzz - It was an otherwise ordinary September morning at Colin's Coffee when my phone suddenly started buzzing. I was busy juggling customers and making drinks so I blew it off to let it go to voice mail. Except it just kept buzzing. Bzzzzz Bzzzzz BZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. Ok. Ok already. WHAT! I looked at my phone:
"You have been selected to purchase two tickets for Springsteen on Broadway on Thursday November 9th. Tickets are $450 each and you have until 10 am to accept or the tickets will be released to somebody else. Enter this code..... and credit information and press accept to finalize purchase. The time was 9:42am.
Beads of sweat formed on my forehead. I stepped away from the espresso machine to gather my thoughts. Customers would have to wait. I may be a small business owner but rock n roll always takes precedence over profit.
I would need to make two calls. The first to my friend Renz who reminded me to enter this ticket lottery, which I had forgotten I had, to let him know I scored two tickets. Renz is a huge Boss fan, single guy with plenty of disposable income and time. His plan was we would both enter and if one hit, we would both go. Paydirt.
The second call was to my wife. This was slightly more problematic as the night before we had both mutually agreed to go super frugal and attempt to pay off some credit debt run up by a summer of travel to baseball & basketball camps and a bucket list trip to Yosemite.
"Hi honey. How is your morning going? Hey, you know last night where we both agreed to tighten our belts and live frugally for the upcoming couple of months. Well, anyway, I sorta just charged $900 for two Springsteen tickets. In New York City. On a weeknight in November. Is that cool?"
Now, normal people would have every right to question my decision making. But my wife is not every person, without missing a beat she said, "Oh, you have to do that! You and Renz must be so excited! That's a once in a lifetime experience."
And Biggie, who also won the lottery but was actually taking his wife said, "If it makes you feel any better those tickets are already going for $5,000 a piece on stubhub." I'm not sure if that did make me feel better. Anyway, the deal was done. Renz and I were going to Springsteen on Broadway.
If there was ever a time to fly, this was it, but airline tickets cost as much as the Bruce tiks and besides, Renz needed to stop and see a guy about some stuff near Asbury Park (No Bullshit) so he offered to drive. (editor's note: "Renz needed to stop and see a guy about some stuff in Asbury Park......" I'm intrigued, but I'm not Jeff Sessions, so I'm gonna ask no questions and let this sentence stand as written.)
Cruising the Penna turnpike we listened to Bruce's amazing memoir Born to Run. We had both already read it but it seemed the perfect show primer. And the fact that Renz's Sirius radio had expired sort of cinched the deal. I had purposely avoided all reviews of Springsteen on Broadway so I could come in with no expectations. I figured the show would be a take on Ray Davies "Storyteller" concept with stories and excerpts from the book mixing in with solo performances of appropriate songs. What really had me intruiged was what songs he would choose to perform in this unique setting. Unlike previous solo tours, this was not a Tom Joad type acoustic set. This was a "Broadway Show" so that could mean anything. As Renz and I sat across the street at Hurley's bar getting a pre-show drink we brainstormed what songs he would play. Both of us thought he would stay away from the well-known war horses. We were both wrong and glad we were. Songs like The Rising, Born in the USA and Dancing in the Dark took on a whole new life in the Walter Kerr theater. Our seats were in the balcony but you can see from the picture I took below, that we were right on top of the action.
At 8:02 Bruce walked on stage looking fit in a black t-shirt and began speaking. The stage had a stool with a glass of water on it, and a piano. Some well-placed road cases decorated the back of the stage. The sound was strong and the room was so live, Bruce could step away from the microphone and still be heard easily by the 900 folks in attendance. When he chose to move closer to the mic, it got loud. Though Bruce talked about the magic of rock n roll and the need to pull a rabbit out of your hat in front of 20,000 rock n roll fans, there was no place to hide on this stage. Houdini couldn't escape from this one. Obviously, this is what he was shooting for.
The first part of the show leaned heavily on passages of the book and growing up in Freehold. He opened with Growing Up and then did a talking section before My Hometown (on piano), talked about his Dad before My Father's House and then his Mom before The Wish.
The Wish was a highlight. Previously an outtake, that in my opinion was a cheesy song Bruce wrote for his Mom (ie: boring). As he played it on piano and in this context, I literally thought these words: "This might be the best song Bruce has ever written." (Listen here)
I should also clarify that although Bruce quoted directly from his book, he at no time read from a book. He walked the stage telling stories between each song, either standing with a guitar or working his way to the piano bench. I would guess 75% of the dialogue was straight from Born to Run, leaving plenty of space for some funny jokes and extra tidbits mixed in. It is also noteworthy how Mr. Springsteen kept control of the crowd preventing the applause following each song from becoming a lenghty State of the Union type outburst. Once finished with a number, he would allow the response for perhaps 5 seconds before walking to the front of the stage and immediately restarting the narrative. The crowd hushed instantly so he could be heard as he slowly moved back towards the microphone. It was a brilliant technique to keep the show moving at a favorable pace.
Moving from childhood stories Bruce talked about failing his Vietnam draft test, the friends he had known who were drafted and killed and wondering who had fought in his place before launching into a howling slide-driven version of Born in the USA. Politics were a very minor theme with Bruce briefly referencing MLK "the arc towards justice is long" before playing a personal favorite of mine, Long Walk Home. Once again, hearing this song in a different context was an eye opener.
Wife Patti Scalfa came out to perform two numbers from Tunnel of Love and while musically it was very strong, I wish Bruce would have spent a little more time from the book about his troubles maintaining a healthy relationship with Patti and his previous wife.
The plot seemed to lose focus in the final section of the two hour show. He came out of the gates on fire but by the end struggled to find a way to wrap it all up in a meaningful way. A bout with late life depression was a big part of the book but was never mentioned as part of this show.
The saving grace, of course, were all those great songs. Land of Hope and Dreams is a tune Bruce always seemed fond of but never seemed to connect with his arena audiences. As the second to last number on this night, I finally could hear what made it so special. Naturally, he ended with Born to Run. Bruce quipped, "New Jersey is a death trap, a suicide wrap, I've got to get out. and now.... I live 10 minutes from the house I grew up in."
Set list: Growing Up / My Hometown (piano) / My Father's House / The Wish (piano) / Thunder Road / The Promised Land / Born in the USA / Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out (piano) / Tougher Than the Rest (with Patti Scialfa - piano) / Brilliant Disguise (with Patti Scialfa) / Long Walk Home / The Rising / Dancing in the Dark / Land of Hope and Dreams / Born to Run.
Colin Gawel is the founder of Pencilstorm and Colin's Coffee. He plays solo and in the band Watershed. You can read about his life in the book Hitless Wonder. He once sat down and chatted with Bruce Springsteen. Click here to read that story.