Monday, June 10, 2013

Meeting with The Boss, A Springsteen Odyssey - Song 4 (and a birthday card)

A Springsteen Odyssey is an ambitious effort to tell the story of one Springsteen concert, from one fan's perspective.  What makes it ambitious is that it is twenty-six parts long, one part for each song played by Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band that night, with each song helping to tell one part of the story.  Taken as a whole, they provide a comprehensive picture of a fan's relationship to an artist and his music, but each part also stands completely on its own.  This is part 4 of 26.  You can read part 1 here.

Let’s see, where were we?

I believe we were on our way up at the end of song three.  A quick check of the previous post, and yes, that’s exactly where we were.

All of us in the audience, it seemed, had been caught up in the spontaneous, swelling exuberance of I’m a Rocker.  Coming as it did after a slow start, and a disappointing one for me, the relief I was feeling at that moment was indescribable.

Well, perhaps not completely indescribable.

I used to have an old pick-up truck with a clutch that was nearly worn out.  It became progressively harder to get going in the morning, and one day I couldn’t seem to get the truck into gear at all.  I was sitting there, the engine idling, gears spinning incoherently, mashing the stick into the flywheel over and over, and it seemed like no matter how many times I tried, it just wouldn’t catch.  I found myself suddenly wondering if this is it, if my old truck’s finally had it, and what will I do now.  But then the clutch somehow magically did engage.  I could feel the harness slipping once again over the flailing beast of a motor, futile energy channeled into useful power one more time.  I set off for work, sighing with relief, happier in that moment than I ever would have been had the darn truck been working perfectly all along.

It felt something like that. 

I’m guessing that Springsteen felt it too, knew that he had things moving in the right direction, and understood, with a veteran performer’s canniness, not to let the surge falter.  That might be why, while Max Weinberg was still busy splashing around on the cymbals during the song’s finale, The Boss began counting out “One..two..,” forcing Weinberg to rapidly alter direction in mid-splash.  Even so, he was able to pick up the count before Springsteen could get to ‘three,’ and belted out five big, staccato beats.  Then he held up momentarily, letting silence fill the next two counts, creating an instant, electric anticipation in the crowd, like the one that comes during a fireworks display, each time there’s that long, expectant moment of silence between the fizzle of the rocket’s fire-trail and the booming blossom of color in the sky. 

In this case, though, the pause was broken by a prancing piano jangle synchronized to the deep Bahm..Bahm, bah-bah-Bahm..Bahm, of the saxophone.  Recognition flashed through the arena, and the audience roared out in spontaneous reaction.    

Elizabeth and I turned to each other, smiling like idiots.  We were smiling because we knew what this meant. 

This is what we had been waiting for.  There will be redemption tonight.

Four songs in, the band launched into Hungry Heart.

To understand the significance of this, we must hearken back briefly to the year 1993, the one and only time Elizabeth and I had previously seen The Boss in concert.   His failure to play Hungry Heart that night decimated Elizabeth’s enthusiasm for seeing any more of The Boss’ live shows.  Oh, an autopsy likely would have shown several probable causes of death, from her anemic reaction to the concert overall, to Springsteen’s failure to live up to his legendary reputation as a performer (at least the one she imagined him to be), to the absence of several other favorite songs she had set her hopes on hearing.  But I know it was the lack of Hungry Heart that ultimately did him in with her. 

The funny thing is, Elizabeth had no rightful reason to expect that he was going to play Hungry Heart at that concert in ’93.  As far as I know, she possessed no inside information about the set list, wasn’t privy to any special announcements, had received no personal assurances from The Boss on our answering machine.  Nothing like that.  As far as I can tell, her conviction was entirely predicated on the fact that Hungry Heart happens to be her favorite Springsteen song.     

Ah, but who amongst us can claim to understand the secret workings of the female heart?  Whether she was being reasonable, whether she had a sound basis for her belief didn’t matter.  What mattered was that she had an expectation of what she wanted him to do, and he failed to meet that standard.  That was the simple, fatal sum of the math involved.  I actually felt a degree of sympathy for the man, having occasionally found myself in the same position. 

Over the subsequent years, I sometimes thought about raising the issue of whether her deep and abiding resentment was truly justified.  In the end, though, I decided it wasn’t worth the risk.  I felt bad for The Boss, but I wasn’t about to do anything that might get her thinking that it was somehow my fault.  I wasn’t about to play Hector to Springsteen’s Agememnon in this tale of rage (apologies for the obscure literary reference; I’m rereading The Iliad right now). 

Of course, how much Springsteen actually knew about any of this is extremely difficult to ascertain.  He has, wisely I think, remained mum on the subject.  I’m fairly sure I was successful in intercepting all of Elizabeth’s midnight-penned, Arbor Mist-stained letters, in which she expressed in florid and descriptive metaphors the great injustice dealt her by his Hungry Heart betrayal.  But, honestly, how can anyone expect to recover every single recriminatory flyer air-dropped over the state of New Jersey

Okay, maybe it never came to that, but for many years I spot-checked the outgoing mail anyway, such was the persistent depth of her disillusionment. 

We may never really know whether Springsteen’s decision to play Hungry Heart was coincidental, or the result of his overwhelming desire to make amends with Elizabeth and restore himself to her good graces.  In the end, I suppose, his motivation wasn’t the most important thing.

In that moment, as we continued to stare at each other in rapt disbelief, what was important was that a burden had been lifted.  Looking into her eyes, I could see that, after all these years, my wife was instantly willing to let bygones be bygones.


All this occurred during the song’s familiar instrumental prelude.  In a daring move that appeared to tempt fate, Springsteen chose not to sing the first verse, instead leaving it to the crowd.  What made it so daring was that he didn’t really announce this beforehand, and so the first words of the song, “Got a wife and kids-” rose from the depths of the arena only from a smattering of people in the audience who were probably too drunk or stoned to realize they were the only ones singing.  However, the rest of us quickly caught on, and rushed to fill the void with our voices…

                                  -in Baltimore, Jack
I went out for a ride and I never went back
Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowin’
I took a wrong turn and I just kept goin’

Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody’s got a hu- hu- hungry heart

“Ah, very good!” Springsteen said, either genuinely pleased, or stroking the crowd.  Then he swung into action, backed by the full faith and credit of the E-Street Band. 

It was a gutsy call, invoking complete audience participation like that so early in the show, and without any obvious warning.  All I could think of was how embarrassing it would have been had the audience failed to respond.  Or worse, began singing the words to a completely different song.  It could have been humiliating if a confused crowd began belting out the lyrics to Pink Cadillac.  How Elizabeth would have reacted in such an event is anybody’s guess.

But it worked.  By requisitioning our communal singing voice, The Boss actively engaged us in the inexplicable joy entwined in the music, despite the somewhat depressing commentary on human nature suggested by the lyrics.  The energy level in the arena incandesced further, and now the crowd was positively soaring with an expanded sense of connection and fellowship.  I think every one of us took it as a personal compliment when he praised our performance with his “Ah, very good!” 

Some of us might have even blushed a little.

I met her in a Kingstown bar
We fell in love, I knew it had to end
We took what we had, we ripped it apart
Now here I am, down in Kingstown again

Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody’s got a hungry heart

I looked over at Elizabeth.  At first she was lost in the song.  She didn’t know I was watching her, and that’s when I saw that smile.  I was seeing it in profile, but I recognized it anyway.  Then she turned to me, that smile undiminished.  I've spent a great deal of time lately thinking about that smile, and here’s what I've come to understand about it.  

I live for that smile.  I don’t get to see it as often as I used to, and it’s only when I see it that I am reminded how important it is to me, how much of who I am is tied up in it.  When we were first dating, it’s the smile I used to get freely, frequently just by arriving.  For those first few years of our relationship, I had something approaching regular access to it.  That smile is the thing that sticks out most in my memory about our wedding day.  But that was twenty-three years ago, and after the long-lasting adrenaline rush of love’s first wave wears off, love turns hard.  It becomes work.  It becomes challenging, and frustrating, and sometimes disappointing.  And that’s when you start to find out what you’ve really got between you.  That’s when you have the opportunity to make a love that will stand the test of time.  And that’s what you want your love to do, to stand the test of time.  But that, it turns out, doesn’t come without its own price. 

Somewhere along the way, I lost that smile. 

Oh, not completely.  I still see glimmers of it in the way she looks at me.  I still see shades of it when we’ve been apart for awhile, or something happens that makes her remember.  But I don’t often see the whole, undimmed, blissful thing; that doesn’t happen automatically like it used to; it no longer performs for me like a trained animal upon command.  And these days, when I am blessed by its appearance, it’s usually not me that causes it.  It comes from some interior place that precedes me, or from a place that exists outside of me.  But that’s okay; I’m just happy to be close to it.  I’m just happy that she’s still connected enough to me that she doesn’t feel the kind of cold reserve that would prohibit her from losing herself in my presence.  That would be the final, unbearable tragedy.

And seeing that smile, whenever I am lucky enough to see it, always awakens me.  It makes me realize that everything I’ve done that is good has been for that smile.  I realize that my greatest hope in life has always been, and will always be, to encourage it, to make it flourish, or even just to keep it alive, if that’s the best I can do.  I understand that, in my magnificent ineptitude and selfishness I may have actually done more to break it than to foster it, and it kills me to know that about myself, but that knowledge doesn’t change how much I want it for her.  It’s all I ever wanted for her, and it’s everything I still want for her.
It’s what I will always want for her.

For me, that’s what love is.
Everybody needs a place to rest
Everybody wants to have a home
Don’t make no difference what nobody say
Ain’t nobody want to be alone

Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Everybody’s got a hungry heart
Lay down your money and you play your part
Everybody’s got a hu-hu-hungry heart

During the song, of course, I was only aware of that smile.  That other stuff came out only upon reflection, long after the fact.  That’s because pain and sadness cannot exist in the presence of that smile.  When that smile exists, all is right with the universe, hers and mine.  While it exists, there is redemption.

That smile…

I never wanted it to end. 

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