Funeral For A Friend
I don't know about the future, but rock and roll died Tuesday night at the Miami Arena. It was not pretty. What's worse, it wasn't ugly either.
I literally couldn't even get arrested. I also couldn't believe that I was seeing rock and roll die in my lifetime and in this most unlikely situation. It hurt real bad.
I am not being petulant. I do not have a chip on my shoulder. And I sure as hell am not joking. I didn't want this terrible thing to happen, and I'm not glad that it did. I can see where you might not believe me at this point, so let me explain a few things that may have misled you:
Last year I was chatting on the phone with an L.A. producer who told me that Bruce Springsteen had finished recording his long-awaited new album. Considering that Springsteen hadn't released anything new in years, this seemed important, so I called Bruce's personal publicists. "Duh, what?" was the essence of their response. I told them more about the topic at hand than they would or could tell me. I continued calling them, and I continued to be told, curtly, that no one knew anything about any new album. I didn't get mad, and I swear I wasn't trying to get even when I simply made up a Bruce album, reviewed this nonexistent entity, and even fabricated an exclusive interview with the man idiots call the Boss (he hates that nickname). Our big lie turned out to be pretty damn close to the truth, except that Bruce, as you know, released two albums instead of one. Otherwise we were right: Springsteen was about to release a new work, and the phones lit up nationwide the day our hoax story came out. Radio stations, newspapers, and magazines, including the Springsteen journal Backstreets, called, first to find out if the article was true, then to find out more about the hoax itself. We made our point, had some fun, and the real world spun on. Except that Bruce's publicists were reportedly peeved at us. I was not peeved at them, I held no hard feelings, I still felt strongly (in the positive) about Springsteen.
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Months later Bruce appeared on network television (playing three songs on Saturday Night Live) -- something he once vowed he would never, ever do. Didn't bother me a bit. Even taped it. Staff writer Todd Anthony, however, saw ludicrousness written all over Bruce's apparent sellout, and he penned a funny but pointed piece suggesting that Bruce had died and been replaced by a Japanese-built robot. The story was more flippant than mean-spirited, and while scores of suckers called, some in tears, because they misread the article and actually thought Bruce might be dead, we truly meant no harm. Anthony just wanted to make a legitimate point, and he did. (After last week's concert, Anthony said he believes what he wrote more than ever.)
We did not review Human Touch or Lucky Town, only because I sincerely lacked interest. No spite, just an honest editorial decision. Recordingwise, I own about everything Bruce has released, and plenty of stuff he hasn't. I like his music. And I am thankful that it helped save my life.
So no matter what misunderstandings and misinterpretations may have arisen, I have never abandoned Springsteen, I have nothing against the man, I still consider him the ultimate rock star. At least I did until this past Tuesday night. Now I have but one word for Bruce Springsteen: retire.
But this is more than a pan of a boring concert. This is an obituary.
In the blink of a young girl's eye, forces conspired to rip life's richest rug right out from under me, and I'm sprawled here on the floor trying to figure out how this could happen. As I write this, Darkness on the Edge of Town is oozing out of my boom box, all pain and misery, perfect.
I sacrificed much over the years to be closer my Bruce to thee. The payback was always there, bigger and better than I deserved. A billion years ago a song called "Blinded by the Light" convinced me that rock and roll could be literature, and more. A million years ago I felt hopeless, truly desperate, but an album called Born to Run changed all that, delivered to me a catharsis immeasurable. A thousand years ago I stood in a parking lot offering members of the Paks Gang a free ticket and gas money if one of them would give me a ride to Bruce's show at the long-defunct Hollywood Sportatorium. No one would. I made it to the show anyway, and I raged when some asshole tossed a firecracker at the stage, provoking Springsteen to invite the perpetrator out to the parking lot. Right behind ya, Bruce. A hundred years ago me and my beloved tramp drove to Tallahassee on the day of the show to see Bruce live. The transmission of the Japanese car broke as we entered Broward County, so we drove all the way to the top of the state in fourth gear, met some scalpers in the parking lot of a motel, and arrived at our nosebleed seats just as the E Street Band rolled on to the stage. I cannot forget or forsake any of these moments; they're among the most important in my life.
But I didn't expect or demand anything so grandiose when Springsteen and his new band played the Arena the other night. We're all much older now, I have a good wife, a good job, a good life. Many years ago Springsteen, before he was known, wrote a song called "Resurrection" that included lyrics such as "Take me to church on Friday/And we confess our sins/Special low price on three Hail Marys/My soul is clean again" and another, "If I Was the Priest," whose lyrics had the Virgin Mary running the Holy Grail Saloon. Today Springsteen drapes himself in crucifixes and offers his audiences "God bless yous." I knew this going in. Things are different now. And that's fine.
Nonetheless, my expectations, obviously, were far too high. I paid my money and spent my time in hopes of experiencing a rock-and-roll concert. Not a catharsis. Not an event. Not even Bruce Springsteen. Just a rock-and-roll concert. Didn't happen. All my illusions slipped away. And goddamn it, nothing will be forgotten or forgiven.
I asked for my money back, and the staff security hired by the Miami Arena just laughed. I demanded to be arrested but wasn't. I busted through a door down front, close to the stage, hunting for trouble. The usher asked to see my ticket stub, I refused. So he told me to find an empty seat, and if someone claimed it, to move to another empty seat. After I strutted down front, Springsteen stepped off the stage, moving toward where I was. I began to move toward him, too. He was only a few yards away, and I expected everyone else to surge toward the front as well. That's what happens at rock concerts. Nobody moved. Except me. I wandered back toward my assigned seat. I no longer felt much like being close to Springsteen.
After the show, on the Metromover, we came to a stop. All passengers remained onboard. One of them said, "Huh, nobody's getting off." That could have been a mantra for the entire concert. Cellar Door and Miami Arena should've had a senior citizen discount, not because the people in the crowd were elderly. Just that they acted like it all night. And very late in the show, when Bruce gave the people what they wanted by playing "Born to Run," security staffers were still asking young women in the floor seats to sit down and behave themselves. The women did. That's rock and roll?
From the outset there was much portent. Entering Miami Arena, I discovered that everyone was required to wait in line for a wristband before waiting in line to purchase a beer, this despite the fact there was a total dearth of people anywhere around the age of 21. Everyone was either much older or much younger; yuppies take their children everywhere. So I'm standing in line for my wristband when the guy behind me explains how he waited in line for ten or fifteen minutes to get a beer, only to be told at that point he'd have to go back and get the wristband first. That sucks, so it fit perfectly with what was to come.
I was hassled by police officers for smoking. So a few songs later I decided to cause a confrontation by smoking anyway. It wasn't that I wanted to smoke, but that I wanted something interesting to happen. The cops had disappeared, but staff security was ready and able to prevent the horrible tragedy engendered by my puffing. "Put it out now," a guy in a yellow jacket screeched. "You can be arrested." Oh, yeah? "I can?" I said. "Do it. Have me arrested. Do I have to pay extra for that, or what?" Little reaction. "It's the law," he says. I calmed down a bit. "Yeah, yeah, I know," I told him. "I just wanted to make sure you people really were fucking Nazis." He repeated this back to me in question form, as if I'd said, "Gee, wonderful weather we're having." I could've kicked this guy in the nuts and he would've said, "Have a nice day."
I bumped into a DJ from a major commercial rock station and an influential theater critic in the hallway, so we staged a protest. All three of us lit cigarettes and waited for the pigs. A moon-faced woman who clearly worked there stared at us, bemused but smiling, appearing to be a lot like the Marilyn character on Northern Exposure. We puffed harder, she finally walked over to us, and without speaking indicated she'd appreciate our giving up our little demonstration. The DJ pulled out a dollar bill and handed it to her. "Could you sing something for us?"
Bruce was still wailing away inside.
Giggly instead of poignant, Springsteen peppered the show with anecdotes and speeches, something he's famous for, once upon a time deservedly so. But when he joked about being "too old, too fucking old," there was no irony. And when he warned us that the next song would reveal his sexual orientations, he invoked the name of Madonna, telling her to look out. It was truly sad. And seconds later, when Springsteen weakly jumped into the crowd and rolled flaccidly back onto the stage, it was like some sick Monty Python spoof -- Jello Biafra at Age 90, perhaps. In one intro, Bruce mentioned Sarajevo and the L.A. riots, as if this would evoke something in a crowd from a place recently blasted by a hurricane Springsteen apparently had heard nothing about. In the same speech he mentioned his well-known opinion that politicians deserve no trust, adding something new: Don't put your faith in rock stars either. Right, Bruce. Damn right.
Through all this I refused to give up hope. "Badlands" began, so I walked down front to hear better and immediately got hit in the face by an overbearing spotlight from the stage. Never mind.
And when another selection began with a slow organ riff, my wife, almost pleadingly, said, "Candy's Room!" I knew better. "Yeah," I said, "and I'll pay for another ticket." It was actually "Roll of the Dice," and another Doral Light 100 for me.
Believe me, I wasn't the only one who spent as much time out in the hallway as inside the auditorium. After a disco-ish, "Dancing in the Dark"-style version of "Darkness on the Edge of Town," Springsteen told another tale and began a gentle rendering of "The Big Muddy." Scores of people literally bolted for the doors to get out of there. In the packed restroom some guy quipped, "Guess it's break time for everybody." Yup. In fact, streams of people headed for the exits every time Springsteen played one of his new songs.
And I have a sneaking suspicion that Springsteen was lip-synching "57 Channels."
The setlist was ripe with opportunities to rip out hearts and spill guts -- nuggets like "Trapped" and "Prove It All Night" that once meant something. Meant nothing to me. I was so uninterested I spent much of the evening scoping out the crowd: dull faces mindlessly mouthing no-longer-cogent lyrics. Far removed from that time long ago when Springsteen forgot the words to "Born to Run" in the middle of the song and the audience responded by picking it up for him, bringing tears of shared emotion to both them and him.
If I could take one moment into my hands, it wouldn't be this one.
The venue, the crowd, the performance -- all were perfect, smooth and clean and safe. Like a sunny summer morning at Sunday School. It left me feeling as empty as an abandoned temple.
However, I am always fearful of ranting and raving without searching my soul, or at least making a few phone calls. I talked to Jonathan Pont, an associate editor at Backstreets who's seen nine Springsteen shows in the past couple of months. "I enjoyed them," he told me, then asked, "Did he play `Atlantic City'?" No, Jonathan. "From what I've seen," Pont added, "the way this show is structured, with a really killer audience he can do amazing shows. There were others where I wished I'd brought a good book with me. It seems like on this tour, the crowd reaction indicates what kind of show they get."
I'm not going to blame the crowd. Or Miami Arena. I'm not even going to blame Bruce himself. There's something bigger going on, something more at stake. Somehow, when I wasn't looking, the spirit of rock and roll apparently fled this world. If you can't find it at a Springsteen show, it can't be found. They're not still racing down at the trestles. That blood doesn't burn in our veins any more. Rest in peace, Bruce. Rest in peace, rock and roll. No, on second thought, go fuck yourselves.
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