Bruce Springsteen's evangelical nation baptized me in St. Paul

"Can you feel the spirit?!"
"Can you feel the spirit?!"
Photo by Justin Baker

By Justin Baker

I have spent a good part of the last decade goofing on my former boss and his Bruce Springsteen superfandom. By and large, it's your typical generational back-and-forth.  He calls me hipster and a cynic. I call him old. It's what friends do.

As my adult music appreciation has grown, though, and my status as a music critic has become more official, the issue has gotten hotter.  "Who are all these lame new bands you listen to?" he chides.  "Let me know when you want to write about real band."  "You mean that guy that played the Super Bowl looking like Wayne Newton?" I retort. So began my ex-employer's quest to engineer the massive, cranial explosion that would supposedly characterize my first live Bruce Springsteen experience. 

To be clear, I like Springsteen. You simply can't claim to love rock music and not appreciate the dude. He is on any sane music junkie's bucket list. The Jihad-ish devotion of his superfans, though, has always seemed a little weird. "Larry Bird went to see him once," claims my boss, "and he said: 'Bruce reminds me of me.'" I get what that is supposed to mean, but of course the Boss reminds White Basketball Jesus of himself.

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Bruce Springsteen at Xcel Energy Center, 11/11/12

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Along with the team from Hoosiers and Kevin Costner's character from Field of Dreams, Bird and Springsteen preside over the sacred cultural plane where America's middle-aged white men go to agree on who and what is worthy of respect -- you know -- who does it "the right way." It's a place where we kids don't understand the value of hard work, Michael Jordan is a self-centered a-hole, and a line like "just wrap your legs round these velvet rims and strap your hands across my engines" is enjoyed completely without irony. At least that's how it all looks from the outside.

That ethic would still tolerable, frankly, if it weren't so often coupled with a basic condescension for anyone who sees humor and (and even partial rationality) in modern sociopaths like Axl Rose, Kanye, and the aforementioned MJ. With that, it's downright annoying. Yeah, maybe my generation is jaded, but we've seen three terms of the Bush family. Give us as break and lighten the fuck up, old folks.

The set-up:

This Spring, on a visit to Detroit (former home and place of employment under Dan), several drinks into the night, the gauntlet was finally laid down:

Justin: "I'm going to the Sasquatch Festival in a couple weeks. Should be great."

Dan: "When are you gonna be ready for a real rock concert?"

Justin: "I told you. I'll go to any Springsteen show, any time. Pick a date."

Dan: "He's gonna be in Minneapolis in the fall."

Justin: "If you fly out, I will clear my calendar."

Dan: "You need to be educated, my son."

Justin: "Fine by me. Let's do this, once and for all."

And so it was settled. A few months later, the dates were announced. Plane and concert tickets were purchased. "You're going to be close enough to get Bruce's sweat on you," promised Dan. At last, one of the key questions of our time and place would be answered:
Can a generation gap be bridged with high-priced concert tickets?

Little did I know that The Springsteen Experience actually begins weeks before the event itself. First, I was included on e-mail chains and text messages from Dan's "Bruce Crew," where they exchange photos from various tour stops, and stories of Bruce's showmanship and compassionate heroism. I needed to be primed, evidently.

Then it was people I know around the Twin Cities, upon hearing about my Springsteen venture, virtually all of whom had the same reaction.

"It's your first time? Oh man, is that gonna be awesome for you."

Each such instance was inevitably followed by at least one personal "Bruce Story." "Bruce Stories" are excellent. They immediately supercede whatever is taking place at that moment. The teller then takes on a reverent tone while covering one of three major themes.

1. Bruce is a superhuman performer.

2. Bruce's show is going to permanently change your life.

3. Bruce is Gandhi with a guitar.

Some of them are as simple as "It was my wife's 40th Birthday and Bruce pulled her up on stage and kissed her on the cheek. He played "Prove It All Night" for her. We both still get chills."

So many "Bruce Stories" in this shot
So many "Bruce Stories" in this shot

Particularly charming was a story about a dude who held up a sign reading "Bruce, I just got dumped." Bruce leaned down and asked him what happened. "She said I didn't spend enough time with her," answered the dude. No word on what role traveling to Springsteen shows played in that situation, but Bruce offered sympathy, said his own exes "don't get the record royalties," and played "I'm Goin' Down" for him.

Then, some of them are like my own experience Sunday night at Xcel Energy Center -- detailed after the break.


Day of Show, 11/11/12 in St. Paul:

Two women in a St. Paul bar, pre-gaming before the show: "Oh my gawd -- this is your first show? Aw. (hug) You're going to shit your pants, bud."

Not one, but three separate men sitting near us in the Xcel Center expressed an identical sentiment: "Man, I'm really excited to be sitting with someone who is seeing his first Bruce show. This is really awesome." There was no irony intoned.

One of these men was Tim. Tim flew in from Cleveland, and brought his wife and pre-teen son with him. It was important to Tim that his son get to experience Bruce. Evidently this is a growing trend over the last few years -- the reduction of average crowd age as fathers indoctrinate offspring.

Here's Tim and his family
Here's Tim and his family

Sitting directly in front of us inside the Xcel was Jonathan, a Jersey native transplanted to Minnesota. He and Dan compared notes on the summer's Wrigley Field shows, and then on which songs at which venues had, at various times, moved them to tears.

Meanwhile, Jonathan's wife, Danielle, air-circled her ear with her finger, looked at me and mouthed "CRAY-zee." Jonathan would disappear in the pit for a solid 30 minutes during the show, to her visible chagrin. (Hope he's not "goin' down" himself.)

Dan trumped all in our seating neighborhood, having seen fifteen shows on this tour. Jonathan had "never been to more than seven on the same tour." Obviously, he is not a real fan.
This pre-show bonding ritual ultimately circled back to me, and again, how special it was to share the evening with a first-timer. The lights had not so much as dimmed, and the losing of my Springsteen virginity had already become a more celebrated event than the losing of my actual virginity.

When I worked for Dan in Detroit, I lived in an inner-ring suburb called Ferndale. A few blocks from my house was an old Baptist church. I constantly fantasized about going to a service to witness the gospel jamming and the human uplift. I only went once, and I missed most of the service, and most of the jamming. I still regret it.

I bring this up because all great rock shows, in some way, transcend their particulars. They take on the qualities of tribal dances or cathartic group hysterias or minstrels/poets holding court. The very best are inhibition-destroying celebrations, where the band becomes almost secondary to the party it has unleashed. My first Springsteen show, early on, began to hearken elsewhere itself -- to that Baptist church.

Bruce Springsteen's evangelical nation baptized me in St. Paul

The new 16-piece E-Street Band is excellent, Bruce's energy is awesome as advertised, and the live performance of the songs suitably outstrips the recorded versions as universally touted. For a great blow-by-blow, check out Gimme Noise's review. The performance was awesome.

But the performance was not the same as the "experience," which I describe in the next section.


Throughout the show, Bruce made frequent trips into the crowd. He wanted to touch his people. His people wanted to touch him. He wanted them to touch the guitar. Does it have healing power? He brought old women and children up to the stage and the catwalks to sing with him. He pulled a grade-school boy up, put his arm around the kid and danced with him. He brought pre-teen girl up to the main stage to sing a verse, then gently lifted her back to down to her family, holding her like baptized infant.

Bruce Springsteen's evangelical nation baptized me in St. Paul

He expounded on life and ghosts and honored the dead. His songs were (and are) sermons about love and loss, hope, tough breaks and redemption. His flock, thousands deep, recited the sermons in bursts, in unison. This was not a concert -- it was a service. Bruce is a preacher, and he leads the Megachurch of Springsteen.

I should have seen it coming. As the afternoon wore on, I kept asking Dan what the whole Bruce thing was really about. "I don't have religion," Dan joked, "So..."

As Bruce swung into the climax of the set, the opening bars of "Badlands" bringing the congregation to the edge, Dan tapped me on the shoulder, and said, "Get ready for your baptism." Mass human celebration ensued, riding the power chords and Bruce's growl.
The content of Bruce's words, or even his songs, seem utterly secondary. His rhythm, his passion, is straight evangelical. You half expect him to be blessing newborns, or to see a dude get rolled out onstage in a wheelchair, and walk off. (I will now get e-mailed a story of this actually happening.)

Evangelical being a loaded word, the metaphor stops there. With Bruce, it's less about the faith than the spirit. Bruce is a preacher in the least divisive sense of the word. He is a father to those who need a better one, the cool uncle you want at every family gathering, a brother who has your back, a ghost who hangs around for the right reasons. He stands up and says "here's what's happening, and we're gonna make the world alright. And by the way, let's rock and sing about cars."

Bruce Springsteen's evangelical nation baptized me in St. Paul

In the end, that's the relief. The Church of Springsteen, whatever its politics, has no dogma. Yes, actual churches, do, reportedly, offer a sense of community and do good things for good people, but too many are in the business of things like setting feminism back 50 years, so it's hard to get into that. We instead look for communal uplift at football games, concerts, and scavenger hunt/running clubs. When we get lucky, we find it. The Springsteen Nation is that life-affirming form of brotherhood that, in our relentless modernity, we have supposedly inadvertently destroyed. I say it exists, it just requires a credit card and some good research now. 

If there is a generation gap, maybe it's that these older guys, Bruce chief among them, actually remember a time when that wasn't the case, and they have half a clue how to remake it. Bruce, Dan, Cleveland Tim, Jersey Jonathan--they've got a mobile brotherhood, and despite appearances, it's pretty inclusive. I'll hang with 'em anytime. Just don't ask any of them where they stand on LeBron.

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