I grew up in a wasteland of country music. That’s not to say that country music is inherently bad. For a long time it was all I knew, and I rather enjoyed it. On Saturday afternoons I hung off the side of my bunk bed, singing “The Sweetest Thing I’ve Ever Known” along with Juice Newton, with far more passion than I knew what to do with. My family spent two summer vacations at DollyWood where I watched a hologram of Dolly sing “Jolene” while I ate a funnel cake and smeared powdered sugar on my jeans. I danced with my cousin at my senior prom to John Michael Montgomery’s “I Swear”—but that’s another story for another day.
When I was in third grade, I entered Mrs. Williams’ music class. Her classroom was right off of the gym, and our renditions of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on the recorder were punctuated with the gym teacher’s sharply blown whistle. We fought over the bongo drum, and spent hours in that stuffy room singing folk songs and spirituals.
One day, Mrs. Williams pulled a shiny black record out of a white paper sleeve and laid it on the record player. She gently set the needle on the spinning black circle, and sound crackled from the speakers. I had never heard of Bono or The Edge, but when I heard the opening notes of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” I sat up straighter in my red plastic chair.
When Bono’s scratchy voice strained out the line I have kissed honey lips, felt the healing in her fingertips. It burned like fire, this burning desire, something inside me tensed, like somebody twisting and tightening an invisible screw.
Mrs. Williams gently introduced more U2 into our narrow little worlds, along with Whitney Houston and Billy Joel. They were just tastes though, of a world that felt foreign yet appealing to me.
I remembered Mrs. Williams and her scratchy records this week as I sat in an arena and waited for my first Bruce Springsteen concert to start. While she never played Springsteen for us in music class, I think she would have smiled at the sight of me sitting among thousands of people, my stomach in knots as I waited for the lights to dim.
I began listening to Springsteen in earnest about a year ago. I was in the thick of writing my memoir, and my writing mentor recommended that I listen to Springsteen’s newest album, “Wrecking Ball.” I admit, I didn’t even know Springsteen had a newest album. But when I slipped on my headphone and listened to the title track that night, I felt that same tensing in my chest.
I hadn’t known that Springsteen was such a poet. Hadn’t understood the weight of his words. I bought the entire album that night, and quickly incorporated it into my writing playlist. And when the voice in my head told me what I was writing didn’t matter, I let Bruce drown it out.
So Bruce and I spent a lot of time together for the past nine months. When tickets went on sale for his Denver show, I couldn’t pass up the chance to be in the same room with him—even if that room was a huge arena and there were a few thousand others there.
From the moment Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band stepped onto the stage, I sat forward in my seat, watching this man who had kept me company during the lonely task of writing about my life. He was a bizarre blend of evangelist, calling forth the spirit; professional wrestler pumping up the crowd; conductor, bringing the pit to the peak of frenzy and then calming them with the sweep of his hand. At one point, he leaned into the crowd, and from my perch I watched them move toward him as one.
As cliché as it sounds, he was a magnet and they were shards of feathery metal, out of control in his pull.
The crazy thing was, he seemed to enjoy us—all of us. He smiled. He waved. He chatted. When he pumped his fist in the air, we did too. When he encouraged us to clap, we did so in a frenzy—afraid we might disappoint him. He danced with rhythm, but with a taste of white guy, his arms stiff even while his hips swiveled in tight jeans.
He was our uncle, visiting from the shore, and we wanted him to like us so much. He strode through the masses, then rode atop their hands, laughing at the clumsiness of their crowd surfing attempt. He dropped to his knees, dripping sweat, and they reached out to catch a drop.
But I can’t forget the music. That’s what brought us there, what lifted our voices together in a rag-tag choir smelling of sweat and popcorn. I didn’t know every song, but I still found myself pumping my fist, singing along as soon as I learned the chorus.
Watching a poet pour forth his words into the electric void of waving hands and neon posterboard made me glad, again, for a music teacher in rural Virginia who knew there would be children who would ride the lyrics right out of town.
As the concert began the slow slide into the encores, Bruce sang a cover song I had never heard. One that is still stirring inside me. It wasn’t the final song, but I felt its echo even as we walked into the chilly night to our cars. It is a song that seemed to lay Springsteen bare, and made me thankful that there’s still a place in the world for words heavy with meaning.
A world where a girl from Virginia can end up at an arena in Colorado watching a man from New Jersey sing about a land across the borderline.
And when you reach that broken promised land
And all your dreams slip through your hand
You have learned it’s too late to change your mind
Cause you pay the price to come so far
Just to wind up where you are
All photos Credit: Larry Hulst. www.schwegweb.com