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Reflection by Ronald L. Brown

Okay … I gotta get this out of the way.

I am in love with Bruce Springsteen.

It's not one of those "I want to have your baby, know your innermost thoughts, be the first thing you see in the morning and the last thing you see before you fall asleep" type things.

Springsteen is a man’s man. Talented, dedicated to his craft, hard-working, family man, always strong and unwavering in personal beliefs and standards— if more American males practiced the same virtues, perhaps our country wouldn't be in the financial, social, and spiritual crises we’ve seemed to become buried in over the last ten years or so.

Maybe it's not that I love him, it's that I want to be so much like him.

Friday, November 13 had Bruce and the E Street Band visiting the Detroit area one more time, perhaps the last time, if certain rumors come true. It had me witnessing the Springsteen carnival/rock show/tent revival for the ninth time in just over 20 years. This time was different, however.

My brother, Donny, a professional musician who has been all over the world playing his drums, knows a lot of people, one of whom is a gentleman named John Bruey, who worked with and for brother Don several years ago, and is now Springsteen’s monitor engineer. Simply put, "Boo,"  as he's known to just about everyone, makes sure Bruce and his 11-member band can hear themselves— if they can't, songs can and usually do move into train wrecks.

When he feels compelled to do so, Brother Don will make an inquiry to one of his many music business contacts for special ticket arrangements. We usually have to pay for them—only right— but since we know someone who knows the artist, they're usually pretty good seats. When he phoned Boo a couple months ago, we were in—not just for the concert, but for a guided tour of stage, sound production and lighting equipment—the guts of any concert. If Boo and his cohorts don't do their job all day before the show, then during it, you don't get to see and hear shit. All at no charge.

I have a life-long fascination with guitars. I had lessons several years ago, and it was obvious early on my fingers just can't do the walking, but I've always been fascinated with the shape, color, design, and of course, the myriad of chords, shrieks, screams, and general racket that can come from said instrument. Whether it's Bruce, Chuck Berry, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Ritchie Blackmore, Pete Townshend, or so many others, you simply cannot have rock and roll without guitars. So my first point of interest on our tour was Bruce's guitar rack, just to the left of a sturdy metal ramp that leads musicians and technical crew directly under the stage.

The tools of the master, right before my eyes. Bruce's guitar case is dominated by several variations of Fender Telecasters, all gleaming, polished, and tuned for the master's beck and call. Boo introduces me to Kevin, Springsteen "guitar tech," the person responsible for tuning and maintaining Bruce's guitars. Kevin has perhaps one of the most unrecognized, but vital jobs of anyone in the building tonight— imagine the guitar hero with a fucked up guitar.

I absolutely had to see one particular instrument, and cautiously approached Kevin.

"Kevin … may I see … the Esquire?"

Springsteen's Fender Esquire, another member of the Telecaster family, is one of the most iconic guitars in rock history. Bruce played it even before he got famous, and still does, and among Springsteen fans, the Esquire is the Holy Grail. Unfortunately, my timing was wrong.

"You’ll have to get on I-75 and head down to Cleveland, because it's on display right now at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

Just slightly disappointed, we were eventually led to the stage, and I tentatively approached Bruce’s microphone stand. I tried to conjure up the vibrations, the muse, the magic of being front and center amongst 16,000 admirers, but love and hope and dreams do not translate into the real deal. The Palace of Auburn Hills seems much more intimate from the stage. I walked slowly away as if I've just walked upon some sacred ground, my head bowed in wonderment.

The tour continues—more guitar stashes, this time from Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren, a brief guided showing of the "sound board,"  the central nervous system of the show, where Boo and company keep things going so you can enjoy the show. The people I meet—Harry, Max Weinberg’s drum tech, Zep, the rigger, and John Cooper, master of audio, are obviously true professionals, and by their demeanor and friendliness, true gentlemen.

As the tour is completed, I am amazed by the sheer number of people it takes to put on a show. Each one of these individuals has his own unique talents. You see Springsteen or any artist running around onstage, entertaining the masses, turning on hearts and minds, but Boo, Zep, Harry, John Cooper, and so many others never get their proper due. So, for what it's worth—thanks, guys.

Bewildered, befuddled, enraptured, eyes and brains feeling as if I’m Moses and have just seen the burning bush—and the concert is still two hours away. Our party, which includes Brother Don, his wonderful girlfriend, Emily, and my equally wonderful bride, Margie, adjourns to the Palace Grille for dinner. Jessica, the waitress, is a sweet, kind, attractive brunette— but takes too long to get out our meal. Eventually, it arrives, and the incredible taste is unfortunately superseded by the incredibly small portions. As a half-Polish fat guy, I think every plate should be served with heaping piles of meat, potatoes, and veggies, and the help should just leave a whole loaf of bread and a pound of butter on the table before we're seated.

Finally … showtime! Springsteen and the E-Streeters hit the stage at approximately 8:20 and will not depart for nearly three hours, a long show by most standards, but typical for Bruce. In fact, the first concert I saw him play started at about the same time—and ended just after 12:30 a.m. Early on, Springsteen greets me and the fellow worshipers with a salute to someplace else.

"Tonight, Ohio is going down in flames."

Fatigue from being on the road, perhaps? At least three or four times early in the show, Bruce makes reference to that state south of the border until Van Zandt whispers the correct locale in his ear. A clearly embarrassed Springsteen promises to make amends. And for the next 180 minutes, he does so with gusto.

After "Wrecking Ball," the opening number written for recent shows at the soon-to-be-torn-down Giants Stadium in New Jersey, Bruce counts down and moves into "Prove It All Night," a song from Darkness on the Edge of Town, the first Springsteen record I fell in love with, back as a late 1970s undergrad at Central Michigan University. The crowd roars and seems to have forgiven the artist for his Buckeye misstep. However, I am a bit more subdued than usually is the case at each of the nine times I've seen Bruce. These days—for too many reasons to mention here—I can't seem to let loose and run headlong uninhibitedly into a concert experience. Regardless, I may not be jumping around and shrieking like a housewife from Dayton who just won both showcases on The Price is Right, but inside, I'm at the church and the Reverend Springsteen has me in the palm of his hand.

Next, Bruce and the band shows tonight is going to be special with an incendiary version of "Johnny 99." Where the original version from the Nebraska album is simply guitar, harmonica, and vocals, Springsteen has transformed the song into a hard-rocking gem highlighted by separate—and outstanding guitar solos—from both Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. "99" is followed by "Hungry Heart," and I come out of my shell just a bit to join in on the traditional crowd sing-along of the opening verse. It feels good to let loose a bit.

For the next 45 minutes or so, Springsteen and the Band takes us through the seminal album Born to Run. As always, it begins with "Thunder Road," a song Springsteen-ites have heard in a variety of acoustic, piano-based, and full-band formats. Being true to the original recorded version, Bruce, Steve, Nils, Garry Tallent, Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, Charlie Giordano, Soozie Tyrell, and, last but not least, the "Big Man," Clarence Clemons take me through what is truly one of the best versions I've ever heard of what has always been one of my favorites.

Whenever I hear the song "Born to Run" and other original versions of songs from the record, I think about how I missed the album the first time around back in 1975. Perhaps if I would've discovered Springsteen back then, I could've caught some of those early legendary shows where a young Bruce would pour out every ounce of his heart and soul, thinking that rock and roll can save the world. Come to think of it, this is pretty much what he did this November evening.

And, it still works.

Other highlights of the full album performance include "Backstreets," "She's the One," Margie's favorite tune of the evening, and the epic "Jungleland." Ten years ago, I saw Bruce play the latter for the first time. It's one of those songs you hope and pray you'll hear someday at a show, and when it does, it becomes a religious experience. Last night, church was still in session, from Soozie and Roy's opening violin/piano dual to the ending strains of Bruce howling out to all of those tonight … in … Jungeland. Chill bumps rise up all over my body.

While the rest of the show is stellar in terms of musicianship, crowd reaction, and connection between artist and fans, it's a bit anti-climatic for me. Born to Run is one of those records for the ages, up there with Sgt. Pepper, Who's Next, and Zeppelin's Physical Graffiti, at least in my book, and it's going to be tough for anyone to follow, including Springsteen himself. Bruce is determined to not let me leave without a fight, and plays a whopping 14 songs after the completion Born to Run. My personal favorites are the "Detroit Medley," made up of three songs made famous by native Detroiter Mitch Ryder, and a number that brings more chill bumps. There's "Badlands," another Darkness on the Edge of Town tune that always seems to me like a reaffirmation, especially when he sings I believe in the love that you gave me … I believe in the faith that could save me; and the final number, the late Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher," a beautiful song originally sung by a beautifully talented artist. When I first heard Springsteen was doing this number to close the show, I thought he might be a little out of his league, but thanks to the outstanding vocal machinations from Bruce, Soozie Tyrell, and back-up singers Curtis King and Cindy Mizelle, Springsteen nailed it— and I'm sure that someplace, Wilson, another native Detroiter, is smiling down with joyous approval.

Show's over. But we're not done yet. We wait around for Boo, and after a flurry of activity where speakers, stage, instruments, and lights come down, are packaged, and rolled away with precision rivaling an army of ants, he appears with religious artifacts: two signed vinyl copies of Born to Run provided before the show by Brother Don. One says, "To Ron, best … Bruce Springsteen." Last night, it was appreciated, but maybe because it was well after midnight and we'd been there for over seven hours, it hasn't really hit me until I go into the other room and witness the artifact on my dining room table.

He said my name … or, at least, he wrote it. It's mine. I have autographs from several sports heroes of my youth, but none has ever struck me like this. I almost feel unworthy of having it. But I will keep it. You can't have it.

Thanks, Bruce. For tonight, and for over 35 years of preaching, teaching, reaching, captivating, motivating, inspiring and perspiring …for being my friend from afar.

I love you, man.

Ronald L. Brown is a Saginaw native and Bay City resident, and is an adjunct instructor of English at Delta College. He often enjoys combining his two passions of writing and music.

© Ronald L. Brown, 2009