“I suspect we will be asked to provide that card to be able to take part in large events again, hopefully, including Bruce Springsteen concerts before too long.”
Please pardon my pretentious quoting of my own column from February, when I wrote about my experience at the Franklin County Health Department’s COVID-19 vaccination clinic. But the part about using my vaccination card at a Bruce Springsteen concert was a little prophetic.
In fact, little did I know that the first time I would have to show that card to go somewhere would be to enter a Springsteen show.
I mentioned the Springsteen show at the time because, to me, things would truly be back to normal when I was able to see “the Boss” live again. And that opportunity came for me in New York on Saturday, July 3, which was earlier than I could have dreamed.
It all started June 7, when Bruce announced he would be returning to perform his “Springsteen on Broadway” show for a limited run between June 26 and Sept. 4. It would be the first show to return to Broadway since March 2020.
I’ll admit my preference would have been for Bruce to tour with the E Street Band or maybe play shows for his excellent 2019 album “Western Stars,” in which Bruce recorded with a string section, mainly because those tours would have come closer to my home. But I knew I had to at least try to get to Broadway to see a show.
I really wanted to see “Springsteen on Broadway” during its initial run in 2017 and 2018. I’d traveled the country to see 10 Springsteen shows in cities from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, but I’d never seen him play an acoustic concert. This would be a bucket-list item.
But during the first run of “Springsteen on Broadway,” I was unable to get tickets for less than $500. Plus, I lived in central Oregon at the time, so it would have been tough to just drop everything to drive 3,000 miles to New York (and even flying that far was no picnic).
My luck changed when tickets went on sale for the 2021 Broadway shows, and I was able to get two $75 tickets for the show over Fourth of July weekend. Plane tickets were ridiculously expensive over the holiday, so my wife was nice enough to ride the 2,000-mile round trip in my car with me and even changed my spark plugs.
After the long drive, we decided to start the day of the show checking out some of Springsteen’s old haunts in New Jersey. We headed to the beach town of Asbury Park, where July 3 was nothing like Bruce’s 1973 song “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy).”
It was rainy and cool when we arrived, and rides like the Tilt-A-Whirl were gone. Madam Marie’s fortunetelling stand was still there, though Marie herself passed on in 2008. On the plus side, there were no “stoned-out faces” or “switchblade lovers” like are referred to in the song.
I lived in New Jersey for a year as a child, when the Asbury Park boardwalk was kind of a dump. But it’s come back nicely, with shops and restaurants along the way.
It was cool seeing music clubs Bruce frequents like the Stone Pony and the Wonder Bar, as well as the Paramount Theatre, where one of my favorite Springsteen concert videos was filmed.
Bruce got together with what became the E Street band in Asbury Park, but he grew up 18 miles away in Freehold, our next stop. The pizza we ate at Federici’s, an Italian restaurant Bruce likes to visit when he comes back to Freehold, brought me back to my own childhood in the area.
Then we headed a few blocks to the Monmouth County Historical Association, which has a special exhibit called “Springsteen: His Hometown.”
The exhibit, which is done in conjunction with Bruce’s archives at nearby Monmouth University, traces Springsteen’s family with items like a guitar played for Bruce’s distant relative Alexander Springsteen during the Civil War. It also has items used by Bruce, such as the home recorder he used to make his classic 1982 album “Nebraska” and a ticket booth used on stage during his 1988 Tunnel of Love Express Tour, a rare Springsteen stage prop.
It was cool seeing the story of someone relatively modern at a local history museum. I’d love to see more museums do stuff like this since history didn’t stop in 1900. Obviously, not every community is home to a star the caliber of Bruce Springsteen, but how cool would it be to see something like the uniform of Texas Rangers All-Star pitcher Kyle Gibson, a Franklin County resident, at the Franklin County Historical Society?
Before heading across Hudson Bay, we drove by St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church, which Bruce attended as a child. His boyhood home on Randolph Street in Freehold, which has long since been demolished, once stood nearby.
We got to hear about all the places we visited and more after we headed to New York for “Springsteen on Broadway.” Though I saw the filmed version of the show in 2018 on Netflix (which you should watch), it couldn’t compare to seeing it live.
We presented our vaccine cards (thankfully, this showing didn’t have anti-vaccine protesters like opening night a week earlier) to get in. My awkward vaccine card that was marked by both the Franklin County Health Department and Mercy made it all the way to Broadway! We then walked up 76 steps in the 94-year-old St. James Theatre, which doesn’t have a public elevator, to our seats in the upper balcony.
It was amazing to safely be around a large audience again, though the 1,700-seat theater was by far the smallest hall where I’ve seen Springsteen perform. Even though we were up high, we felt like we were right on top of Bruce.
Along with the stories of his family and career that helped make the first run of “Springsteen on Broadway” a smash, Bruce freshened up the show with some new stories. He updated the audience on some of the things he did during the pandemic, like making “Letter to You,” a new E Street Band album and film. He also did a podcast series with former President Barack Obama and got “handcuffed and thrown in jail,” referring to a November 2020 arrest in which Springsteen was charged with driving while intoxicated at a National Park site on the Jersey Shore.
“They love me in New Jersey,” he quipped to the audience, turning an embarrassing incident into one of the night’s comedic highlights.
After it was revealed that Springsteen’s blood alcohol content was one-fourth the legal limit, he had pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of consuming alcohol in a closed area and paid a $500 fine.
The show also featured three songs that weren’t in the earlier version of “Springsteen on Broadway,” two of which I hadn’t seen him play live before. “Fire,” one of two songs Bruce performed with his wife, Patti Scialfa, was popularized by the Pointer Sisters after Bruce wrote it, but he did not include it on his 1978 album “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” That song and “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a new song off “Letter to You,” were both what Bruce fans like to call personal premieres for me.
They were among five songs I hadn’t seen Bruce perform in my previous 10 shows. It might surprise you that “Born in the USA,” one of his more popular songs, also was a personal premiere for me.
Before “Broadway,” Bruce rarely played “Born in the USA” in the U.S., mainly because of how much the song has been misinterpreted over the years. But he prefaced this sparse, partly a cappella performance of the song with stories of Walter Cichon and Bart Haynes, early musical contemporaries who were killed in the Vietnam War, making clear the song’s true meaning is the plight of Vietnam veterans.
It was one of several tear-jerking moments of the night, one I’ll never forget. Before closing with “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” in which the 71-year-old Springsteen faces death, Bruce talked about one of his favorite parts of doing the Broadway show — how it allows him to bring people he’s lost back to life, including his emotionally distant father and his larger-than-life saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, if only for the night.
One nice part about being so high up was not being able to see and hear some of the antics my fellow “fans” were taking part in below. One woman in the audience apparently stood and danced during “Fire,” which might be acceptable at an arena show but not on Broadway, and another was escorted out after yelling and clapping repeatedly during songs.
I guess some people had pent-up excitement from the pandemic.
Although I can’t wait for 2022, when Bruce will hopefully come to St. Louis with the E Street Band, I’m so glad his was the first paid concert I was able to see since 2019. With COVID-19 cases rising in Missouri, it’s hard to say for sure whether things are back to normal, but I’ll take it.