Bruce Springsteen is arguably America’s greatest and most prolific modern songwriter./STEVEN A. ROSENBERG/JOURNAL STAFF

‘No retreat, baby, no surrender’

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‘No retreat, baby, no surrender’

Bruce Springsteen is arguably America’s greatest and most prolific modern songwriter./STEVEN A. ROSENBERG/JOURNAL STAFF

PERSONAL ESSAY

I haven’t thought much about Foxboro over the decades. I had filed it away as a place where I had once worked in my twenties. Up until then I had been protected in a way – living in a northern Boston suburb, and for a time, in Amherst in college, with opinionated liberal friends and neighbors. But what I found in this rural town back then was a place without any shtick – good, earnest church-going folks who didn’t know what to make of a Type A Jew from Boston who was putting together a cable access TV station. For a brief period I tried to inject my vision into their town, bringing a late-night live comedy show to their screens, and using all local volunteers – engineers, moms, mailmen and telephone repair guys as actors and cameramen. I thought this was a way to get to New York.

But I never could pull the trigger on that, and the comedy dream went away like other things we try on and forget about. In the early 1980s, I spent three years in Foxboro, often driving down rustic back roads looking for guidance from the prophets, such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. I had just begun to appreciate Springsteen, and I dug deep into his epistles about pain and failure, unrequited love, redemption, and the common threads of the human experience. Shared heartache brings solace, and on those wooded streets I dreamed about driving away to a place where I would find love.

And then, Saturday night, I found myself back in the little town – which is also the home of a 65,000-seat football stadium. The call had come a few nights earlier from an old friend, Michael, who had a spare ticket. “You wanna see Bruce in Foxboro? They’re great seats,” he told me.

Eighty-three degrees in the parking lot, some 40 years after I weathered through a blistering heat wave in these parts in 1983. After a couple of sips of beer, I lean back in my lounge chair and time shifts. I can see the tops of the woods beyond the lot, less than a mile from where the TV station broadcast (it is now a loading dock for a Super Stop & Shop). For a moment I am still racing these back streets, scanning homes and meadows; seeking something I can relate to. Perhaps there’s a girl walking down the street, who has spent her life waiting for someone like me, and whose smile will melt all my angst. We’ll drive away knowing, certain – that there’s nothing else to the moment, and to this lifetime, than the two of us, together.

The writer at the Foxboro TV station he managed in 1983.

Then I look down at my hands and see the veins below my fingers, and white spots on my arms. But the filmstrip continues: I’m still in the car; I’m directing a show in the TV studio, drifting between decades under the strong sun and the light blue sky. I look up and a cloud formation sits above and for a moment, everything seems to make sense: to the right there’s a series of vertical puffy clouds that sit upon another and resemble an island, like England and Scotland. Quickly, I assign this pattern as my past. To the left there’s a smaller, modest series of clouds drifting apart. These wispy, feathery cirrus slices of mystery represent my future.

Michael’s Bluetooth speaker brings us back to the parking lot. Bruce is singing now, but he’s also shifting between decades, with his confessions about work, insecurity, hope and dreams. I also straddle between songs, trying to make sense of the last 40 years. All I can come up with – and perhaps it’s because of all of the discord that has fallen on our country – is that somehow, I survived, and that’s not something to quickly dismiss. But so much of it seems unconnected, and almost arbitrary now, and I can only attribute my existence at this point to showing up, making deadlines, and lots of good luck.

And then I think of my family. I had found love, and had a son – who will be married in just a few months. I have lost my parents, and many dear friends. All that’s left of them are stories – many I can tell, and so many more I’ll never know.

I look around at the folks nearby who are tailgating and surmise that they have similar stories. They’re mostly seniors who stand around and quietly sip Bud Light, and flip burgers on their portable grills. They let out an innocent laugh from their lounge chairs. They compare Springsteen tour T-shirts and talk about the glory days. They’ve also somehow survived, and found a way to get to this show, which fetches hundreds of dollars per ticket. And, they’ve also been jostled around as they weathered their own American Dream. They’ve lost and found love, made a living, and may still have dreams.

An hour later, Bruce is standing on the stage, smiling with his E Street Band. Besides Dylan, he is arguably America’s greatest and most prolific modern songwriter. He’s the working stiff you trust: the auto repair guy who gives you a fair shake on the bill; the factory worker who mans the line; the cool older brother with his souped-up hot rod; the sage at the bar who’ll tell you a story if you set him up with a shot and a beer. He’s the reliable narrator who reminds us of the grind, of the joy; the need for connection and love, all the while pointing out that we’re really alone in this journey.

At 73, he is trim and tanned and seemingly unchanged by the years on the road. With the first chord of “No Surrender,” the stadium is transformed into an old-fashioned spiritual revival. He’s not lecturing about ethics or morals though, he’s reminding us that we need to find our own way, and take a chance:

Well, we busted out of class
Had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three-minute record, baby
Than we ever learned in school

Tonight I hear the neighborhood drummer sound
I can feel my heart begin to pound
You say you’re tired and you just want to close your eyes
And follow your dreams down

Mystics have long said that singing and listening to music is like praying twice. We are now in our own house of worship, and the themes Springsteen is leading us through are like a patch quilt of the American experience. He’s not telling us to drop to our knees and pray to be saved by God. Instead, he reminds us that we have just one life and implores us to never give up and hold our dreams dear. Meanwhile, we listen – plugged into a two-lane highway, on the lookout for pieces of ourselves in his words and music.

It takes him three hours to run through 26 songs – tales of the “Badlands,” “Thunder Road,” “The Promised Land,” “Atlantic City,” “Out in the Street,” “Born to Run” and “Dancing in the Dark.” It is a decidedly senior audience, but nearly everyone stands. I don’t notice it initially, but from the opening note of “No Surrender,” I cross my hands over my arms; my right palm cradles my heart. It is not something I would have felt comfortable doing 40 years ago in public. But now it seems necessary.

I don’t know all the words to the songs but the ones I can sing sear into my soul. He’s taking us on a big journey, and also implying that we can continue that adventure alone, without fear.

“Are you alive?” he asks, some two hours into the show.

A roar rises up under the dark skies of southern Massachusetts. For the moment, nothing else exists. It seems that we are being reminded of our priorities as humans. His message: There’s a lot more to life than standing still and spinning our wheels.
A cool breeze blows over the crowd, and I pinch myself. Along the way, so many years before, I had taken Bruce’s advice and left Foxboro. I wanted to feel alive, and embark on a journey that would allow me to create, to love, and to discover.

“Are you alive?” he asks again.

“Yes, I’m alive,” I say. Θ

Steven A. Rosenberg is publisher and editor of The Jewish Journal. Email him at rosenberg@jewishjournal.org.

 

2 Responses

  1. Steve –

    Amazing personal essay about your own story as it relates to the Gillette Bruce Springsteen show. Your story really moved me.

    Thank you for all that you do.

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