‘Tramps Like Us’: On the road with Bruce, Part 1

‘Screen Door Slams’

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So whilst the Vancouver part of this trip is over, the journey home is not going to be a quiet one, with not one, but two Bruce Springsteen shows on the way back to the UK. The dust has settled since the first one took place on Saturday night and I feel ready to write this report. This isn’t great fieldwork practice, as any ethnographer or fieldworker knows, fieldnotes should be written up as soon as possible after the observed event. This is so that the writer can create as accurate an account as possible of the setting, people or occasion being studied. However, it always takes me a few days to process a Bruce performance and on a very cold day in Chicago [-16 degrees Celsius/4 degrees Fahrenheit], as I won’t be going very far from my Hostel, it feels an ideal time to get this out from my fieldnotes [small memos recorded on my mobile phone] and onto the page. Also as I am due to see Bruce play again here tomorrow, there is another report to come in the next few days!

‘Long Time Coming’

It’s been almost two and half years since I last saw Bruce and the E Street band play in Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium on July 23rd 2013. When the tour dates were announced in December and I saw he was going to be the US in January, I knew I couldn’t pass on the opportunity to see him once more, especially being much closer to the action in Vancouver than the UK. So I decided to extend my stay in Canada and get tickets [not an easy task, as the Ticketmaster site was super busy] for his opening two shows in Pittsburgh [Jan 16th] and Chicago [Jan 19th] to see him play on the way home. My preference is always to stand at concerts and get the ‘pit experience’ [the small section closest to the stage] but I could only get seated tickets for both shows, which was slightly disappointing, but still, a Bruce show, is a Bruce show and I was looking forward to it.

‘From Small Things (big things one day come)’

The flight from Vancouver to Pittsburgh landed Friday evening and by the time I got on the bus into the city, I could see by the collection of different T-Shirts around me, that other ‘trampers’ [Bruce fans] had begun to arrive. I got chatting to two fans, sitting near to me, Pam and Steve, who were both from the states and lifelong Bruce fans. Pam later told me she’d been to see around 300 shows since the late 1970s! I think my interest and how far I have traveled surprised them both. Whenever Bruce fans get together at concerts, a few things tend to happen and this occasion was no exception. Fans tend to talk about obscure song choices, how many shows they are going to on a specific tour, ticket problems, and opinions on how much longer Bruce and the E-Street band will keep going. Steve had tickets for three shows and Pam four, I was envious, but there will always be people who have the opportunity or economic means to go to more shows. I saw one person on a Bruce fan site claiming he or she had tickets to 13 shows on this tour!

On the bus journey in from the airport, me and my new Bruce buds chatted about all things Springsteen, oblivious to the other passengers who filled up the bus the closer we got to downtown. Getting off in a new place is always a bit daunting, especially in the dark. I had booked a room through the travel site Air B and B, which was much cheaper than any of the hotels in town, but it was a bit of distance away so I needed to get a cab there. As Pam had been to the city before, she was kind enough to take me under her wing and told me there would be plenty of them outside her hotel, so she would show me where it was. As we walked through downtown we talked about the UK and I found out she’d studied there for a while, and also toured Europe to see Bruce. When we got to the hotel we parted, but before I got in my cab, we swopped twitter details, and planned to try and meet up over the weekend.

On the ten-minute journey to the place I was staying on the North Shore of the city, the friendly cab driver told me all about the industrial heritage of the city and region. Coming from a country where the manufacturing and heavy industries have all but disappeared, I was surprised to hear that there were still coal mines and blast furnaces in the area and across Pennsylvania more generally. These were the ‘real jobs, for real men’ that had once shaped the area of Wales where I grew up and the disappearance of these types of jobs, and the impact this has had on those communities, has been a central core of my work on masculinities. As I was to learn over the weekend, the blue collar worker and white working classes that this industry produced, are still very much alive here, and very proud of their heritage. Given the UK governments continual erosion and selling off of these key industries, which has changed the social, economic, cultural and political landscape of Britain, I could feel a strong affinity already growing to this place.

After a takeaway pizza and an early night, I set out around noon to explore the city before the show in the evening. In the daylight the area I was in looked very similar to the South Wales Valleys, with houses built in rows across a hill all leading down to a wide river, with alleyways leading off them. The mountain side looked grey and dark, with bare trees, again similar to back home and surprising, just like the Valleys, a number of small churches or chapels scatter throughout the streets. After spending so many months in Vancouver, where more or less everything is built out of glass and wood, what struck me most about the area and the city, was the amount of stone and brick work around. As I crossed into downtown across one of the city’s approximately 400 bridges, I realised that this might be an old city, but again it was one that was strangely familiar.

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I started with a beer and brunch at a place called Meat and Potatoes, where all the staff wore T-Shirts with ‘This is a Meat and Potatoes Kinda Town’ stamped across the back. Another link I thought back to the industrial heritage of the town, as these would once have been part of main diet of manual workers. This was about where the links ended as this place was giving off a very large hipster vibe, this was confirmed when the beer I ordered was served in a Jam Jar. After eating [eggs and bacon] I went to check out the Monongahela Incline, a cable car journey up a very steep cliff.

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This gave me a great view of the city skyscrapers, bridges, stadiums and the surrounding areas. The river, which was one of three flowing through the city, would wind its way down towards the Monongahela valley, another industrial area, which I had heard about in the Bruce Springsteen song Youngstown.

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This view was another reminder that Bruce o’ clock was fast approaching. Although I was very tempted to go to the Andy Warhol museum [who was born and raised here] time was running out so I opted for another beer in a nearby bar, before catching the cable car back down the incline, and headed across the city for the Consol Energy Centre where the concert was to take place. I aimed to have another drink beforehand, but all the bars near the stadium were packed with concert goers, and with a long line already growing at the entrance to the stadium, I decided to join it and get in, I was too excited to hang around any longer.

‘Glory Days’

Although it was only 5:45pm, and the doors were not supposed to open till 6:00pm, a large crowd had already gathered at the entrance. Whilst waiting for them to let us in, [those lucky enough to have General Admission/ standing tickets were able to go in first] I got chatting to an older man who was a local used-car salesman’s and his wife. In the ten to fifteen minutes we chatted, he struck me as being the least likely Springsteen fan I had ever met. This was his first time seeing him and he had bought his wife tickets for Christmas. Both were completely shocked that I had come all this way to see Bruce in their city and they asked me what I thought about America and surprisingly Obama, who they were not fans of. The husband of the couple then proceeded to tell me where America was going wrong in the world, and how he hoped Donald Trump would sort the country out. He blamed Muslims, and told me how he thought Iraq should have been ‘blown back to the stone age’. He also asked me what Tony Blair was up to these days and mentioned how great (!) a guy he had been and how us Brits were the only ones who stood by America after 9/11. Trying not to ask too many questions in case I stopped his rant, I gently asked him what he thought about all the talk of tightening up gun ownership, to which he replied ‘it’s un-American’ and that he wasn’t giving up his own guns. When I asked how many he had, he told me that he had a whole range of hand guns, assault rifles and hunting rifles. The later he was going to use to hunt bears with when he went up to Ontario with his old Army buddies later in the year. His wife was very quick to tell me she wasn’t very keen on guns, but that her husband had been showing her how to shoot one lately, as he’d told her things were getting bad these days and so she might need to know how to do this someday. The husband muttered that he was annoyed that he couldn’t bring his small handgun in with him tonight, and that he had had to leave it in the car. Before we could continue this conversation any longer, the doors opened and we were let in. I could see why the used-car salesman couldn’t bring in his gun, we all had to pass through a metal detector inside the entrance.

I grabbed a beer [at $10 around £7 per can, I wasn’t going to have many!] and took my seat. It was in the lower level about half way down the stadium, not a great seat, but it was on the end of the row which meant I could get up when I wanted. With almost an hour to go before the show, the arena was filling up slowly, but I was just happy to take in the experience whilst sipping my expensive beer. Thankfully I didn’t have to wait long to meet some more Americans, this time some people who really got Bruce, sat down near me. David and his wife Noreen were from Altoona [which I had heard mentioned on a film once] and they had traveled to the city that afternoon. Both were a little older than the couple on the way in, but neither has seen Bruce before and were again surprised at how far I had come. David seemed to be the polar opposite to the used-car salesman. He was a high school history teacher, who hated guns, loved Obama and was truly embarrassed by Donald Trump and what he was saying about his country. Strangely, he also seemed to be a big fan of Tony Blair, which as I didn’t want to ruin the moment, I let it pass. As the show crept closer, we continued to chat and the crowd filled up, I looked around and something dawned on me, everyone was white. After months of being in a diverse city like Vancouver, I was a little taken aback that it had taken me so long to realise it, as the night wore on, apart from a few member of arena staff, the audience was 99.9% white and with an average age of about 50.

‘Dancing in the Dark’

Finally, after what seemed an age, the lights went out, the crowd went wild and on came the E Street Band. One by one members of the band took the stage and I ticked them off mentally in my head [Max, Gary, Roy, Susie, Nils, Stevie, Patti, Charlie, Jake] and last, but by no means least Bruce. It was like seeing old familiar faces, but part of it still felt unreal and I caught myself saying, there they are! My attention was now fully turned to the stage and for most of the next 3 hours and 20 minutes, I was entirely focused  on the music and the people enjoying it around me.

Bruce had already announced that this tour would consist of playing the 1980 album The River, in its entirely start to finish along with some B-sides and other songs thrown in after it. Yet the opener which was the re-released B-side ‘Meet me in the City’ was a little surprising and slightly disappointing as most of the crowd were unaware of it. It was only when the band burst into ‘The Ties That Bind’, that open the album, that the crowd became really alive and I felt a lump in my throat and tears come into my eyes, the show was really underway. I thought, this is the reason why I come to see Bruce again and again, this mixture of shared happiness and euphoria, but something which was also twined with a little sadness. My emotions were truly all over the place.

The next hour and half were a solid journey through what Bruce described as a “first attempt to write about the commitments of home and marriage…and also about crushes, sex, partying and all the fun stuff before marriage even becomes a question, before need reveals vulnerability, before desire requires promises that might not be kept”. It’s dark in places such as Independence Day, and the title track The River [which features in my book acknowledgments] but fun and lively in other places [I’m a Rocker, Cadillac Ranch], it also, for me anyway, has Springsteen’s worse song on it [even worse than Girl in their Summer Clothes, or Queen of the Supermarket] Hungry Heart.

When this came up, this was my cue for a toilet break, and even though it was a stupid price, another beer! Hearing the title track ‘The River’ live was special, when it was played at Glastonbury in 2009, I remember crying all the way through it, but not on this occasion, not even a tear, which again was a surprise. It did have an effect on David though, after the s0ng had finished he grabbed me and shouted in my ear, ‘I’ve been waiting 30 years for that’!

When Bruce had finished the closing track ‘Death on the Highway’, he announced, ‘Don’t worry, we got a few more for ya’ and burst into ‘Badlands’ and the crowd again went wild. At that moment, I thought, right that’s business over with, now for the fun stuff. My highlight of the night came a few minutes later, with ‘Backstreets’, off the 1975 Born to Run album. I’d been to 6 previous concerts, but never heard it, tonight I did and while The River didn’t set off the tears, Backstreets did, and they streamed down my face. It’s a song about an intense summer romance or friendship between two people, one of whom is called Terry. The song has caused debate within fan circles for years, as Terry is never explicitly referred to with any specific gender in the 1978 lyrics. Is the song about love between two men rather than a heterosexual relationship? I would  like to think that the line ‘Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see, trying to learn to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be’, sums up the end of youth and the pressure to act in a certain masculine way and therefore indicates that the characters are both male.

The encore began with a quick speech from Bruce about David Bowie, who had died earlier that week, before belting out his song Rebel Rebel as a tribute. The shows ending included all the classics, like Dancing in the Dark [with the usual woman pulled up onto stage to dance at the end of the song], Rosalita and Born to Run. This is the moment during concerts when all the lights in the house go on and EVERYONE seems to sing in unison and be together as one. The Bruce power drive [sorry I couldn’t resist adding it in at least once!] usually reaches it’s crescendo during this song and the crowd always seem to scream the lyrics “ain’t that young anymore” especially loud. Tonight was no exception and I took a moment to look at the people standing around me,dancing, singing and smiling. Again, I thought, this is why I come again and again. It’s not just the music, which often feels like a soundtrack to my life, but this feeling of community, this ‘in it’ together spirit.It is something that I have never found it in another artist.

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After the concert finished I sat there in a bit of a post-Bruce haze. I had stood for the best part of three and a half hours and I was shattered. I waited for the crowed to file out and took in the now emptying arena. I am often glad to be on my own when I feel like this, as I couldn’t speak and just wanted to process things and sit quietly. David tapped me on the shoulder and gave me a big bear hug which I hadn’t been expecting, he said how nice it was to have met me and that if he was ever in Wales he would look me up. He kept shaking his head and saying things like, wow, that was just wow as we briefly chatted. A few minutes later I made my way outside, and the cold air felt really good. Although my ears were ringing and feet were aching, the post-Bruce buzz  was still there and would be for the remainder of my 45 minute walk home through downtown, across the Andy Warhol Bridge and up the North Shore. I thought how lucky I was that in a few days’ time, I was going to get a chance to repeat this experience all over again. During the concert Bruce told us “time catches up with us all, we have a limited amount of it to do what we can”. He and the E Street band will not be around forever, so my advice to you is to get out there and see him, before it is too late!

Set List

Meet Me In The City

The Ties That Bind

Sherry Darling

Jackson Cage

Two Hearts

Independence Day

Hungry Heart

Out in the Street

Crush on You

You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)

I Wanna Marry You

The River

Point Blank

Cadillac Ranch

I’m a Rocker

Fade Away

Stolen Car

Ramrod

The Price You Pay

Drive All Night

Wreck on the Highway

Badlands

Wrecking Ball

Backstreets

Because the Night

Brilliant Disguise

The Rising

Thunder Road

Rebel Rebel

Bobby Jean

Dancing in the Dark

Born to Run

Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)

Shout

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