It’s a cold, Saturday night in March, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 1996. My flatmates – medics and geography students with exams approaching, are making pasta in their dressing gowns or watching Friends on TV, their revision notes resting on their laps. As an English student, I have a somewhat more relaxed schedule. But this evening there is renewed sense of urgency. Tonight, Bruce Springsteen is in town.
But this is not the barnstorming Bruce of Born in the USA and Badlands, all chiming electric guitars and thunderous drums. This is The Ghost of Tom Joad acoustic tour. He’s picking up where he left off with the Nebraska album: mournful downbeat ballads inspired by the lost souls of the American south and Mexican border; Steinbeck anti-heroes. Still Bruce is Bruce and I’m drawn like a moth to the light.
It all began five years earlier. Babysitting for the neighbours’ kids, I was rummaging through their tapes, and stumbled on Born in the USA and Dark Side of the Moon. I had heard of both, but had listened to neither. While my fourteen-year-old self found himself impatient with the celestial space-rock of the Floyd’s album, what punched home was the whip snap guitar, the howl and bear-like roar of The Boss. While I was later to discover his soulful depths, the folk, the storytelling, like millions of others, I was lured in by the big, bright, bold production, the Chuck Berry-like torrent of lyrics and the lock-tight band.
It was the start of a journey that took me from boy to a man. I dropped the needle on Born to Run when I got my GCSE results. I prepped for my driving test by listening to Racing in the Street (I would have been better off swatting up on my highway code) I snogged to The River and drive through France with the Live album ringing in my headphones. At one point my lovely American aunt takes me to his front drive, where I collect a pebble and put it in my pocket (my little brother later lobs it in the sea…). By the time his flawed twin albums Human Touch and Lucky Town arrived, I was loyal enough to look beyond their weaknesses and appreciate that even below-par Bruce was above-par everyone else. Which takes us up to ‘96.
Approaching the end of my third year, all three of my student loans have now evaporated in a cloud of Newcastle Brown Ale, second hand books and cheese and pickle stotties. I have about fifty pounds to make it to the end of term, still a couple of weeks away. My credit card is lying in two pieces at the bottom of an HSBC wastepaper basket after it was neatly snipped in half in front of me.
All the evidence says I should stay in. Instead I grab my coat, withdraw all my earthly wealth and head down to the City Hall. Declining a hundred-pound ticket from a tout, I shuffle to the back of the returns queue and pray to the angels of E-Street to let me in. I’m with a couple from Manchester, Dave and Sue. Between them, they carry a flask, packed lunch and a vinyl copy of The River from 1980, hoping for a signature. They saw Bruce last night and loved it so much they drove across the country on the off chance of getting a ticket for tonight. We hang around for twenty minutes exchanging Bruce-lore, all of us quietly aware that the chances of someone deciding not to go and see Bruce Springsteen and stay in and watch Friends instead, are quite slim. That is until the president of the Bruce Springsteen fan club ambles up and waves three tickets like winning lottery tickets. At first we think he’s gloating, until he says: ‘Face value is fine,’ he adds casually. ‘Who’s a three?’
‘We’re a three,’ Dave says immediately, grabbing his wife and me, and holding us up by our collars to demonstrate the fact. The deal is swiftly done and we glide into the venue, unable to believe our luck. Bruce is reliably magnificent, playing an all acoustic set of Mexican border songs peppered with dramatic renderings from his back catalogue. His new version of Darkness On the Edge of Town now sounds like Pinball Wizard. He essays a blistering slide guitar version of Born in the USA, its fist punching chorus entirely absent. When someone calls for Thunder Road, he growls: ‘I ‘aint playing that old bastard.’ With a ponytail, goatee and torn white t-shirt, he looks more like a pirate shipwrecked at Whitley Bay than a millionaire from New Jersey.
I get chatting to the fans on my other side, two blokes and their sister, all from Liverpool, who tell me their allegiance is divided between Bruce and Jackson Browne. ‘When I listen to Jackson,’ says one of the brothers, ‘I kind of feel like I’m cheating on my wife.’ They ask me what I’m doing here on my own, and I tell them the smallest white lie: that I’m covering the gig for the local paper.
‘A journalist!’ one of them exclaims. ‘Flippin ‘eck, we’ve got a journalist here! Mind your Ps and Qs Deborah.’ I daren’t tell them that it’s just the student paper.
After the gig, they whisk me across town to a tiny club where, in a surreal twist, Denny Laine, the Moody Blues and Wings’ guitarist is just finishing a gig. One of the brothers pushes me to the front. ‘Hey Denny, he says, ‘we’ve got the press here! Will you have a word?’ Forced to improvise on the spot, and without so much as a pen and paper for a prop, I tell him I love Again and Again and Again, an obscure late Wings’ song he wrote. He seems to like this, but I quickly realise it’s not a question. ‘Er, what songs are you playing on the tour?’ I blunder. ‘The ones I just played,’ he replies. I retreat to the bar.
The next thing I know, I’m in a new-build house in a village outside Newcastle being plied with more booze. We sing Jackson Browne, Bruce and Neil Young until the small hours. I’m younger than the rest of them by a good ten years, but they seem to have adopted me. ‘How come you know all this old stuff?’ Deborah ask me. ‘Well you see,’ I explain, ‘there was this stack of cassettes…’
When I wake in the morning dribbling into the grey carpet of a home office. A cup of tea is delivered, and I’m informed we’re heading up to Edinburgh. I wonder whether I’ve been kidnapped. If I have, then I’ve developed a serious case of Stockholm syndrome.
Over the next 24 hours, I’m driven to the Scottish capital, plied with more booze, bought a ticket for Bruce’s Edinburgh show (‘We’re earning, you’re not’ they tell me) and taken on a pub crawl. We stay over at Deborah’s house. Next day, I’m deposited on a grey street in Newcastle with a telephone number scratched on a piece of paper, watching their car disappear around the corner. Two Bruce gigs and about fifteen pints for twenty-five quid. This is the sort of thing that only happens at Bruce Springsteen gigs.
I can’t help but feel it’s the sort of thing the man himself would approve of. Ordinary decent people sharing what they have and looking out for each other, bonded by a common love for music. Bruce keeps adding new chapters to his story and everyone else’s. His latest album, Western Stars, is a jewel. But for my part, I still treasure those two lost days of adventure, travelling up the beautiful Northumbria coast into Scotland, stepping out of my own life for a little while, with the windows down and sound of Bruce’s voice and guitar filling the sky.
Happy birthday, Bruce. Thanks for the music and thanks to your great fans too.
The Penguin Diaries by Christopher James, 65 sonnets about Captain Scott’s last expedition, is available now.