Home Stand

Bruce Springsteen's concert tour begins where it all started for a jersey girl who's never forgotten the feeling.

July 17, 1999|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The screen door slammed Thursday night, and I was a Jersey girl again.

Not the Jersey girl I once was, a four-eyed chub with the bathing-suit blues, but the one I once wished I could be, cruising down the boardwalk with my friends, a curfew just beyond the horizon, my mind spinning with top-10 lyrics and an awesome case of entitlement.

That's the beauty of Bruce Springsteen. He doesn't sing for the kids who are already having a great time; he sings for the ones who lie in bed at night dreaming about what they think they're missing.

To be in the audience at the Meadowlands for the first U.S. concert of Springsteen's current tour, to be in the throes of New Jersey's summer of Springsteen frenzy, felt something like poetic justice for all those nights of longing. But most important, I had a great time.

Who wouldn't? Springsteen was as happy as his audience to be back in town with his old buddies -- the E Street Band -- with whom he hadn't toured in 12 years. Looking fit, if a little crinklier, and playing the same battered guitar, Springsteen is still impishly irrepressible, a wellspring of manic energy that makes him as endearing to men as he is to women.

Belting out operatic epics like "Badlands," shaking his butt in imitation of Tom Jones, making like a revival tent preacher with the promise to "regenerate and resexualate you with the mastery, ministry and mystery of rock 'n' roll," Springsteen, kneeling by the end of his "Light of Day" rap, was humane, profane and funny. He is such a mensch!

And he made me proud to be a Jersey girl.

In the weeks leading up to the show, the first of 15 in North Jersey, Springsteen fanatics engaged in an orgy of speculation about the set-list for the first show. Would his first song be "Rosalita"? (It was a newly released song, "My Love Will Not Let You Down"). And rest assured, the complete set-list was posted on Bruce Web sites within minutes of the three-hour concert's conclusion.

There it will run next to syrupy tributes. One admirer wrote that her mother was buried with Springsteen's "concert program by her side." Another said her husband got a ticket for listening to "Born in the USA" too loud. A third said she got the go-ahead from her doctor to attend the concert while nine months pregnant.

Adding to the breathless buildup was a sighting of Bruce at a Jersey bar a few days before the concert. After playing a handful of songs, Springsteen hung out for a while, chatting with fans. "See you Thursday," one told him as Springsteen left.

The Meadowlands tried to bring a little of the Jersey shore to the arena, transforming a portion of parking lot into a stretch of boardwalk, featuring hot dogs, games of chance, beach volleyball and bad Bruce karaoke.

A left-handed Bruce wannabe, complete with scruffy chin, strummed his guitar while a crowd gathered around. Fans held tailgate picnics, barbecuing chicken and listening to Bruce on boom boxes. An airplane circled the Continental Airlines Arena, trailing a banner that exulted: "Welcome Back Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band."

Shore-like breezes prevailed, as the crowd, overwhelmingly white and dominated by people in their 30s and 40s, roamed the grounds. As they munched popcorn and swigged beer, the fans could easily have passed for those who come to the same arena to see the New Jersey Devils play hockey.

Even Bruce's most ardent fans came mostly for the classics. His slower, more introspective songs, like "The Ghost of Tom Joad," sparked immediate beer runs. But when the band returned to scorchers such as "Out on the Street" or "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," the fans responded with enthusiasm, and he yielded the microphone to the singing crowd.

It was also a way to pace himself. He is, after all, 49, and he's got a lot of concerts to give in the next few months. Gone are the days when he threw himself into the crowd, slid across the stage and leapt onto the piano with the greatest of ease.

Those days, he would finish his ultimate Jersey Girl song, "Thunder Road," with a headlong run across the stage to greet saxophonist Clarence Clemons on his knees. Thursday night, the two just strolled regally to meet at center stage. And only one front-row fan managed to score a kiss. Just as well -- Bruce's wife, singer Patti Scialfa, was on stage.

With one exception, Springsteen seemed resigned to the overwhelming din. For an encore, he came out on stage alone with an acoustic guitar and asked for, and got, the 20,000-seat arena to sit down and listen as he played a rarely performed rumination on growing up in central Jersey, "Freehold."

"This one is Whitmanesque," he teased. "Slim Whitman." Much of the song playfully goofed on his old hometown, but there was nothing gauzy about his memory.

"If you were different, black or brown, it was a pretty redneck town," Springsteen sang.

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