NEW YORK -- Past the woeful boomers with their signs ("Need two tickets" and other heart-breaking messages), into a frightening soup of golfing buddies, pregnant 40-year-olds and middle-aging Ivy Leaguers with aching joints. Some guy is picking a fight with a fellow down front and gestures obscenely. Another guy with bifocals fiddles with an illegal tape recorder and sticks a spaghetti mess of sprung tape into a pocket. From somewhere comes a surprising whiff of marijuana.
What am I doing here behind the stage at Madison Square Garden on July 1 surrounded by the clueless, the suburban, the sports-injured? Fortunately, I can claim the only possible, logical excuse: I'm with family to see the last performance of Bruce Springsteen's epic reunion tour with the E Street Band. To do that, you must put up with a lot of white noise. But as I've discovered at earlier Bruce shows, it's always worth it.
Besides, it's a waste of time and hypocritical to play the snob here at Bruce's existential rock and roll church, where parishioners, no matter how alien, live for today and punch the clock tomorrow. Vamping through "Light of Day," the Boss will soon say that he can't promise you life everlasting, but he can promise you "life right now."
And like any good missionary, he's preaching to the golfers as well as the gofers, and anyone else who wants to listen, for that matter. We're all equal in Bruce's eyes.
Never mind the wildly incongruous sight of thousands of yuppies punching the air with their fists while Bruce belts the angry "Badlands," a song of frustration and defiance. It "ain't no sin to be glad you're alive," no matter who you are, how rich or poor. When Bruce sings, such distinctions dissolve anyway.
And lest we forget, Springsteen and wife Patti Scialfa are themselves landed gentry, said to be fond of horseback riding on their New Jersey property. (To benefit the U.S. Olympic equestrian team, Patti recently auctioned off a guitar of her husband's, an instrument she claimed he had rubbed with his naked body. The guitar yielded $10,000.)
Somehow, through it all, Bruce, 50, remains a working-class hero, still sexy and shaking in his tight black jeans after all these years.
The tour, which began in Europe 15 months ago and opened a year ago in the United States at the Continental Airlines Arena, has given Bruce's most ardent devotees a reason to live online. There they constantly exchange rumors, set lists and intelligence. (Check out www.greasylake.org and the Springsteen shrine at www.nj.com/ springsteen to get the full extent of their mania.)
For me, the tour was an opportunity to ponder my fellow Jersey native's genius and try to pinpoint its source. What does he do that no other rocker can? It has something to do with the lessons he imparts; not just through his songs, but through the example of both his public life and -- I'd like to think -- his personal life.
Springsteen is a secular preacher with an uncanny and unabashedly corny ability to celebrate life's elemental pleasures. His humor, music and on-stage demeanor strip away Puritan taboos without advocating total debauchery. He's basically a clean-cut, born-in-the-USA guy who believes a good life, love and sex are part of our birthright. Name another rock star who can joke about masturbation or talk about intimacy with his wife without sounding dirty.
And how many rock stars can reconcile this "life is good" message with tragic ballads like "The River" and "Atlantic City"? In Springsteen's world, dreams explode more frequently than they come true.
His music reflects a full embrace of the American character. In his melodies and operatic arrangements, we hear gospel and rhythm and blues, as well as pure white pop, a little Hendrix crossed with Aaron Copland, and, as always, a huge salute to Dylan. In his lyrics, we smell the tang and tar of the Jersey shore as well as the bleak blacktops of shell-shocked cities. Springsteen's empathic, consummately American gift slices through human differences to a common heart -- even though his audience is exclusively and perplexingly white.
("Where are all my Negroes at?" asked Village Voice columnist Greg Tate after attending a Springsteen concert last year. "Why aren't there more black people out here screaming Bruuuuce like Dolly Earshatterer to the rear of my right lobe?")
Hanging with the guys
The tour that brought the E Street Band and Springsteen together after a 12-year separation suggests a renewed determination to live the life he sings, and sing the life he lives. Certainly, the E Street Band members are persuasive characters in his lucrative passion play, but they are also his friends.
The E Streeters, among them "Sopranos" star Steve Van Zandt, saxophonist Clarence Clemons, hyper-elf Nils Lofgren and late-night TV drummer Max Weinberg, were not strapped for cash before returning to the fold, but after this tour they are set for life.