Has it really been 45 years since I first heard the Greetings from Asbury Park album and became a diehard fan of my fellow New Jerseyite, Bruce Springsteen? This relationship has produced some of my fondest musical memories, and, it seems that no matter what he does that I may not like, be it high-ticket prices on Broadway or a few recent lame records, he will always be my rock ‘n’ roll hero.
Over this time, we’ve now been in the same room together 60 times. But, aside from being under the same roof at a concert venue, like many music fans, I sought the chance to meet my favorite artist at least once to shake hands, say hello, get an autograph and maybe even a photo together.
However, getting close to Bruce over the last 30 years or so has been far from easy. Meeting an artist before or after an arena or stadium show is next to impossible. The fact that I currently live in Tennessee while Bruce resides in Jersey also rules out a chance meeting at a Starbucks or a pizza joint.
But, there were the times long ago, four to be exact, where I did get to meet Bruce Springsteen face-to-face. So, if even just for the sake of the grandchildren I hope someday have, I thought I’d recount those experiences for posterity in this music blog.
In August of 1976, I had the pleasure of seeing two Springsteen shows with the E-Street Band at the tiny Monmouth Arts Center in Red Bank, NY. (Now called the Count Basie Theatre.) As one would expect, these special concerts between the Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town records were a hard ticket indeed. However, I somehow twice managed my way in through the hard work of asking everyone I saw if they had an extra ticket. My thrill of hearing the new song “Rendezvous” each night however wasn’t capped off by meeting Bruce. But, I did learn something valuable In Red Bank that would help me make my first Springsteen encounter.
The intel I gathered was simply the fact that Bruce had shaved his beard. Recall that back then, without Facebook and Twitter, this kind of news travelled at a snail’s pace. Seeing those August shows helped me recognize a clean-shaven Mr. Springsteen a few weeks later on the night of September 4, 1976.
It was a Friday night, and a friend and I made the journey down to Asbury Park to see Hot Tuna play at the Casino Arena on the Boardwalk. Getting a late work day start on our drive down to the Shore, we walked in just in time to catch the end of the opening set by David Sancious. During the break, I met an old high school friend who said that he heard Bruce was standing back in the crowd listening to the jazzy sounds of his former E-Street Band keyboard player’s band. We also caught wind that Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes were playing across the street at the Stone Pony.
After a few songs by Hot Tuna, I convinced my friend that we were in the wrong place. Surprisingly, we easily made it into the Pony as a local band was playing. Eyeing up the room with a bottle of Heineken in hand, I spotted the “Beardless Boss” sitting alone unrecognized on the jukebox. Full of courage from who knows where, I approached him with the words “Bruce, can I buy you a beer?” He quickly responded to this total stranger of a teenager with “I’ll take a Blackberry on the rocks.”
After securing and delivering said drink, I joined Mr. Springsteen atop said jukebox for the next 15 minutes or so where we chatted briefly and listened to the band. He pointed out how the lead singer was in the first band he ever played in. (I believe it was George Theiss from The Castiles.) Bruce was so kind, friendly and relaxed, and for some reason, I was on my best non-star-struck behavior. My friend later joined us, and as we departed, Bruce bought us a pair of Heinekens. For almost 40 years to this day, that bottle remains in a treasured spot on the bookshelf of my study.
This dreamlike evening was capped off by a great set from the Jukes with Bruce joining them on stage for their usual encore of Sam Cooke’s “Having a Party.” If only somewhere there was a picture of us sitting on that jukebox together!
Two weeks later, on September 19, 1976, I went to see The Band at the Palladium in New York City. Formerly known as the Academy of Music, this was the same venue where a few years earlier they recorded their sensational live record, Rock of Ages. Although they had dipped a little in stature since then, they were touring in support of their strong new LP, Northern Lights – Southern Cross.
Whenever I frequented the Academy/Palladium, I made a point to stand by the backstage door to try and catch band members coming in and out of the show. While waiting beforehand to try and meet Robertson, Danko, Manual, Hudson or Helm, I was surprised to see my still unrecognizable to most, new friend Bruce. Quite puzzled to suddenly be within striking distance of him, I said “Hey Bruce,” somehow thinking he’d remember his Heineken-drinking friend from the jukebox at the Pony. This encounter lasted only a minute or so, but I was able to get a “We’re gonna be playing here!” out of him. This news was about his bringing what later became known as “The Lawsuit Tour” to the Palladium for a six-show run starting at the end of October.
My two other Springsteen encounters were the result of a single event occurring during the 1978 Darkness tour on which I saw 15 shows. On the weekend of August 25-26, I travelled with three friends to see the Friday show in New Haven, CT and the Saturday show in Providence, RI. One of my friends was a great amateur photographer, and because of his kindness and talent, had befriended Bruce’s legendary #1 Springsteen fan and assistant, the late “Obie” Dziedzic.
Well, as memory serves, we somehow met up with Obie after the New Haven show and in a joyous mood she gave us all a bunch of confiscated counterfeit Springsteen T-shirts. (Those cheap ones that last about two washes!) She also asked a favor of us to carry a big black garment bag to Providence and deliver it to her the next day at the hotel. (If only instead she told us that Bruce was about to drop in and play with John Cafferty and Beaver Brown downtown at Toad’s Place! That appearance by the way proved to be the launch pad for this band’s eventual national success that started with the hardcore Springsteen fan base.)
Nonetheless, we carried the cargo to Rhode Island, and now that the statute of limitations has expired, I can admit that we of course opened the garment bag. You should have seen our eyes bulge out of our heads when we saw that inside was the black suit that Bruce was wearing nightly on stage. Deciding not to hold it ransom, we took it over to his hotel, and our timing was such that right after our delivery to Obie, the E Street band bus pulled up in front of the hotel.
Waiting by the lobby door, we saw the band roll out of the bus. This third meeting with the Boss was one that found him scratching his sleepy head and rubbing his bloodshot eyes. My excited and unnecessary news to him about our completed garment bag mission was totally lost on him and produced nothing more than a yawn and a groan.
My final time meeting Bruce Springsteen was that night after the Providence show when Obie graciously invited me and my three friends back stage. Totally in awe and unprepared, to this day I cringe thinking how if I only had a Born to Run album for all the E Streeters to sign. However, I did have the note pad that I used to write down the nightly setlists, and did manage to get the treasured autograph that you see pictured below.
I recall a happy, smiling Springsteen, who certainly didn’t know me from Adam when I asked for his signature. I did preface my request with the fact that it was my eleventh show on the tour which he unsuspectedly acknowledged for me in writing. Sadly, back then taking pictures wasn’t a common thing, and none were taken while we were backstage. Still, like the three-prior meet-ups, it was a moment I’ll never forget.
The closing to this tale is my one further attempt at an encounter that just didn’t happen. In 1996, I found myself in Salt Lake City for one of the solo Tom Joad tour shows and decided I’d try the backstage door after the show. Out-of-the-way city and small venue, I thought I might have a chance. This time, I also had with me, a brand-new camera that I just had gotten as a gift. I would give it my best shot to get that much-desired photo with Bruce.
So, after the show, I waited outside backstage with a small group of fans. Those were the days when post-show Bruce would take the time to meet with people who worked at local food banks. While I waited, I saw these folks leaving with smiles on their faces after having met him. After hanging around for who knows how long, I finally gave up and went home since he obviously had left the venue through another exit.
Well, it could have been worse. Had I gotten that photo op, there would have been an even sadder ending to this story. The new camera was broken, didn’t work and was returned as defective.
So that’s my history of meeting Brue Springsteen. Who knows, maybe someday we’ll meet again somewhere when I have my camera handy and buy him another drink.