It’s press preview day for the Bruce Springsteen Live! exhibit at the Grammy Museum in downtown LA.
The elevator doors open to someone sitting behind a drum set getting a lesson from E-Street Band member Max Weinberg by interactive video. Max’s drum kit from the 1988 Tunnel of Love Express Tour is affixed to the other side of the partition.
Born To Run
From a pair of headphones you can listen to Bruce’s longtime manager Jon Landau recall how they met back when he was a rock critic in Boston. Landau’s review in the May ‘74 edition of Real Paper helped propel the songwriter’s career. It stated, “On a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time…. I saw rock ‘n’ roll future, and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
Sounds of Bruce and his electric guitar wailing in unison come out of the Clive Davis Theater. Inside is unseen footage from the ‘78 tour. With the raw potential of determined youth the singer asserts, “I’ll be on that hill with everything I got, Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost, I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost, For wanting things that can only be found, In the Darkness on the Edge of Town…”
Within a display case there is a hand-written letter from Bruce to his landlord explaining why he can’t pay his rent. There’s a typed one from business manager Michael Tannen to Bruce’s parents. It reads, “Enclosed are some recent clippings on Bruce’s tour which I thought you would like to see…we are all terribly proud of him, as we know you are too.” I smirk recalling the now infamous show here at the Roxy Theater in West Hollywood in the late 70s. Bruce’s mom and dad were in attendance, and between verses of “Growin’ Up” he implores, “And so you guys, one of you guys wanted a lawyer, and the other one wanted an author. Well, tonight, youse are both just gonna have to settle for Rock ‘N’ Roll.”
When They Said Sit Down, I Stood Up
Eileen Chapman, director of the Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music at Monmouth University and co-curator of the exhibit gets hurried across the space and into a black directors chair. Before her on-camera interview begins, she graciously chats with attendees about her years managing New Jersey’s Stone Pony Nightclub where Bruce got his start, and how much fun she’s having as a councilwoman of Asbury Park.
As Chapman is getting mic-ed up the crew calls for quiet. Something is still making noise. It’s a new video of Bruce Springsteen himself, answering questions about why, and how he’s still touring the world. He remarks, “Then you gotta have something to say. So, In a perfect world you know we’ve made some new music and I’ve got new things to say to my fans when I see them, and I look very forward to doing that, so that’s a great [inaudible] to get you out on the road. I want to see you, I have something I want to say to you, I have a way I want to make you feel, I have a way I want to feel, let’s do this together and see where it takes us…”
The walls are covered with seemingly innocuous artifacts that actually tell a much larger story of times when Springsteen had something to say. Like the ‘81 “A Night for the Vietnam Veteran” concert poster at LA’s Sports Arena. And the ’84 Born in the USA tour program; a seemingly patriotic song with a much deeper message, in-part about how vets were treated at the time.
I recall Bruce’s potent and skillful activism over the years. This includes writing the title song for the 1993 film Philadelphia that helped humanize the AIDS crisis and the 2000 tune American Skin/41 Shots which is a commentary on racial inequality and brutality.
Springsteen’s set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2006 comes to mind. He voiced what many displaced residents were feeling, “It’s what happens when people play political games with other people’s lives” before strumming the depression-era classic, “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.”
In another case are relics from the ’79 “No Nukes” Concert at Madison Square Garden. They include band rosters, schedules, stage plots and setlists. There are lighting directions written in ballpoint pen on how to cue his newest number, “The River, Slow ballad low lights.”
Come On Rise Up
I turn to see a program from The Rising tour, which stops me in my tracks. Many of us first heard songs off this album during “America: A Tribute to Heroes” a TV special and telethon that ran on all major networks on September 21, 2001 – just twenty days after 9/11. I watched with childhood friends from our usual loud and raucous hometown bar. That evening everyone stood still as Bruce and the band somberly sang, “My City of Ruins.” We sobbed silently into our beers, awaiting hopeful news from Ground Zero that would never come.
The following summer when the album was released it was like a map to get out of grief. Songs like “You’re Missing,” “Lonesome Day” and “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” assuaged the indescribable. While “My City of Ruins” encouraged us to find a way forward, “With these hands I pray for the strength Lord, with these hands, I pray for the faith Lord, with these hands, we pray for the lost Lord…Come on rise, come on rise up, come on rise up, come on rise up, come on rise up….!”
The exhibit includes an accordion of Danny Federici, and a saxophone of Clarence Clemmons, beloved E-Street Band members for some thirty plus years. Fans wondered how their absence would be handled after their passings before the 2012 tour. I still get chills any time I think of the spotlights on their empty spaces on stage here at LA’s Memorial Coliseum. Bruce serenaded softly, “Well, all I know, is that if you’re here, and you’re here then they’re here. I can hear them in your voices, raise ‘em up.”
In another video set-up you can listen to Jon Landau reflect, “Once Bruce walks on stage the question in mind is this going to be an absolutely great show tonight, is it going to one of the greatest shows he’s ever done, ‘Is it going to be the greatest show he’s ever done?’ That’s the range of possibilities. Bruce as a performer is so dedicated and so committed. In working with him for 45 years, I have simply never seen him go on the stage and do less than 100% of what he’s capable of that night. As Bruce has said, come into a building at 5 o’clock in the afternoon, equipment is being set up, looking at four walls and a lot of empty seats and his job is that by 11:30 at night to have created an event that people, including himself, will hopefully never forget. To make something, out of nothing. To create a spiritual experience, where before there was just emptiness, that’s what it’s all about.”
I Hope When I Get Old,
I Don’t Sit Around Thinkin’ About It,
But I Probably Will
I hear an audible gasp. Another attendee sees Bruce’s Fender Esquire guitar. The one from the Born to Run album and tour. He shares with me a slew of stories about nights he’ll never forget. “They played for THREE AND HALF hours straight, I don’t know how they do it! And now at their age! One time, my buddies and I went to…..” watching this guy’s eyes glisten while talking about his “Glory Days” brightens the room on an overcast afternoon.
Stenciled on a wall is a quote by Bruce “The heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, love making Le-gen-dary E-Street-Band!” It is a phrase he often chants while introducing the musicians who break the local sound curfew with him night after night, for most of their lives.
I laugh thinking of high school friends I haven’t seen in more than a decade whose primary form of communication these days is sending sporadic texts on a thread aaalllssso introducing the E-Street Band.
“The Deeeeeaaaannnn of the Unnnnnniversity”
“The foundation of the E Street nation, Mr. Garry W. Tallent! “
“On the guitar, the minister of faith + friendship, keeper of aaaallllllll that is righteous, and staaaaar of the Sooooopraaaanos teeeelevsion shooooow, Little Steven Van Zandt….! “
There’s a wall of hand drawn signs fans have scribed over the years, asking for their favorite songs. Among them is a life-size cut-out drawing of Bruce’s wife and musical collaborator, Patti Scialfa. It requests “Red Headed Woman,” a tune Bruce frequently sings to introduce her on stage.
On another video guitarist and vocalist Nils Lofgren discusses his ever-lasting search for a hotel gym. Seeing Nils I have a sense-memory flash back to meeting him outside the Vatican in Rome, Italy, the night after they played the Stadio Olympico Show in 2009. Bruce took our sign and announced from stage, “For the birthday girl who came all the way from New Jersey to see the boss man on her birthday.”
I giggle thinking of the gelato stand owners and taxi drivers who would ask us in English where we were from and when we said “USA, New Jersey” they would reply in Italian, “Aaah, El Pedron, El Pedron” Italiano for “The Boss.”
‘Cause Down The Shore Everything’s Alright
As I exit, I scan the Spotify QR Code for the playlist created by the curators of the exhibit. I hop in the car and head home on the 10. Someone abruptly slams on their brakes, and then I slam on mine. Everything in the front seat goes flying. In that moment, “Rosalita” begins blaring, I laugh out loud remembering a similar situation some 25 years ago. A friend borrowed her older brothers’ topless jeep so we could cruise down the shore, not mentioning that no-one reeaally knew how to drive a stick shift. That thing choked its’ way all the way down the parkway to exit 98 “Rosalita” on repeat all the while.
I think back to all the nights at Jersey Shore bars, when Springsteen’s version of “Jersey Girl” alerted patrons last call was coming, all the hook-ups that turned into couples, all the weddings I’ve been to where that was the bride and grooms’ song. All the children who ask me to tell them about the night their mom and dad met and all the “Don’t you dare” glares I get from their now middle-aged parents.
Let’s Make Our Steps Clear That Others May See
“The Power of Prayer” comes on the Spotify playlist – I look down at my phone wondering, “How have I never heard this before, what is this, when is this from…?”
I uncharacteristically burst into tears, pondering what any of the aforementioned memories, national crises, or global movements would have been like without these songs, without these statements, without this man.
Throughout time there have always been troubadours who transform through song. There was the Tibetan Buddhist Jetsun Millarepa, the Catholic Saint Gregory the Great, and even the Hindu mystic Mirabai.
In our place, in our time we have Bruce Springsteen.
An American treasure, a soul singer.
A healer, a sadhu, a modern-day sage.
Right on cue, as if answering my inquiry, Bruce busts into the chorus, “Darling, it’s just the power of prayer, Baby, it’s just the power of prayer, Darling, it’s just the power of prayer…”
Bruce Springsteen Live! At The Grammy Museum
Bruce Springsteen Live! is now open to the public and running from October 15, 2022- April 2, 2023
For more information on Bruce Springsteen Live! At the Grammy Museum click here.
To buy tickets click here.
Co-curated by Jasen Emmons, Chief Curator and Vice President of Curatorial Affairs at the Grammy Museum, Robert Santelli, and Eileen Chapman, director of The Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music, Bruce Springsteen Live! explores the evolution of Springsteen through the decades and grants exclusive backstage access to Springsteen and the E Street Band’s legendary performances.
Author’s Note; Thank You Rob DeMartin Photography.