Saturday night, Nov. 17, 2012, Kansas City, Mo: My feet are firmly on the concrete floor of the Sprint Center, the gleaming downtown arena. I’m jammed in with thousands, pressed up against a barrier, waiting for the start of a Bruce Springsteen concert. It’s 7:44 — 14 minutes past showtime — but I know from experience that these things start about an hour late.
The phone in my right front jeans pocket buzzes. A text message: “At the end of the first, it’s Baylor 14, ‘Cats 7. We’re driving.”
OK. Not good. The K-State football team, ranked first in the country, is behind. But this I can deal with. I’m thinking that we can grind out a win on the road, stay undefeated, and still have a shot at a national championship. Sure, I’d rather get a message that my Wildcats are up 28-3 at the end of the first quarter, but I can handle “Down 14-7 and driving.”
Back in August, I didn’t think this would be an issue. I bought tickets to Springsteen’s Kansas City show the first day they were available, knowing full well there would be a K-State football game that same day.
Make no mistake: These are two serious passions for me, and I knew there could potentially be a conflict. But there wasn’t ever any question in my mind. First, Springsteen comes around here only once every few years, and you never know when the last time will be. I planned to bring my wife and two of our boys.
Second, the K-State football game in question would be played in Waco against Baylor, and in August that just didn’t sound like must-see-TV. At that point, I was pretty sure K-State would have a good team, but like a lot of people I was figuring the ‘Cats would have several losses. OU, West Virginia and TCU on the road? Are you kidding me?
So I bought the tickets. I kept thinking that the ‘Cats weren’t any sort of dominant force, and that somebody would kick them around. Instead, they continued to graciously allow their opponents to lose.
And so a week before the game, the TV people announced that they wanted the Baylor game in prime time. Kickoff: 7 p.m. The conflict was real, but I knew where I’d be, and it wasn’t in front of a screen.
I just told my brother to text me updates every quarter, and then a score-by-score account if it was close in the fourth. I didn’t want too many distractions – you get rewarded for paying attention at a Springsteen show — but I also knew I would want to know.
It’s 8:30 p.m. I’ve been standing since about 4:15, and my feet are starting to hurt. I bought general-admission floor tickets – not reserved seats – because down on the floor you can really experience the full-on communal rush of a Springsteen show.
My 15-year-old nephew and I had stood in a line to try to get right next to the stage, but our number in the lottery didn’t come up. We were nevertheless among the earliest into the main part of the floor, standing maybe four feet away from a barrier that separates the front area (called “the pit”) from the rest of the floor.
That barrier has a narrow walkway on top. That fact will become important.
My wife and youngest son are also along, and the little guy is starting to wear out. He played three basketball games earlier in the day, and 8:30 is pushing bedtime for an 11-year-old.
The lights go out. Springsteen and the E Street Band assemble on the stage, the capacity crowd roaring. The stage lights come up, and they launch into a smoking version of “Kansas City,” the old R&B number. Cliché? Well, maybe, but they kill the thing, showcasing a big new horn section Springsteen has assembled to back the band on this tour.
Then there’s a blistering version of “Prove it All Night,” straight into “Candy’s Room,” two songs from a 1978 album, songs that somehow sound more powerful today than they did then.
I look at the boys. They’re mesmerized. (“Which one is this?” the little guy yells to me, eyes wide, grinning. He recognizes some Springsteen songs, but he’s more familiar with the 2012 material than, say, “Prove it All Night.”)
The phone buzzes again. It’s 28-17 Baylor at the half. “The defense looks dizzy,” my brother’s message says, but he notes that “we scored 10 in the last 3 minutes” of the half.
Wait. What? That means we had been down 28-7? To Baylor?
Well, still, my rational mind says: We’re down by two scores, and Bill Snyder will get this figured out at halftime as he has before. We can draw even, and make a play at the end to win. I vow to not pull the phone out again until the damn thing buzzes.
The fifth song is “Hungry Heart,” a crowd sing-along classic, and we’re all belting it out at the top of our lungs: “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, Jack/ I went out for a ride and I never went back…”
We’re all-in. Around me are my wife and the boys, a mid-20s finance guy from New Jersey and his architect girlfriend, a kindly fellow who looks like Osama bin Laden, and a beefy guy probably in his 50s. Behind us are several youngish dudes in K-State shirts; they tell me they’re recording the game and don’t want me to share my brother’s updates.
Some college girls try to horn in ahead of us, and the group rallies to tell them to get lost. The beefy guy makes the girls get behind him. There’s a collective ethic in a Springsteen show, an egalitarianism that’s hard to find elsewhere. A middle-aged woman I had talked to in line was on about her 60th show. On the way from her home in rural Colorado, she had gotten stranded in western Nebraska. She posted something on a Springsteen-fan website, and a fellow fan drove through and gave her a lift. We’re talking about somebody she had never met detouring into the sticks. We’re talking about trust in your fellow man.
Anyway, a middle-aged couple and the Osama gent invite my youngest to step in front of them, since he otherwise would have trouble seeing, so he’s right up against the barrier. He’s just tall enough to see over it.
Springsteen leaps off the stage, down into the crowd, and then jumps up on that outer barrier, still singing “Hungry Heart.” He walks by, and the little guy reaches out and touches his leg. My nephew is two feet away. Everybody’s flying.
Springsteen does a back-dive into the crowd, and he surfs along, supported by the hands of his fans, back to the stage. The guy is 63.
After that initial rush, the show’s arc turns darker. “Death to My Hometown,” “Wrecking Ball,” and “My City of Ruins” — songs about loss, grief, and ghosts — appear. In “My City of Ruins,” Springsteen introduces members of the band, and asks “Are we missing anybody?”
This is the first tour for the band since the death of saxophone player Clarence Clemons. The “Big Man” was a musical powerhouse; his wailing, honking and caressing sax solos seemed to project the emotion of Springsteen’s stories at the gut level. He was also a black man whom Springsteen called his brother, and the imagery the two of them created together in a live show raised the stakes.
It wasn’t entirely clear how the show would go on without him. Springsteen added an entire horn section – including Clarence’s nephew, Jake Clemons, on sax. He added backing vocalists and percussion. In other words, he replaced Clarence with a small army.
Also not present at the roll call: Danny Federici, the keyboard player with Springsteen for four decades. He had died a few years earlier.
Their spots onstage were left vacant during that roll call. “The change was made uptown,” Springsteen sang, over and over – a reference to Clarence from a song called “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” a line that would be resurrected later. It was inserted seamlessly and soulfully here into “My City of Ruins.” The crowd sang along with one line: “Come on, rise up!” It was a plea. It was beautiful. It was sad, haunting.
Loss. Grief. Ghosts.
Buzz. It’s 9:46 p.m. “3rd quarter. Baylor 52, Cats 24. I don’t know this team.”
The dream season is dying. I’ve been through this before, and somehow the ghost of 1998 seems to plant his feet on the concrete right beside me. All I can think of is a quote from Karl Marx (of all things): History repeats itself, he wrote, “first as tragedy, then as farce.”
Getting beat in 1998 by Texas A&M in double-overtime in a conference championship game to lose a shot at the national title? Tragedy. Getting hammered wire-to-wire by a sub-.500 Baylor team to wreck a 10-0 season? Well, “farce” might be a bit strong, but Marx was on to something.
Springsteen chugs through “Downbound Train,” a 1980s piece: “I had a job, I had a girl/ I had something going, mister, in this world/ I got laid off down at the lumber yard/ Our love went bad, times got hard/ Now I work down at the car wash/ Where all it ever does is rain/ Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train…”
I message my brother with that song title. I intended it as a concert update. He took it as a comment on the game. Maybe it was.
The thing about Springsteen is that it’s never one thing. The songs about darkness are, in fact, often about faith, hope and perseverance – about “trudging through the dark in a world gone wrong,” to quote one recent song. That song is “Shackled and Drawn,” which somehow manages on this night to turn into a rousing gospel number.
And with that, the arc of the show starts upward again. There’s “The Rising,” the cathartic post-9/11 anthem about both the “sky of longing and emptiness” and the “sky of fullness, sky of blessed life.”
And then this:
Sometime around 10:20, Springsteen launches into “Raise Your Hand,” a rock/soul standard that he’s covered in concerts off and on since the 1970s.
(This is a rock concert, after all — it’s about being fully alive right now, as Springsteen has said more than once, and not just a meditation on loss. It’s never just one thing.) Anyway, “Raise Your Hand” is a call-and-response song, and Springsteen again jumps onto that barrier in the middle of the audience — the one a few feet away from me.
Here he comes, slapping hands. My youngest holds his hand up, and Bruce reaches down and grabs hold.
For a moment, he lifts the little guy up just a bit off the floor, but then he puts him down again. He’s singing and pointing at the little guy, and he rubs the head of my nephew.
Did that really just happen?
10:27. The text is simple: “K-State blown out. Turning phone off.”
“Land of Hope and Dreams” leads into “Light of Day,” and the message: “Well tomorrow there’ll be sunshine/ And all this darkness past.”
In there somewhere is “Badlands,” the defiant, ringing rock anthem that declares “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.” Fifteen thousand people jab their fists in the air and roar along.
The show ends with “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” which is sort of an insider’s story of the E Street Band itself, and a helluva show tune.
There’s that line again: “The change was made uptown,” Springsteen sings, and the whole thing suddenly stops.
Everyone there, even my 11-year-old, knows that the next line is “And the Big Man joined the band,” followed by a signature saxophone blast from the great Clarence Clemons.
But that line was not delivered. Instead, Springsteen, again standing on that outer stage barrier, looked back for several minutes, microphone down at his side, at a huge screen over the stage showing video clips and photos of Clarence and Danny Federici. They were joyful, alive, and right there. Almost.
Loss, yes. Grief, yes. But the crowd roared louder than ever, saying thanks to those men, and thanks to the band, and thanks to Springsteen, and really thanks to each other. All those years of fun, all those years of camaraderie and catharsis. All that catharsis, right now.
Jake Clemons does an admirable job filling in for his uncle, delivering terrific sax parts and a fun stage presence. But at that moment, the absence of the Big Man overwhelmed me. Almost was not quite enough.
And yet, in the face of grief, and in the face of loss, I was cheering. We were all cheering. We were celebrating the beauty of what had gone before, and we were all reveling in what we had at that very instant, despite —or maybe because of — the grief.
Springsteen came back around on that barrier, four feet away from me, and he looked right at me as I sang along, out of key, as loud as I could.
There’s a distinct possibility that I was levitating.
Tragedy? Farce? Sure. We all lose, even the ‘Cats. We all grieve. Eventually, we all die. But we live on somehow, and we are all alive, fully alive, right now.