Bruce Springsteen and the Chase

Tuesday night, I stood on the MetLife Stadium field listening to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play for nearly four hours. Thursday night, I sat on my couch for nearly four hours, watching Night 2 of the band’s Jersey run on a variety of Periscope feeds.

I had never done anything like this; obviously, live-streamed concerts are nothing particularly new, and Periscope has become many fans’ go-to options to combat #FOMO in the last year or so. But for me, the issue was more personal. I desperately wanted to be with my friends at the show, and thought that watching the beginning of it would be the next best thing. Then I got hooked, for reasons that I can’t quite understand even 12 hours later. Here’s my effort to make sense of a strange night, and to answer the one question that has lingered more than any other: What is it that we’re chasing when we go to a concert?

It started simply enough; I was getting ready to put my son to bed, but I wanted to check to see what Bruce was going to open the show with. For whatever reason, instead of running to the Backstreets message board, like I normally would, I called up Periscope to see if I could find a feed. Much like he is any time my phone comes out, my son was immediately intrigued. He agreed to a deal; we could skip reading books and watch a few minutes of the concert. But how do I explain to him that New York City Serenade, the first song, was all at once an amazing rarity and a repeat of what he had done just two nights earlier? And on a more personal level, how did I feel about it?

New York City Serenade wound its way down, for the first time giving me the thrill of transition. What’s coming next? It’s what we spend entire concerts doing in person; I was surprised that it translated to my iPhone. And as Prove it all Night ended, the game started anew in my head, and I found my lips correctly predicting that Night would be next, rumbling and synthesizing the “wall of sound” that opens the song; I was all-in.

My son was less so. Midway through Prove It All Night, he reneged on our deal, instead asking me to read him the books after all. I gave in, keeping my phone on while reading, mainly out of fear that I would somehow lose the feed and never get it back (like I said, I had never done this before). So I read Press Here by Hervé Tullet, then a weird Batman book that he loves. I crawled in bed with him, my phone nearby on the floor, finished our bedtime routine, then hustled downstairs in the middle of No Surrender.

No Surrender has always held a special place in my heart. He opened with it the first time I saw him, on Aug. 4, 1999. It was the reunion tour, I was 17 years old, and I thought that I knew everything about Bruce Springsteen, mainly because I had grown up around an extended family of die-hards, and I had memorized every single note of the Greatest Hits album that he released in 1995. But somehow, the version of No Surrender from the 1975–1985 live collection — a slowed-down arrangement—was the one that had cemented itself in my head. So when I stood in the then–Continental Airlines Arena as Bruce and the gang broke into their opening number, I was confused: What was this amazing song? It wasn’t until the chorus that I realized it was No Surrender; by that point, Bruce could have spent the rest of the night playing bagpipes and I wouldn’t have cared. I simply couldn’t believe how good he was.

Compare that to 2016. These days, when I’m at a show, I parse every movement Bruce makes on the stage, every spare note, as I try to think one step ahead of him. More often than not, I can pick out the song in the first couple of notes; every so often, I can get it before he even touches a string, just based on my own sense of rhythm and order. “He has a harmonica, but it’s too early for Thunder Road. Maybe Promised Land?”

As I ate dinner alone, still watching the Periscope feeds, I found myself playing the game in the same way I had Tuesday night at the stadium. But I also found myself getting more emotionally affected by the decisions than I would have guessed. I simply hadn’t expected to care, let alone to actually feel things. He broke into Waiting on a Sunny Day, and I found myself happy — both that I wasn’t in the stadium to hear it, and that he hadn’t played it when I was there. But really, what was the difference? It’s not like I turned it off when he went into a song I didn’t care for. In fact, largely due to the fact that my kids were asleep and my wife was at work, I might have paid even more attention to the song than I usually would; there was no one for me to talk to, no beer line to wait on.

But weirdly, I also found myself getting a bit worked up about some of the repetition in the setlist from Tuesday night. It went beyond New York City Serenade; why was he doing the same, overdone buildup on Spirit of the Night that always makes me cringe? Even when some of the songs were swapped out, there was a sameness to the set that I found disappointing, especially coming in a normally-somewhat-out-there Night 2. But why? Why wouldn’t there be repetition? After all, I wasn’t there, and I clearly wasn’t alone in that. Bruce’s audience shouldn’t — can’t! — be the people on their couch watching a Periscope feed. It’s not repetitive if you weren’t there the first time.

It’s sometimes hard when you realize that Bruce isn’t playing just for you. I rail against Waiting on a Sunny Day, but people next to me go crazy for it. The last few times I’ve seen him, I’ve literally stood motionless during Shout, annoyed as hell by it. But other people are playing along with every hand movement, every call-and-response. There were some 60,000 people there on Tuesday night; might some of us like different things? There’s also something to the fact that Bruce just seems to enjoy playing some of the songs that do the least for me. Hungry Heart? I’ve seen it at nine of my 17 concerts. I literally never need to hear it again. But look at his face when he’s running around, when he’s crowd-surfing, when he’s listening to the crowd sing his lyrics. Look at his face when he’s watching a little kid sing along on stage to Sunny Day. It has to be intoxicating! I cover baseball for a living, and I always wonder what it’s like to perform in front of thousands of people (I recently gave a best-man speech at a wedding that was relatively well-received. I believe that there were about 90 people listening to me, and it felt like a standing ovation at Carnegie Hall.) The difference between Bruce and the ballplayers I cover, though, is that Bruce can’t strike out. None of the home fans are happy when their guy hits into an inning-ending double play, but no one boos Bruce Springsteen. Go back and listen to the bootlegs from 2009; even when he goes into Outlaw Pete, people cheer. The man is invincible.

But the show’s lesser moments helped blur the lines between the concert and the Periscope experience even further. I remember a few years back, I was sitting at my desk at work, trying to finish writing something and listening to a recording of one of those 2009 shows. Spirit in the Night was playing. I was about to stand up and go to the bathroom when I subconsciously decided to wait, because I knew that Outlaw Pete was the next song.

It was obviously an insane decision in the moment. Listening to a recording on my own, I was clearly beholden to no one. I could skip any song I wanted. But something about committing to the concert made me go the whole nine. I didn’t even pause it, I just let it play.

Similarly, last night, despite watching on an extremely portable 4.7-inch screen, I set my iPhone aside during Jack of All Trades so that I could go to the bathroom.

Still, it makes me wonder. What is it that we’re experiencing when we see live music? Why do we keep going? I’ve seen Springsteen 17 times; I want to see him 170 more at least. But why?

If you would have asked me two days ago, I would have told you that it was to see things like Lost in the Flood, which is easily my favorite Springsteen song ever, which means it’s probably my favorite piece of music in general. I saw him perform it once, back in 2003, when I didn’t know enough to appreciate it in full.

But I can cue up iTunes right now and pick out 13 versions that I have at my disposal; live shows from recent years, others from 1975. I have both the original and the remastered version of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. to choose from. Any one of them would be perfect, even the ones with crappy sound quality, because each represents something special, something unique, a moment in time.

So what’s lacking? Why don’t I just put it on and call it a day? Is it the anticipation? The feeling of hearing that first note? Yes, I would have thought. But I got that experience on Periscope. He finished up Darkness on the Edge of Town, and I texted a friend who was at the show that I expected Racing in the Street to come next — for whatever reason, it just felt like the right time for an epic piano number. And I watched, hopeful and expectant that I would be proven right. And then I heard that first, searing note of Lost in the Flood. I sat rapt, listening to every beat, singing along. I was, for a moment devastated that I wasn’t there.

As Thomas Jefferson might ask, though, what’d I miss? That friend of mine at the show — he texted me a photo of his view at one point. It was way upstairs, side-stage. I was watching on a feed from dead-center, all three video boards easily viewable (if occasionally a bit blurry). I had air conditioning and cheap beer. And I got, I think, the same emotional swell, the same endorphin rush of hearing the song in the moment, wondering if any notes would change, if anything would happen to make it even more special. It was similar to the on-stage proposal during Jersey Girl, the song that closed the night. Watching on the stream, my first reaction was to smile and feel all sweet and happy. I texted a friend at the show “Aw,” which is probably exactly what I would have said to her if we were standing next to each other. And as the whole thing went on a little longer than I might have wanted, and the cuteness gave way to a saccharine queasiness, I wanted Bruce to get back to things, to the last verse of the song. I’m certain that my reaction in person would have been beat-for-beat.

My friend’s view
My view

The only thing I was missing was the presence. The liveness. The body heat and the exhilaration. Twelve hours later, I’m still not entirely sure of what exactly I didn’t experience. But there’s something. There has to be.

When Springsteen announced Giants Stadium shows in 2009, a run that would close the stadium’s concert life for good, he also decided to run straight through some albums. But by the time he announced the albums, I already had tickets for two of the shows, both of which happened to be Born in the USA. Then, on the morning of Oct. 8, a friend offered me a floor ticket for that night’s show, at which he would be playing the Born to Run album.

I wavered for a while. I was going the next night; did I really need to spend another $100? What finally put me over the edge was the chase. I had never heard him play Jungleland — he always seemed to play it the night before or the night after I went, and it always bothered me, the same way it bothers me now that I always miss Incident on 57th Street. As I sat there on the morning of Oct. 8, 2009, the one thing I knew for certain was that he would be playing Jungleland that night. If I passed up the chance to hear it live, I couldn’t very well complain ever again, could I? It might not have been perfect logic, but it was enough. I went. I heard Jungleland. I might not have moved a muscle during those 11 minutes. It was perfect, the experience not in the least bit fleeting. It was worth $100 and more to hear Bruce’s guitar and remarkable lyrics. To hear Roy’s piano precision. To hear Clarence Clemons nail every note of the sax solo.

And then Clarence died a year-and-a-half later.

Nothing would ever be the same in E Street Land. It couldn’t be. I’ve since heard Jungleland live twice more, the sax sections handled by Clarence’s nephew Jake. He’s wonderful, he really is, and I don’t think that I’m musically proficient enough to deconstruct any differences in the way he plays versus his uncle. But there’s something different. It’s not worse, it’s just different.

I never regretted going to that show and hearing Jungleland. Until Tuesday night’s show, it was the best concert I had ever seen. But Clarence’s death just calcified my feeling. How could you regret something like that? How can it not be worth it? The concerts are getting longer, but the band is getting older. Every time I leave a Springsteen show, it’s with the knowledge that it might be the last one I see. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.

And therein lies the dilemma. On Tuesday night, I paid about $180 for a ticket, to say nothing of parking, tailgate supplies and beer during the show. Thursday night, all I wasted was some battery life on my phone. I watched every song, experiencing all four hours in my own way. And when it was done, I crawled into bed and went to sleep. I woke up with a voice, and no pain in my quads.

I can certainly do the same thing this coming Tuesday night. Or I could go to MetLife Stadium again, pay for parking, pay for some beer, but know that I’m in the room where it’s happening. Where the worst possible thing that can happen is that he doesn’t play Incident, or that he actually ends the show on Shout. And if I don’t go? Then what? I’ll know what the show sounded like. I’ll probably play along at home again. But I’ll miss something. I know I will. I’m still not sure what it is, but I know it’s something. My friends who were at the show heard Lost in the Flood at the same time I did on my couch. But I didn’t feel Lost in the Flood. They did. I want to feel it again. I want to feel Incident if he plays it.

And I know — I’ll always know — that I may never experience that again. How can I regret going?

In the end, Periscope was a wonderful substitute on a night when I had nothing going on. When I could just sit on my couch, a baseball game in the background, and spend four hours staring at my phone. Someday, I’ll probably find a video of New York City Serenade from that show, and I’ll show it to my son. He probably won’t remember, but it will be a fun little heirloom, a recorded memory of the night that we sat in bed together in the dark, watching a band play a song that he had never heard before. Our experience makes it worthwhile.

Similarly, it’s the experience we’re chasing in the stadiums, arenas and amphitheaters. Oct. 8, 2009, will always be the night I heard Clarence play the sax solo on Jungleland. It almost assuredly wasn’t the best version of the song ever played, but it will always be my version. You can’t manufacture that, it just has to happen. It’s what we chase. And it’s why we chase.