I have a photo of my teenage son, Gio, smiling ear to ear as he stands with his arm around his hero Bruce Springsteen after seeing his Broadway show. Gio is wearing a threadbare, forty-years-old, once-was-black-but-now-is-gray Darkness On the Edge of Town concert tour t-shirt. Springsteen’s bemused expression and pointing finger say it all. “This kid, wearing that shirt?!” That’s staying power.
Thirty-three years earlier, on a sunny fall afternoon in 1985, as I was walking on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, I heard someone call out from across Broadway: B-R-U-U-C-E! like the call the uninitiated mistake for booing at a Springsteen concert. I looked around to see a college friend waving for my attention. My name is Karen Rinaldi, I am female. My name is not Bruce. Still, I answered to the call without hesitation even though it had been years since anyone had called me by my college nickname, earned as a Jersey girl with a single devotion to the rocker of my youth and home state.
I started listening to Springsteen, like so many of my peers, as an awkward teeny bopper whose summers in the seventies on the Jersey shore left her with a longing she couldn’t name. I believed, when Bruce sang from “Thunder Road”, Show a little faith there’s magic in the night, you ain’t a beauty but hey you’re al-ri-ight, and that’s alright with me…, that he was singing directly to me. My friends and I would sing and jump and dance with abandon to “Rosalita”, “Spirit in the Night”, “Born to Run”, “She’s the One”, and every other track from those early albums. We were Terry and Wendy and Mary and Jane and Rosie and Kitty. We were none of us beauties, but Bruce made it alright. I put those tracks on now and I am an alright fourteen-year-old again.
Until his Broadway show, I saw Bruce perform live only once, during The River tour in Cleveland, 1981. The road trip with my friends left me bereft. Bruce’s music, so intimate — even those wailing epics — when played in a grand stadium was painful to me. I couldn’t appreciate, in my selfish youth, sharing that deepest well of feeling with twenty thousand fans. I went back to my dorm room in Columbus, Ohio to lie on the floor and listen to bootleg albums my hipper friends would loan me. Being alone with Bruce’s music made me more happy/sad the way I liked it.
While my nickname fell away with those friends from college, I wore my passion for Bruce like flying colors of the flag. It wasn’t a Jersey thing — I’d spent years trying to run from that, like any good Springsteen character would. But the songs stuck, the love stuck, and while you can take the girl out of Jersey… In 1988, a publishing colleague bequeathed to me an old Bruce concert T. Ten years of wear had made it soft and faded. I wore it religiously for another twenty years until it began to grow threadbare. To better preserve it, I put it away until it eventually disappeared into the bottom of a drawer.
From 1973 until today, Bruce has provided the soundtrack to my life. When my first son was born, I would crank Bruce in our tiny New York City apartment and sing and dance him to sleep. Each time Bruce released a new album, we would play it on repeat in the car as we drove to and from the Jersey shore every weekend. My boys grew up with Bruce in their lives, just as I grew up with the sounds of Sinatra — another Jersey boy done good — from my father’s endless collection and listening time.
When my son Gio was himself a teen, I got to share and relive the experience of discovery of Bruce and his music. And while the music of my youth carried with it the Proustian sense memories of growing up, growing older, and possibly — but not certainly — wiser, the rediscovery of Bruce’s music through Gio’s initiation to it brought something more powerful and poignant. As if my teenaged-self had reached out across time to connect with my teenaged son and in doing so tethered our parent-child bond to something outside of ourselves. In the act of bearing witness together the gift of the poet — that “premonition of immortality,” as Hannah Arendt called it — Gio and I bonded in fandom.
Gio picked up the guitar at the same age as I was when Born to Run was released. His first and greatest influence is Springsteen. This had nothing to do with my prompting — Gio being too much like me to know better than to try to influence him. He tuned in to Bruce, musician to musician, on his own. One day, sitting across the dining room table from Gio as he played guitar and I wrote, I heard him working out the chords to “Lost in Flood.” My eyes flashed to my boy strumming a song I knew and loved before I knew much of anything at all, the least about love. From those first recognizable chords, Gio and I locked into all things Bruce together. We’d watch videos and sing together, me from the recesses of my memory, him from recent learning. I unearthed, and we watched together, the 1975 Hammersmith concert dvd, which will never ever grow old, in spite of its crap visual and sound quality. We read and discussed Bruce’s autobiography together as soon as it came out.
Gio’s musical education of Bruce grew. I gave him a lion’s tooth he wears around his neck on a cord, just like the tooth Bruce wears around his neck on the Born to Run album cover. I dug into my drawer and found the 1978 concert T-shirt. He put it on the day I gave it to him and he wears it all the time. The ribbed collar is stretched out and frayed. A hole under the left armpit, nearly as large as the neck hole, created runs in the fabric down the side, like old nylons or punk tights, depending on your point of reference. If you hold the material up to your face, you can see through the thinning threads like a veil through history.
Forty-five years after I first heard that Jersey boy singing to all us Jersey girls, I had the opportunity to watch him perform, Gio by my side, as Bruce sang the history of his life on a Broadway stage. This time, the intimacy of the moment made my soul sing. I sat next to a beautiful boy I could not have imagined in my youth or have fathomed the love I could feel for him. A boy who understood and shared with me the beauty of this decades-long love affair with the music of our beating hearts.