Completely ‘off topic’ for my usual blog posts, I thought I’d share a pretty amazing experience that happened to me this week …
….. o O o …..
Most people have a ‘hero’: someone who’s had a strong influence on their life and who, for them at least, helps define their identity. Quite often as teenagers we ‘discover’ a singer, a band or an author. They become someone who ‘speaks’ to us in our language and who communicates shared feelings in a way that no one else can. My personal musical hero is Bruce Springsteen and I was incredibly lucky to meet him in person in London this week. Bruce is doing a book signing tour just now, including several media interviews, and London was his first stop outside the States.
In Bruce’s autobiography (‘Born to Run’) he writes about first seeing his own musical hero – Elvis – on the Ed Sullivan show in 1956. He conjures up the excitement with which Elvis burst into the mainstream, unleashing a musical tidal wave that soon swept away everything that had come before:
“Seventy million Americans that night were exposed to this hip-shaking human earthquake. A fearful nation was protected from itself by the CBS cameramen, who were told to shoot “the kid” only from the waist up. No money shots! No shifting, grinding, joyfully thrusting crotch shots. It didn’t matter. It was all there in his eyes, his face, the face of a Saturday night jukebox Dionysus, the shimmering eyebrows, the rocking band. A riot ensued”.
“When it was over that night, those few minutes, when the man with the guitar vanished in a shroud of screams, I sat there transfixed in front of the television set, my mind on fire. I had the same two arms, two legs, two eyes; I looked hideous but I’d figure that part out … so what was missing? THE GUITAR! He was hitting it, leaning on it, dancing with it, screaming into it, screwing it, caressing it, swinging it on to his hips and, once in a while, even playing it! The master key, the sword in the stone, the sacred talisman, the staff of righteousness, the greatest instrument of seduction the teenage world had ever known, the … the … “ANSWER” to my alienation and sorrow, it was a reason to live, to try to communicate with the other poor souls stuck in the same position I was. And … they sold ’em right downtown at the Western Auto store!”
….. o O o …..
I was a spotty teenager 35 years ago when I borrowed a copy of Born to Run from one of my brother’s friends. The energy, sound and enigmatic lyrics just blew me away. In 1981, when all my own friends were listening to heavy metal or Two Tone I’d now found an artist who was ‘mine’. Over the next 15 years or so I devoured every album and saw Bruce perform live a couple of times. (My only regret was not discovering Bruce six months earlier and seeing him perform in a small venue during the 1981 River tour).
I remember once having to write a creative essay in a school English lesson, aged 15 or 16. Stuck for ideas I simply wrote my own descriptive version of ‘Jungleland’, a gangland opera played out in Harlem’s dark corners. I think my teacher’s comment said something like: “What an imaginative story“. It was, but I certainly can’t take all the credit !
At university I bought many, many bootleg tapes of Bruce’s concerts (still by far the best way to enjoy his music) and made a pilgrimage to Asbury Park in New Jersey in 1986. His music has never been off my jukebox and iPod playlist, and a major part of the soundtrack to my life.
But as Bruce’s autobiography reveals, he struggled with his identity, fame and first marriage from the late ’80s onwards. As his music seemed to lose its way so I stopped buying his albums and instead found other music to listen to. (Ironically, I went back in time to many of the same rock and roll, country and soul artists from the ’50s and ’60s that were also key influences in Bruce’s music). It was only about five years ago that I re-discovered him through live concerts. Fifteen years of new albums had largely passed me by but the last live performance I caught in Glasgow in May 2016 was probably the best of them all. At the grand old age of 67 he has the charisma, energy and back catalogue to knock the spots off every other rock performer in the world today.
So it was against this background of admiration and deep musical influence that I was lucky enough to meet Bruce in person. It was an experience shared with about another (reportedly) 500 adoring diehard fans and gave a brief insight into what it must be like to have celebrity status.
I’d spotted a tweet (from Bruce of course) that tickets for his London book signing would be going on sale online. I not only had permission but encouragement to attend from my wife – which is to her great credit since she can’t stand the man’s music ! Flights, trains and accommodation were hurriedly booked and my boss granted my leave at short notice.
I arrived at Waterstones in Piccadilly where a long queue had been forming throughout the day and which snaked around the block. After a wait we were corralled and security-checked then let into the bookshop (which was closed for the afternoon) where we queued a lot more. It was a shared experience. Everyone there shared a common bond and passion for one man’s music. Stories were exchanged: of memorable concerts, of pit queues, of holidays spent following him around European capitals.
Eventually, a cheer went up followed by a long “Brooooooooce” … he’d arrived. By the time I finally reached the front of the queue, which snaked around the bookshop, people were anxiously thinking about what on earth they would say to their great hero.
Five seconds was all it took. I passed my phone to staff to take some snaps, walked on to the red carpet to shake Bruce’s hand, turned around for a few posed photos arm in arm and shook his hand again. I was then ushered out quickly by staff eager to get the next sweaty-handed fan into position, receiving my autographed copy of Bruce’s autobiography on the way out.
So what earth-shattering words of wisdom did I share about my deep admiration for the man and his music? What was the memorable line I shared that summed up the strong connection I’ve had with Bruce’s music for the last 35 years?
In the event, it was far from profound. (Me) “Hi!” (Bruce) “Hi!” (Me) “Great to meet you”.
But we communicated and shared a brief moment. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and instantly forgettable for him.
It didn’t matter. At the moment I shook his hand I realised he’s just a normal guy. As he reveals in his painfully honest autobiography, he’s just a hard-working man from humble beginnings who often struggles with life (suffering from frequent bouts of depression). He also describes more mundane activities such as the school run and making pancakes for his kids in the mornings. The myth of celebrity was shattered: an ordinary guy who just so happens to have an extraordinary talent for songwriting and performing.
Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see
Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be
And after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest
Stranded in the park and forced to confess
To hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets
‘Backstreets’, Bruce Springsteen (Born to Run, 1975)
You can catch one of Bruce’s TV interviews in London below, as well as his BBC Radio 2 interview with Simon Mayo. Here’s another account of the Waterstones book signing event on the Backstreets website (scroll down).
Have you ever met your personal hero ? Have you ever met Springsteen ? I’d love to hear what the experience was like for you.