I know you’re aware of what happened earlier this week, but allow me roughly 90 seconds to catch up all of those unlucky souls who were not in attendance at your concert on Sunday night at Oakland’s Oracle Arena:
First, I want to apologize for my tone-deaf singing and goofball dancing.
But second, third, fourth, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum, I want to thank you, Bruce. Besides just allowing me to live my lifelong pipe dream of rocking out onstage with the testifyin’, death-defyin’, legendary E Street Band, you gave me both the figurative and literal time of my life by calling me onstage to sing the final verse of “Growin’ Up.” As someone who considered and still considers your music essential in his maturation process, I may have trouble explaining how much your excessively generous act meant to this 25-year-old aspiring writer. Even so, I’m going to try because – as a far greater writer once wrote – “keep pushin’ till it’s understood.”
As you can probably already surmise from that quote usage, your music has long provided the framework through which I came to better understand both my life and life in general. But that wasn’t always the case, particularly before I really ‘grew up,’ largely thanks to your music.
My Dad – a lifelong fan who hails from your home state – forced the E Street Band upon me throughout my childhood. Before I was old enough to drive, I was faced with an impossible catch-22: either live a life confined to the walls of my house…or listen to your music while he drove me where I wanted to go. I begrudgingly chose the latter route, but exacted revenge on my father by repeatedly sharing my childish, knee-jerk reactions to your music: if my seemingly ancient papa liked these songs, I assumed they must be exclusively for the geriatric and thus not worth my precious time.
And then I saw you in concert.
Most tramps will tell you that their first time seeing Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert was a life-changing event, but what many of your contemporaries never got to experience was the realization that they had grown up enough to start to understand the depths of the subjects, ideas, and feelings that you imbue in all of your music. Most of them came-of-age with you, and thus your songs always held a special place in their hearts because all of you matured simultaneously together. My initial rejection of your tunes changing into acceptance and then obsession marked a rather important turning point in my life: I had finally begun to grow up and learn to appreciate what I at first couldn’t understand.
But my introduction to your music was only the beginning of my process of growin’ up with you.
Admittedly, these thoughts were nowhere in my mind the moment you called me on stage in the middle of “Growin’ Up,” which by the grace of
God Bruce, Youtube user Erik Knevelbaard recorded here.
As a kid who tended to assume there’s no way my favorite artist to ever live would possibly invite me to join him onstage, it took a few seconds for me to realize that you were indeed once again referring to my checkered-shirt. And at first, I had absolutely noooooo idea WHY IN THE WORLD you were asking me to take the mic with you. I wasn’t trying to get your attention, I didn’t even have a sign asking to be singled out,– heck, you played the song because someone ELSE had a sign requesting it. Yes, I was singing and dancing my usual ludicrous amount, but many of your fans are just as exuberant – what made me so special?
These feelings of self-doubt followed me as I scurried my way through the crowd and climbed on stage, which is right around the time that it hit me: I was about to fucking duet with Bruce fucking Springsteen on “Growin’ (Fucking) Up,” a song that I now realize successfully captures the integral role that your music has played in my life.
Knowing I have a horrendous voice – I literally don’t understand the very concepts of pitch nor tone nor the difference between the two – I began our performance erring on the side of trepidatious caution in front of 20,000 judging ears stretching out in front of my eyes for what looked like forever. In fact, as you can see in the video, I even quickly apologized to you for my inferior voice after the first line that we sung together. I felt uncomfortable and awkward and completely out-of-place.
Looking back now, I realize that my initial “stood stone-like at midnight” demeanor in the very early stages of our “Growin’ Up” performance reflected the kid that I was in the early stages of my life right before your music helped me grow up. A perpetual outsider, I felt consistently uncomfortable, awkward, and out of place amongst my peers. I was just starting to wrestle with the questions that plague all of us as we grow up, but for some reason the easy answers that my friends were finding simply didn’t cut it for me. Unable to connect to those around me, I felt like I was taking mental and emotional “month-long vacations in the stratosphere” away from everyone else in my life to try to find my way, but it was indeed hard to breath in such conditions. I was unknowingly yearning to find a voice to guide me, but it was a long dark highway.
Luckily, I found a thin white line in the Gospel of Bruce.
Many far better writers than myself have previously compared your live performances to a religious experience, but only a few have likened your entire catalogue of songs to a religion. Similar to the type of relationships that those who subscribe to a formal organized religion have to their chosen religious texts, your body of music provided a framework that allowed me to better understand and thus deal with the struggles of my life AND emotionally and mentally connect me back to my life and the people around me, both those I was intimately familiar with and those I had never met. Instead of John, Luke, and Matthew, I had Spanish Johnny, Wendy, and Rosalita. Your musical stories helped me to start understanding how to best live the story of my own life.
You can interpret most of your songs in a seemingly infinite number of ways, but perhaps the most common ideal found throughout – one that you’ve embodied both in your personal life and every single time you walk out on a stage – is to give yourself fully to whatever endeavor that you may face. Simply put: the more you put in, the more you get out. Instead of worrying what others might think, you just need to do what feels right, and the rest will hopefully take care of itself. This was a vital lesson communicated to me through your music that helped me start to grow into the person who shared a stage with you on Sunday night.
And it was this lesson that gave me the confidence to lose everything I feared onstage to show you how much I love your music, your nightly passion, your dedication to all of your fans. Without you, I never would’ve felt comfortable enough with myself to ever consider the remote possibility that I might be a “cosmic kid” that could still find a home here on Earth. So when I was given the opportunity to sing that line with the man who freaking wrote it, I wasn’t going to let my own insecurities get in the way of sharing my passion with you and 20,000 of your fellow fans. If my nightly impassioned dancing and singing in the crowd had somehow helped actualize my pipe dream of rocking out with you, then damnit if I wasn’t going to behave the same way on stage. As you have throughout my life, you helped me believe that I could be myself up there, and as always, my faith was rewarded. So what did I do? I promptly lost my shit.
And as always, the E Street Nation community accepted me with open arms. I can’t really remember the crowd’s response during the performance because I was a tad too consumed in the song and the moment, but I couldn’t tell you how many people have given me the sincerest of congratulations since the end of the concert. Just listen to how excited Mr. Knevelbaard sounds in the Youtube video I linked to above; based on his ecstatic reaction, you would have thought that Bruce had invited HIM on stage. And the sincerity of his effusiveness was shared by almost everyone who’s talked to me this week, be it in person, on the phone, in text messages, emails, or social media. Meeting you backstage in Albany was fantastic (obviously), but being able to share a moment with you in front of 20,000 (and more if you count those following along at home) like-minded devout followers of the Gospel of Bruce was even more meaningful to me, especially in the midst of a tour that revolves around an album that – by your own nighty admission – is on one level about community-building.
Historically, “going down to the river” has always been understood as an act of spiritual rejuvenation, most popularly symbolized in the western world by religious baptism with John the Baptist baptizing Jesus in a river. Yet since that time, river baptisms have become communal affairs, with groups of people going down to the river together to help each other cleanse their souls from the hardships of their daily lives. A Bruce Springsteen concert wouldn’t feel like a true religious experience without the involvement and active participation of everyone in the congregational arena clapping, singing, dancing, and generally rocking out TOGETHER. Though most of the people who approached me after the concert tended to focus the conversation on yours truly, I tried my best to make them aware that each and every one of them played just as important of a role in the experience. Though performing with you in an empty arena would still be special, it wouldn’t hold a candle to what happened last night. We in the crowd play a crucial role in a Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert.
And I think one of the most important messages that you’re trying to communicate to us through the shows on this tour specifically is the essential role that we’ve played throughout your life and career. When you introduce The River every night, you talk about how your dream for the album was to write about real relationships in hopes that doing so would get you one step closer to experiencing such relationships in your own personal life. Though not the type of realistic relationship that comes with everyday struggles, the very real relationship that you’ve formed with us fans – many of whom I’ve talked to recently first saw you perform live during the original River tour – is proof of how successful you were in that endeavor. And instead of taking the actualization of that dream for granted, you’re instead unnecessarily but welcomingly repaying the favor by granting a few of our own dreams every night.
It was a literal dream come true to rock out on stage with you, but one that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who’s followed this tour, which has been in the business recently of fulfilling the starry dreams of regular, everyday folk like myself. From Scott Williams in Cleveland to Tom England in St. Louis to every single man, woman and child that you’ve called upon to Courteney Cox it up with you during “Dancing in the Dark,” we can all attest in that moment, we felt like rock stars simply by being ourselves.
You long ago mastered the ability to shine the most dignified of lights upon the most average of Joes that served as the heroic yet realistic characters in a majority of your songs, thereby allowing all of us who recognized similar traits to these characters in ourselves to believe that we may also be worthy of having such breathtaking art written about us. By calling upon a few of us every night to join you on stage, you further reaffirm our belief that we may one day have the opportunity to show the world why we’re all already worthy of being in the spotlight. Granting a few people’s lifelong dreams allows everyone else to believe that one day their dreams may be granted too, and all they have to do to make that happen is just keep being their regular selves.
You perfectly captured this breakdown of the usual dichotomy between reality and dreaming in “Growin’ Up” with the lyric: “my feet they finally took root in the earth but I got me a nice little place in the stars.” Your music, your concerts, your career, your life have taught me – and I’m sure many others – that the greatest way to make your starry dreams come true is not by launching into the stratosphere, but by rooting your feet into the earth as deeply and earnestly as possible.
And even though you’ve helped me grow up from that awkward kid escaping his life by going to the stratosphere into the somewhat more confident kid who found a place in the stars by rooting his feet in the stage in Oakland, you’ve never let me forget the type of youthful dreams that got me here. As you so succinctly put it in one of my favorite songs on The River:
“I was living in a world of childish dreams
Someday these childish dreams must end
To become a man and grow up to dream again…”
Though rocking out on stage with you has obviously been one of my ultimate pipe dreams for a while now, you’ve inspired me to pursue a much more important dream, one that I’ve harbored since childhood but rarely shared until very recently: becoming a writer. I wouldn’t be sitting here today writing this letter with the confidence to let others actually read it if it weren’t for your example.
Throughout your career, you’ve never taken the safe approach and constantly thwarted common expectations; when they said ‘pull down,’ you pulled up, from the youthful, romantic visions of Born to Run into the dark, contemplative broodings of Darkness on the Edge of Town into the expansive, realistic pop of The River into the intimate, sorrowful wales of Nebraska into the global, superstar phenomenon of Born in the U.S.A. into the introspective, autobiographical nature of Tunnel of Love into breaking up the band to follow your own road – you’ve time and time again shown myself and the world that the best way to live your life is simply by following wherever your instinctual dreams may lead, haters be damned.
Yes, another dream-related question that you ask on The River always haunts the back of my psyche: “is a dream a lie if it don’t come true…or is it something worse?” I’ll admit that this fear has long prevented me from putting pen to paper myself, but only on this tour have I finally reached a suitable answer to that question, and it was inspired by yet another lyric in your canon: “runaway American Dream” from “Born to Run.” I’ve never been able to decide if we’re supposed to interpret that lyric to mean the singer and Wendy are on their own runaway American dream by hitting the road, or are they perpetually chasing an ever-elusive runaway American dream? But now I don’t think there’s any difference between the two; chasing your dream is the same as living your dream. The only way to find out if a dream that doesn’t come true is worse than a lie is by pursuing that dream as passionately as you possibly can. You may not reach the promised land, but the journey will have been worth it.
By taking your hand, I’ve been able to ride out in my life to try to case that promised land. Who knows – perhaps my dream of becoming a writer is childish and will prove worse than a lie. But for now, mister, I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man, and I believe in a promised land.
Given all of this, I think it’s a fitting symbol that you identify me as the guy in the checkered shirt, which I’m sure you know is a recreation of the shirt that you made famous by wearing it on the cover of The River album when you were just a few years older than I am now. In addition to literally wearing your shirt, I’d like to believe that I’m also figuratively trying to live my life encased in the lessons that you’ve passed down to me. I will never be able to repay you for everything that you’ve given me, but hopefully by putting your preaching into practice, I can start swimming up that endless river. Better than an engine of an old parked car, I’ve found the key to my universe in the words of an old(ish) man from New Jersey.
One final note, and it may be my biggest thanks of all: I purposefully didn’t edit the video above to cut out the part after I left the stage. You see, my Jewish mother OF COURSE had the presence of mind to capture the moment of my life so that we could relive it for years to come. But do you notice the man standing behind me that seemed even happier than myself? That’s my Dad. We’ve come a long way from the days of fighting about your music in the car.
I know it was always a dream of yours to connect with your father in a meaningful way, and I hope you found some peace on that front. But maybe you’ll find some solace in the knowledge that you’re helping other fathers and sons build the type of relationship that you always dreamed of having with your Dad. Though my relationship with my father has never been nearly as contentious as yours, we would not have the strong relationship that we do today if it wasn’t for your music. You’ve proven to be the ultimate tie to bind us together.
When you wrote “Growin’ Up,” I bet you never dreamed that 40 years later you’d be rocking out on stage in front of 20,000 people with a fan who’s only a few years older than you were when you wrote the song. And when my Dad first heard “Growin’ Up,” I’m sure he never dreamed that he’d one day watch his son rock out with the musician who wrote that song. Sometimes dreams turn out better than you could have ever imagined…but when they don’t – such as when Clarence died much before his time – you’ve shown how adaptable dreams can be, with Jake providing a nightly reminder that the joy of your music can outlive any nightmare life may throw at us.
I know I’ll try to pass down your music to my son when I force him to listen to it while driving in our car. And when he’s 25 and hopefully come around to your music, I’ll now be able to share with him a video recording of the moment when you gave me the opportunity to show you and the rest of E Street Nation how much grown-up happiness you’ve brought to my life, and “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”
So for EVERYTHING above, I want to thank you.
Thank you, Bruce.
Steven “Checkered Shirt Guy” Strauss
 His steadfast rule: he who drives always picks the music. And since he wouldn’t let me commandeer a vehicle at the ripe old age of 12…
 And yes, I of course had no interest in seeing 60-year-old musicians trying to rock when I thought you’d be better suited for rocking chairs.
 My “Born to Run”-inspired affectionate name for all of your die-hard fans.
 Truthfully, since my Dad was yelling “STORY!!!” behind me practically begging you to launch into one of your infamous and mythical interlude tales, I at first thought that you were bringing me on stage to tell a story of my own. Good thing you didn’t – not a single person in that 20,000 seat, sold out arena would’ve enjoyed watching a quasi-grown man cry his eyes out before needing to be escorted off the stage and into his casket.
 Not going to lie, I still can’t believe I just used the phrase “our performance” to refer to myself…and Bruce Springsteen.
 The person who yelled “WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?!” – yeah, that was me. It’s taken me a few days to try to turn that sentiment into this piece.
 …and now I feel exceedingly unaccomplished. Thanks for that as well?