I get it; it's easy to make fun of the crowd at a Bruce Springsteen concert: the middle-aged fist-pumping and out-of-practice high-fives, the lack of rhythm, the torn look on the ardent fans' faces as they simultaneously wish for a return to the mythic Springsteen four-hour shows of yore — while also secretly hoping that Bruce cuts it short because they've got that meeting with the sales team at 8 a.m. When I saw him for the first time at age 30 during the 1999 E Street Band reunion tour, I was there largely ironically, mostly to snicker at aging rock fans with minivans. I had never been a huge fan of Springsteen, considering him just part of the unavoidable ambient classic-rock, radio-scored soundtrack of my adolescence and little more. I never bought any albums, never saw a show. I had tagged along to this concert with friends with the goal of writing a snickering little article. I recently uncovered my notes from that evening and can trace a conversion that night through the tenor of my scrawls.
They start out with snarky little shorthand jabs at the guys proudly wearing their authentic now-way-too-small shirts bought during the Born in the U.S.A. tour ("practically translucent stretched over torsos gone portlier since the shirts were first purchased"), and the fact that the white crowd made Limp Bizkit's fans look like a rainbow coalition. And yet, over the course of my three hours of notes, my scrawls quickly turned from self-satisfied digs at those around me into a take on Springsteen's performance that vaults directly from begrudging respect to adulation. Now I am 42, and eagerly attend his shows with nary a whiff of smugness or sarcasm; I leave my air quotes at the door. I saw his ongoing tour twice this month and blended right into the sea of bobbing gray hair: These are my people, with their mortgages and procrastinated taxes and bad backs and irregular and yet so reliable sneak-attack whiffs of free-floating panic (Is my job really safe? Are my kids okay? Are my parents okay?). We are there to see a man who is 62 years old, who we know will not rest until he is sure that as we scream along with the lyrics of "Thunder Road" that are so embedded in our synapses that we will momentarily slough off our weary reality and feel like we are 17 and singing this same song while packed into a car with high-school friends, and dear God our backs have never felt better. Springsteen is the howling hope that we never have to feel old, and as he indefatigably dashes across the stage, contradicting everything science has taught us about the human aging process, one can't help but pray he's immortal, because when he's gone, what hope have the rest of us?
It would be facile to say that Springsteen spits in the face of mortality, as in his current Wrecking Ball tour he shines a spotlight on it and gives it its due. It is his first major run since the passing of his beloved sideman Clarence Clemons, a man whose importance to the E Street legend is illustrated by the fact that Springsteen literally leans on him on the cover of his most iconic album, Born to Run. Clemons is the second member of his longtime band to pass away, after organist Danny Federici died in 2008 of melanoma. Springsteen overtly pays tribute to them during the current tour, ending the band-intro roll call in the middle of a spiritual take on "My City of Ruins" by asking, "Are we missing anybody?" as two lights shine on the definitively absent musicians' traditional spots onstage, now empty. He then adds, "The only thing I can guarantee tonight is if you're here, and we're here, then they're here," and pauses for the crowd to give a lengthy ovation.
But the concert is not a farewell to the mortal coil. It is a pounding, defiant statement that just because death is inevitable doesn't mean you have to sit around waiting for it. Springsteen is soaked in sweat by the twenty-minute mark, just as he has been since his twenties: There may be more preshow groin stretches, but any allowance for age is not visible to the audience. Instead, he circumnavigates the stage in the most joyful of way, his voice at full growl and bray the entire time, urging the audience to get their asses out of their seats, shaming us with his energy. Midway through the encore I looked across Madison Square Garden and saw some empty seats, to which I thought for shame. You're tired? You're tired?
Bruce is in constant contact with the audience, at one point wading into the middle of the general-admission pit, crowd-surfing his way back to the stage — a move that crosses from shtick into merriment: Again, irony fades. We are in this together, let us do young things. Let us pass the sweaty rocker forward. David Lee Roth, currently touring with Van Halen, revives his flamboyant leer, but to me it felt discordant coming from a 57-year-old; he's acting in a way I thought was cool as a teenager. Springsteen acts the way that I want to believe that with the proper (but unlikely) dedication to fitness, I could still pull off. On a couple of occasions during his concerts, he lays down on the lip of the stage and continues singing with a sly smile, and he was quickly covered by hands reaching out of the front rows. There was something near religious about the gesture: Fans have been grabbing at rock stars' garments since Elvis. (Well, since Jesus, technically.) But these hands were not yanking at his shirt, they simply gently laid them upon him, as if to draw his life force, like he was the pool in Cocoon. Watching from afar, I was surprised that not a single person ducked forward to suck some sweat from his sopped shirt, hoping it contained some sort of immortality serum.
One night during his 2009 tour, while ramping up to begin the song "Growin' Up," Springsteen told a shaggy dog story about a bad dream he recently had, the punch line being that someone emerged with a cake with "60 fucking candles" on it. In September, that cake will have 63 fucking candles on it: Sadly, this type of candle only goes in one direction. One wonders, how much longer can he keep doing these epic shows? His new albums and tours have been coming at a quicker pace, as if he realizes there is a finite amount of time he will be able to enjoy this, and he will relinquish none of it. He has buttressed himself with an even bigger band, hitting the road with a five-man horn section and a percussionist, bringing the head count to seventeen; he spites the fates that take his band members away by only building a bigger army. And everyone onstage knows it is their duty to deny the aging process: During "Because the Night," the 60-year-old Nils Lofgren tore off a frantic solo while dervishly spinning in a pirouette, courtesy of two artificial hips.
When the concerts end, we unquestioning fans chatter exhaustedly to our companions about the high points and the higher points: It is graded on a harsh scale of A to A+. We go home and collapse, still too hyped to dwell on the alarm clock that awaits us after too few hours of sleep. To a 20- or 30-year-old this may feel maudlin and melodramatic, the endlessly uploaded YouTube clips of paunchy fist-pumping suburbanites at the concert worth a giggle, an eye roll, and jokes about how the "Promised Land" from Darkness at the Edge of Town is now Boca Raton. New York magazine culture editor Lane Brown told me that when he went to see Springsteen at Madison Square Garden last week, a man who looked to be in his sixties seated next to him went berserk when the concert kicked off with "Badlands": this concertgoer sang along at the top of his lungs, waving his arms and showing the energy of a much younger man. Then, the song over, he collapsed in his seat and soon fell asleep for the remainder of the show, the sounds of his snores drowned out by the band. This anecdote made me snicker, as I acknowledge that no matter how old you are, seeing those twenty years older at a rock concert is always funny. But one day I too may wake up with a start in the middle of a concert, and I hope that Springsteen is still going when I open my eyes. Because the thought of him not there shaking his head in displeasure to see my ass not just sitting down, but sleeping, is a sign of mortality too real to bear.