By February of 1977, he had already become “Bruce Springsteen” — but not yet “The Boss,” poet laureate of the American working man.
Just a year or so prior, he’d been on the covers of both Time and Newsweek at the same time, and had recently blown critics away with a series of shows at New York’s Bottom Line. So, clearly, he had already grown into something beyond simple rock star.
But even with two albums of his sitting in milk crates next to my home stereo, I still had no idea.
Not that is, until I saw Springsteen live for the very first time. Only — and I kid you not — the very night I first saw him, I didn’t just watch him nearly reduce a small theater in Upstate New York to a pile of rubble, I actually had a hand in making it happen.
Let me explain.
I had been tending bar at the time, attempting to forestall adulthood for as long as possible, when my father phoned a friend’s apartment in Boston, where I was visiting, and told me my next door neighbor, a fledgling promoter, had a job for me in Albany. I was to be at the Palace Theater by 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, at which point my concert-promoting buddy would provide me the details.
Turns out, I was only assigned one thing to do that night. My sole responsibility — beyond wearing a silly T-shirt — was to sit in the wings, and near the end of the show, during the instrumental break on "Born to Run," follow Springsteen, who at some point would jump down from the stage, and accompany him up the center aisle, holding his mic cord so that no fans stepped on it, grabbed it or pulled it.
If you’ve been lucky enough to have caught a live Springsteen show, you have a sense of what the next four hours were like.
Finally, as things approached their crescendo, the first titanic chords of "Born to Run" began to thunder and I popped to my feet, assuming my position beneath the band, dead center, roughly five feet below the stage. Then just as I’d been told, Springsteen leapt off the stage and down to my level as the crowd roared. He then made eye contact and gave me a quick smile, so I reached down, grabbed his mic cord and off we went.
By then, of course, my man-crush had all but made me want to start rethinking whatever sketchy plans I may have had for the rest of my life. But, fortunately, I kept it together and continued walking a few paces behind, watching as the man started to transcend — and I mean this in a very real and perhaps even historic way — the whole concept of rock star. Because right before my eyes and no more than ten feet away Bruce Springsteen was slowly transforming himself into “The Boss.”
But that’s not what I remember most. It’s what happened next. As we made our way back to the stage, I dropped the cord and began retreating to the shadows. But as I walked I felt the band holding the final note of the break for an extended period.
Suddenly, I heard Springsteen’s voice yelling “Hey ... Hey!!!” I turned around and there he was in all his ragged glory, striped T-shirt, tight faded jeans and pointy black boots, looking straight at me with his eyebrows raised, his hands cupped thigh-high and his fingers interlocked.
Apparently, not only was the stage too high, but his jeans too tight to allow him to vault back onto it. So after a few futile stabs, and with the band feverishly holding that one last note, Springsteen did what any red-blooded, self-respecting rock star might have done under the circumstances. He cupped his hands together and gave me the universal boost sign.
As I raced center stage and cupped my hands together, I felt a strong hand grasp my left shoulder and looked down to see a worn leather boot resting in my clutches. So with a mighty shove, I hoisted it skyward. As Springsteen landed onstage and spun around dramatically, the crowd exploded. He then looked down, gave me an emphatic fist pump and smiled a smile that I swear had enough kilowatt power to light up Jersey City.
Perhaps caught up in the moment, I immediately spun around, too, where I found myself face-to-face with 2,800 screaming, well-lubricated peers. At that point what else could I do? I howled my delight, raised both fists and started pumping them Rocky-style. Needless to say, the cheers somehow found an even higher gear as the final chorus at long last began to kick in and praise broken heroes and last-chance power drives.
I’d learn years later what a historic concert it had been that evening; how before it, Springsteen had been legally prevented from recording what would eventually become the moody and somber "Darkness on the Edge of Town" — and how he had used his “second” "Born to Run" tour as an occasion to bypass the suits and take his music straight to the people; to ditch his sunglasses and aloof persona; and to transform himself into the working-class hero we know and love today.
What I learned that night so many years ago was something that Springsteen has been singing about ever since: When your fellow man puts his hands together, looks you straight in the eye and asks you for a boost, you don’t think twice. You rise up to the occasion.