Bruce Springsteen
Image via Antonio Scorza / Shutterstock.com

My night with Bruce Springsteen

by Malina Saval

My white JERSEY CITY t-shirt was tight on me, the rust-colored satin letters stretched snugly across my ample chest. Bruce was looking straight at me, leaning across his shiny guitar, strumming the soul-infused chords to “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” his bedraggled brown hair matted against his sweaty forehead as he strutted under the hot lights of the Staples Center stage. I was panting, bouncing, swinging my hair to every beat, every groove, shouting the words to the song as my heart thumped so wildly it was as if a happiness bomb was exploding in my body.

Steve, my friend from USC film school where we were both graduate students studying to become screenwriters, was beside me, dancing with breathless abandon. We’d been die-hard Bruce fans for years, but this was our first Bruce concert, and we were seated front row center. There was nothing between Bruce and us. Nothing but the pulsing electricity of his music as it echoed across the stadium and filled our spirituality-hungry ears.

We’d bought the cheapest seats in the house, the only tickets that, as fledgling writers living in Los Angeles, we could afford: nosebleed section, row ZZ, far from where Bruce would be grinding and thumping and sounding his raspy pipes. The cement wall of the stadium felt cold against our backs as we consoled ourselves with the fact that the concert would be taped and rebroadcast on HBO in a few months; we could watch it then, from our flimsy IKEA futon at home, with a far better view of Bruce than we could ever pray for now.

But we were also young and optimistic; we had gotten to the Staples Center three hours early, hoping beyond hope that we could somehow finagle our way backstage. Maybe after listening to my tales of woe about all the long, lonely post-relationship fallout hours in college I’d spent listening to Nebraska and The River and Darkness on the Edge of Town some guardian angel roadie would take pity upon us and sneak us into Bruce’s dressing room (as if I were the first girl in the history of rock ‘n roll to take solace in “Bobby Jean” or “Hungry Heart”).

Maybe if I told him all about how crappy high school was in the late 80’s, back when I was fourteen and had feathered hair and wore leg warmers over my tapered jeans and hung out in my suburban Boston house memorizing the liner notes to “Born to Run” and “Greetings From Asbury Park.” Back when music was my oxygen and I was sitting in my darkened basement bedroom, the curtains drawn, belting out the oiled-up blue-collar lyrics to “Born to Run,” crying over the friends that crushed me and the boyfriends that I never really had, pressing rewind and play on my RadioShack cassette deck, convinced that if I closed my eyes and concentrated hard enough I really would get to that place we really want to go and walk in the sun, just like Bruce sang.

Bruce understood what it was like to being young and confused. Bruce understood me.

And like that, our prayers were answered.

Our guardian angel came in the form of a beefy-necked security guard wearing a blue bandanna and a flimsy white T-shirt. A tattoo of a fire-breathing dragon covered the entirety of his muscular left arm. He didn’t say a word. Just drew two white tickets from the back pocket of his jeans and pushed them into our hands. He pulled two green plastic bands from his other pocket and snapped them around our wrists.

Minutes later, Steve and I were standing front row center. Inches from the stage. Movie stars surrounded us — Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Rob Lowe (This was 1999, before everybody split up). We could hardly contain the rush of excitement rocketing through our bodies. The stadium was packed, the energy full-blown, high-wattage electric. Bruuuuuuce! We moaned, a collective clarion call to worship. Bruuuuuce!

And Bruce appeared. A preacher man in a black t-shirt and blue Levi’s, a soul savior with mussed-up wavy hair, he grabbed his guitar, took center stage, and lunged into a rousing rendition of “Badlands.” With Stevie Van Zandt on guitar, Max Weinberg on drums and Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons on sax — the instrument through which God seems to speak — the crowd was riled up. The rest of the set was just as powerful and inspiring, from the mournful chords of “Jungleland” to the infectious hook of “Rosalita (Come out Tonight),” the holy grail of Bruce songs and one that rarely makes its way onto the set list.

It was during “Spirit in the Night” that I grabbed the hem of Bruce’s sweat-soaked jeans. I think I really dug her ’cause I was too loose to fake. I said, “I’m hurt.” She said, “Honey, let me heal it.” Bruce leaned forward, knelt down on his knees, and let me strum a few chords on his guitar. He tilted his head just slightly so and stared curiously at the lettering on my t-shirt.

“Hey, Jersey Girl,” he called out into the mic, loud enough for the entire stadium to hear. “I like your t-shirt.” Then he smiled. My heart lurched into my throat.

Steve was going nuts, the people around us were freaking out. There was a girl in a faded jean jacket with feather earrings and stringy blond hair that started jumping up and down and crying.

And then I looked up. And there I was. In glowing Technicolor. Me and my JERSEY CITY t-shirt plastered up on the gigantic video monitor looming high above the stage. The stadium erupted in a thunderous round of applause. I was famous. I was Jersey Girl. I was Courteney Cox in the “Dancing in the Dark” video (even if she and Jennifer Aniston were seated ten seats away from us). It was an MTV video dream come true.

Maybe I would go on the road with Bruce. Maybe he would teach me how to play guitar. Maybe we would form our own band and land on the cover of Rolling Stone. Anything was possible. There was spirit in this magical night. The kind of night from which rock songs are made.

Malina Saval

About Malina Saval

Malina Saval is the author of The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw Emotional World of Male Teens and Jewish Summer Camp Mafia. She’s written scripts for Touchstone Pictures and Walt Disney Television and pens entertainment features and celebrity profiles for lots of different magazines. She is an associate features editor at Variety and has a two year-old voicemail message from William H. Macy on her phone that she just can’t bear to erase. Follow Malina on Twitter @MalinaSaval

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