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When Springsteen Plays New Jersey

bruce springsteen

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in 2023. But as The Boss continues to tour, we thought it was worth revisiting why his Jersey shows stand out.

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On August 30, I journeyed to MetLife Stadium in northern NJ to witness Bruce Springsteen and his E Streeters. Bruce coming back to New Jersey has a deeper meaning than the many other artists who pass through the Garden State. Like the swallows returning to Capistrano, there has always been a bit of certainty that The Boss would always return to the nest. Multiple shows at the Meadowlands are something we Jersey people can count on.

But admittedly, I brought a cloud of indecision over my head en route to the stadium. I’ve been a full-fledged Jersey guy for my 64 ½ years of life, (except for a few years living in Europe while on a work assignment), but lately, my wife and I have been considering leaving NJ for retirement, to take up residence on the coast of North Carolina.

Bruce has always done well for New Jersey. As part of a long list of artists who hail from our small, crowded, and expensive state (The Rascals, The Shirelles, The Four Seasons, Looking Glass, Smithereens, My Chemical Romance, Fountains of Wayne, Count Basie, Whitney Houston, Donald Fagen, Debbie Harry,  Tom Verlaine, Patti Smith, Sebastian Bach, Southside, and Bon Jovi) only Frank Sinatra could outflank Springsteen in the popular connection with his NJ roots. But Frank left us for Hollywood and never looked back.

Bruce, on the other hand, embraced his Jersey roots. Hell, his first three albums were portraits of the Jersey Shore scene. Some will point out that Bruce left us for a handful of years in the late 1980s for California. But he returned soon after marrying an authentic Jersey shore musician (Patti Scialfa) and brought up a family in Monmouth County.

Springsteen is 10 years older than me and has played the part of an “advance man” for my maturing mental state. I’ve always checked in with Bruce for advice on life. His songs describe how to approach conflict, loss, disappointment, regret, redemption, loyalty, growth, freedom, trust, joy, and love. I was not originally planning to join the loyal flock for this tour, but my friend Ken called a few months back and said he had a ticket for me. Before I accepted, I breathlessly mumbled to myself, “Maybe there will be a sign.” As I walked through the gates of MetLife, I was still wondering if Bruce would show me some direction in my decision to abandon NJ.

That night, we sat among the Jersey faithful wearing Springsteen garb, some openly (and loudly) bragging that this would indeed be their 50th  show, or 100th time they have witnessed the Boss in Jersey. I have friends who are living proof that Bruce maniacs never miss a tour. As for me, I have a moderate track record with just short of 20 Boss shows over the past 40 years. But I have one advantage over the others: I’ve seen Springsteen perform outside of the USA. I can testify that there is an extra-extra-extra spark in his hometown shows and this particular night is crisp with electricity.

As the Boss takes the stage, I’m reminded of his ability to command an arena of this size. In his younger troubadour days, Springsteen would “sermonize” his message and nail it down with his great athletic abilities, flying skyward with his knees tucked behind him like the Knick’s old Guard, Dick Barnett. Bruce moved like a rock star should, not a dancer like Mick Jagger, but a prowling warrior in a regiment armed with guitars. He sang from his solar plexus (still does). That was what made him such a compelling entertainer.

Beyond the legendary length of his performances, he had an uncanny capacity to really put his stories out there. We all got caught up in the sheer emotion of his life-affirming passions.

Now at 74, he’s toned down most of his physical actions (no more sliding on his knees to meet Clarence Clemons for a sax solo). As he sings to the Jersey choir, he knows these are not new concepts anymore. He continues to punctuate the stories, but now with a glancing nod that says: “See? Didn’t I tell you this is what happens in life?” Yes, most of us have now experienced what he taught us in the 1970s (and now I’m going through it all over again). I nod back, and we all sing along.

Springsteen is not shy about reminiscing. The irony of him singing “Wrecking Ball” while standing in the middle of the stadium that the wrecking ball helped replace was not missed by anyone that night. Bruce has always given us a license for rolling around in past sentiments.  We’re dead sure it’s not corny as long as he’s part of it.

 

For his fans all over the world, Bruce’s music continually grabs your memory banks and pulls out emotional snapshots of one’s life. I’m guessing that most of the attending crowd that night experienced Jersey snapshots as did I:

  • Bruce performs the opera of “Backstreets,” SNAP– That party where I ended up sleeping on the floor of a Monmouth College dorm room.
  • A rip-roaring version of “No Surrender,” SNAP– That summer I was dating that nice blonde from Cedar Grove.
  • Bruce reminds us of hope and kicks into “The Promised Land,” SNAP – That first real career job in a Florham Park office with a clown for a boss.
  • And he sends us off to “criminal” life with the romp “Johnny 99,” SNAP– That arrival at Newark Airport after returning from a honeymoon in Maui.

The lights are lowered, and out comes the acoustic guitar. Springsteen slows his pace, lowers his tone, and masterfully captures everyone’s attention when he begins to tell the story of his departed friend, George Theiss. The jam-packed stadium, which only a song ago was louder than the Lear jets flying into nearby Teterboro airport, is as silent as a cathedral during prayer time. He goes on to tell everyone how the older Theiss recruited the 15-year-old Bruce to join his band. He describes how 1965 was a magic time to be a young musician in New Jersey, “during the wonderful but turbulent era of the 60s.” He continues to describe his heartache at George’s bedside in 2018, sharing that when he himself passes, he’s indeed the last member of that band. He sings, “Last Man Standing.”  The crowd is right there next to Bruce at George’s bedside, under this night’s full-moon Jersey sky.

If MetLife had a roof, it would have been blown wide open by the E Street Band. They are the professional’s professional backing group. Some old friends are present (guitarists Steve Van Zandt,  Soozie Tyrell, and Nils Lofgren, pianist Roy Bittan, and drummer Max Weinberg) along with others who are bolt-on fixes for passing players (keyboardist Charlie Giordano replaced the late Danny Federici, Jake Clemons replaced his departed uncle Clarence on the sax) along with four backing vocalists and a full horn section. They open with a blast of nine straight rockers, enough to fatigue any group half their age. I find myself more exhausted than the band.

But every great band has a “quiet man,” and bassist Garry Tallent fills that slot. Beyond Bruce, he’s the only one left from the band’s first portrait on the back of their second album (1973’s The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle). In a band of small-ish people (yes, “Little” Steven is little, and Lofgren is not far behind), Tallent stands out in stature and as a pillar of consistency. His greatest achievement is that you don’t come away from a Bruce show saying, “Man, that Gary Tallent is an outstanding entertainer.” No, his job is to hold the musical tent up, and he does that better than most. I would lay bets that Gary Tallent has not missed a note in 30 years.

A few numbers before he goes into his red-hot close and encores, Springsteen surprises us with the intimate “Nightshift”, the old Commodores hit from 1985.  Once again, he’s got us all where he wants us. There are tears in the eyes of the Jersey ladies around me as the crowd sings at a volume that could be heard all the way to High Point (NJ’s highest peak found in distant Sussex County).

Now there’s a lump in my throat: could this be The Sign? I’m not supposed to leave this all behind, right? But wait a minute, Bruce didn’t write this song. It was Fannie Golde! And she is NOT from Jersey. Is there a chance she’s from North Carolina?

-Steven Valvano

Photo: Getty Images

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19 comments on “When Springsteen Plays New Jersey

  1. Steve, no kidding, this is vintage 1970s-1980s Rolling Stone worthy!

  2. Les Fender

    Extremely well done piece Steve, bravo! While I’m not really much of a Springsteen fan, about 25 years ago, I met him (and Patty), of all places, in the lobby of the Grand Hotel in Stockholm, Sweden. He was very gracious, and allowed my wife to shoot a photo of us together. Otherwise, Steve, six years ago, my wife and I relocated from suburban Philly to the Southport, NC area. DO IT! You won’t regret it! Feel free to contact me for more info about the area.

    • Steven Valvano

      Less, thank you for the kind words, your Bruce story and relo encouragement…We have often dined at Oliver’s and Fishy Fishy in your town over the last 15 years…..know it well! .

      • Les Fender

        Those places mentioned, you surely do know this area well! Then you also know of our incredibly vibrant live music scene. It’s truly wonderful. Also wonderful – our mild winters and low taxes, among other things!

  3. Jersey Joe

    Amazing article. Wish I was up north with you guys to have enjoyed the show. But, I got a sign a few years back and moved to the SC “shore” (calling it the ‘shore” is my attempt to bring a little Jersey south.).

    • Steven Valvano

      Thanks SC Joe…do they call it Pork Roll or Taylor Ham down there?…and thanks for the kind words-SV

  4. Greg Walker

    New Jersey is expensive, and you must share it with many others, including Bruce and many other successful musicians, but isn’t that another reason to stay? Don’t leave Steve!

  5. Steven Valvano

    Greg, Thanks for the kind words…potentially Born to Run, I guess!-SV

  6. Turning the lights on for the last 30 minutes was jarring. Changed the mood of the evening.

    • Steven Valvano

      Yes, agreed…when you see all those bodies dancing it does take your eye off the show!-SV

  7. Roy P Dwyer, Jr

    Steve, another great article with a history of the band and your experiences. Bravo my friend.

  8. Excellent article. As one who slept in the dorms of Monmouth in the 70s, worked at Big Mans West in the 80s and left NJ to follow a woman to Texas, you can always go back home. Just turn on some Bruce

    Enjoy North Carolina!

    • Steven Valvano

      Thanks Dan…still trying to decide…. My band played Big Man’s many times in the 80s. Once, Clearance showed up and we got paid when he handed us a case of beer….as for Monmouth, the party was in Laurel Hall…ring any bells?-SV

  9. I was at that show.. the atmosphere and people of NJ are incomparable. I left, from age 22 to 33. I was in Nevada, low taxes, cheap meals, lots of entertainment. Nothing compares to NJ people & culture. I came back 22 yrs ago, to grow up my kids and I don’t regret it for a second.

  10. Gary Hallock

    Steve, Fannie Golde is from Chicago, Il. Forget about the lump in your throat and enjoy the adrenaline from the show. The Boss is one of the best at generating that in the crowd. I can attest first hand. Great article, keep them coming. Gary

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