Bruce Springsteen Plays Santa Barbara


"Geez, do I have the tickets!?" Somewhere past Malibu, I realised I'd left the tickets back in our sun room, keeping company with the philodendrons and African violets.

"It's a good thing you remembered now - it's a long way back to LA from Robertson Gymnasium", Ann reminded me. Her new found wonder at the Springsteen phenomenon had propelled me into Wherehouse records to by the tickets for the only Southern California show he'd play on this 1975 tour. The night before, he'd been at the Roxy, a hip club down the Strip from the Whiskey, singing to invited industry heavies, trying to build on the nationwide buzz generated by the twin Newsweek and Time cover stories on "the future of rock and roll".

We'd bought the "Born to Run" album on the strength of a Rolling Stone rave and one listen to the title cut. Eleven years earlier, I'd heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand", full of florid cymbals, driving harmonies, and chugging guitars beats. It was so new and different, fuller and more vibrant than anything else on the radio. I felt right though my solar plexus exactly why young girls were screaming and fainting all over northern Europe about these guys. Their bushy haired head wiggles the next week on Ed Sullivan, full of smiles and knowing humor, just confirmed the archetypal definition they provided for our generation. Born to Run had the same effect on me - and apparently on Ann as well. She went out the next day and bought his two earlier records, "Asbury Park", and "E Street Shuffle".

"Roy Orbison ... 'Only the Lonely'. That song was just everything to me. The beach, the music ... I don't know; "Thunder Road" just did something for me." She was quite inarticulate trying to justify her extravagance.

We listened to Bruce constantly over the next few weeks, lying on the floor in front of the tinny stereo I'd brought from college. No way it could pick up all the power of the bass, or the fullness of the sax, or even help decipher his muddy singing. But the emotional surge and fullness had the same message for me as the Beatles - this guy was singing to me. And I liked what he had to say. Clearly a poet, he sketched a few quick images into an iconic picture of cars and angst and hope for the future, a potent mix for one still mired in the artificial adolescence of medical training.

We devoured the cover where Bruce leaned, smiling, emoting with great joy, Fender guitar slung over his back, leather jacket hung open, ear ring shining above his dark black beard, leaning on the giant sax player, openly loving his life.

In the six weeks between the newsmagazine covers, and the concert in Santa Barbara, he went from "the next Dylan" to the current big thing - this year's boy for the rock and roll cognoscenti in Tinsel Town. And we had tickets to his only show for 400 miles. At the Robertson Gym, no less.

"It's really a little place", Ann told me. She'd gone to school at UC Santa Barbara, whose basketball and intramural teams played in the gym. "It's more like a high school gym, you know." No, I didn't know, but I'd soon find out.

We left Venice three hours ahead of the start time for the show, knowing we might have trouble parking, so going back to get the tickets didn't faze me too much; we'd still get there before he started. But I had to rev the Dodge Charger 402 cc up to fullbore to slam into the parking lot by 8 PM.

We raced up to the door, and entered the foyer. I could feel the energy, the zoom emanating from that room. The place was packed. Folding chairs filled the basketball court, stretching to the walls along the sidelines. Above the court, a horseshoe balcony provided about five rows of slats from which to look down on the stage, set under the far basket. This room was about 100 feet by 60 feet, and jam full of buzzing 20 somethings, all new to this East Coast myth, talking about his "epic three hour shows". Bruce never had an opening act. He wanted all your energy for his music.

We hiked upstairs, looking for an empty seat, but found nothing. People were wedged under the railing along the balcony's edge, lower legs dangling into thin air, being pushed from the front row behind them. All the aisles were taken up by squatters. It was a fire marshal's nightmare.

Back downstairs, we caucused about what to do. Right in front of us, the sound guys sat by a control board, looking like high tech organists about to program Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. The equipment and their three chairs rested on a pair of wooden pallets, raised about a foot off the hardwood floor. I asked the nearest sound guy, "Can we sit here on the edge of this?"

"Hey, it's OK, but don't get in our way - we gotta get the sound the way the Boss wants it." A big grin told me just who the Boss was. He got nudged by his buddy. They both looked up at the stage, where a scruffy emcee waddled out, watched the lights dim a bit, leaned down to the mike, and said, "LADIES AND GENTLEMEN --- BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE E STREET BAND!!!"

The lights thunked off, a lone figure walked out facing the rear of the stage, and a white spot slammed onto his varnished classic Fender slung over a shiny leather jacket. Hunched over a mike, hands up to his mouth, he started to blow the intro to "Thunder Road". The crowd went nuts. The sound guys pulled their toggles all the way up to ten. And all that crowd noise hushed into a cobra tensed energy pushing Bruce through the first eight bars of his harmonica solo. Ann and I had found our song.

By the time Roy Bittan started trilling his piano, everyone was jumping up on their chairs. When Danny Federici hit the organ, we all were clapping our hands or stamping our feet. And when Clarence Clemons brought in his alto sax, we screamed, applauded, and generally went beserk. Those of us who could, whistled.

I myself have a very intense, literally ear-splitting whistle. You do not want to sit next to me at a basketball game. I learned the whistle from Peter Horton, who lived behind us when I was reaching puberty. He was two years older than me, and was the coolest kid in the world. One of those natural athletes who make the rest of us feel foolish, he had sandy hair, a killer smile, and a knack for making everything look easy. My sister was in love with him; I merely worshipped him. He accepted it all as his due, or maybe he didn't even notice it. He showed me how to make a loop out of my thumb and forefinger, press their tips against my curled up tongue, purse my lips, and blow like crazy. Moving the tongue back and forth produces pitch alterations sufficient to drive away the meanest junkyard hound.

I perfected my whistle while coaching little kids on a swim team, the summers between my years at college. It was the only thing they could hear while churning underwater. In the summer of '69, at the apogee of the age of Aquarius, I had charge of the eight and unders. The girls were simply awesome. Each one was a little package of dynamite. We had a magical summer, that year. While the Mets marched to the World Series, the hippies marched on Yasgar's Farm at Woodstock, the Beatles peppered us with Abbey Road, and Richard Nixon began his own long dark march to ultimate paranoid ignominy, my little girls swept over every team which came against us. Two moments stand out in my memory. First, in late July, they won the Junior Olympics the same day Neil Armstrong took a small step out onto the stony sterile silent moon dust. I cradled the trophy we won all the way home, and learned for the first time about the depression which hits when you think you've reached a pinnacle, celebrated with everyone, and then, as has to happen, you find yourself all alone with no more heights to scale. And second, at our league championship in August, those little girls won every single race. The final event for us was the freestyle relay - four kids each going 25 meters. A grown woman can do this in under a minute; my girls were only ten seconds slower than that. They were so much better than any of the other teams, our last girl finished her leg when the other teams third swimmers were still flailing away at the other end of the pool. As I watched our anchor, Linda Christian, churning up a wave down that final lap, and heard the crowd and especially our kids' parents going nuts in the background (this was being held at our own pool), I felt time stop. I looked up at the light blue evening sky, just beginning to get a hint of Fall's coolness in the air. The crowd noise faded away, and Linda's arms moved into a slow motion windmill. I thought of how much they'd worked, every morning, every day. How they'd actually followed instructions, swum all the laps, improved their strokes, finished each race hard, just like I'd said. How I'd guided them, but couldn't really swim for them. How, in fact, I had very little to do with their success, only making the opportunity available to them. I realised, at just that one slight scratch in time, I was transcendently happy, living in a Perfect Moment, where athletic endeavor merged into artistic self-expression. The only way I knew how to capture and celebrate such a feeling was to whistle, putting my every fiber into the shrillness from my lungs.

Bruce standing up there, back to the audience, right hip thrust out, left knee and leg pumping up and down, guiding his band into "Thunder Road" - I saw that, and felt another Perfect Moment, one I would like to live in forever but knew I never could. I jumped up on the sound guys' platform, threw my left arm into the air, and whistled as loud as I could. It was barely a whisper amidst the amps and cheers.

The evening went on like that for three hours more. Towards the end, Bruce launched into "Twist and Shout" by saying "My doctor told me if I played this song one more time, I was gonna have a heart attack! But I don't care - you guys deserve it!" Some people, like Peter Horton, are just simply nice guys who are loaded with talent, people it's impossible to hate. They seem to have such fun, and want to share it with you. That's what everyone saw in Bruce Springsteen, when they went to his show. It was as if he were looking at and singing to each of us, personally. Anyway, he and Clarence launched into "Twist and Shout", the Big Man pumping his sax back and forth in front of the speakers, Bruce jumping up on top of an amp, duck walking across the stage, sliding on one knee, falling down exhausted, still playing and singing. Then, he jumps up, and launches into "Rosalita".

This precipitated a mass rush towards the stage. Everyone on the main floor left their assigned area (no one had been sitting the whole night), and filled the aisles. The bolder balcony dwellers dropped down from the edge onto the main floor. The whole place was a mass of swaying, singing sybarites, arms overhead, clapping, sweating, almost swooning.

After the third encore, half of us started filing out, still buzzing, while the less exhausted remained on the floor, clapping, stomping, "Brooooce"-ing. And back he came, one more time, pounding out some timeless fifties rock and roll instrumental, 'cause he loved it all so much. Oh, the strength and endless optimism at age twenty-six, of those of us in the class of '49. To this day, I don't remember driving the two hours back to LA. But I do remember trying to explain it all the next day to my fellow residents while we whiled away the call day on Gyn. They smiled, but they Just Didn't Get It.

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