I’ve attended well over 100 Bruce Springsteen concerts. If you count all the hours then it probably works out to, at least, 15 full days of Bruce shows.
I understand that.
In my defense, the shows are really good.
Bruce Springsteen concerts are not unlike taking a hike up a familiar mountain trail by yourself. You have a pretty good idea how your hike is going to go and you’re fully aware of how it’ll end. The twists and turns of the trail are expected and even reassuring. You tend to look inward although you’re quite aware of your surroundings.
However, each hike is unique and brings plenty of new insights. The details in those twists and turns are different. In the end, you’re always better for the experience.
I may be reading way too much into the entire thing.
Not that I know anything about hiking. My idea of hiking is walking a quarter mile to the local coffee shop and the closest thing I get to communing with nature is staying at a Holiday Inn Express.
The last time I went hiking up a mountain was with my niece. It took a little longer than 5th grade for us to get up the mountain, then we went down the wrong side of the mountain, so we had to climb back up the mountain and walk down the other side of the mountain. After the first four hours, my knees were swolen and my hips were locked in place so I was waddling around like a penguin. Plus, I was exhausted. I spent the rest of the hike staggering over the mountain like Frankenstein’s monster after a 10-day tequila binge. My niece was having a blast. She loves hiking. Oh, she was having a grand old time. For me, the whole thing was turning into a religious experience. The hallucinations weren’t so bad until I saw Mother Teresa looking at me, shaking her head and saying, “Loser.”
In the mid 80s, Springsteen used to play quite a few roles on-stage. In three and a half hours, he was a clean-cut patriotic young American, a very energetic carnival barker, a socially conscious man of the people, a class clown, a highly-intense moralist and an extroverted party boy. The one role I don’t think he played on stage was himself. Off-stage, by most accounts, he was aloof, unapproachable and depressed. The stage was his refuge from himself, maybe. From experience, I can say a stage is an excellent place to escape the person you really are. Or, the person you think you are. The light that can shine very bright while you’re on stage can get pretty damn dark when you’re not on it. It reminds me of Robin Williams or Marilyn Monroe. Or, me. Back in the day, at least.
On this tour, the opening song was always “Born in the USA.” It’s sung from the point of view of a Vietnam Veteran who was kicked around as a child, got drafted by a government that couldn’t care less about the lives it destroyed, flung into the middle of the Vietnam War and returned traumatized for life. As the song progresses, he comes to the very reasonable conclusion that, in the game of life, he lost. At the end, he admits, “I got nowhere to run. I got nowhere to go.”
However, it seemed no one actually heard the lyrics because the audience, as was the case with all audiences, erupted with joyous dancing and singing. Even Butt-Hair was dancing or, at least, attempting as much. Helmet-Head, who had spent the entire day bouncy and silly and giggly and annoying, stood very still with her arms crossed. She gave an angry glare towards the stage.
At the song’s end, I touched Helmet-Head’s elbow and asked if she was okay. She jumped back into her happy-happy-joy-joy character and assured me she was altogether “fine and dandy” which was another phrase of hers I could have lived without.
A few songs into the show, the band played “Atlantic City.” Atlantic City’s a beach town in the States where a gambling paradise was built in the early 80s but, as is generally the case with man-made paradises, it didn’t take long for it to start on its road to Hell. The city has been teetering on the brink of bankruptcy for a long time, the violent crime rate in Atlantic City is one of the worst in the US and the percentage of its citizens living under the poverty line is more than three times the national average.
There’s a line in the song where the down-and-out protagonist declares to his equally down-and-out wife, “Now, our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay.” That line hit me right between the eyes and has stayed with me. A statement of devotion, an acknowledgement that their shared dreams were well beyond their grasp and an acceptance of a bleak future about which they had very little say. Although, the little they could say would be said together.
Maybe it was the nobility of that statement. Maybe it was the rawness. Or, both. At that moment, Helmet Head looked at me and smiled. It wasn’t her goofy, cheerleader smile. It was sincere but I wasn’t sure what she was smiling about.
During the song, Butt-Hair and Daniel were making googly-eyes at each other, surreptitiously holding hands and making the occasional, but quick, kissy-faces. I found this sight nauseating because they were acting like 14 year olds. However, they were happily enjoying each other’s company so who was I to pooh-pooh their special kind of love.
Helmet-Head got teary-eyed again during the next song, “The River,” which is a first person recounting of someone who has managed to fuck up his entire life. She noticed that I noticed she was looking weepy again.
I said, “It’s okay. It’s a sad song. You’re allowed.”
It was too late. She had already reverted back to her bubbly and ridiculous persona for the remainder of the first set.
Sweetheart, dump all this infantile, simple-minded, overactive, shallow, up-with-people who-ha and just pretend to be a normal human being.
“Thunder Road,” the final song of the first set, concluded with Springsteen running into the open arms of his sax-player, Clarence Clemons, for a long kiss and embrace. Butt-Hair frowned at the sight of this and muttered something about this behavior setting a bad example for the young, impressionable Swedes in the audience. She wondered why popular musicians insisted on encouraging their fans to “turn into homosexuals.” Butt-Hair wanted to know my feelings about it.
What is it with people like you spending your waking hours hyperventilating about what the rest of the world is getting up to in bed? Get a hobby. Get a life. The rest of the world doesn’t really care what you think. Give it up. Then, shut up.
I smiled, shrugged and replied, “It’s not like they’re having sex on stage so I wouldn’t get too torn up about it and I’m sure the young, impressionable Swedes will, in all likelihood, get over it.”
Butt-Hair, with Helmet-Head in tow, immediately stormed off to powder her nose which was a relief because it meant I didn’t have to sit with Butt-Hair and Daniel playing slap-and-tickle to my left and Helmet-Head to my right telling me all about unicorns and rainbows and candy canes and just shut up, Honey.
While the young ladies were off doing whatever they were doing, Daniel and I bantered a bit about his new-found love interest. Daniel was quite taken by Butt-Hair so I figured it’d be best to not give my honest assessment because I found her to be a judgmental bitch. Plus, I had forgotten her name. I mean, I knew her name probably wasn’t Butt-Hair. Although, I didn’t rule it out because you never know. She could have been the daughter of one of the numerous low-life, amoral Hollywood actors who’ll do anything to keep the public’s attention and if it means cursing their children with names that will ruin their prospects for a happy childhood then, kid, too bad. That’s the price of fame.
I asked Daniel about his new found faith. He assured me he was now a God-man through and through. He wasn’t making heavy weather about it. No over explaining or justifying. There wasn’t any Amway song-and-dance and no salesman would be knocking on my door. None of the usual signs of pretense. He thanked me for modifying my behavior so as not to offend anyone’s tender sensibilities. I was glad he noticed.
I’m pretty good at reading between the lines and I can usually find the pony under all the horseshit. Probably because I spent the first half of my life burying myself under enough horseshit to fertilize the Sinai and still have enough left over to create my own political party. I know what to look for. I found Daniel to be genuine.
“I’m glad you found each other. She’s very pretty. Striking, actually.” I was trying to be nice. I didn’t like her but no one said I had to like her. On the other hand, we didn’t have to talk about her, either.
So, it was my turn to change the subject. “Not that you need to tell me but…Africa. Wha’ ‘appen? And, what is up with her agonizingly happy lil’ friend?”
“Jen? You don’t know her. You may think you know her. But, you don’t. Trust me, you don’t.”
Jen. Okay, name’s Jen. Good to know. But, she’ll always be Helmet-Head to me.
“Don’t you get seriously ill of all the giggly-touchy-feely slop? Anyway, Africa. Wha’ ‘appen?
Daniel said he didn’t want to talk about it.
“Fair enough. Will give that one a miss.”
Then, Daniel told me all about it.
Seems Daniel, who had a habit of doing this, decided to join a foreign aid agency on a trip to distribute food and supplies to people who couldn’t afford to buy either. So, he hooked up with some agency and off he went to, of all places, Ethiopia. Specifically, a little place along the Red Sea called Eritrea. This is where things get somewhat untidy because, according to Daniel, Eritrea, even though it was already in Ethiopia, was being invaded by Ethiopia.
(Think about that for a moment. Imagine the Good Ol’ USA of America invading Maine. We send out our troops and kick Maine’s ass. What’s the point? I mean, we’ve engaged in some stupid activities in this country but, at least, we haven’t invaded ourselves.)
Invading yourself makes no sense, of course, and if something makes no sense then a government is usually involved. In the case of Eritrea, a lot of governments because the United Nations managed to slither into the fold. In 1950, the UN, according to Daniel, decided it would be a really, really, really good idea to take Eritrea, which was an independent country, put it in Ethiopia and create some sort of half-baked federation between the two. This meant Eritrea would no longer be a country. It would be part of Ethiopia but would maintain its sovereignty. Daniel said Eritreans were given the promise of independence and autonomy. Unfortunately for the citizens of Eritrea, the promise came from the United Nations.
The memo from UN to Eritrea was, “So, like, the whole thing is, I mean, you do whatever, okay? It’s cool. Like, you do you. The pressure’s off because you don’t have to worry about having to be a real country on accounta you’re in Ethiopia which is great, pretty much. So, now, you can just be you. And, just be out there, you know, doing whatever. So, it’s cool. And, you know, Ethiopia is all good with it. They’re really excited to, uh, not get involved in your stuff, as such. And we can just, basically, keep it loose. Kinda, just out there. In a tubular kinda way. But, you’re good. Totally independent. Completely. No question. This’ll be great. Pretty much. And, we got your back. Honest. We promise Ethiopia won’t mess with you. The UN will always be there for you. Forever! We promise. Always and forever!”
All seriousness aside, I have no idea who the hell thought this would work and, of course, it didn’t. After ten years of Ethiopia’s harrassment, Eritrea said, “Adios.”
Ethiopia said, “My ass.”
And, so began the invasion of Eritrea. I’m guessing the UN boldly stepped up by issuing a memo to Eritrea stating, “When we said ‘forever’ we didn’t mean THAT ‘forever.’ Sorry for the inconvenience.”
That was in 1961. Daniel’s trip was in 1985 and Ethiopia was still trying to take over Eritrea. Twenty four years seems like a long time to fully invade a country the size of Ohio. Especially when it’s not a country but just a place already in your country. Ethiopia was ten times the size of Eritrea, had twenty times the population and its invasion was being generously funded by the Soviet Union. However, after twenty-four years, Ethiopia still couldn’t get out of the parking lot with its own invasion.
So, what was the major malfunction? I mean, come on. The theory I expressed to Daniel was Ethiopia was just taking the Soviets for a ride to keep the Russian money flowing. The Ethiopian government knew the Soviets wanted Eritrea for themselves. I figured Ethiopia couldn’t have cared less about Eritrea but they really liked getting boatloads of money from the USSR so they, the Ethiopian government, pretended to invade Eritrea.
However, Daniel felt the invasion was quite real but the Ethiopian army kept stepping on its own collective dick everytime it tried to accomplish anything. The Ethiopian military’s tactic was to send a bunch of mercenaries to random Eritrean villages for the sole purpose of committing hideous war crimes against the villagers and, once they were done, running away. If you had money on Ethiopia then that strategy was a little disappointing. Plus, it probably wasn’t the best way to win the hearts and minds of the locals especially because the level of atrocities committed by the Ethiopians against Eritrean citizens would have caused Joseph Stalin to hide under his bed and whimper for his binky.
This is the setting where Daniel met Helmet Head and Butt Hair. Helmet and Butt were part of a team of Christian missionaries who distributed food, medicine and spread the Good News to those Eritrean villagers willing to listen, which, thanks to the Ethiopian mercenaries terrorizing random Eritreans, happened to be just about everybody. More than once, Daniel and the mission team were caught between invading Ethiopian gangs and Eritrean villagers scrambling for safety.
In the chaos of one such instance, Helmet got separated from the team, stepped into some sort of dwelling to hide and found herself face-to-face with four armed Ethiopian thugs.
I can’t imagine the thoughts racing through her mind other than the terrifying realization that she’d been caught with her pants squarely around her ankles, with nowhere to run, had no one coming to her rescue and now needed to come to terms about her immediate future which was looking, to be mild, bleak.
As you can guess, she was dragged off somewhere and tossed around like a rag doll among the four fine young men. Daniel started giving me details of her kidnapping.
“Fortunately, you found her. Or, someone did.” I interrupted. I didn’t want to hear the details.
“We didn’t find her. Two days later. You won’t believe this but the four mercs who kidnapped her. Two days later. Brought her back. Right? They patched her up. Carried her back. “
“Huh? I’m guessing that’s not usually how these things go.”
“Oh, no. No, no, no. They sell the women they kidnap. End up a sex slaves. They break them. Right? The girls get locked up and they….”
“Happily, that wasn’t the case here.” Interrupted again. “Did someone intervene or was she able to negotiate on her behalf?”
“With ample justification but how did…..?”
“The whole time. She sang worship songs. Recited Bible passages. Praised God.”
“While being gang-banged by a bunch of animals. Who then brought her back and said, ‘Have a nice day. ‘” I tried to not sound skeptical.
“See. I knew you wouldn’t believe it. I didn’t. Believe it. Then.”
“I’m not getting my arms around this one. And, you witnessed them bringing her back.”
“Uh-huh. Exactly. The mercs who took her. Four murdering rapists. In two days. Right? Came back, Born-Again Christians. All four. Begging for forgiveness. Begging God and Jen. She converted them. Right? Then they turned themselves into the [Eritrean] police. And, she did.”
“Whoa, hang on there. They kidnapped her at gunpoint. Raped her. Repeatedly. Slapped her around. Repeatedly. During which she sang gospel songs and thanked God for her abundant good fortune. Really? No, wait. There’s more. She forgave them. And, no, wait. There’s even more where that came from. She converts them. From Saul to Paul or do I have that backwards? Okay, good. They find God, patch her up, give her tea and sympathy, bring her back, apologize and fall on their swords. All within 48 hours, give or take. That a fair reading?”
“I was there. Right? When they brought her back. All of it. It was real. Most real thing I seen in my life. It was a miracle. Right?”
“Well, maybe not up there with the Jets beating the Colts but it’s….. I’m sorry….that was wrong. It certainly sounds miraculous.” I felt like a fool trying to make light of all this.
“Me and Vicky. As soon as we could. We took her to a hospital in Göteberg. Twelve days. In hospital. She screamed and cried. And, prayed. For twelve days. We stayed with her. Right? They’ve been staying with me for the past week. She’s going back in a couple weeks.”
“What?!” I was loud enough to turn quite a few heads.
“We tried. Talking her out of it. No one can talk her out of it. Right? Me and Vicky can’t go with her. Not yet. Vicky needs to go back to the US and see her parents. Her father’s dying. My passport expired.”
“She’s going by herself?”
“I know. I know. She won’t budge. She’s going back. She promised God. She said that. Now you know. Right? That’s who you’re dealing with.”
“So, what’s with all the fake happy-happy-joy-joy crap? She seems to be in a mighty good mood, all things considered.”
Daniel snapped, “Because she feels….”
“Oops, here they come. Did we have this conversation?”
“Will they figure out we did?”
They both looked much more relaxed but seemed a bit too anxious to find out what Daniel and I were talking about during their absence.
“Oh, trading war stories none of which Daniel and I can repeat until the statutes of limitations have expired, what with the arrest warrants and all.”
The girls looked very concerned.
“Kidding. I’m kidding. No warrants. Honest.”
They both tried, and failed, to appear amused.
Butt-Hair, sorry, Vicky, seemed to have lightened up quite a bit. I was about to ask Jen if she pulled the large stick out of her friend’s whatnot. Luckily for all involved, Bruce started the second set.
The concert was, as expected, great fun but I spent most of the time keeping an eye on Jen, wondering when the rubber-band would snap and hoping I wouldn’t be around the day she’d climb the tower in order to gun down as many people as possible.
It’s only a matter of time.
After the show, Daniel and the girls announced they were too tired to go out and play. We walked for about a mile to Daniel’s car. The three of them would be going back to his place and I was going to walk a couple blocks to my hotel. Just before they hopped in his Volvo (imagine my surprise), Daniel gave me two tickets for the following night’s concert and casually announced he and Vicky would be joining Jen and me at the show.
Knowing I wouldn’t be receiving this news well, he spouted off the name of a restaurant where Jen and I would have dinner before going to the stadium for next day’s concert. He quickly got in the car and closed the door. They waved.
I was not pleased and didn’t take kindly to them dropping Jen on my lap. After hearing Daniel’s description of Jen’s adventures the previous month and after observing her ridiculous behavior, I came to the quite sensible deduction that she was a deeply disturbed individual.
Psychotic? I can’t imagine otherwise. Deranged? Who wouldn’t be. Maybe she just went nucking futs from the experience. Two days of the worst possible hell and she’s walking around like nothing happened. Who recovers from something like that in a few weeks? No one I’d trust.
I walked back to the hotel dreading the thought of have dinner with her and reviewed all the possible ways the whole thing would turn into a dumpster fire.
Okay, I’ll make sure the restaurant hides all the knives. Forks. Gotta hide those. No glassware. Plastic spoons and sippy cups for the Chardonnay. Need a strategy. What’s my strategy? Gotta have a….alcohol! That’s my strategy. Get drunk ahead of time. What a brilliant idea. I’m a total genius.
Okay, maybe not. But, at least I had a plan.
—–END PART TWO—–