Saturday, September 1, 2012

Thunder Road

Following Bruce Springsteen's phenomenal 3 and a half hour performance last week-end, I sat in a backyard in southern Etobicoke, with somebody who has surprisingly become--remained?--one of my closest friends. Richard nursed a beer and I, a cola. We smoked cigarettes in the dark and enjoyed the refreshingly cool summer night while his wife and son slept soundly inside.

I enjoy these evenings, immeasurably. We talk closely about things and people we miss, have known, about the ways we've grown and how we have or haven't managed to achieve what we thought we would when we imagined our lives from a 20-years-ago vantage point, when we sat in another (more central) Etobicoke backyard as another summer neared its end.

We used to be louder. And much, much drunker. Richard refers to the guys occupying the house on the other side of the fence as "the bros.," because they are up until 2 am and speaking in inapropriately loud voices, like he doesn't remember the shed he and Kevin created in Kevin's backyard to be a neighbourhood hang-out, to always be filled with Jack Daniels and Marlboro's and merriment.

One of the things we talked about last week-end was our longing for intensity, how we missed the drama and the abandon we used to get from and share with our friends. About how we are all so much more careful now, about how we share ourselves reservedly, smartly, more occasionally. We both attribute this to maturity; to having experienced the pitfalls of too much openness, the betrayals and bad decisions and the knowledge that people change. But I also mourn drinking a little bit, here. For most of the close conversations in the dark and shoulders I have cried on, there was a lot of alcohol involved.

Seeing Bruce Springsteen was a dream come true, but as I purchased the tickets for his date at the Skydome (the Rogers Centre) it was with no small amount of resignation. I didn't want to see him in Toronto. I wanted to see him in Moncton. And I absolutely would have, if only it had been one year earlier, if only I still lived in Halifax.

The best concert I have ever seen was Paul McCartney, when he played the Halifax Common. Unlike Springsteen, whom I had to come to in my own way, McCartney has forever been a part of my life. I saw him with the person who likely knows me better than anybody in the world, and also with a community of people of all different ages and all different experiences, in a city that I am head-over-heals in love with. A city, too, that rarely gets to experience such an event. McCartney probably swings through Toronto on every tour, but he'd never been to Halifax. All those people, raised on The Beatles, raising their voices to sing along to songs they had known forever, by one of the remaining, living members, of the best band in history. A chance that so many of us never thought we'd get. It was unbelievable, thrilling, unforgettable, and, I suspect, unsurpassable.

But Springsteen, perhaps, would be the next best thing to a Beatle, and every year rumours abounded. With every summer that passed without a formal announcement of an Atlantic Canadian date, Springsteen fans seemed more and more disheartened.

I almost went to see him in Boston, during his tour for We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions. And when I say "almost," I mean that I put a lot of thought into the acknowledged fantasy of seeing him in Boston. I was broke, but my friend Jen and I spent so many evenings at the Granite Brewery, trying to come up with a scheme to get us there. A driver, a vehicle, and perhaps a sponsorship. We did not go to Boston. We sat in the bar and enjoyed his music on vinyl night.

In 2001 I had a roommate, Luke, who had a copy of Nebraska, and that was my in. I never thought much about Springsteen before then. Or when I did, it was with a bit of derision for the anthemic "Born in the U.S.A." that muscled its way into memories of my childhood. I hated the saxophones. I have always hated that instrument; still do.

Nebraska, of course, is a different creature, and surely the best point of entry for someone like myself. The sparse instrumentation and fascinating naratives sucked me in, and I figured out what I'd been missing. I started from the beginning. On those early albums his songs about youth and redemption and love still make me feel possibility. I can appreciate Born in the U.S.A. now, though I don't love the album in its entirety. I do, however, love every last second of Born to Run, including the sax. How could that album be what it is without it? It's probably my favourite Springsteen album, and I still hate the sax.

It's been my experience that music, honest and gritty words, crazy passionate inexplicable love, and being on the road to some place new are four of the five best things this world has to offer, and these things are what the Boss is all about. 
The other best thing is community, and this is what he fosters.

Richard and I sat three rows from the very back of the Skydome, and we got to see the entire crowd. It was only thanks to a giant screen that we could see Springsteen step out into the audience, accepting requests from fans; he was otherwise a tiny dot moving rapidly back and forth. He sweated and smiled and engaged with his audience throughout it all. No way that man's faking it, and after so many years, and so much fortune, we all know he doesn't have to do it.

So if I'd seen that in Moncton, a short drive from Halifax, with all of those people he'd never played for before, in a wide open field, McCartney would have some serious competition.

My good friend Russell got Candice to play "Thunder Road" as the very last song on the very last vinyl night on the very last night the Granite Brewery was open. I'd been sober for only a few months then, and that night was not so far removed from many others that involved a copious amount of alcohol, camaraderie, sometimes tears, and plenty of talk that sure, might have been bullshit, but was also true, too. "Thunder Road" felt like a theme song there, something that united so many of us.

The best thing about the Granite Brewery was that community just happened, because people liked the look and the feel of the place, and they liked the beer, and they could stop there after work and be welcomed and known. A lot of us had very little in common with one another. The range of ages and experience was remarkable, and when that song came on, we all raised our glasses, and we belted out the words.

So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore,
Show a little faith! there's magic in the night.

I can't think of that song without thinking of this place, that now only exists as something imaginary, from before. I know how lucky I am to have been there.

I didn't think I'd see Bruce Springsteen at the Skydome with Richard. For a very long time I never imagined myself becoming a Springsteen fan. And I don't know that I imagined Richard and I would stay in touch after high school, as we have, that he'd stay one of my closest friends. On the surface, we really don't have that much in common. But in fact, we have decades in common. And listening to Springsteen over pints, after last call, in a bar on Barrington street is not all that different from listening to him in a suburban backyard, four years sober, looking up at stars and distracted by the bros. In mourning, in recalling, that lost intensity and closeness, it manages to find its way back to us.

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