Born to Run (2016)
SUPER BOWL SUNDAY
Six air force Thunderbirds have just roared overhead at what felt like inches above our backstage area, giving myself and the entire E Street Band a brush cut. With twenty minutes to go, I’m sitting in my trailer trying to decide which boots to wear. I’ve got a nice pair of cowboy boots my feet look really good in, but I’m concerned about their stability. There is no canopy overhead at the Super Bowl and two days ago we rehearsed in full rain on the field. We all got soaked and the stage became as slick as a frozen pond. It was so slippery I crashed into Mike Colucci, our cameraman, coming off my knee slide, his camera the only thing that kept me from launching out onto the soggy turf. Then our “referee” for “Glory Days” came running out, couldn’t stop himself and executed one of the most painfully perfect “man slips on a banana peel” falls I’ve ever seen. This sent Steve, myself and the entire band into one of the biggest stress-induced laughs of our lives that lasted all the way back to our trailers.
I better go with the combat boots I always carry. The round toes will give me better braking power than the pointy-toed cowboy boots when I hit the deck. I stuff my boots with two innersoles to make them as fitted as possible, zip them up snugly around my ankles, stomp around in my trailer a bit and feel pretty grounded. Fifteen minutes . . . I’m nervous. It’s not the usual preshow jitters or “butterflies” I’ve had before. I’m talking about a “five minutes to beach landing,” Right Stuff, “Lord, don’t let me screw the pooch in front of a hundred million people” kind of semiterror. It only lasts for a minute . . . I check my hair, spray it with something that turns it into concrete, and I’m out the door.
I catch sight of Patti smiling. She’s been my rock all week. I put my arm around her and away we go. They take us by golf cart to a holding tunnel right off the field. The problem is there are a thousand people there: TV cameras, media of all kinds and general chaos. Suddenly, hundreds of people rush by us in a column shouting, cheering . . . our fans! And tonight also our stage builders. These are “the volunteers.” They’ve been here for two weeks on their own dime in a field day after day, putting together and pulling apart pieces of our stage over and over again, theoretically achieving military precision. Now it’s for real. I hope they’ve got it down because as we’re escorted onto the field, lights in the stadium fully up, the banshee wail of seventy thousand screaming football fanatics rising in our ears, there’s nothing there. Nothing . . . no sound, no lights, no instruments, no stage, nothing but brightly lit unwelcoming green turf. Suddenly an army of ants comes from all sides of what seems like nowhere, each rolling a piece of our lifeline, our Earth, onto the field. The cavalry has arrived. What takes us on a concert day eight hours to do is done in five minutes. Unbelievable. Everything in our world is there . . . we hope. We gather a few feet off the stage, form a circle of hands; I say a few words drowned out by the crowd and it’s smiles all around. I’ve been in a lot of high-stakes situations like this—though not exactly like this—with these people before. It’s stressful, but our band is made for it . . . and it’s about to begin . . . so, happy warriors, we bound up onto the stage.
The NFL stage manager gives me the three-minutes sign . . . two minutes . . . one . . . there’s a guy jumping up and down on sections of the stage to get them to sit evenly on the grass field . . . thirty seconds . . . white noise screams from our monitors . . . they’re still testing all the speakers and equipment . . . that’s cutting it close! The lights in the stadium go down. The crowd erupts and Max’s drumbeat opens “Tenth Avenue.” I feel a white light silhouette . . . Clarence and I share a moment. I hear Roy’s piano. I give C’s hand a pat. I’m on the move, tossing my guitar in a high arc for Kevin, my guitar tech, to catch, and it’s . . . “Ladies and gentlemen, for the next twelve minutes we will be bringing the righteous and mighty power of the E Street Band into your beautiful home. I want you to step back from the guacamole dip. I want you to put the chicken fingers down! And turn the television ALL THE WAY UP!” Because, of course, there is just ONE thing I’ve got to know: “IS THERE ANYBODY ALIVE OUT THERE?!” I feel like I’ve just taken a syringe of adrenaline straight to the heart. Then I’m on top of the piano (good old boots). I’m down. One . . . two . . . three, knee drop in front of the microphone and I’m bending back almost flat on the stage. I close my eyes for a moment and when I open them, I see nothing but blue night sky. No band, no crowd, no stadium. I hear and feel all of it in the form of a great sirenlike din surrounding me, but with my back nearly flat against the stage I see nothing but beautiful night sky with a halo of a thousand stadium suns at its edges.
I take several deep breaths and a calm comes over me. Since the inception of our band it’s been our ambition to play for everyone. We’ve achieved a lot but we haven’t achieved that. Our audience remains tribal . . . that is, predominantly white. On occasion—the Obama inaugural concert; touring through Africa in ’88; during a political campaign, particularly in Cleveland with President Obama—I looked out and sang “Promised Land” to the audience I intended it for, young people, old people, black, white, brown, cutting across religious and class lines. That’s who I’m singing to today. Today we play for everyone. For free! I pull myself upright with the mike stand, back into the world, this world, my world, the one with everybody in it, and the stadium, the crowd, my band, my best friends, my wife, come rushing into view and it’s “Teardrops on the city . . .”
During “Tenth Avenue” I tell the story of my band—and other things—“when the change was made uptown” . . . It goes rushing by, then the knee slide. Too much adrenaline, a late drop, too much speed, here I come, Mike . . . BOOM! And I’m onto his camera, the lens implanted into my crotch with one leg off the stage. I use his camera to push myself back up and . . . say it, say it, say it, say it . . . BLAM! “BORN TO RUN” . . . my story . . . Something bright and hot blows up behind me. Later I’ll hear there were fireworks. I never see any. Just the ones going off in my head. I’m out of breath. I try to slow it down. That ain’t gonna happen. I already hear the crowd singing the last eight bars of “Born to Run,” oh, oh, oh, oh . . . then it’s straight into “Working on a Dream” . . . your story . . . and mine I hope. Steve is on my right, Patti on my left. I catch a smile and the wonderful choir, the Joyce Garrett Singers, that backed me in Washington during the inaugural concert is behind us. I turn to see their faces and listen to the sound of their voices . . . “working on a dream.” Done. Moments later, we’re ripping straight into “Glory Days” . . . the end of the story. A last party steeped in happy fatalism and some laughs with my old pal Steve. The Ump doesn’t fall on his ass tonight. He just throws the yellow penalty flag for the precious forty-five seconds we’ve gone overtime . . . home stretch. Everyone is out front now, forming that great line. Out of the corner of my eye, I catch the horns raising their instruments high; my guitar is wheeling around my neck and on the seventh beat, I’m going to Disneyland. I’m already someplace a lot farther away and more fun than that. I look around: we’re alive, it’s over, we link arms and take a bow as the stage comes apart beneath our feet. It’s chaos again all the way back to the trailer.
The theory of relativity holds. Onstage your exhilaration is in direct proportion to the void you’re dancing over. A gig I always looked a little askance at and was a little wary of turned out to have surprising emotional power and resonance for me and my band. It was a high point, a marker of some sort, and went up with the biggest shows of our work life. The NFL threw us an anniversary party the likes of which we’d never have thrown for ourselves, with fireworks and everything! In the middle of their football game, they let us hammer out a little part of our story. I love playing long and hard but it was the thirty-five years in twelve minutes . . . that was the trick. You start here, you end there, that’s it. That’s the time you’ve got to give it everything you have . . . twelve minutes . . . give or take a few seconds.
The Super Bowl helped me sell a few new records and probably put a few extra fannies in the seats that tour. But what it was really about was this: I felt my band remained one of the mightiest in the land and I wanted you to know it. We wanted to show you . . . just because we could.
By three a.m., I was back home, everyone in the house fast asleep. I was sitting in the yard in front of an open fire, watching the sparks light, fly and vanish into the black evening sky, my ears ringing good and hard . . . “Oh yeah, it’s all right.”