Born to run and run

Bruce Springsteen is rock'n'roll made flesh. On stage, no one else even comes close. And without him, David Thomas's life would have been very different
It's 18 years since 29 May, 1981 - the day Bruce Springsteen changed my life. I began the morning a total loser. A year out of Cambridge, I had made no progress whatever as a writer. A book was dribbling to an unpublished conclusion and Fleet Street's commissioning editors were unanimous in their lack of interest in my work. My home was a semi-derelict shell in Fulham. Around Easter, I'd held a party there at which obscene graffiti were sprayed on the walls. I hadn't witnessed the vandalism because my ex-girlfriend, an aristocratic blonde with whom I was helplessly, but hopelessly, in love, had led me upstairs and... no, it's too pathetic: another time, perhaps.

Suffice to say, I was bust, chucked, multiply humiliated and living in total squalor. Then Bruce came to play at the Wembley Arena. It was the first time he'd been in Britain since his Hammersmith Odeon Shows in 1975, the year he'd released Born to Run, and was simultaneously on the cover of Time and Newsweek. Those concerts, the first a disaster, the second a nine-encore triumph, were legendary. So now, everyone wanted to see what the fuss had been all about... and everyone got their applications in before I did.

At the last minute, I decided to try my luck with the touts. I got together all the money I had in the world and persuaded my flat-, or rather squalor- mate, Pold, to come along. By the time I'd bought a return ticket, I had pounds 16 left for the show. Pold was working as a painter and decorator, so readies were easier to come by for him.

By the time we got to Wembley it was almost showtime, so the touts were keen to get rid of unsold stock. Thirty quid got us two seats on the floor, half-way back. Just as we were sitting down we heard a shout from the stands. It was Jim, another one of our gang, and the proud possessor of a proper job as a management trainee. He was the proud possessor of a girlfriend, too, and this was their big date.

So the show began, and was quite simply the finest rock performance I have ever seen, before or since. In almost 20 years of music-reporting, I've seen concerts everywhere, and interviewed half the rock'n'roll hall of fame. But nothing has come close to Springsteen that night. Of course, I know that there is an awful lot of schlock about Springsteen's songs: too many lonely roads, too many girls called Mary, and, especially in the early work, too much overstrained imagery. "The highway's jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive"? Oh, puh-leese...

I also know now that the long, rambling anecdotes with which he preceded many of his songs - the stories about fighting with his family, failing his army medical, or trying to climb into Gracelands - were not spontaneous reminiscences, but carefully prepared monologues, as unchanging as a lounge- comedian's patter. But Springsteen's faults were those of a young man fired by the belief that music could save his soul, and everyone else's could be a source of inspiration and redemption; could actually matter as something more than mere product.

That's what he proved at Wembley Arena. Springsteen's records were overwhelming enough, but they were nothing compared to the full-on assault of his live show. He roared out the lyrics to rockers such as "Badlands" and "Adam Raised a Cain". He raced across the stage, not to gather applause, but to make his point as directly as possible to every single person there; he leapt on to speaker stacks; and he fired his performance with an energy that would have left Mick Jagger breathless after half-a-dozen numbers.

It wasn't just about power. Springsteen was originally signed by John Hammond, the Columbia Records producer who also discovered Bob Dylan, as a sort of urban folk-singer. His audition tape - Columbia Job No 79682 - was a solo, acoustic performance, and that aesthetic has remained at the core of his work ever since. Some of his most moving live moments come when he's alone on stage. At the Arena in 1981, he sang an old Elvis song called "Follow That Dream". It's as corny as hell - the refrain runs something like "You've got to follow that dream wherever that dream may lead you/ Follow that dream whatever that dream may go" - but I felt as though he was singing it directly to me. It gave me hope; convinced me that I was right to hold out for the life I wanted, rather than sell out to the same banks and advertising agencies that had tempted so many of my friends.

Then the E Street Band came back on - the greatest backing band in the history of rock'n'roll. Their sound was a gloriously uplifting blend of raw power and lush romanticism: the drive of the rhythm section (Max Weinberg had the smallest, but loudest drum-kit I had ever seen), set against the organ backdrops of Danny Federici, the piano glissandos of "Professor" Roy Bittan and the wailing saxophone of the man Springsteen introduced as "the King of the World, Master of the Universe, weighing in at 260lbs... Mr Clarence Clemons".

At a time when British bands were dressing up in the frills and furbelows of new romanticism, the E Street Band looked like exactly what they were - a bunch of guys off the boulevard, in skinny pants and ratty leather jackets. Their cool lay in their absolute indifference to fashion. They looked like etceteras from Mean Streets or Taxi Driver, and gave all the men in the audience (and Springsteen is, overwhelmingly, a man thing) the feeling that even if they couldn't be the Boss, they might just make it into his band.

The show ended with the houselights up and the floor of the Arena heaving as Bruce and the band belted out "Twist'n'Shout" just like it was Saturday night in some club on the Jersey shore. I left that ugly old concrete cavern with a spring in my step, a smile plastered across my face, and a conviction that my life was back on the upswing. A couple of weeks later, a friend rang up and offered me a single day's work at The Sunday Times magazine. That one shift put my toe inside the journalistic door... at last my career was up and running. Six months later I met the girl who is now my wife. My adult life had begun.

Which is almost the end of the story... but not quite. In the years since 1981, Springsteen's career has waxed and waned, from the pomp and bombast of Born in the USA, to the stripped-down narratives of 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad, his last album of new material. Along the way, he has charted the course of a man's life with a consistency of purpose that is unequalled in music - indeed, in any English-language writing that I know.

His early work has the exuberant romance and desperate ambition of any young man on the make. It's written from the point of view of chasing girls, arguing with his father, hanging out with his pals. As time rolls by, through the quieter moments of Born in the USA to the creative highpoint of Tunnel of Love, he deals with life as a husband, trying to make sense of relationships that won't work. And then later, there's the maturity of a grown man, a father, who knows who he is, what he stands for.

This is not accidental. Springsteen plans his albums with nit-picking deliberation. When interviewed, he speaks of his desire to create a body of work that hangs together as a whole. Virtually alone of his generation, he applies the tools of popular music to the predicaments of mature, even middle-aged life.

Springsteen still speaks to me at 40 as much as he did when I was 20. He reminds me of why I fell in love with rock'n'roll in the first place. Which is why, all these years later, Pold and Jim and I are going to see Springsteen again on Tuesday night. We're all married men now, with children, careers, mortgages and pension-plans. Two of us are balding, one has gone grey. But we'll be piling into Earl's Court like three over-excited schoolboys. The Boss is back in town. And I can't wait...

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band play Earl's Court, London, Tue, Wed, Fri and Sun 23 May