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 A book was dribbling to an unpublished conclusion and Fleet Street's commissioning editors were unanimous in their lack of interest in my work.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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Anthony Hopkins in Westworld

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rock and role: Jamie Bell's character Benjamin Grimm is transformed into 'Thing' in the film adaptation of Marvel Comics' 'Fantastic Four'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Hopkins veered between sycophancy and insult in her new chat show
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
In his role as Hamlet, Benedict Cumberbatch will have to learn, and repeat night after night, around 1,480 lines

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Belgian sexologist Goedele Liekens with pupils at Hollins Technology College in Accrington
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The rapper Drake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The gaffer: Prince Philip and the future Queen in 1947
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Style icons: The Beatles on set in Austria
film
Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
    Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

    'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

    Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
    Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

    BBC heads to the Californian coast

    The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
    Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

    Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

    Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
    Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

    Car hacking scandal

    Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
    10 best placemats

    Take your seat: 10 best placemats

    Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
    Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

    Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
    Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

    Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

    Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
    Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

    Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

    The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
    Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

    Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

    His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

    Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

    Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future