“All our little victories and glories have turned into parking lots”
They’re announcing plans to close the Izod Center — the arena that sits on the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, N.J. — and I am irrationally sad about this.
I really have no business being sad. My sadness, in fact, is purely selfish. The arena has long since outlived its usefulness. The New Jersey Devils and Nets and the Seton Hall University basketball team all moved out some time ago, and the building has only hosted the occasional concert or circus in recent years. It is outdated and unnecessary.
I think we have a societal tendency to be overly nostalgic, to want to preserve even that which need not be preserved, because, at heart, most of us just want things to remain as they stand in the more contented realms of our memories. So it is with me and the Izod Center, which, come to think of it, shall hereby referred to only as the Continental Airlines Arena, because that’s the name it holds in my memory.
In my memory, it’s the summer of 1999, and I’m 18 years old and fresh out of high school. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band have just reunited and this, to me, is a previously inconceivable alignment of the stars.
You have to understand that I’m not just a Bruce Springsteen fan (like, uh, every other white American male sportswriter); I am — and was — an outright disciple. When I was a teenager, it wasn’t enough to read every book or magazine article, to hit the record button on the VHS every time VH-1 was airing one of his videos or to buy and absorb the entire extent of his official catalog.
No, I had to have more. I had to have those “Lost Masters” discs circulating in the bootleg community — the ones where he works on a dozen different versions of a still-unreleased song called “Don’t Back Down” (No. 7 is the best, for the record) in his Hollywood Hills garage (I even had to find that garage on a recent trip to L.A.). I had to find the out-of-print “Backstreets” book that chronicled every setlist from 1973-89. I had to track down every live recording, legal and otherwise, and this led to some wild goose chases. It all started at an Akron record show (do they still have those?) where I unwittingly uncovered two cassette tapes that said, “Springsteen Boston ‘77” and my 15-year-old ears were both sacrificed for and treated to a tinny, poorly recorded document in which, if you could listen past the distinct audio hiss of the cassette and ignore the drunken concert-goer who kept offering his commentary to the taper, revealed the undeniable power of a peak-level Springsteen performance. I was hooked. At a Lakewood record store, I found the three-LP “Live in the Promised Land” boot from the San Francisco Winterland in ’78. In an Akron record store, I found the “Another Side of Bruce Springsteen” disc that contained every hard-to-find B-side. But the mother lode was at Record Revolution in Coventry, where, for $75 per show, a young, impressionable and not-very-bright teenager could occasionally uncover the three-CD releases from a bootleg label named Crystal Cat. This was the place where a boy could blow all that money he made washing dishes at Back Alley Pizza. And blow it, he did.
I guess a part of me misses those experiences, those expeditions, because everything is so easily accessible these days. It is both satisfactory and intellectually stunting to know I can pull a freaking phone out of my pocket, go to YouTube and call up just about any audio or video item ever recorded.
Obviously, you couldn’t do this when I was in high school. Because Springsteen’s live video release was essentially limited to just the iconic “Rosalita” and “Born to Run” videos, my thought of what it must be like to see the E Street Band in concert was almost totally concocted in my head. On that Winterland boot, he’d do this little bit where he’d say, “When me and the Big Man do this, you’re in trouble!” And I had no idea what the hell he and the Big Man were doing. None whatsoever. Did they do a little dance? Did they embrace? Did they whip out their… tax returns? What where they doing? It drove me nuts.
There was one time when Record Revolution had a two-VHS boot of a full “River”-era E Street Band show from Largo, Md. This one was available for the low, low price of $50, so of course I bought it. And this was my first real taste of the energy, the effort level, the precision and the unmitigated madness of an E Street show. Amazing. I watched that thing until the tape wore out (which sounds impressive, except that it was, as I mentioned, VHS, so it really didn’t take very long).
All of which long-windedly leads me to 1999, when Bruce got the band back together. The first leg of the U.S. tour was to be in Jersey, the motherland, at the Continental Airlines Arena. Fifteen shows! I knew I had to be there for one of them. This was where I was going to lose my Springsteen virginity (as opposed to that other virginity, still intact).
Speaking of which, I didn’t go to prom. And the very reason I didn’t go to prom was because I knew what little remained of my savings account was better-invested in the Jersey jaunt, which was to branch off a trip my dad and I were taking to New York City. Tickets, of course, sold out instantly (I believe face value was like $67.50), and so I sought out alternative means to obtain at least one. I found the phone number of some off-site broker, called it up and some goomba answered (in my head, I picture Paulie Walnuts). I told him I was looking for a ticket for July 27 — the seventh night of the stand.
As in, dollars? Three hundred dollars?!
Well, of course, I said yes. You might have noticed overpaying for things of or related to Bruce Springsteen was sort of a habit at the time.
So I had my ticket. Section 125. An OK seat. Not a $300 seat, by any stretch of the imagination. But a seat. And my dad, who was at that point only the most casual of Springsteen fans, and I went to New York and had a great time. And the morning of the show, he rented a car and took me on the New Jersey Turnpike pilgrimage. He took me to Asbury Park, where Springsteen first made his musical mark. He took me to Freehold, where Bruce grew up (and where I found a record shop that contained more of those damn $75 bootlegs than I could have ever dreamed, emptying my wallet all the more). And then he took me to my musical Mecca, the Continental Airlines Arena.
Ticketless, my dad dropped me off the moment the doors first opened to the public, then drove off to go find a bar. I went inside, and I’ll never forget that first sight of the stage setup. There it was – Max Weinberg’s drum kit! There they were – Clarence Clemons’ saxophones! There was Roy Bittan’s piano, Danny Federici’s organ, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Logren’s guitars. And yes, Springsteen’s mic stand. Could it be that The Boss would soon be standing right there. Yes, this was real. This was happening.
I was, naturally, the first person actually seated for the show. I remember this clearly. And I didn’t leave that seat for the rest of the night. I sat there alone, mesmerized by the empty stage, waiting the two hours or so until the house lights came down. I struck up a brief conversation with the couple next to me, native New Jerseyans who had seen Springsteen and the band dozens of times.
“You’ve never seen them?” the woman asked incredulously.
“Well, no, I’m 18, I live in Cleveland, and they haven’t toured together in 10 years, dumbass,” was probably not my verbal response but it was my internal one.
“Eh, last night’s show was OK,” said the guy. “Hopefully they’ll be better tonight.”
I hated these people.
What was odd, through this whole time, was the fact that the aisle seat to my immediate right was empty. The show was sold out, so this was a mathematical improbability. And it was one that worked out forever in my favor. Because just as the house lights dimmed and the band was getting ready to come on, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
It was my dad. Unbeknownst to either of us, there was something called a “drop line” where people would occasionally score last-minute tickets released by the Springsteen camp. After he dropped me off, he got in that line on a whim and scored a single, face-value ticket that was four sections closer to the stage than my $300 scalp job. Thankfully, I had told my dad which section I’d be sitting in, and he found me. And miraculously, that seat next to me was still empty.
For the next three hours, magic. I don’t know how else to describe it. In my mind (because the pictures I took with my disposable camera are so terrible…. the one to the left, of Bruce’s guitar on the big screen, is, pathetically, the best of the bunch), Springsteen’s wearing a burgundy-colored shirt, he’s whipping the audience into a frenzy, he’s opening with “I Wanna Be With You” (thanks, Bruce), tearing into “Candy’s Room” and “Because the Night,” jumping atop Bittan’s piano for the intro to “Tenth-Avenue Freeze-out,” demonstrating, in word and deed, the enlivening power of faith and friendship and communal experience. Even that couple next to me was eating it up.
At the end of the main set, as they did every night on that tour, the band tore into an extended version of “Light of Day,” and midway through Bruce went in full preacher persona:
“Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve seen people lost in the wilderness! I’ve seen people lost in confusion! I’ve seen people lost in faithlessness! In hopelessless! But tonight, we’re on a search and rescue mission! If you’re down-hearted, if you’re disgusted, if you’re dispossessed, if you’re downsized, analyzed, stigmatized, retro-psychadelicized! If your heart’s running on empty, if your soul’s bankrupt, if your spirit’s got bad credit… we’re here tonight to reeducate, to resuscitate, to regenerate, to re-confiscate, to re-indoctrinate, to re-illustrate, to re-sexualate, to rededicate, to re-liberate you with the power and the glory, with the majesty, with the mystery, WITH THE MINISTRY OF ROCK ‘N ROLL!”
And this was the moment I remember most vividly, because this is the moment when my dad threw his arms in the air and testified with a mighty, “Yeah!!!!”
It was official. Springsteen had another disciple.
There would, of course, be many more incredible Springsteen shows, E Street Band and otherwise, from that point on (my total tally, as of this writing, is 44, and my dad’s been along for many of those). And there would be another great experience at Continental Airlines Arena – the time I was a 23-year-old beat writer in town to cover Reds-Mets and somehow snuck into a sold-out U2 show when I didn’t have enough money for the going scalper rate (maybe if I hadn’t bought all those Crystal Cat bootlegs back in the day, this wouldn’t have been an issue).
But I’ll always consider what happened in that building on July 27, 1999, as a singular experience in my life. By that point, Bruce’s songs had already taught me so much about those commonly cited themes of perseverance and endurance and big dreams but also about the importance of awareness and empathy and having a social conscience, themes that continue to resonate in his work and my life to this day.
The live experience, though, gave me something else. It wasn’t just being surrounded by people as enlivened by and invested in that music as me (though that was awesome, particularly given Springsteen’s obvious lack of resonance and relevance with people my age at the time). It was seeing, in vivid and living color, a man doing what he loves and loving the impact it can have on those around him and the lifelong bonds it had created in his life. And for an 18-year-old who, at that point in life, would have gone wherever Bruce Springsteen chose to lead him, this was an unmistakably valuable lesson that is appreciated all the more in retrospect.
It’s all retrospect now, because Continental Airlines Arena is no more. And I’m probably waxing on poetically and dorkily about all of this because this news came at a point where I’ve been thinking quite a bit about the passage and fleetingness of time. Our daughter was born a month ago, and I’m sure my experience is like that of all first-time fathers in that I’m fruitlessly begging time to slow to a crawl. So you snap a bajillion pictures or try to capture video of every facial expression, every leg kick and arm punch and even every cry, shriek and wail. You try to hold on to every moment, knowing full well, as they say in that Wilco song, that “every moment’s a little bit later” and that someday, all too soon, all of this will just be memory. So, hey, maybe this wasn’t a particularly good week to watch that “Boyhood” movie or to read that an arena that opened the year you were born and housed one of your seminal moments is closing down.
Then again, that’s life, and nostalgia, I’ve found, is best dispensed in small doses (if you consider this screed “small).
So as they close down the Izod, I’ll just express my gratitude to Bruce and his band, to my dad, to that empty seat in Section 125, to the Paulie Walnuts-soundalike who bilked me out of my would-be prom money, to the lax security guard who merely shrugged when I asked if I could ascend up the elevator and into the concourse to sneak into the U2 show and to all the buildings, intact or otherwise, that house my vanished youth.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go listen to my July 27, 1999, bootleg.