They say you should never meet your heroes.
But, when your hero is Bruce Springsteen, an encounter with him can almost be as legendary as the man himself.
I’ve been lucky enough to meet Springsteen, who turned 71 on Wednesday, three times. The first, a brief encounter outside of the Stone Pony in Asbury Park when I was just 17, resulted in an autograph and an elated drive home. The most recent, also brief, was during a Little Steven Van Zandt concert in Red Bank, NJ, our conversation cut short when he hopped onstage to join his longtime friend and bandmate.
The most memorable came outside of a Bob Dylan concert at Monmouth University in November 2010. I had actually seen Bruce taking the show in by the soundboard earlier in the evening; but nothing could have prepared me for what would happen after the show.
Meeting Bruce Springsteen (2010)
There I was…in my friend Tom’s car, stuck in traffic outside of the small college arena. We were talking about the show, going over a setlist that included a fantastic “Ballad of a Thin Man,” an unrecognizable “Tangled Up in Blue,” and a very-rarely played “Jolene.” All of a sudden, a black Range Rover honked, the driver making a gesture to ask if it was okay to sneak in front of us.
It was Bruce Springsteen.
The two of us immediately reverted into school children:
“Oh my God, it’s Bruce!” we shouted.
“I told you he was at the show! I told you I saw him,” I exclaimed.
“What do we do?!”
The line of traffic was something akin to what Bruce sings in “Sherry Darling,” with Route 71 in Long Branch subbing in for 53rd Street in Manhattan. When it was clear that we weren’t going to be moving for a while, Tom unveiled his brilliant plan.
“Get out of the car and talk to him,” he nudged me.
I was dumbfounded.
“Get out of the car?” I asked. “And do what?”
“I dunno, think of something,” Tom offered.
And so, I did. I got out of the car, absolutely no clue what I was going to do. I ambled my way to the far left of Bruce’s SUV, pretending to be on a “very important phone call” on the side of the street.
Every few seconds, I would glance over to the Range Rover, each time being met with Bruce’s knowing gaze.
And then it happened.
“C’mon over,” he waved at me, suddenly casting me into my own personal version of “Field of Dreams.”
I “hung up” the phone and found myself walking over to his car.
“How ya doin’?” he asked.
I have no idea how I responded to that question, probably uttering something closer to gibbering nonsense than actual words.
The ensuing conversation, however, I remember quite vividly. We talked about the concert, and our favorite Dylan songs. He introduced me to his son Evan, who was sitting in the passenger seat, no doubt praying for this kid in the Yankee hat to leave him and his father alone. We talked a little more about Dylan, Bruce saying, “Yea man, I don’t know how he does it. He just keeps going out there and doing these shows. He remains an inspiration.”
Just then, as I asked if we would be seeing him on the road anytime soon, traffic suddenly parted and our time was up. “Saved by the bell,” he laughed, as he shook my hand. “Thanks for chatting. We’ll see ya!”
Cut to me, standing there motionless, wondering how in the hell the previous five minutes just happened to me. The people in their cars who had just watched this transpire, including Tom, looked at me in similar disbelief, and a silent but knowing round of applause in my honor commenced in the Monmouth College parking lot.
As I got back in the car, neither Tom nor myself could believe it: I had just had a conversation with Bruce Springsteen outside of a Bob Dylan concert!
Tom, a former teacher and friend for nearly twenty years, saw his first Bruce show in 1980 and never looked back, racking up close to 200 concerts over the next 40 years.
But, it’s two of his chance encounters with the man that are truly the thing of legend. Here are his stories, told to me over the years, finally being written down and preserved for The Flyover:
Big Man's West (1982)
In the late-1970s and early ‘80s, it wasn’t uncommon to see Bruce Springsteen jumping onstage with the house band at many a local New Jersey club. It became the thing of legend, and a sort of pastime for fans hoping to be lucky enough to catch him in a small setting.
In September 1982, Tom and his friends were driving from North Jersey down to the Jersey Shore, hoping they’d picked just such a night. Tom’s friends were convinced Bruce would make an appearance, like he had been doing all summer, with Cats on a Smooth Surface at the Stone Pony. Tom was sure he would be at Big Man’s West, Clarence Clemons’ recently opened club, in Red Bank.
The entire ride down they argued about which club to go to, each friend presenting his case. But, like the twelfth man in a hung jury, Tom could not be convinced: “He’s going to be at Big Man’s West,” he told them.
His friends, in disbelief, dropped Tom off at the Red Bank club and continued on their way to Asbury Park, no doubt laughing at their friend who had just made a mistake he would surely regret the rest of his life.
Well, it would be Tom who’d have the last laugh.
The way he tells the story, Tom was sitting at the bar enjoying the house band, when the bartender told him not to let anyone take the seat next to him.
“It’s reserved,” the bartender said.
About an hour later, as Tom swung his barstool around, he noticed a person sitting in the seat. Before he could say that the seat was reserved, he realized who it was: Bruce Springsteen.
They spoke briefly, Springsteen telling Tom that he was going to be putting out a solo record in a few weeks, which would turn out to be “Nebraska.”
As Bruce got up to leave, he told Tom to hang around after the main set.
As the houselights went up, Tom heeded that advice, his jaw left hanging open as Bruce and Clarence hopped onstage with the Beaver Brown Band, performing high-octane versions of “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come),” “Come On, Let’s Go,” and “Lucille.”
After the brief set, Tom noticed Max Weinberg, the drummer for the E Street Band, hanging by the stage. Tom, an aspiring artist, told Max that he had a drawing he’d done of Bruce and Clarence, and wondered if he might be able to get it signed.
Max walked the drawing [see above] backstage to Bruce, got it signed, and returned it to Tom.
He already had an amazing story to tell his friends; but, it was about to get even better.
With the guitars still ringing in his head, Tom had been standing alone in the parking lot for nearly an hour, waiting for his friends to return and drive him home. Of course, he didn’t care – he could have floated home after what he’d just been a part of.
Just then, he noticed the door of a nearby Winnebago opening up, the striking silhouette of Clarence Clemons appearing in the doorway. The Big Man called out to Tom, who seconds later would find himself sitting inside of the Winnebago with Clarence and Bruce.
They talked for several minutes, until Clarence noted that it was time to go. Tom, figuring that was that, started for the door.
“Hey,” Clarence called out. “Where do you live?”
Yes, Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen asked Tom if he wanted a ride back home to North Jersey.
And he turned them down!
This was before the cell phone, there would have been no way to get in touch with his friends; even the nearby pay phone wouldn’t have done any good. So Tom, ever the good friend, told Bruce and Clarence that he couldn’t leave without somehow being able to let his buddies know he was okay, and he sent his heroes on their way.
To this day, I still can’t get over this. If it were me, I would have torn down a tree branch, wrote “Left with Bruce! Bye forever! Love, Tom” in the sand, and enjoyed the next hour on the Garden State Parkway with rock and roll royalty.
But, as he would later that night with his friends, Tom would soon get yet another last laugh.
Freehold High School (1998)
Sixteen years later, Tom was teaching English at Freehold High School, Springsteen’s former stomping grounds. His class was just starting to dig into John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath,” a book which Springsteen had drawn great influence from just a few years earlier for his excellent “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”
One afternoon, taking a rare lunch break beyond the high school walls, Tom walked down the street to Federici’s Pizza, a Freehold institution still going strong to this day. As he was waiting at the counter for his slice, the door opened and a short, older woman walked in holding a motorcycle helmet.
It was Adele Springsteen. The next person through the door was her son, Bruce.
Tom and the Springsteens began making small talk, and Tom mentioned that he was teaching at Bruce’s old high school.
“We actually just started reading ‘Grapes of Wrath,’” Tom said. “It would be amazing if you would come in and talk to the kids about the book, and ‘The Ghost of Tom Joad.’”
Bruce gave him a polite response, and they parted ways once again, Tom thinking, at the very least, he just had a pretty perfect lunch break.
A month later, Tom was teaching in his classroom when he got a call from the front office.
“Um, there’s a Mr. Springsteen here to see you,” the voice on the other end said.
Tom, knowing the entire school was aware of his Springsteen fandom, laughed the call off as a practical joke.
A few minutes later, there was another call from the front office.
“Um, he’s still here.”
Tom quickly got someone to watch his class and raced down to the office, halting in disbelief when he saw Bruce Springsteen pacing around the principal’s office like a little kid called in for detention.
“I walked up to the door, and…I started walking back,” Bruce started to explain.
“Then I turned around, and thought…I…I can’t.”
“Then I came back one more time and…”
There he was, Bruce Springsteen, standing in the very high school he damn near got kicked out of thirty years earlier. It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to see in one of those old, Ben Stiller, “Legends of Springsteen” videos, not in real life.
Over the next hour, Bruce held court in the classroom, talking about John Steinbeck, “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” and fielding questions from students. Imagine being told you had a guest speaker coming in for English class, and the most famous person from your town, and your state, walks in through the door.
As time was winding down, Bruce asked if anyone had a guitar. As luck would have it, the one student in the class who always had a guitar with him was out sick that day. Of course, his story would have a happy ending as well: he ended up touring with Springsteen in the 2000s as a member of his sound crew.
To this day, Tom still carries around the picture of him and Bruce in his wallet, just itching for a chance to show it off. As I was only recently made aware by his wife, Tom has at least a dozen copies, just in case something should happen to the other eleven.
So, as we celebrate Bruce Springsteen on his 71st birthday, we thank him not only for the beautiful passion of his music, the unyielding intensity of his live shows, and his meaningful and thought-provoking words in interviews and speeches, but also the generosity of his spirit and the warmth of his soul.
You may not want to meet all of your heroes, but when it comes to meeting Bruce Springsteen, faith will always be rewarded.