August 1999
s m u g
by Todd Levin


Bruce Springsteen and the Death of Cool

"Do you like 'Big Log'?"
"Yes. Yes I do."

And that's how I wound up seeing Robert Plant perform, the last indoor arena rock concert of my life. Sure, I loved Big Log. Everyone loved Big Log. And some of the material he wrote with Led Zeppelin -- while not exactly Big Log caliber -- was OK as well. But the show was crowded, the fans aggressive, and the merchandising offensively overpriced. (eighteen dollars for an inflatable PVC log? I think I'll just buy two, thank you.) I promised myself I would never attend a show of that magnitude again. Fortunately, this promise dovetailed nicely with my growing attraction to musical performers who chose to operate outside the mainstream -- bands like the Wet Lepers (they actually were wet lepers, which kept attendance low at their shows) and the Self-Respecting Gay Republicans. For better or worse, for the next 11 years I managed to avoid third-party- controlled ticket pricing, eyestrain seating, and mutant audiences. (With the exception of the audience at The Failed Growth Hormone Experiment Mutants) And, like so many other fools before me, I felt secure in the belief that I was cooler for it. Until Bruce Springsteen showed up.


Bruce Springsteen, like all things I know nothing about, held no appeal for me. But under the circumstances -- good company, free tickets, private backstage dinner, and the chance to accost some famous people (who also paid nothing for their tickets because, as the law of Inverse Need dictates, grossly wealthy people never have to pay for anything) -- I was willing to spend what reliable sources claimed would be at least three hours with Mr. Springsteen and his lovely E Street Band. Honestly, after three vodka tonics and a couple hundred chilled crab claws, I was willing to spend three hours with John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band.

As showtime neared we were loosed on the auditorium. Up until then, I was enjoying the quietude and similar-minded company backstage, largely oblivious to the swelling crowds tailgating in the parking lots and filtering into the arena to descend upon four-dollar Pepsi's and twenty-dollar E Street Band-Aids. (The Max Weinberg bunion pads were actually sort of charming.) When I emerged from the darkness of our private goings-on into the harsh white light of the arena lobby, I became instantly paralyzed with fear. These fans were idiots! Early forties mustached men in Oakley wraparounds and Duracell Battery T-shirts stretched over starch-baby pregnant bellies, tucked into pleated shorts. Perodontially unsound women in halter tops who looked like they'd wrapped their legs around one too many engines in their youth and were paying dearly for it in adulthood. Jaundiced Children with active bed sores and rusted, hand-fashioned leg braces. (OK -- I took some liberties here. There really weren't many children in attendance -- most likely a product of inflated ticket prices and bargain-basement babysitters -- and none of them even remotely resembled my description. I just felt I was on a tear so I cribbed a passage from The Jungle, Upton Sinclair's muckraking account of the ills of the American Industrial Revolution. It seemed the right thing to do at the time, but I am deeply sorry for it.)

All my senses were shocked and brutally assaulted by these rabid masses and, standing in the doorway separating a private party from a public mob, I became paralyzed with thought. I had spent years of my life trying (completely self-consciously) to be cool and I now realized that aggressive program meant skirting the company of people like Bruce Springsteen fans. It meant staying clear of Bruce Springsteen concerts. It also meant avoiding Hard Rock Cafés, State Fairs, Home and Boat shows, and tornadoes. At some point during my campaign for social and cultural exclusivity, I think I'd forgotten that Bruce Springsteen fans actually existed in the flesh. They had become iconic to me, no more than a reference point to understand the existence of things like the Bud Bowl, fannypacks and Gallagher. (But not, for some reason, Gallagher II. This phenomenon remains sealed in its X-file to this day.) They were pixelated attendees at Saturday Nitro wrestling; they were faraway faces in amateur pornography stills and swinger ads. They were just Hollywood extras in pop cultural myth -- the Great Unwashed and the Great Uncool. And right now they were all screaming, "BRUCE!!!!" Like a dope fiend reunited with his only love, I felt hot irony race through my bloodstream, straight to my heart. I was sick and I was dizzy.

I managed to pull myself out of that doorway and through several other doorways to my seat. In the process, irony began sweating uncontrollably from my pores. Everyone seemed hideous and ignorant. As the music started and 20,000 die-hard fans went into a fist-shaking, above-the-waist-dancing frenzy, I stewed in my own cool superiority. How can they be enjoying themselves? Don't they know how much money Ticketmaster is stealing from them just for attending this show? Look at all these mustaches. God, this is so ridiculously patriotic - look at that idiot with a Vietnam P.O.W./M.I.A. t-shirt. Vietnam was so 1971. And what's with that USMC tattoo on his arm? And that prosthetic arm? Get over it, Lefty.

About five songs and three lengthy stories into what would be (as promised) 3 hours of non-stop entertaining, Bruce charged into "Light of Day". (One of the three or so songs I recognized, and only because I remember Michael J. Fox rocking it in a movie that shared the song's name). Everyone was standing, shouting back all the words, just as they'd do for every single song played that evening. Bruce was dancing ridiculously, prancing back and forth across the stage, hugging his enormous saxophonist and cupping his Bossy hand to his Bossy ear in order to bait call-and-response from the crowd.

Then a funny thing happened.

I looked around and realized there was not one single person in this auditorium -- apart from the individual occupying my seat - who cared for a moment that there might be anything better than what was happening right now. No one appeared even remotely self-conscious - even the Vietnam Vet had a hook proudly raised. What a completely stark contrast to the shows I'd been attending since the Big Log debacle. Indie rock shows largely performed with lazy detachment, bands often rejecting encores. Jaded fans constantly questioning whether their choice to see this particular act was presently cool. People more preoccupied with the annoying or ridiculous status of everyone around them than they are with the music shaking their pale skin. (Exhibit A: in my estimation, 30% of those in attendance at Bruce's show were wearing Springsteen concert T-shirts - and about 99% of those T-shirts were promoting this tour. God help the poor sap who shows up at a Gastr Del Sol show in a band T. He will be laughed out of the 4-person occupancy "performance space" faster than you can say "Doc Marten" - something which might also get you laughed out of the same show.) Tonight, Bruce was having fun while thousands of fans remained awestruck and grateful, no matter their ticket price. And I was completely entertained.

Seeing Bruce Springsteen give us his entire heart for three hours, just as he would surely do for the 14 remaining dates at this venue, was deeply incredible, no matter what I think of his music. My initial belief that Bruce would be horrified to know that these people were his core fan base turned into a consideration that these fans were exactly the characters who filled his songs. Fuck cool. Cool is impossible to talk about anyway, because as soon as you point your finger at someone for being uncool, there is someone directly behind you, pointing an accusing Urban Decay-tipped finger of uncool at you. Cool is a circular and philosophically ungratifying pursuit. And, though I was still far too self-conscious to raise a fist along with the others, fearing there would be serious fascistic undertones to the gesture, (Yes, I've got a lot of work to do.) I was grateful that I made it through that doorway, away from the private party and into the world. No, I wasn't transformed, but I was definitely informed. I think my only regret is that I didn't ask that Vietnam Vet where he got his t-shirt - I think it would look very retro on me.




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