Before launching into one of his legendary three-and-a-half hour concerts, Bruce Springsteen asks his audience, “Are you ready to be transformed?”
It sounds more like the invocations of a revival preacher than a rock n’ roll musician. But for die-hard Springsteen fans, seeing The Boss live is akin to a religious experience.
This is particularly evident in the Los Angeles Sports Arena, Bruce’s favorite venue in L.A., which he affectionately christened the “Dump that Jumps.” The arena is reflective of his ethos and music with its scruffy, blue-collar appearance (seemingly always in need of a paint job) and its lack of luxury boxes. His stories of the down-on-his-luck common man searching for the “promised land” resonate most deeply in a space that equalizes. Even from the rafters, you can see the sweat glistening on his arms and feel the pulse of the musical reverberations in your rib cage. Buttoned-up businessmen release primal screams in the dark morass of the pit—we are all dancing in the dark.
Springsteen has a long relationship with the Sports Arena. He has played there 34 times, including on the original 1981 River tour, the album he is playing in its entirety this go-round. Opened in 1959 and home to the 1960 Democratic National Convention, the arena fell out of favor in recent years – as sports teams and musicians flocked to flashier venues like the Staples Center. But Bruce has remained loyal, and upon announcement of its impending demolition, it only seemed fitting that he should be the one to help it not go quietly into that good night.
Springsteen and the Sports Arena have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Both the Arena and Springsteen share a common denominator—my mother. As a baby, my mom would take me in my stroller while she worked the will call window at Clippers games. Once a year, we watched Disney On Ice there, and I came home with a plastic cup in the shape of my favorite character’s head. But the arena was also home to Springsteen—my mother’s requisite soundtrack to life. For cleaning the house, “Born to Run” (“Jungleland” fills the exact amount of time it takes to polish the downstairs hardwood floors); for road trips, “Lucky Town.” I was born and raised Catholic, but Springsteen is the altar at which we worshipped.
Until I saw him live, I was humoring my mother’s obsession. His music was catchy, but I did not get it and never actively chose to listen on my own. I guess you could say I’m a “Born Again” Springsteen fan. Even as a novice concertgoer several years ago, I found myself chanting along to the “Badlands” chorus, screaming out the opening lines to “Hungry Heart,” and extending my hands as if in prayer during “The Rising.” I had been “transformed” and joined the Springsteen cult. With such a generous performer, it is easy to get caught up in the proceedings.
Springsteen’s shows stand apart for their visceral immediacy and focus on the common man. We, including the Boss himself, all jump, sweat, and sing together. His music is a conduit for our lives—our losses, our pains, our struggles, and our triumphs. In his words and the rawness of his voice, you can hear the story of America and find something relatable in his tales of hard work, romantic loss, and escape via a car and the open road.
His performances are inclusive, as audiences shout the words along with an open invitation. At 66, Bruce still crowd-surfs every night—never doubting that everyone in the pit will keep him safely in the air until he reaches the stage. He is a part of the crowd and the audience is part of the show—a symbiotic ebb and flow. Springsteen is always singing with you, not to you. And this is perhaps why it mirrors a religious experience – for four blissful hours, you are part of something greater than yourself. To quote “The Mindy Project’s” Danny Castellano (Chris Messina), “It’s a Springsteen show, not a concert.” This is to say that there is no respectful listening here – you dance, you shriek, and on ballads, you raise up your hands to receive the lyrics on a spiritual level.
The three shows there, March 15, 17, and 19th, were an impassioned, high-energy tour-de-force. Performing what he calls his “coming-of-age record” track-to-track, he managed to bring new nuance and meaning to the songs from The River each night before launching into an additional hour-and-a-half of greatest hits. We joined him in joyful celebration of the Sports Arena, simultaneously entertained and transformed, as we bid adieu to a rusty parabola of metal reflecting on old memories and making new ones.
“The River was about time,” Springsteen told concertgoers. “And you choose the people you’re gonna walk alongside. Not only do you walk along them, but you walk alongside of your own mortality, and the clock starts ticking. And you realize you’ve got a limited amount of time to do your work, raise a family, and to try and do something good.”
On “Thunder Road,” he sings “So you’re scared and you’re thinking that maybe we ain’t that young anymore…” Springsteen, now in his sixties, wrote these words in his twenties—and they echo across the years for all ages in between. A fear and eventual acceptance of our own mortality colors our lives, and Springsteen writes about dread and the possibility of breaking free from it.
These words held a bittersweet significance at the Sports Arena’s final show, as concertgoers reflected not only on their own mortality, but that of the structure they stood in. Springsteen sent the beloved arena off with a four-hour show and his song “Wrecking Ball,” originally written for the demolition of New Jersey’s Giants Stadium. He changed the words to honor the occasion, substituting “California” and “Los Angeles” for “Jersey.” The song is a defiant anthem essentially declaring that you can destroy a building, but not the memories it housed. The audience screamed the words along with him, and many of us wept.
Despite this end of an era in arena rock in Los Angeles, the concerts maintained a celebratory tone—Springsteen does not go in for funereal proceedings, but rather sends off monuments in the style of an Irish wake.
Springsteen’s music speaks to mortality and striving towards a better life, but at a live show, it always does so in a celebratory manner. He reflects, we genuflect, and then we all party. One middle-aged man, invited onstage during “Dancing in the Dark,” danced and sang with Bruce with the gleeful exuberance of a child. We shake off the bonds of modern life for four hours and bask in the glory of a rock god—we run away from our bills, our failures, and our mortality because tramps like us, baby we were born to run.