Tramps like us

The Times-Picayune, 2002-11-11, by: Chris Rose
Armed with a stack of CDs, tickets to concerts in two cities and a trunkload of memories, he went out for a ride in search of Springsteen -- and lost youth.
I'm staring out the passenger window at a bunch of longhorn steer on the side of the highway, somewhere up on I-20 between Shreveport and Dallas, thinking to myself: What the hell am I doing? Back home, two little kids and a pregnant wife. Me, I'm on the road chasing a dream: My youth. In my pocket, tickets to Bruce Springsteen concerts in Dallas Sunday night, Houston Monday night. His music is the stuff that guided my younger and more vulnerable years.

Growing up in suburban Maryland, I was sure every song he wrote was about me. The girls, the wild friends, the guitar armies and nights down by the lake -- I had none of it; it was all romantic dreams in my head. Truth is, there wasn't even a lake within 50 miles of my house. Me and my buddy Gio are driving the interstate highways, listening first to Springsteen's newest record, "The Rising," and then listening to every record he ever put out, in order, after that. It takes a long time.

By the time we get to "Thunder Road," we're driving in the pouring rain somewhere in St. Landry Parish. Crossing the Texas border from Caddo Parish, we're listening to "The River." You see things out on the road like this, signs for boudin, barbecue and beef jerky. Signs for gas, food and lodging. Signs telling you what God wants you to do. One billboard in an empty field says: "Why don't you come over to my house Sunday before the game?" That God, he's a real card.

It's a landscape of mini storage units, Super Wal-Marts, roadside casinos and campaign signs. In north Louisiana, there are signs all over for a candidate named John Milkovich and we wonder, if he loses, will the newspaper headlines in Monroe say: "Beating John Milkovich"? Probably not.

Outside of Carencro, customers are lined up at 8:30 Sunday morning, not outside of God's house but outside Metro Bingo, waiting for the doors to open for another kind of religion. In Natchitoches, it's lousy with rain and cold but the rest stop is packed with beefy men in camouflage and rubber boots. "Opening day?" I ask one. "Deer," he says. In the rest room, Gio walks into a conversation between two men. One is saying: "She says foreplay? I say I don't even have enough time for twoplay." "Let's get out of here," Gio says.

We're dressed identically in blue jeans and black tees and we look like the intergalactic bounty hunters from "Brother From Another Planet." Identical, that is, except for the enormous ketchup and cheese stain in the middle of my stomach, a victim of the jumbo dog breakfast special at Circle K, a stain marking my journey before I got even six blocks from my house. Gio, he's more careful about those things.

It's a great trip. We discuss the meaning and import of each Springsteen song as it plays. I've seen Springsteen in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Washington, D.C., Langley, Md., Madison, Wis., and Chicago. Memories wash over me, images of where I was in my life and who I was with. The woman in my life now is Kelly. She's something else. People say to me: Your wife is either the coolest woman in the world or she's crazy to let you do this but, in fact, though maybe she's a little of both, what she got out of the deal is a new kitchen, which means these concert tickets are costing me about $5,000 each. They better be good.

We talk about which Springsteen songs our kids like best. Gio says his little Nathan digs "10th Avenue Freeze Out." I tell him I think my little Kate favors "Hungry Heart." We make up a game where you name characters for Gothic novels after the exit signs along the highway. They sound like men in Southern fiction: Burnside Gonzales. Angus Mustang. Conroe Houston. Addicks Humble. Forney Mesquite and Toomey Starks.

These kinds of road trips are different when you get older. For instance, this is the first time I've ever packed dental floss for a rock-'n'-roll road trip. And this time around, the brown prescription medicine vial in my luggage actually contains prescription medicine. Both nights, our hotels are filled with people like us. Connecticut, California, Oklahoma City and even London. They flew and drove for these shows, music that matters, songs that rip at your heart. I wonder if they, too, will cry if Springsteen plays "Incident on 57th Street." (He does, and I do.) They all ask us: Are you going on to Austin? That's the next stop on the tour. I tell them I can't afford to remodel our bathroom at the present time. They don't know what that means but I think I'm funny as hell. I'm sure this is my last rock tour. I'm getting too old for this nonsense.

I thought the Springsteen show in New Orleans two years ago would be the last time I saw him -- my last great rock 'n' roll stand. But I drank too much that night and aggravated my wife and friends and I didn't want it to end that way -- my relationship to Springsteen's legendary and marathon epics. I wanted a cleaner ending. I wanted to retire laughing. So we drive, Gio and me. The shows are outrageous. The play lists are muscular, playful and poignant all at the same time. His songs about 9/11 from "The Rising" can rip your throat right out of your neck, and the stuff like "Born to Run" sends me into convulsive, fist-pumping lunacy. I simply don't possess the vocabulary to tell you how they make mefeel. Younger. Stronger. Better. Clean. I die laughing.

Tuesday morning driving home and it's all been a blur yet it's all clear as a bell. My ears are ringing. Somewhere near Baytown, Texas, we're listening to "Better Days" and that's how it feels. It's like being 15 again, promised land and prove-it-all-night kind of living, needing a shower and a shave and remembering the very day in the autumn of 1975 when Time and Newsweek magazines put Springsteen on their covers, declaring a new messiah of rock 'n' roll had been born. They don't make them like that anymore.

We're driving home, Gio and me, the CD blasting and we stare out the windows lost in our own dreams, revelry, regrets and triumphs. For miles, we don't talk. Near Port Arthur, Gio turns down the stereo and says to me: "You know what? Next time, we should go to Austin." I laugh and say nothing and look out the window at the miles flying by. I'm thinking: He's probably right.