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Newark Star Ledger, 2002-12-22, by: Peggy McGlone
Five hours before Bruce Springsteen takes the stage at the St. Petersburg Times Forum, hundreds of out-of-town fans are hanging out in the sunny plaza in front of the venue. "Sherry Darling" is blaring from the bar across the street, and as they wait in the informal general admission line, they're talking Bruce. And they couldn't be happier. "It's a great time," said Drew Eckmann of Ringwood, a 47-year-old associate editor at Newsweek. "The guy makes so many people happy it's incredible."

They are lawyers, teachers, writers, salesmen, bartenders and advertising execs. Single and married, teenagers and grandparents. As they wait, they share opinions on the previous night's show in Miami -- which featured guest appearances by U2's Bono and doo-wop legend Dion -- as well as on the Orlando concert two nights earlier. They dissect each show's set list (Miami included four songs not played previously on the tour), discuss energy levels (both Springsteen's and the crowd's) and rank the shows on their list of personal favs. "Last night was tremendous. He was out there working. He was so charged up," said John Farrell, a 45-year-old bond broker from Middletown who flew to Miami for the Nov. 23 show, then caught an early morning flight to Tampa for his second show in as many days. "I'm ready to go again."

Farrell is not alone. Since Springsteen and his E Street Band launched their current tour in support of their new record, "The Rising," Aug. 7 at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, the faithful have been flying and driving around the country. From Birmingham, Ala., to Fargo, N.D., they have followed Springsteen on a barnstorming tour -- 45 concerts in 45 cities -- that ended Tuesday in Indianapolis. The tour starts up again in February, stopping in Atlantic City March 7 before continuing on to Australia and Europe.

This loosely-knit community of fans is diverse in every way -- age, income, religion, profession -- but they are united by their passion for Springsteen and his band. In the parking lots and on the GA line, they talk stats with the fervor of baseball fanatics. They trade tapes and CDs of recent concerts -- ones they attended and ones they missed -- and they help each other find tickets, discount hotel rooms and rides to arenas for upcoming shows. They call it a passion, a hobby, an obsession -- and they admit it's not always easy. On this tour, Springsteen has opened up the arena floors as general admission, standing-room-only areas. For those who want to secure a good spot near the stage, long waits -- sometimes overnight -- are necessary.

It's not cheap either. And though, at $75 a pop, a Springsteen ticket is less expensive than the three-figure prices charged by the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and others, none of these fans is buying just one. Many say they've spent close to $1,000 on tickets alone. "During the off-season, when he wasn't touring, what did we have except shows at the (Stone) Pony?," said Cynthia Meehan, a 36-year-old bartender from Asbury Park, who has seen about 25 Springsteen shows this tour. "Now we're really taking advantage."

The tour has fans buzzing for several reasons, most importantly because it features Springsteen with the E Street Band, who prior to their 1999-2000 reunion tour hadn't been on the road together for more than a decade. It also spotlights new material from "The Rising," the first full-length studio album by Springsteen and the band since 1984's "Born in the USA." Written in the aftermath of 9/11, the songs on the new album include both mournful ballads ("You're Missing," "Empty Sky") and flat-out rockers ("Waiting On a Sunny Day," "Mary's Place").

Magic in the night

"The Rising" has sold more than 2 million copies, but it might have sold 200 for all fans like Eckmann, Farrell and Meehan care. They prefer their Springsteen live, sweating and joking and commanding the stage as he has for 30 years. At 53, he's still jumping on the piano and knee-sliding into the out-stretched arms of fans pressed up against the stage. He involves the crowd in everything, pointing and making eye contact, whipping them into a frenzy at one point, asking for quiet at another. Whether dousing drummer Max Weinberg with cups of water, throwing his guitar high in the air to a waiting roadie or getting down on his knee when introducing his wife and bandmate, Patti Scialfa, he's obviously having fun. And that fun is infectious.

"It's like a drug," said Ted Brych of Toms River, a 34-year-old security guard who has seen more than 160 Springsteen concerts since 1984, and who took two months off to follow the band to almost all of the 38 U.S. dates. "Once you go, you have to go back for more." "People say, 'Oh, you Bruce people are crazy,'" said Billie Jo Sheehan of Secaucus, who at 27 is younger than most of the diehard fans. "But people watch 'Star Wars' 500 times, and it's never going to change. With Bruce -- you never know what he's going to do."

The Florida trifecta proved her right. In Orlando, he pulled out the "Detroit Medley," a series of classic rock songs that was a staple of his encores in the 1970s and '80s. Miami's set included the tour debuts of "Because the Night" -- performed with Bono and Eurythmics' guitarist Dave Stewart -- "So Young and In Love" and "Out in the Streets" and a Dion-Springsteen duet on "If I Should Fall Behind." That show ended just minutes after 11 p.m., but by 11:27, Brych and his co-pilot Dave Palughi of Spring Lake were in their white Camry rental car, inching through arena traffic on their way to Tampa for the next show. It took them almost five hours to make the 281-mile trek -- west on I-75 through Alligator Alley, north to St. Petersburg, then across Tampa Bay and into downtown -- and it was after 4 a.m. when they joined the general admission line.

Only the first 300 ticketholders gain access to the front part of the floor -- known as The Pit -- so the line forms a day or two before each show for those who want to get close to the stage. The fans have come up with their own system for maintaining the integrity of the line. As people arrive, they sign in and are given a number, written in magic marker on one hand. They must then return for regularly scheduled roll calls -- usually at two-hour intervals starting at 8 a.m. The system prevents latecomers from cutting in line, and allows fans to leave the arena for food, showers or sleep. Just hours before the show, the arena issues official wristbands for the floor area. After signing in, Palughi and Brych napped in their car until the 8 a.m. call.

"If I can't get a GA ticket, I'm not going to the show," said Brych, who has spent more than $5,000 on the tour so far. "Your elbows are on the stage. After that, you can't go back." The effort was worth it. That night's show featured nine songs not played in Miami, including "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City" and "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?," two rarely played cuts from Springsteen's debut album, 1973's "Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J." The last-minute addition of "Twist and Shout" -- tacked onto the end of the second encore -- brought the almost three-hour concert to a wild end. "I was in shock," said Sheehan, who used her cell phone to call a friend during "Twist." "You could tell how much fun he was having."

The ties that bind

Sheehan has spent more than $2,000 on tickets, airfare, rental cars and hotel rooms for the dozen or so shows she has attended, while Brych has spent more than that on tickets alone. "People spend a lot on season tickets for baseball or football; it's the same kind of obsession," said Steve Moger of River Edge, a 28-year-old high school music teacher who has been to more than a dozen shows this tour. "You go to a lot of baseball games because you want to be there for the no-hitter."

Time is another issue. Moger used his summer vacation to go to the West Coast shows; Meehan swaps shifts with other bartenders at the Hoboken restaurant where she works. "I save my vacation time for Bruce," added Sheehan, who works for PSE&G.

Many of these diehard fans know each other, if not by name, at least by sight, and those who have never met talk like old friends. They exchange e-mail addresses and phone numbers as they chat about upcoming shows they plan to attend. "Since August (when the tour started), I've met more people who I will be friends with," said Eckmann, who has been to more than 75 Springsteen concerts.

The Internet helps nurture this bond. Almost every fan checks the various Springsteen bulletin boards for set list reports and first-person accounts from concertgoers. "We're addicted to the Internet," said Sheehan. "We'll see the set changes, and we'll say, 'We have to go again.'"

The network of Bruce fans also comes in handy when they decide -- often in a spontaneous reaction to the latest concert -- that they have to hit the road again. Meehan, for example, flew to Las Vegas on Aug. 21 to meet up with a handful of Bruce friends to attend just the first of the six West Coast shows. "When they were dropping me off at the airport (to return home), I said, 'I'm not getting out of the car. This is too much fun,'" said Meehan, who spent the next 10 days traveling with friends in three cars, going from Las Vegas to Portland, Tacoma, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Jose.

Tickets were not a problem, since somebody always knows someone with an extra to sell or trade. Transportation? Hotels? They figured it out as they went along. "It was a pain in the butt to get from one show to the other, and there were some nights I was ready to say, 'Drop me off at the next airport or train station,'" said Meehan, who went to Europe for two weeks in October to see five Springsteen shows. "But we had a great time."

Leap of faith

Moger decided two days before the Orlando concert that he had to go to Florida. Thanks to Internet travel sites and his network of friends, he caught all three concerts. Farrell didn't have tickets for Miami or Tampa, but he made it into both concerts because of last-minute ticket drops at the box office. It's a habit that can take its toll on relationships. Meehan's new boyfriend wasn't thrilled with her extended West Coast stay, but then he came around and even joined her in Europe for a couple of shows. Palughi has cut back dramatically since he remarried. "My wife told me this is my last hurrah," he said about the tour.

Farrell is one of the many repeaters hooked on this tour's general admission ticket policy, and especially The Pit. The GA line has its own subculture, said Patricia Burgos of Jersey City, a 35-year-old advertising executive who caught her ninth "Rising" show in Miami. The time commitment alone brings out only the most rabid of fans, and Burgos enjoys the camaraderie. "You're sharing that moment with someone who feels as equally passionate about it as you do," she said.

In Miami, they made room for 11-year-old Mike Schneider of Rutherford at the front of the stage, so he wouldn't be crushed in the crowd. His dad, Jerry, 48, stood a few feet behind, watching as his son sang into Springsteen's mike during one song, and high-fived him during another. After the show, Jerry Schneider napped in their rented Windstar for an hour before getting behind the wheel for the drive to Tampa. Mike slept the whole ride. "It was great. This is a big event in his life," said Jerry, who convinced his wife to let him take Mike with him by promising to have him back at school in New Jersey by 11 the next day. Tampa was Mike's eighth Springsteen show this tour.

Despite all the effort, the waiting and the lack of sleep, the Schneiders -- and the rest of the fans who dashed from one concert to the next -- were ready for another go-round. "One concert every six weeks or so," said Farrell, breaking into a grin, "I'd go through life and be fine."

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2002-11-24 Ice Palace, Tampa, FL