In my 24 years of seeing Bruce Springsteen live, it seems like part of what I’ve been doing is to try to get back to that night in 1988 when the 19-year-old me stood under the starry night in a stadium in Copenhagen and watched as “Twist and Shout” came to an end with 45,000 people dancing as one communal soul.
Before last night I had tried to reach the same emotional heights more than 50 times. With the E Street Band, solo, the Sessions Band, and that other band. Not once have I left disappointed. Many times I’ve left drenched in sweat and wiped out after being through the E Street Band rock ‘n’ roll grinder. Or on a cloud of spiritual insight and elevation after an acoustic show. And many of those times my first spontaneous reaction has been: “Best. Show. Ever”. It didn’t matter so much if it was actually true from whatever criteria you could measure it by. What mattered was that Bruce could still give me that feeling, even if, in retrospect, I would still know in the back of my mind that, “No, that first show in 1988 still had something more”.
Well, last night was different. Last night was on a different scale. It is the first time I can confidently say that my experience in 1988 has been surpassed. If it had happened 2000 years ago, there would still be religions based on it. There might be 2000 years from now.
You know, if it had all just taken place on a nice and warm summer evening like Friday’s show, it may not quite have reached the same level. It was the flood of rain that preceded it that brought it from being merely epic to biblical. The lower the lows, the higher the highs. And standing outside the stadium in that downpour was some of the lowest I’ve ever been. Crammed together in the queue for the pit, with hundreds of other people, not being able to move, while cascades of rain poured down on you, and all you could do was simply lower your head and take it. It gave me flashbacks to some possible previous life in the trenches of Verdun during World War 1. I was seriously questioning myself and what the hell I was doing there. I came close to vowing that this would be my last trip to see Bruce. Little did I know that by the end of the evening I would feel that I would have gone through a hundred of those downpours to be at that show.
By the time the show started - more than 45 minutes late, which didn’t help with our spirits - the rain had quit. Not that it made a huge difference. I was already soaked from top to bottom.
But from then on it only got better.
It’s not quite a rule, but for a show to be epic, it helps if it contains “Lost in the Flood”. Just think of Madison Square Garden on July 1, 2000. Last night, despite the weather, I had not seen that song coming at all, but when Bruce showed the request sign to the band, it made such perfect sense. Of course he was gonna play “Lost in the Flood”. Because that’s what we were. And the song was tremendous. Powerful and ominous, and with that explosive guitar solo that would leave even a heavy metal fan gasping for mercy.
Another guitar moment was the duel between Bruce and Steve during “Saint in the City”, a first for me. It’s so much noisier and raw and dangerous than what it sounds like on bootlegs. It was an awesome flashback to low-ceilinged rock joints in the mid-Seventies and a hungry, desperate band that played to survive more than to have fun.
Before last night’s show, “Frankie” was on my personal top five list of Bruce songs. It is beyond me how it could remain unreleased for so long, and so un-played after its release. Because of that, it was a song I would rarely mention among my wishes for songs to experience live. Because I knew there wasn’t a chance in hell it would happen. So I would usually just say full band “Incident”. In reality though, if I had the choice I would choose “Frankie” over “Incident” any day. I just didn’t think I had the choice. The song has meant so much to me over the years. More than any other Bruce song, it just describes what it’s like to be me. Its quietness on the outside and sparkle on the inside, and so full of light and dreams and hope. While we were standing outside the stadium in the rain, we could faintly hear it being soundchecked. That brought our hopes up, of course, but the way everything else was going, I figured it was just a way to add insult to injury to be so close to experiencing “Frankie” live and then probably see Bruce grab some sign for “Bobby Jean” and play that instead.
But he did play it. And it was glorious. It wasn’t just rattled off like some unrehearsed, spur of the moment thing, as is sometimes the case with songs that look good on a setlist, but in reality don’t quite live up to what you thought. It was a fully realized new arrangement, complete with a beautiful intro and a sweet guitar solo at the end. And in the middle of it, Bruce paused between two verses and looked out in the audience where thousands and thousands of cell phones had been lit up, and he told a story about those summer nights when you sometimes end up alone and you sit there on the porch staring into the night watching the fireflies. It was the most magical moment I’ve ever experienced at a Bruce show. I was completely mesmerized and tears started flowing.
After “Frankie” he could have played “Bobby Jean” twenty times and it would still have been the best show I’d ever seen (no offense to those of you who like “Bobby Jean”). But of course, “Frankie”, although my personal highlight, was still just a component of the special night it was turning into.
And on it went. “The River” was a perfect companion piece for “Frankie”. “Because the Night” had an even longer guitar solo than usual from Nils. And then “Shackled and Drawn”, the song from Wrecking Ball that I enjoy the most live, with Bruce enacting hundreds of years of labor oppression by the mere way he stomps around on the stage like some mythological colossus channeling the voices of slaves, coal miners and factory workers throughout the centuries. I could watch that all night and be fulfilled.
It says something about a show when “Backstreets” is played and it’s not even in the top three highlights. And it wasn’t for lack of passion, though. It may in fact have been the best “Backstreets” I’ve ever heard in person. Not quite “Sad Eyes”, he still included a sweet interlude that made you hold back your breath. He was in the zone, and he brought 60,000+ people with him. Altogether, the Swedish crowd - at least where I was standing - was amazing. Quiet and attentive when called for, loud and participating when that was required. Bruce may tell all crowds that he loves them, and he probably does, but there’s no question that in the case of the Swedes, it’s a special bond. As a Danish person with an inferiority complex to all things Swedish, I hate to say it, but it’s the truth, and for a good reason ‘cause they’re the best.
At this point every song gels, and even those that are not favorites take you higher and higher. No one in the crowd has any doubt at this point that they’re witnessing something extraordinary even on the Bruce scale. “Thunder Road” with its blast of horns at the end that has greatly revitalized it; the frantic drum breakdown during “Born in the USA”, Bruce urging Max on to create the most jaw-dropping, wonderful noise since all matter of the universe decided to split ways 13 billion years ago; “Born to Run” that is just incapable of getting old and stale, and you yourself who will never tire of punching your fist in the air and screaming out “Tramps like us, baby we were born to ruuuun” at the top of your lungs.
And then, after the obligatory but always emotional “Tenth Avenue”, the moment that will ensure this show a place among the top Bruce shows of all time. More than 50 shows into the Wrecking Ball Tour, the stars and planets were aligned. The night sky within the rim of the stadium suddenly turned into Clarence’s face watching from above. Some say “Jungleland” should have been retired for good. I say you weren’t there last night or you would have felt it too. How all of a sudden Clarence’s death seemed to have happened for a higher purpose, so that the baton could be passed on and thereby symbolizing how nothing dies, and we all stay alive as long as what we do either shifts the world like an earthquake, like Bruce does every night, or nudges some little tiny piece of the universe in another direction, such as we all do. The whole purpose of the tour, and possibly of our existence, was summed up in that saxophone solo. And if you think Clarence wouldn’t have burst with pride over his nephew, you’re crazy. And after it was over, Jake appropriately raised the saxophone up towards that face in the sky and thanked him, his uncle, the Master of the Universe, the Big Man, Clarence Clemons.
“Twist and Shout” followed, not because we needed more, but just because you can’t end a show after affirming life the way we had just witnessed it. Life spurs more life, and we got the longest “Twist and Shout” I’d seen since that night in 1988, a version that just kept going and kept going, until it became a world of its own and twisting and shouting was all there was. Ullievi Stadium didn’t break like in 1985, but if it had, if all the walls had come crumbling down at that moment, I don’t think anyone in the crowd would have stopped dancing.