Bruce Springsteen and me, and a song request 32 years laterBaltimore Post-Examiner

32 years later, a song request for The Boss

The black Camaro pulled into the small parking lot of the music studio a little after midnight.

The driver hopped out. He was wearing blue jeans, a white T-shirt and black boots. He was all by his lonesome.

The stakeout my buddy Joe and I were conducting had hit paydirt. We were parked on the curb, just outside the music studio’s parking lot. We looked at the driver, then at each other.

“Let’s go,” Joe said.

We jumped out of Joe’s Honda hatchback and marched purposefully through the dimly lit lot toward the driver, who was walking toward the studio door.

We cut off the driver’s path in the middle of the lot.

Bruce Springsteen looked at us without alarm or surprise. He sized me up, then saw Joe and said, “Oh, it’s you again.”

It was summer 1980. The Boss was in the final stages of mixing what would become “The River” inside a small studio in West Hollywood. Joe was a huge Bruce fan. He read somewhere that The Boss was working on his album at the studio, about a half-hour drive from El Monte, the San Gabriel Valley town, about 10 miles east of downtown L.A.,  where Joe lived with his family. I lived in South El Monte with my family.

Joe’s fanaticism was born two years earlier, in the summer of 1978. Bruce played a sold-out show at the Forum, then announced he would be performing at the Roxy, a 500-seat nightclub on the Sunset Strip. An L.A. radio station offered free tickets to listeners who called in. Joe called in. He got through. He scored the ducats. The two of us would have gone, but Joe’s older sister would have killed him. I listened on the radio. The show was amazing. It immediately became the “legendary” Roxy show.

Meeting a rock and roll legend

Two years later, Joe read somewhere that Bruce was working on his upcoming album at a small studio in West Hollywood. He rode out one night to meet him. Joe hung out near the studio and connected with Bruce. He said Bruce was totally cool. He went out and met him again.

On a hot summer night, Joe called and asked if I wanted to go out and meet Bruce.  Joe and I were best pals in high school. We played together on the basketball and tennis teams. We hung out at Burger King. We liked the same music, the same bands, the same girls.

Joe had game. Girls liked him. I was a skinny 19-year-old with big dreams and no life outside of school and sports.

Do you remember records?

It was a different era. Music came in vinyl discs or cassette tapes sold in record stores. Bruce a star. “Born to Run” was released in 1975, and “Darkness on the Edge of Town” came out three years later. He appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek the same week (for you 20-somethings, at that time these were important news magazines with millions of subscribers).

Bruce was a star, but he wasn’t yet a mega-star.  “The River” and “Born in the U.S.A.” had yet to be released. He was years away from boogieing with Courtney Cox for the “Dancing in the Dark” video. He had no paid muscle, no entourage.

Bruce shook hands with Joe, then me.

“I’ve never shook hands with a legend before,” I said.

“See, there’s nothing to it,” Bruce said.

We chatted for five, maybe 10 minutes. We talked about music and the bloodshed in El Salvador. U.S. involvement was ramping up. There was talk of reinstituting the draft.  Not being from wealthy or connected families, Joe and I would have been prime cannon fodder. I wasn’t thrilled about that.

Joe broke out his camera and asked Bruce if he’d pose for a picture.

Sure, Bruce said.

Joe handed me the camera. Bruce wrapped his arm around Joe.

The lighting in the parking lot was dim.  “You sure we got enough light here?” Bruce said.

I aimed and snapped a couple of photos. The light was bad. If I were to show the picture to someone and say, “That’s my best friend with Bruce Springsteen,” the reaction would be,  “Yeah, sure it is.”

An unsolicited dedication

A few months later, Joe and I and a handful of other friends were among the 20,000 fans at the Los Angeles Sports Arena for one of a series of sold-out concerts by Bruce and the E Street Band.

Maybe midway through the show, Bruce talked about a young man who came out to see him several times, late at night, when he was working on “The River.”

“Maybe you’re out there tonight. This song’s for you,” Bruce said, before launching into “Drive All Night,” a heartfelt tune about lost love. (Bruce performed a searing, angry version of the song at the end of “Backstreets” during his 1978 tour).

Joe and I were dumbfounded. A rock legend played a song for Joe!

Over the years, my level of fandom has grown. Bruce’s music has made the good times sweeter and helped me to soldier through the hard patches. That’s what great artists do.

I’ve now been to about 20 Bruce concerts, in L.A. and D.C.

Best show ever – again, and again, and again

The best show I ever saw was Bruce’s August 2002 performance at the Verizon Center. Until the November 2009 show at the same location. Those performances were superseded by his show this April at Verizon – best concert ever.

That assessment lasted for a little more than five months — until I attended the epic, 3 1/2 hour show Bruce and the band performed Sept. 14 at Nationals Park. I swayed with “Thunder Road” with the most beautiful woman in the stadium. We danced like teenagers to “Twist and Shout.

Each show is infused with intensity, darkness, redemption, and ultimately, joy. Bruce and the band are on an amazing run, like a basketball player who can’t miss, or a tennis player who produces the equivalent of a rifle shot every time he strikes the ball.

Life takes a toll. Over time, the band has absorbed losses: Big Man Clarence Clemons and Danny Federici are gone. New band members are on board.

When Joe and I met you, I appreciated “Drive All Night,” but, at 19, I didn’t get the deep sense of pain and loss you were singing about. Now, at 51, I get it.

Each show now is a thrill ride, the experience heightened by the unspoken knowledge that it can’t last forever, much as we wish it would.

So I will be there when Bruce and the E Street Band take the stage at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville  Tuesday (Oct. 23). I will be in the best seat I’ve ever had for a Bruce concert.

Maybe you’ll read this, Bruce. Maybe you remember meeting Joe and me. If this story meets  your eyes, I hope you’ll entertain my song request: Drive All Night.  Either version.

I’ve never had a legend play a song for me.


About the author

Ruben Castaneda

Ruben Castaneda is the author of S Street Rising. He covered courts in Maryland for The Washington Post from 1997 to 2011. Contact the author.
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