September 25, 1978. I was a college student, majoring in journalism. But the type of journalism I really wanted to write — rock criticism — was not being taught at my school. So I was learning how to be a critic by reading Rolling Stone, Creem, the Boston Phoenix, the Cambridge Real Paper and anything else I could get my hands on. Dave Marsh, Greil Marcus, Ariel Swartley, Kit Rachlis were my teachers. And all the music I’d ever listened to was the syllabus. More than any other record, Bruce Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the reviews I had read about it, taught me how to think critically about music, to put it in the context of the wider world, look for meaning and connection. And I connected to Darkness, with its gray-shaded stories about working-class people following their restless dreams, in a way I had never connected to a record before.
Anyway, it was September 25 and Bruce was playing the Boston Garden. I had seen one of the first shows on the Darkness tour only four months before at the much smaller Music Hall. That had been my first time and the experience was so core-rattling that the show was all a stunned blur to me now. The Garden show was going to be different. I was ready for it. I was going to lock onto and savor every song. My sister Randi, the miracle worker, had procured us floor seats in the third or fourth row (I don’t know how I managed to lose my ticket stub over the years, but, it’s gone). And if you’ve ever seen an E Street Band concert up close, you know what I mean when I say that being there, in that moment, was like standing in a hurricane.
So, after the show, another of my sister’s miraculous connections — specifically, the amazing Tracy Roach, queen of Boston FM radio — handed us backstage passes. I’d never been backstage at a concert before. I peeled the backing paper off the fabric access pass and slapped it onto my thigh, because that’s where Tracy and the other cool chicks were wearing theirs. Randi stuck hers on the lapel of her jacket. We mingled in a meet-and-greet room with other guests (radio jocks, local musicians, PR people). I saw the Boston Globe‘s rock critic being ushered into the inner sanctum. Finally, Bruce emerged and made the rounds of the tables where we all sat so nonchalantly. Yes, being nonchalant backstage, to the point where you practically ignore the star, is apparently how it’s done. Nobody was freaking out, nobody was bubbling over with enthusiasm. It was all just, “Oh, look, there’s Bruce Springsteen. Yawn. What’s he doing here?”
Springsteen came over to our table. He was very, very skinny. He was wearing a brown leather jacket, a white T shirt, and tight faded black trousers that laced up the front. (Hey, journalism students notice these details.) His voice was hoarse. One of the guys got up and gave him his seat, he chatted with a few people at the table, but I can’t remember what he said. I was too busy trying to look nonchalant. I couldn’t make myself talk, anyway. I was experiencing severe sensory overload, probably as a result of the strain of all that nonchalance.
Then he stood up to leave and one of the women at our table dropped the nonchalant veil and asked him to sign the backstage pass on her thigh, raising up her leg and holding onto his shoulder for support. My cheeky sister jumped up and asked him to sign her pass — which was still attached to her chest. Bruce looked down at her, chuckled, and obliged. While this was going on, I was trying to peel off my pass so I could hand it to him, but it was stuck hard to my sweaty jeans. And then it was my turn. I wish I could say that I talked to him and told him my take on Darkness, what it meant to me, like a proper critic. But I wasn’t a proper critic, yet. I was a student who lucked into a backstage pass and now he was signing it, while it was still stuck, ridiculously, to my leg. Please … don’t judge.
Flash forward to September 25, 2012. Exactly 34 years from that night, my essay about Darkness on the Edge of Town as a pivotal moment in Springsteen’s artistic development is being published in a gorgeous new book by photographer Eric Meola called Streets of Fire: Bruce Springsteen in Photographs and Lyrics, 1977-1979. Meola has assembled here the photos he took of Springsteen during the long gestation and recording of Darkness. Most of these have never been published before, all of them are beautiful, and if you are a Springsteen fan or an admirer of great portrait photography, you will want to own it. (End of not-so-subtle plug.)
Now, back to 1978. In the middle of that backstage scene, I was aware of being on the outside looking in. Sure, I was inside, in a small sense, and that was cool. But something was nagging at my conscience: If you were on the inside, could you still be a critic and write with honesty? Decades later, after I was established in my career, I felt a shiver of recognition watching former rock critic Cameron Crowe’s autobiographical film Almost Famous, as Crowe’s rock critic surrogate starts hanging out with his favorite band and struggles to walk the fine line between being a journalist and being a fan. That night backstage with Bruce, I glimpsed that fine line for the first time, and knew that, soon, I would have to choose sides. Backstage passes and schmoozing with the star were fun, don’t get me wrong. But it wasn’t where I was meant to be. I was meant to be outside, admiring at arm’s length, writing it down, decoding What It All Signified. And that’s when I knew for sure that I was a born critic.
I think I managed to keep my critical perspective when I was being paid to write about rock and roll. But, contrary to popular opinion, critics aren’t all brain and no heart. We’re fans, too, maybe the biggest fans of all; we just express it differently. Inside, we’re still the kid who heard a record that changed her life, and we need to try to make it change your life, too.
One last scene from September 25, 1978. After we got our passes signed, my sister and I coolly slinked (or so we thought) out of the room. When we were in the hallway and certain that no one was looking, we started jumping up and down hugging each other. And then we walked out into the empty Garden parking lot at 2 a.m. to find the gates padlocked shut with our car stuck inside. Oh, the glamorous life of a rock critic!
© Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2012