Backstage with Bruce, or, How I Became a Rock Critic

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


15 thoughts on “Backstage with Bruce, or, How I Became a Rock Critic

  1. Randi Millman September 25, 2012 / 9:16 am

    It has been years since I thought about that night and boy did you capture it perfectly! I’m laughing and crying. So many surreal moments… In the midst of it all, we stayed cooler than I thought possible two Lucy & Ethel types could be. Huge thanks to our honorary sister Tracy Roach for changing our lives forever!

    • Randi Long September 25, 2012 / 9:27 am

      Well, I was intrigued ALREADY by the beginning of this article and became even more so when I saw your name! And how you fanagled a way backstage didn’t surprise me anymore! I have fanagled many a times in my years of going to concerts. Maybe it’s the name that gives us balls!:)

    • christie deydier October 22, 2012 / 3:14 am

      Hi Joyce, I love your story! And in the world of Bruce fandom, and as a lover of critical thinking, I have one of my own. As a girl growing up in southern california, my Bruce moment came in 1981 with my best friend at the LA Sports Arena. Knowing all the albums up to this point in minute detail and being totally, hyperactively charged by the the intensity of a live E Street Band show, we found our cherish place behind the stage, you know those seats where, yes you see the show from behind but you get a very special view of the whole arena and a certain proximity to the band. As the 6 night stand went on, Bruce started to take note of our enthusiasm. By the end of the run, he invited us backstage (where nonchalance prevailed) and made a special effort to thank us as the “livewires” we were as our 16 year old selves. He offered up tickets for future shows, and periodically at shows even today, somehow he connects with us, imaginary or not;-) That moment of recognition by Bruce has driven the friendship I have with my still best friend for the last 30 years. I now live in France , she in LA, but we have met in California, Ohio, Texas, Paris, NY, Milan, Rome, London etc for shows when family commitments and work schedules will allow. Our passion for the music, lyrics and world view that Bruce & the band have enduringly committed to over all these years was our education then and a wonderful source of joy and liberation now. Thanks for your memorable article, and oh how I envy your job!

      • joycemillman October 22, 2012 / 9:34 am

        Thank you for your comments and for taking the time to share your great Bruce memories! “A wonderful source of joy and liberation” – yes!

  2. Joyce Bassett September 25, 2012 / 10:04 am

    Awesome story. A few months later, Sunday, Nov. 12, Bruce played in Troy, NY. I was 16 and could walk to the show from my house. So happy I paid my 8 bucks and memorized “Darkness” before show. I’ve been writing about him since, although I’m a news editor and didn’t have the music background to be a music critic. I saw this on Brucebase: Is this you? 12.11.78 Troy, NY, intro to ´Racing in the Street´
    ´´This is for all the night riders out there….and this is for Joyce….”

    • joycemillman September 25, 2012 / 10:10 am

      Thank you! I love your story …
      Haha, no that Joyce definitely wasn’t me! Maybe it was you!

  3. Not. Milo. Miles. September 26, 2012 / 10:34 am

    Grand story, Joyce. I never heard more than a blink of it, I don’t think.

    This touches on a particular tricky business:

    “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.”

    When does a critic give up proper distance from the subject? The older I get, the more I’m certain it’s a case-by-case issue.

    Some hardcore types sneer at free movie screenings, free tickets to exhibits and concerts and free promo recordings. These people are almost never professionals. And they’re crazy. After that, things get grayer.

    Roger Ebert, in his autobio, has an interesting passage on how he came to feel that press junkets paid for by Hollywood — once something that every movie writer accepted without a flicker — became simply too corrupting. This seems like a correct standard for any operation that wants to stay classy. (Though Ebert also condemns selling promotional material you don’t want to keep — easy for somebody that well-compensated to say.)

    And the gray grows murkier. There’s a role for culture reporters who make backstage and behind the scenes their beat — the aspiring Kings and Queens of schmooze. Robert Hilburn of the LA Times is merely the most famous example in pop music. I wouldn’t trust a critical piece by him as far as I could throw Jerry Lee Lewis AND his piano — but Hilburn is a valuable source of information and inside scoop. Or he was for a goodly while back when.

    Finally we arrive at the shadowiest situation of all — when is an expert on a subject or a star still an unbiased expert and not an unconscious advocate? If somebody’s a part of a scene from the ground up, can they accurately evaluate it? If a writer has done a full-bore bio of a performer, are they too invested to trust any more on that topic? I’ve concluded that every individual is different. How persuasive are they about the scene’s downsides? Can the subject of the book still fail on occasion, even go into fallow periods, and have the writer level with you about it? Each byline deserves a specific answer.

    • joycemillman September 26, 2012 / 11:17 am

      I agree with you. The only way you can possibly evaluate is person-by-person, because some folks do it more gracefully than others. I’ve never been comfortable with chumminess, but if a writer is deft enough to be chummy, yet remain clear-eyed enough to be able to evaluate a performer’s work honestly, more power to them.And if a gossip-writer or profile writer is labeled as such, fine.

      What really gets my goat these days is the almost complete public ignorance that there is a difference between criticism/opinion and gossip/infotainment. (And, of course, too many Americans simply do not know that an Op Ed piece in a newspaper is an opinion, hence the barrage of letters to the editor slamming “bias”.)

      Oof, we sound like a couple of old cranks.

      I never told you this Bruce story? I was probably too embarrassed. I have no shame anymore. 🙂

  4. Alta Cloete September 26, 2012 / 1:11 pm

    Three months after the experience, I have found the best words to express my first Springsteen show (Sunderland, in the pit) in this lovely piece of yours: ” … being there, in that moment, was like standing in a hurricane.” Thank you for that!

    • joycemillman September 26, 2012 / 3:30 pm

      Thanks! Your first show ever, and in the pit? You hit the jackpot!

      • Alta Cloete September 26, 2012 / 10:59 pm

        We worked hard for that jackpot – queued the whole day in the rain. But of course it was worth it!

  5. Not. Milo. Miles. September 26, 2012 / 6:30 pm

    “Oof, we sound like a couple of old cranks.”

    Of course. But I’ve been a crank my whole life. In the 1st Grade, as the class walked toward the reading circle one day, I let out a huge sigh.

    “What’s the matter?” asked the (saintly) teacher.

    “Oh, every day it’s the same old grind.”

    She called me “Grinder” for the rest of the afternoon.

    • joycemillman September 26, 2012 / 7:54 pm

      Awwwww! The adventures of Li’l Milo. This should be a comic strip.

  6. Anne October 2, 2012 / 6:31 pm

    I’ve been chewing on this piece ever since I first read it a few days ago. Though I never had the cool backstage experience (at least not with Bruce), I have had the experience of consciously making a similar choosing-sides decision. I love writing about music (and poetry, my other love) but have found that I do not have a critic’s temperament. I love writing about the stuff I love, and trying to be articulate about why I love it – but when I don’t love something I am content to just ignore it. (Which doesn’t mean I love everything that my favorite artists do. Far from it. It just means that when I write about a Springsteen concert I will likely as not simply fail to mention a certain song that gets played at 🙂 ) I think that, for me, this is a valid way of writing about & experiencing music – but it means that I cannot, in any serious way, consider myself a critic and I tend to say that I write appreciations, not reviews. Which is not to say that they’re not honest, just that they’re … selective.

    Anyway, that’s a bit of blatherly musing I should probably turn into my own blog post at some point! Thanks to you for sharing this story and how the experience played into your own development as a critic – it’s fascinating to me. And I do agree, critics (good ones) have to be fans; if you don’t love the art, you’re not going to care enough about it to write well about it. You have to believe this stuff *matters*! And it does.

    • joycemillman October 2, 2012 / 8:48 pm

      Thank you! This was a really thoughtful reply and I appreciate it. Yes, you should put it down in a post!

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