On about a dozen occasions in just under five minutes, it becomes clear that the person talking to me is Bruce Springsteen. This, in case you are wondering, never stops feeling like getting walloped by a large rolling boulder, or shoved into an above-ground pool filled with half-melted ice cubes. You would think that after some time your brain would become used to realizing it’s maintaining eye contact with Actual Bruce Springsteen while simultaneously attempting to convince your hands to stop shaking like that, but curiously this never occurs. The net effect is that every few minutes I realize, for what seems like the first time, that I’m engaged in a real conversation with Bruce Springsteen and it would be best for everybody if I didn’t throw up or try to hug him.
Currently, Bruce Springsteen is talking to my friend Ben and I about parenting. I was introduced as having come to New York City from South Carolina, and Springsteen mentions how he just moved his daughter to Duke, and as someone who has equated Duke with cartoonish supervillainy since the early ’90s, I note that in talking to Bruce Springsteen for 14 seconds we’ve stumbled into the only topic on which I’ve ever really disagreed with him.
Ben (who is executive producer at RollingStone.com) mentions the pocket-sized baby girl his wife delivered two weeks prior, and this redirects the conversation into the kind of small talk you might have at the play gym, about how one day they’re newborns and the next day you’re moving them into a dorm and sweet weeping Jesus I’m talking to Bruce Springsteen about children and family units and how he and Patti — it’s strange the conventional role she plays in this particular narrative — enjoyed and facilitated their kids’ closeness. I should make clear that I’m completely paraphrasing this part, as obviously I have zero recall of the words Bruce Springsteen actually used when he was talking to me — for all I know he could have been reciting detailed schematics of the Starship Enterprise in Farsi — but I got the gist of it, or at least more than I would have thought I could while concentrating on not babbling like a drugged maniac.
The oddest thing — aside, of course, from any of this ridiculousness happening at all — is that Bruce should have been gone by now. Ben and I are backstage at “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” milling about in the hallway off the studio’s side door, the one Bruce and Jimmy exited through after the “Whip My Hair” bit. It is without question the most mundane-looking setting in which I’ll ever see Bruce Springsteen; it probably looks like the way to the printer room at your office, except for the HD monitors on the walls and all the Roots walking around. There are probably 20 or so of us here: Fallon’s people, Bruce’s people, PR people, nametags I recognize from music freelancing (I reviewed Bruce’s most recent releases for Paste and Billboard), Jon Landau, Roy Bittan and assorted associates and hangers-on, the latter group, of which I am a part, struggling visibly to appear like it has important errands here that are in no way related to being in the same room as Bruce Springsteen.
Before we found ourselves here in the hallway, Ben and I watched Springsteen’s performance from the Fallon show’s “band bench.” For most of the taping, the band bench means the back three rows of the small studio, where you feel like you could reach up and adjust the lights, monitors and applause signs. But just before the musical performance you’re brought down the steps through the crowd, across the stage, past the Roots, past Fallon’s desk and behind the band equipment, where a few platforms and some scaffolding have been set up for fans to whoop and dance on. The weirdest part is right before the show comes out of commercial, when there’s nothing going on; everyone’s just standing around, waiting for a cue and/or trying to determine if unrepentant public adulation is acceptable in such a setting. At least one person decided it was: A lone voice shouted “You’re my hero, Bruce!” into the odd quiet, and Bruce offered up a familiar, slightly embarrassed-looking wave.
Ben and I were tucked over on stage right for the two songs. I could see Bruce’s back (and Fallon, going completely bananas at his desk) if I stretched on my tiptoes and pushed some girls out of the way, but from my perspective I mostly heard guitars, Questlove’s drums and the previously unexplored tuba part on “Because the Night.” (Questlove tweeted that the band rehearsed 90 minutes for these two songs, which took up about eight minutes of actual airtime.)
Band bench people are usually escorted back to their seats after the performances, but this is where Jonathan came in. Jonathan is the show’s music booker — he made the Bruce appearance happen — and conveniently enough he’s also a college friend, music fanatic and man who implicitly understands the nature of the kind of music fanship that would compel someone to fly to New York from South Carolina for eight minutes of music. So Jonathan, who is totally getting an extra couple boxes of Christmas cookies this year, collected Ben and I out of the returning line, nodded to several large security gentlemen and ushered us into the backstage/hallway crowd, about which I notice the following:
- We are all dressed the same. All of us. Jeans, dark jacket and either a creatively styled T-shirt or untucked plaid shirt beneath. Hilariously, Ben and I are dressed identically, like we’re a part of a federal Springsteen-based work-release program.
- One of the people dressed like us is Roy Bittan. I ask Ben at one point if he knows any of the people here, and he replies, “Well, that’s Little Steven Van Zandt,” who is just ambling around.
- Tariq Trotter of the Roots looks much like Sinatra but with a cooler hat, and comes purposefully gliding down the hallway dressed like $475,000. I realize with a jealous finality that I could spend every day of the rest of my life doing nothing but visiting tailors and buying hats and not look remotely as cool as this guy.
- Oh, there’s Landau.
- Somebody named Scott Caan is taping his interview today for a show to be aired later, and it occurs to me that Scott Caan, who is probably pretty famous, could emerge from his dressing room in red clown pants and a live turkey on his head and not a whole lot of people would notice. I feel momentarily bad for Scott Caan.
- Ben and I chat briefly with Owen Biddle, the Roots’ bass player, and while we’re doing so a girl — I’m guessing a girlfriend — comes up and, noting the collection of people in the room, whispers to him, wide-eyed and barely audibly: “You just played with Bruce Springsteen.” ADORABLE.
- And there’s Bruce, walking down the hallway, sure, why not, it’s Bruce Springsteen, in the hallway. It occurs to me that this is probably the only time I’ll be in a room in which the entrance of Bruce Springsteen is not considered an incredibly big deal, and trying to fit in, I adopt an air of preternatural cool, while inside I struggle mightily to remain conscious. At some point the monitor behind my head pops on and begins showing the feed of Fallon interviewing that poor bastard Scott Caan, and reflexively, not wanting to put my giant head in front of the TV, I move out of the way. As it happens, my new location puts me directly between Bruce Springsteen and Bruce Springsteen’s exit, and Ben later reveals that he understandably suspected I had lost my marbles and was preparing to either issue an ultimatum or present Bruce with a hand-made sculpture of the two of us or something. I swear to you, I was just trying to let people get a clear eyeline to Scott Caan.
So Bruce is here, and Jonathan is talking to him and Jon Landau, who both seem tremendously pleased with how the day has gone, and I turn to Ben to look impressed at our friend’s job and I turn back and there’s Jonathan with Bruce Springsteen and he’s introducing us.
Now, this bears repeating: Bruce should have been gone by now. He should have left 15 minutes ago, and yet here he is talking to us pinheads like there’s literally nowhere in the world he needs to be. I’m basically handing man-crush punchlines to my friends for the next 50 years, but Bruce Springsteen puts you completely at ease. I can not imagine the number of giddy-eyed idiots like me who would sell their souls for a conversation with this guy, and he’s three feet in front of me and couldn’t be more engaged.
We talk some more about the south, and his 2008 show in Charleston, to which I brought a large crew of mostly twentysomethings that included a friend who literally saw Bruce on “The Today Show” once and asked, “Who’s that?” Bruce mentions that the South has always given good crowds — “Not our biggest audiences,” he clarifies,” but some of our best ones” — so, naturally, being a hospitable Southern sort, I invite him back anytime.
Jonathan, being the only one of remotely deputized to ask such a thing, asks if he’d mind taking a photo, and of course Bruce obliges, because by now this entire thing is unfolding with a deeply unlikely perfection, and after another round of handshakes he’s off. Ten hours later I was on a plane back to Carolina, with an addition to the pictures of my heroes on the wall. I didn’t actually hear the final versions of “Because the Night” or “Save My Love” until I got home to the DVR, and I played them about four times each for the benefit of my son, who seemed mildly impressed that the static blob of pixels in the top left 1/128 of the screen looked faintly like Dad, but otherwise acted very much like I was just eating up valuable Scooby Doo time. You’ll learn, junior. I’ve got time, and this six-disc “Darkness” box set.