[Editor's note: Friend of Blogness Craig Peters 0f lohad.com was front and center for the MusiCares tribute to Bruce Springsteen last Friday, and was nice enough to share his thoughts on the experience here.]
Let me start off by declaring that Neil Young did not suck as bad as many people are saying. Not even close.
For my money, and having stood about a dozen feet from him during the MusiCares tribute to Bruce on Feb. 8, I will say this: Argue all you want about him delivering a good or a bad cover of “Born in the U.S.A.,” but don’t try suggesting it wasn’t a powerful performance. It was. End of story, as far as I’m concerned.
Now, with that out of the way, let me thank Blogness for allowing me the chance to share my MusiCares experience with you. I know I’m not the only non-industry fan-type who attended the event, but those of us who were there were vastly outnumbered.
Whether you were there in person or in spirit, I appreciate you spending a few minutes with me here; I’ll try not to be too redundant to what you’ve already read elsewhere. [See the rundown with video and audio at Backstreets.com.] Then again, how could I be? Just like with any Springsteen concert (and I’ve been going to them since 1978 in Syracuse), the MusiCares event undoubtedly provided a unique – and uniquely personal — experience for everyone who attended.
Take the woman from Jersey [Steve Jobs’ sister-in-law, as it turns out.—Ed.], for instance, who dropped a quarter-million for that goddamn guitar (she did get to kiss Bruce on the lips) … or Zhenya Gershman, the artist who painted a portrait of Bruce (rising up at The Rain Show?) that was as much a hit at the pre-event silent auction as the Peter Max portrait of The Boss … or Bruce’s daughter’s boyfriend, sitting at the epicenter of such an amazing evening. (I can’t even begin to imagine how infinitely surreal that kid’s life must sometimes be.)
Me? My MusiCares experience began about six months ago when my sister first heard about Springsteen being honored. Knowing my decades-long love of Springsteen and knowing someone in the Grammy organization, she called to beg for some way to be able to buy a couple of tickets. Long boring personal story short: She scored us a pair of tickets and the sibling trip from the East Coast (she from Lawn Gisland, me from the ’burbs north of Philly) to Los Angeles was set.
On his brilliant 2008 album “Anticipation,” Lewis Black observes that “all the moments that lead up to the actual moment are truly the best moments.” True enough, the moments leading up to MusiCares were pretty good: The announcement of Jon Stewart as emcee (I’ve been a Daily Show fan since day one). The announcement of the musicians who would be feting Bruce (Elton John! Neil Young! Emmylou Harris! Patti Smith!). The online perusing of the silent auction items. My sister and I both felt like Flounder in Animal House: “Oh boy, this is gonna be great!”
Now, I have been to a number of charity events over the years, and I have participated in my share of auctions. I’ve never seen anything like this. There were nearly 900 items, from jewelry to sports memorabilia to trips and so much more … and, of course, the music memorabilia. Framed Frank Stefanko photos. That original Peter Max painting. Signed guitars and concert posters. Museum-quality photos of Frank Sinatra, Jerry Garcia, Janis Joplin, Hunter Thompson and so many others. Original art by Yoko Ono. Imagine another 850 or so items, and you begin to get the idea. (But what was the deal with that Mr. Coffee machine?!)
There was a big silent auction issue, though, that cost MusiCares a ton of money: The technology used for bidding didn’t work well at all.
Each item had a small tablet that was tied in to a central database for taking and managing bids. More often than not (at least in my experience, as well as the experiences of everyone I spoke with about the bidding process), the tablets seemed to take the bid, but the bid didn’t register. Which meant that you had to fight the crowd to get to one of the few kiosk computers that were working properly.
Bottom line? Lots of bidding went unregistered, and lots of items sold for far less than they otherwise might have. I’m guessing some went unsold that otherwise might have sold had the bidding system worked properly. It’s a shame. A ton of money was probably left on the table.
But if trying to bid on items was the low point of the silent auction (even worse than waiting on line for 20 minutes to get a tiny glass of champagne), the high point of the pre-event event was bumping into fellow Long Islander and Howard Stern Show Executive Producer “Boy Gary” Gary Dell’Abate – “Baba Booey” himself. For my sister, who has been a hardcore fan of Stern since the moment he landed in the New York radio market, it was worth the cross-country trip just to get that photo.
At this point, we were all ushered to our tables in the main room. It’s important to understand that there were five levels of tickets that were available to purchase for the event. We had the third level, so we assumed – for months – that we would be sitting somewhere in the middle of the room.
And what a room. It was more like a big TV studio with a huge stage on one end, a circular stage in the middle, and something on the order of 300 tables, each seating 10 people. Black curtains accented with white dots of light-like stars in a sky hung on the left and right walls.
There were ushers leading people to their tables. “Where are we?” my sister asked. “Walk up this way,” the first usher said. We did. Next usher: “Keep walking.” And again. I started thinking about Bob Uecker and that old beer commercial: “Must be in the front row!”
Sumbitch. We were.
We arrived at table 102. Our table. Our front-row table. There was our table, one other table, and the stage. At that other table: Jimmy Kimmel and friends. At the table behind us: Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Of course, I’m posting furiously to my Facebook feed so my friends and family can vicariously experience the night along with us. One former co-worker provided the laugh of the night when I posted that Webber was sitting near us. His response: “Do me a favor, smack him upside the head and when he turns around to confront you just say, ‘THAT was for Starlight Express.’” It was tempting.
We paid for middle-tier tickets and got a better table than Andrew Lloyd Webber; how did that happen? My sister says my higher power was looking out for us. Maybe. I do know that the woman she called to secure our tickets told us she had nothing to do with the seating. Clearly the Gods of Springsteen Fandom were smiling on us, because while anywhere else in the room still would have been great, it wouldn’t have given us the amazing night we had.
We had a terrific group of people at our table. No celebrities sitting with us (I don’t think; I really suck at star-spotting, though, and that guy across the table did look familiar in a wish-I-could-place-him kind of way), and it seemed that everyone in our little group was there for the music and for Springsteen as opposed to being there out of industry obligation.
The couple on our direct left was from St. Louis and had been to MusiCares events before. The couple on their left was from Philadelphia, and the husband had been to 100+ Springsteen shows. Everyone was giving him the award for being the biggest fan at the table (I’ve only been to about 30 shows since my first in ’78 in Syracuse), but his reaction when he learned I posted over at BTX under the screen name “Silvio Van Zandt” made it clear: He won the live shows award, but I had the online scene covered for table 102.
So of course we’re telling stories. First shows (his was Trenton in ’73). Nassau Night. Last Dance in the Spectrum. Giants Stadium. And so on. Then he tells us how he went to an event a couple of years ago and was circling Bruce’s table like a shark, but never pulled the trigger to – well, to do that one simple thing that most of us longtime fans want to do: Shake the man’s hand and thank him for the music.
Shortly after, a few people around us started to stand up and look toward the center of the room, a couple of tables back from the stage. “There he is!” “I can’t see him, where?” “Over there!” Yep: Bruce was making his way to his table. My sister looked at me: “Let’s go,” she said. “Okay,” I agreed, and off we went – followed in close formation by Philly couple and St. Louis couple.
Working our way through the crowd was pretty easy – it was only about six tables over, and most people were sitting down and talking to each other. Bruce was standing by his table with Elton John, facing a phalanx of paparazzi who were snapping away furiously. Sting was sitting at the table speaking with someone. Bruce’s bodyguard looked on.
We made our move to the other side of the table. By the time we got there, Bruce was chatting with Zhenya Gershman (I snapped a few pix of the conversation and sent them to her later). I was standing right next to them as Bruce’s bodyguard was trying to clear the area. We stood our ground, though, and a moment later I was shaking hands with the man of the hour.
“I’ve been riding this train since ’78 and I just want to thank you for all the music, for being the soundtrack of our lives.”
Bruce smiled and nodded. Mission accomplished. I moved back and Philly husband got his handshake, too.
We all returned to table 102, which in this moment might well have been levitating a foot off the floor for all the adrenaline, excitement, and spirit of victory in the air. High fives and toasts and cheers and smiles and laughter abounded. Philly husband finally closed the loop from years ago. My sister was kvelling that she simultaneously had one hand on Sting and one on Elton John – and that she had seen me do what I’ve wanted to do for so many years, what so many fans like me want to do: I got my chance to say thanks. (Wish I had a photo of it, though.)
Just as the excitement was starting to subside, there’s Jon Stewart chatting it up with Jimmy Kimmel one table over. My sister and I get up and she makes the move: “My brother and I love The Daily Show. Can I take a photo of you and him?” So there I am standing next to Jon Stewart, mumbling something completely idiotic about being a fan and having sat behind the Daily Show desk a couple of set changes ago (until MusiCares possibly the coolest photo of myself that I had), and my sister is fumbling with her cell phone. “Here, let me help you with that,” says Jimmy as he takes the phone and snaps the photo.
So now, the new coolest photo I have of myself is a picture of me and Jon Stewart … taken by Jimmy Kimmell.
Next up came the auction of the big items – not just the quarter-million-dollar autographed guitar, which you’ve read plenty about I’m sure (the sound in the room when Springsteen added an hour-long lesson into the mix was really something), but also a trip and a car: An Acura with a special MusiCares plaque and autographed-by-the-stars headrests.
One guy sitting at Kimmell’s table was bidding against the woman from Jersey who won the guitar; he went as high as $225,000 before giving up, but with every back and forth increase in the figure, there was much cheering and whooping and hollering. What a great scene.
We could have left right there and it would have been a night to remember for all time, but there was some music to be played. You’ve seen the setlist, so there’s no need for me to run through it song by song. I’ll simply say that for me, the highlights were Patti Smith doing “Because the Night,” Jackson Browne and Tom Morello doing “American Skin,” Elton John’s “Streets of Philadelphia,” Mavis Staples and Zac Brown doing “My City of Ruins,” and Emmylou Harris’ cover of “My Hometown.” Oh, and Neil Young’s “Born in the USA.” Sorry. Deal with it.
The tough part about all the music, though, was that there was significant setup time in between each song. The event organizers mitigated this by showing clips of past MusiCares performances, but the effect was like watching one of those telethon “concerts” – song, long break, song, long break, song, long break – and so the musical energy never really gets any chance to develop and grow.
After Young played, it was time for Bruce to receive his chunk of glass and make a speech. I was standing next to the stage, and I could see Jon Stewart on the stage near the wings watching Bruce speak. It was almost as much fun to watch Jon (who described himself earlier as someone who, upon listening to Springsteen’s music, realized he wasn’t a loser, but rather a character in an epic poem about losers) as it was to listen to Bruce (who described himself as part of a brotherhood of magical fuckups).
With the speech over, it was time for The Boss to toss off the jacket, pick up the guitar, and invite people closer to the stage. Of course, we moved. While I didn’t wind up in the prime pit spot of being able to strum the guitar during the closing of “Born to Run,” I was leaning on the stage just off to Patti Scialfa’s side, so had a great view of everything.
For me, the most interesting moment of the Bruce set had nothing to do with Bruce. When he invited all the musicians out to the stage for “Glory Days” (Jon Stewart came to the front of the stage holding a saxophone), Patti Smith kept to the fringes of the crowd and stood by herself off to the side, right in front of me, and watched the others. One fan on our side yelled to her: “Yo, Patti – all the cool kids are hanging out on this side!” I snapped a few photos of her silhouetted against the lighting and watching the song; she knew it, and when I was done gave me a subtle smile before she moved back into the crowd.
Then it was over. Time to leave. Hit the bathroom and get our goodie bags … except they ran out of goodie bags and I didn’t get one. My sister did, though – the very last one, in fact – and she gave me the Springsteen CD that came with it. Nothing particularly special on the disc, other than that it was a premium item for this event. I’ll keep it sealed. Maybe I’ll frame it along with my laminated ticket and a few photos of the event.
So now, some 2,500 or so words later, let’s go back to Lewis Black’s “Anticipation” album:
“All the moments that lead up to the actual moment are truly the best moments,” he says. “Those are the moments that are filled with good times. Those are the moments in which you are able to think that it’s going to be perfect when the moment actually happens. But: The moment is reality, and reality always kinda sucks.”
Not always, Lewis. Not this time. This time, reality really was kinda perfect.
Which, as I look back on 35 years of fandom and concerts, is kinda how it’s usually been when Springsteen takes center stage.
Craig Peters has been riding this train since 1978. His blog can be found at lohad.com. If you see a car with the Pennsylvania license plate of LOHAD, wave hello.