It’s kind of weird watching Bruce Springsteen watch a movie.
Look, if there’s one thing I don’t even try to “play it cool” about it’s my unadulterated love for Bruce Springsteen. I’m sort of partially serious when I claim that back in 2004 I moved to New York City for more access to Springsteen concerts. (My number of shows attended has ballooned substantially over the last 15 years.) Anyway, somehow, in all this time, I have never been to Asbury Park, New Jersey. On Wednesday night, Blinded by the Light – a love letter of a movie about the music of Bruce Springsteen that I first saw back at Sundance and adored – was having its premiere in Asbury Park. This seemed to be a good time to go to Asbury Park.
So, here’s a little bit of backstory about Bruce Springsteen and this movie: Blinded by the Light, directed by Gurinder Chadha, is based on Sarfraz Manzoor’s book about growing up in a Pakistani family while living in English town of Luton and falling in love with Springsteen’s music. Springsteen pretty much gave this production full access to his catalog – using a Springsteen song in a movie usually costs a pretty penny – and, boy, Blinded by the Light did not skimp on the Springsteen music. So, of course, when Blinded by the Light premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, there were countless rumors Bruce himself would be making the trip to Park City, Utah.
Now, I’ve seen Bruce roughly 26 (maybe 27, I haven’t counted recently) times but I’ve never caught one of his “secret” or “rumored” shows. Basically, let’s say, oh, Joe Grushecky is playing a gig at The Stone Pony or Wonder Bar in Asbury Park, there’s maybe a five percent chance Bruce shows up to just jam. This will never, ever be announced. And most of the time you’re just going to wind up getting a full Joe Grushecky set. But, on those rare occasions, the lucky people there will get to basically be transported back in time to the early 1970s, before Born to Run, where they get to see Bruce Springsteen just hanging out in a bar playing guitar. It’s every Springsteen fan’s dream.
So, this past January, I chased those Sundance rumors hard. Now, in retrospect, from the sources I had, I do believe, at one point, Bruce was planning on doing a surprise show at Sundance, but then it fell apart. So, instead, what happened was I pulled every string possible with an end result of me waiting in the freezing cold for two hours to watch Feist perform a cover of “State Trooper.” (That’s no dig at Feist, it was a pretty awesome cover of “State Trooper.”) But, alas, later at the Sundance premiere for Blinded by the Light, Gurinder Chadha announced Bruce wouldn’t be there because he wanted the movie to speak for itself, or whatever, so that was that.
When I was first emailed about the Blinded by the Light premiere (with an afterparty at the famed Stone Pony) my first reaction was, “I’ve fallen for this one before.” And the folks at Warner Bros. were very coy about a Bruce appearance, which could mean anything really. (Again, I’ve seen this play out not in my favor before.) But! I finally decided I was looking for an excuse to both see this movie again and to visit Asbury Park, and that was enough. I wasn’t counting on anything else and, with my luck (please remember I traveled back home to St. Louis for two Stanley Cup Final games and saw the Blues get blown out both times), there was no way Bruce was showing up anyway, so why even worry about it?
Me and a friend arrived in Asbury Park a little early to “soak it all in,” but “soak” seemed to be the word of the day because a monsoon decided to hit on this day, so most of my “famed Asbury Park Boardwalk” time was spent inside a pinball machine museum (which, yes, is a pretty great place to avoid the rain). Later, as we were seated at the premiere, a man of some sort of authority announced there was a chance the power might go out and gave us instructions on what to do in case this happened. Yes, that “no power” scenario playing out all seemed about how a night like this would turn out for me.
So … then it happened. It starts with a commotion. Then the sound of people booing, before your brain recalibrates it to “Bruuuuce-ing.” And then, out of nowhere, Bruce Springsteen is standing right next to me.
And then he’s led to his seat, a couple of rows in front of me and a little to my left. A colleague behind me taps me on the shoulder and says, “Yeah, this is completely normal.”
I have to say, it’s very weird watching Bruce Springsteen watch a movie. It was kind of distracting! Bruce’s head was in my sightline to the screen so he was pretty hard to avoid. It was impossible not to think, “Hey, that’s the back of Bruce Springsteen’s head watching a movie.” There’s a scene in the movie that features a circa 1985-ish interview with Bruce, and I couldn’t help but wonder what the Bruce in front of me was thinking right then. Though, he did seem to get a kick out of the 1987 references to Bruce being washed up and old news.
So now the question was: would Bruce play the afterparty? Because of the rain, the location of the party was changed from The Stone Party to the Convention Hall. So, my dream of seeing Bruce play at The Stone Pony was dashed, which I briefly lamented about, but then I decided I’d watch Bruce play at a NAPA Auto Parts store, so who cares.
The cast of the movie came out on stage to say their hellos before they introduced to the stage … the one and only … Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes!
So, no … no Bruce. But, whatever, I got to watch Bruce Springsteen watch a movie! He was there! And Southside Johnny is pretty good! I always think of Southside Johnny as the Crash Davis of the Jersey Shore music scene. He didn’t quite make “the show,” but everyone who has seen him play can attest that he’s puts on a pretty great show. And hey, I’m at the front of the stage. I’ve got first row seats for Southside Johnny.
And then it happened as a familiar-looking character ducked out on stage behind Southside Johnny. It’s at this point I eloquently tweeted, “AHHHHHH”
Yes, the place went nuts. It’s the Bruce “pop in” I’ve always dreamed about seeing. It’s this specific cameo I had been chasing since January. And just like Bruce often does when he plays in this area, his part of the setlist was old bar song covers (Wilson Picket’s “634-5789” is something I always wanted to see live) and originals like ‘Sherry Darling.” I’ve never been this close to Bruce as he performed live. And then, a few songs in, Bruce waved goodbye as Southside Johnny continued on.
I don’t have some snarky or clever way to end this. Like I said, I don’t play it cool when it comes to my love for Springsteen. Seeing Bruce play in Asbury Park was a dream come true. I still can’t believe it happened. And I’ll be first in line, again, when those NAPA Auto Parts show rumors start to hit.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.