Today is the 67th birthday of Bruce Springsteen, a man I’ve seen play in concert 26 times. If you haven’t heard (with the media blitz, you’ve probably heard), he also has an autobiography, Born to Run, coming out. What makes Springsteen’s biography unusual is there’s no ghostwriter – it’s all Springsteen. The early reviews have compared it to his legendary, marathon four-hour concerts. (I don’t have an early copy. Bruce Springsteen is the one person I don’t want any media contact with in any way. Doing this job sometimes has a way of souring feelings toward, well, everybody. I refuse to take that chance with Bruce.)
The big media takeaway has been Bruce’s ongoing battle with depression – a fact that’s both somehow surprising and comforting. It’s easy to think, If Bruce Springsteen has to fight depression, what hope do the rest of us have?, but it’s also comforting to know that if Bruce can talk about this, maybe thousands of others can talk about this. Maybe people will read about what Bruce has fought through and realize they aren’t alone. And here, now, I want to write about how Bruce Springsteen got me through my own depression and changed my life forever.
(I’m going to try to get through the sad stuff as quickly as possible, so please bear with me. And some of this I’ve written before, but I always leave some stuff out. I’m going to include it this time.)
The first time I saw Bruce Springsteen play live was April of 2000 in St. Louis. It was his reunion tour with the E Street Band. I went on more of a lark than anything else: I knew Bruce’s radio hits from Born in the U.S.A., Tunnel of Love, Human Touch and Lucky Town, but not much else. I certainly wouldn’t call myself a “fan,” but I had heard he was very good in concert. People forget that Bruce Springsteen in the ’90s wasn’t the Bruce of the ’70s and ’80s, or the Bruce we know now. He seemed more introverted at that time. His last full album was five years prior, an acoustic album called The Ghost of Tom Joad. It would be like if Bruce had released Nebraska in 1982 and just kind of stopped making music. So even I knew that a reunion with the E Street Band was special and might be a one tour only thing. (As we now know, it wasn’t.)
I went with my girlfriend at the time (we had started dating in college five years prior) and two of my best friends, one from high school, Dan, and one from college, Jorge, who didn’t know each other before that night. Seeing Bruce Springsteen live was a transformative experience and made every other concert I had seen to that point moot. I’d say I only knew a handful of the songs he played that night, but it didn’t matter. His first song was “The Ties That Bind,” a song off The River that is hardly a deep cut for people who follow Springsteen at all, but it was the first time I had ever heard it. There were few “hits.” But it didn’t matter. I knew I was in the presence of the best.
After, it felt like pure euphoria. I was so happy! I remember my girlfriend jumping on Dan’s back, getting a piggyback ride through the streets of St. Louis. It was at this point Jorge decided he wanted a piggyback ride. I made it maybe four steps before I planted my face into the sidewalk. A lot of people had a lot of questions for me at work the next day. It was worth it.
Jorge died a little over a year later. It was sudden. I had no warning. I returned home the morning after a bachelor party to an answering machine message from Jorge’s sister, which in itself was not normal. Jorge had gotten sick, he went to the hospital, then he died. To this day, I really haven’t gotten a full explanation of what happened. He was 26. It’s a weird thing losing your best friend like that. You try and try to rationalize it, but you never really get that. At the request of Jorge’s family, the rest of my day was spent calling all of Jorge’s friends, telling them he had died. That was October 20, 2001. (And if you look at that date, this really wasn’t a happy time for anyone.) Jorge’s visitation was the 23rd. His funeral was the 24th. My wedding was the 27th. Jorge was to have been a groomsman.
I was never the same. It was my fault it didn’t work. By late 2003, the marriage was over. (I have good friends today who don’t know this about me.) I should have seen someone professionally. Looking back, I have no idea why I didn’t. I was in such a depressed haze for almost the entire time. People have asked me why I never talk about it. The truth is I barely remember it. It doesn’t even seem like it happened.
I started listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen. His music reminded me of that concert. His music reminded me of being with Jorge when everything was happy. It made me happy. It was the only thing that made me happy. I got swept away with his stories of New York City, a place I had never even been. There was Magic Rat, driving over the Jersey state line. There was the love between Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane. I listened to these songs over and over, living vicariously through these characters Bruce Springsteen crafted while, in reality, some days I never got out of bed.
My second Bruce Springsteen show was in August of 2002, during his tour to promote The Rising. It’s like a cloud lifted and I was present again. It’s hard to explain and I know I’m not doing a good job of it. But for a few hours, everything felt normal again. I started chasing these shows like a drug. A few days later, a co-worker I barely knew who would later become one of my best friends jokingly threw out the idea of driving four hours to Kansas City to see Bruce play. Smash cut, there’s Rob and me, on the road to Kansas City, there and back in one night. (My mom lives in Kansas City. I stopped to see her on the way to the concert and I will never forget her asking, “Are you two in town to see Bruce Bernstein?” I just said, “Yes.”)
I’d travel to Chicago to see Bruce play at Comiskey Park. Later, Rob and I would hit the road again to see Bruce play in Cleveland for the “Vote for Change” concert. Every single time I saw him, I was back. I felt good.
In 2003, a friend of mine moved to New York City. I helped him move. It was August and it was hot and it was just a few days before a blackout. When we rolled up into New York in that giant U-Haul (with a picture of a man playing a banjo on the side, just for some added “here are two rubes from the Midwest” flavor added in), all the songs came alive. I know I’m being hyperbolic, but to me it was magical. I had to live here. It took a little over a year, but I did move to New York City in November of 2004. I’ve joked that a big reason I moved was more access to Bruce Springsteen shows, but there’s always been a little bit of truth in that. And, oh boy, Bruce does play a lot around these parts. I go every time I can. Most recently I went to all three shows at the now already legendary three-night stand at MetLife Stadium – with each show hitting the four-hour mark. I don’t go anymore to feel normal. I’ve come to at least some sort of terms with what happened. But I go to remember. Every time I go, I do feel like there’s a part of me that’s back with Jorge in 2000, thrusting our fists together to the chorus of “Badlands.”
It’s weird to write this. I didn’t expect to do this, to be honest. On Thursday, my editor hinted to me, “Hey, it’s Bruce Springsteen’s birthday tomorrow.” Which I took as, “You like Bruce, you should write something.” I didn’t know I’d write this because this sucks to write about. I mean, there are still moments when someone on the St. Louis Cardinals will hit a big home run and my first reaction is still, “I need to call Jorge!” I realize that won’t go away, but I feel better. And I don’t regret anything. I don’t regret how I coped. Everyone has their own way, that was mine. Things turned out the way they were supposed to. I’m happy now. I live a life I like. I live in a city that on my lowest days will find a way to lift me up. (New York City also has a way of taking a person down a notch when they feel just a little too good about themselves, but let’s not talk about that right now.)
But I’m not totally convinced any of this would have happened with whatever it was I found in Bruce Springsteen’s music and his concerts. And whatever this is, I think this is the last time I’ll write about Jorge. This was everything I ever wanted and needed to say. And I did it because of something Bruce Springsteen wrote. Anyway, I miss you, buddy. And thank you, Bruce.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.