No more running on the Backstreets

4 February 2023

I don’t remember exactly when I discovered “Backstreets”, the Bruce Springsteen fan magazine, but I can say that whenever that was, my reaction was simple and direct; somebody gets me.

Being a fan of Bruce Springsteen always felt bigger somehow. It wasn’t just an obsession with a look or a sound. It was discovering an artist who knew me, knew my friends and knew the things that gave us joy or caused us pain. Realizing that a man like Charles R. Cross, the original editor of Backstreets, was willing to dedicate his effort, his money and his time to this single subject gave validation to my passion for all things Bruce. To so many of us, Springsteen wasn’t just a musician with a dedicated following like the Grateful Dead or The Beatles or Neil Diamond. He was a reason to believe. As a teenager, his stories of fathers and sons resonated with truth, anguish and understanding. As a young man stumbling through the hardness of this world, he seemed to understand the monotony of working to live and the realities we faced as husbands, fathers, and friends. What’s more; Backstreets knew it too. Charles Cross and later Chris Phillips, the editor that took over for Charles, gave a voice to that connection. They were the mayors of a community that offered safe harbour to all who connected to Springsteen’s music in the same way.

My subscription started sometime after my first show in July of 1984. Of course, that was long before the space-age immediacy of today’s information consumption and I distinctly remember waiting impatiently for each magazine to arrive in my mail box. Those glossy pages were full of sweat-drenched photos and stories of mythical performances. They fed into my own personal land of hope and dreams while I worked nights in a factory and stole time on the beach during the day. Each month when Backstreets arrived, I poured over every word. I marvelled at the tales of Bruce showing up at local clubs in New Jersey and I was amazed at the details of shows that included setlists, running times and a passionate recitation of the live performances as well as reviews of the records. As much as Backstreets was a fan magazine, it was well-written, professional and never failed to turn a critical eye if one was required.

In 1989, when Charles Cross decided to publish a book called “Backstreets - Springsteen, the Man and His Music,” I was first online to buy it. Like the magazines that were still arriving in the mail, I took in every word and photo with exhilaration akin to an actual Springsteen show. In 1995, that book became a road atlas of sorts as my buddy Tim and I took the seven-hour drive from Southeastern Ontario to the Jersey Shore. We had tickets to see Clarence Clemons at the Stone Pony and that matte-black, hardcover book was going to be our tour guide to Springsteen’s roots. The book had a place of honour and importance between the two front seats of Tim’s 1990 Miata, as we drove south through Syracuse, Binghamton, the Poconos, across the Delaware Water Gap, and into Northern Jersey. We went straight to the Stone Pony in Asbury Park to grab our tickets to see The Big Man, only to discover that the show had been cancelled. We were devastated to lose the opportunity to see Clarence and just maybe, a chance to see Bruce make one of his legendary impromptu bar appearances. The person running the Pony box office that day could see our disappointment and they went above and beyond; calling the Tradewinds Club in Sea Bright to reserve us two tickets to see some guy named Joe Grushecky the next night. “Bruce produced his new album,” he told us. “You never know, he just might show up.”

Of course, Springsteen DID show up to play with his buddy Grushecky we had the night of our young lives. We also toured through Freehold, Rumson, Long Branch and Asbury Park – all with the help of that hardcover book.

When I read Chris Phillips editorial – his final editorial that tells the story of why he’s decided to shutdown Backstreets for good – I immediately reached for that book. It still has the hand-written notes and phone numbers from that momentous weekend. Etched into the bottom of the acknowledgments page are numbers for Backstreets headquarters, the Stone Pony box office and a number for Light of Day founder Bob Benjamin. Deeper into the pages I discovered even more. Charles Cross had gone to the painstaking detail of gathering and corroborating setlists for every Springsteen performance from those very early days up to and including the Human Rights Now tour in 1988. I had gone to the slightly less painstaking detail of highlighting any of those shows that I’d seen or that lived within the bootleg recordings of my record collection. Last night, I must’ve spent an hour just pouring over the pages of that book and remembering my journey from then to now. It’s a journey that includes booking sellout Light of Day Canada shows in my hometown of Kingston, volunteering for Light of Day in Jersey, managing my friend Joe D’Urso, being in the “We Take Care of Our Own” video and getting my own Bruce nickname from the man himself. I’ve told many of those stories on these pages and I’ll continue to tell them as long as people will listen but each time I do, I harken back to that connection with Backstreets and I wonder if any of it would’ve happened if I hadn’t discovered my own community within its pages.

It’s no wonder then, that after reading Chris’s well-written and thought-provoking treatise on his own feelings and his decision, I was emotional. In the wake of this loss, I’m left with two distinct sentiments. The first and most prevalent is an overwhelming sense of sadness – as if a good friend had just shared his terminal diagnosis. The second recalls that response from nearly 40 years ago when I discovered Backstreets – somebody still gets me.
All the best to Chris, Charles, the current and former staff of Backstreets, and to all those who like me, feel as if they’ve lost a good friend. See you down the road apiece.


The price of a promise

24 July 2022

Last week, as thousands of Springsteen fans sat staring in astonishment at “dynamic prices” on computer screens wondering how Bruce could let this happen, it felt as if a promise was broken. We’ll return to that theme in a moment. First a question. How is “dynamic pricing” even a thing? It’s a term that sadly, most Springsteen fans have become intimately familiar with as we tried to buy tickets to his 2023 tour. In short, Ticketmaster the ticket-selling monopoly, put a process in place that increases the price of tickets based on demand. As thousands of people logged on to buy tickets and waded through the electronic queue, they were presented with tickets that were outrageously overpriced. The examples are too numerous to count: $10,419 for section 130, Row L at Amalie Arena in Tampa, $5113 for rear standing room in Minnesota or $1968 for rear floor seats in Boston. These are not reseller prices. These are jacked-up, overvalued tickets being sold by the company that has partnered with Bruce Springsteen to sell his shows.

Ticketmaster’s “defense” is that they instituted this process to eliminate third party resales. They’re painting themselves as our concert-going saviour but they’re the devil incarnate.  As for Springsteen’s defense? Crickets. The deafening silence coming from Bruce and his management team has fans fuming and feeling betrayed but again, more on that later.
First, let’s talk about “dynamic pricing.” I’m sure Ticketmaster employed a high-priced marketing team to brainstorm that particular euphemism but this is price gouging plain and simple. Price gouging is a practice that is outlawed in a majority of jurisdictions in North America and around the world. It’s usually seen and prosecuted by law enforcement, after natural disasters when demand for essential goods or accommodations far exceeds the supply. I can almost hear the executroids in the TM offices now:
We’re just capitalizing on demand.
It’s a market-driven economy.
Concerts aren’t essential.

And hell no.

They’re profiteering on the backs of a global community who, for the last 28 months, has been denied a soul-enriching, life-affirming activity. I used to love the way Bruce himself explained the concert-going experience. He said that in the hours before and after a show, nothing exists inside the venue but for those two and half hours when the band is on stage and the crowd is in place, a kind of alchemy occurs in which the artist and the fans come together to make something ethereal and magical. You’ll note that I said I used to love this description. Lately it feels phony. It’s an antiquated notion miles removed from the days when he would hire a “man in black” to wander the upper reaches of every stadium, finding people with the worst tickets in the house, and upgrading them to the front row. It seems he’s become so detached from his fan base that he either doesn’t care or can’t be bothered. The financial exploitation that Ticketmaster is imposing and that Springsteen is tacitly permitting verges on criminal. It’s foolish to think he’s unaware. He’s a well-read man. His manager Jon Landau is too. His recent induction to the rock and roll hall of fame – a significant accomplishment for a manager - wasn’t achieved by ignoring public reaction. They both have significant culpability for what’s been happening. Last year when Bruce re-opened Broadway, he told his audience, “I am here tonight to provide proof of life.” Well Bruce, where is your proof of compassion, your proof that you understand our sense of betrayal, your proof that you’re not just another artist trying to capitalize on the people that gave you a career?

When I first saw Springsteen in 1984, he was so good, I bought a ticket for the next night’s show too. The price of those tickets was $18.00 each.
In 1999 when the reunion tour happened, I took my 9-year-old son to Continental Airlines arena in Jersey. The price of those tickets was $67.50 each.
In 2009, I took my beautiful Ginette to her first Springsteen show. The tickets were £55.00 ($102.00 CAD). No price gouging, no profiteering and each show was transcendent and reassuring somehow; as if the troubles of the world could be solved in one place by one guy singing about the Promised Land. It’s a naïve concept but we all need that type of reassurance from time to time; never more than during the height of COVID. Like many I struggled with the loss and the isolation as the pandemic raged on, but one day in May, as I was travelling the empty streets back and forth to the office, I felt hope rise up inside me. I was listening to Bruce Springsteen’s show “From My Home to Yours” on E Street Radio. In one of the early episodes, he said something that changed my outlook, “When this experience is over, I am gonna throw the wildest party you have ever seen, and you, my friends, are all invited.”
My emotions rose to the surface as I heard those words. Live music is a vital part of who I am and COVID had snatched it away without notice and with no indication it would ever return. Then, here comes the icon of my rock and roll heart assuring me that someday soon, the pounding backbeat that has nourished my soul for 50 years would resume and that he would lead the charge. I imagined that first show and how he would step to the microphone with a smile three stages wide and that familiar Fender Esquire strapped across his chest. I could hear the crowd rising to meet him in sheer joy and exhilaration. I could literally feel the pre-show anticipation rising up within me. On that day, with those words, Bruce made a promise to me and to the rest of E Street Nation.
I sincerely hope that during this relentless silence, he’s taking his time and formulating a plan to make it right. The logistics are complex but not impossible and the first show doesn’t happen until February of 2023; plenty of time to reset things and get it right. Plenty of time to bring that train back into the station, re-load all the saints and sinners, the losers and winners, and move on down the tracks to the Land of Hope and Dreams. The longer the silence rages, the more likely we are to feel as if that promise he made on the radio has been broken and if that happens, we’ll just have to cash in a few of our rock and roll dreams and find our redemption someplace else.




Missing our LOD friends

10 March 2022

I was on my way to work and doing okay, until I heard the first chords of Racing in the Street. I’m not sure why it was that song at that time, but suddenly I was fighting an overwhelming urge to ditch the day job and head to the Shore. By the time Bruce started singing about his ’69 Chevy with a 396, I desperately wanted to turn around. I wanted to call Ginette and tell her to put her make up on and fix her hair up pretty. I wanted to coax that red Rogue south towards I-81. To be honest, I don’t think the car would’ve needed much convincing. I swear it could find its way to Asbury Park without anything more than the occasional combination of accelerator and brake and a stop or two at a toll booth along the way.

I stared up at the traffic lights forever. Beyond them, the four-lane blacktop was beckoning. An impatient driver behind me shattered my daydream with his horn. I took one last look up towards the 401, shook it off, finished my coffee and resumed my commute.

Missing the Light of Day Foundation’s annual fundraising weekend in Asbury Park would be so much easier if it was just about the music. We’ve missed concerts before. Hell, we’ve even missed surprise appearances by Bruce Springsteen before. It’s disappointing but it’s nowhere near the sense of detachment we’re both feeling since we decided not to attend Light of Day for the first time since 2008. For 14 years, Ginette and I have driven that dusty road from Kingston to Asbury to hear some great music and raise money for Parkinson’s research. It was one of the first things I wanted her to experience when we met. I talked endlessly about how I’d been along for the ride since the beginning when music manager Bob Benjamin, after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s at 38, decided to have a birthday party and instead of asking for presents he threw a party and asked for donations to Parkinson’s research. I talked about my friendship with Joe D’Urso; one of the few musicians who’s been at every single Light of Day show. Mostly I talked about being surrounded by a sense of community and purpose; all set to a Jersey Shore soundtrack. For that first trip, I put together a Jersey road trip playlist that included not just Bruce but Joe D’Urso, Joe Grushecky, John Eddie and Willie Nile. Springsteen – who so often jumped onstage with his buddy Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers - didn’t show up that first year but Ginette was hooked anyway. From that point forward, Light of Day in Asbury Park was permanently etched into our calendar. A few years later, we went to Light of Day Canada in Niagara Falls. Meeting Dave Rotella changed everything. His enthusiasm for the cause and his passionate love of music made it easy to say yes to volunteering. That weekend, we drove emcee Vincent Pastore of The Sopranos to Toronto for a TV interview. Over the next 48 hours, Vinnie became our friend and our “agent”. He told the powers that be in Jersey, “You have to bring Gord and Ginette down to Asbury”. With Vinnie’s endorsement we ended up working at the legendary Stone Pony. That added a different perspective to the weekend. We were volunteer stage managers. We lined up performers, made sure each band got on and got off at the assigned times and generally pitched in wherever we could. We started at 6pm and finished at 1am and never sat down for a minute but we loved it. Over the next few years, we put in the work and drank in the love. We had breakfast with Joel Plaskett, dinner with Dave Hodge and late-night drinks with Jamie, Danny, Peter, Joe, Hans, Willie, Jenn, Johnny, Jorgen, and Billy. By now, the weekend had morphed into four days but as the event grew, so did the connections. Charles and Kathy, Jake, Michele, Big Dee, J.R. – all people I now consider friends. And each year, that sense of community flourished. We were raising money and awareness and eventually we were going to beat Parkinson’s. In the words of the great Willie Nile, “Once we’re done with Parkinson’s we’ll move on to the next cause and we’ll kick ITS ass.”

After several years of this, it only made sense that we’d try running a Light of Day right here in our hometown. So, we did. Supported by our friends and artists like Joe D’Urso, Willie Nile, Miss Emily, Kent Nicholson, Steve Earle and Southside Johnny, we hosted Light of Day Kingston for five consecutive years. Laura and Candy came from Maryland and Florida, Frankie drove from Niagara, Tony and Bob came up from LOD headquarters in New Jersey, Bill came from Ottawa and Sammy came from Toronto. Vincent Pastore even made the trip up from NYC to host in our second year. I can close my eyes right now and access a looping film clip memory of Vinnie coming across the street from his hotel to the venue, walking through the doors of the BLUMartini and saying, “Gord, what a beautiful hotel! I opened the curtains and bam, I’m looking out at freakin’ Lake Ontario.” It still makes me laugh.

In January of 2020 we went back to Jersey for the 13th time as a couple. It felt familiar and fresh, new and comforting all at the same time. The world was whispering in the background about some strange virus but we were focused on using the power of music to end an incurable, progressive disease. As ever, the drive home was filled with new music, new stories and old love. We had no idea that the 2020 show would be a reference point for the next two years.
“I haven’t seen a concert since Light of Day,” became a refrain as we ZOOMED or livestreamed or Facetimed. We talked about how good it would feel once we could finally get together again and we hoped for a break in the COVID isolation. And then it happened. Sort of.  We could travel again. Kind of.
In early September I booked the Berkeley Hotel for January and I crossed my fingers, but Omicron moved Light of Day to March and moved the potential of a soul-saving trip to the Shore from an almost sure thing to a near impossible thing.

Knowing the very distinct possibility that a positive test could either strand us in Watertown or cost us a border-imposed fine of $5,000 each, we pulled the plug.
Since then, we’ve gone about our daily routines and we’ve waited for spring and we’ve tried to ignore the impending sense of missing out; until Racing in the Street.

I guess I do know why it was that song at that time after all. Road trips are what Ginette and I do best and of all the road trips we’ve taken, 401 to 81 to 380 to 80 to the Garden State Parkway feels almost like the road home. From the minute we pull up to the hotel, to the minute we leave, we’re surrounded by people we love and people who love us. We can walk into the Stone Pony or the Wonderbar or Asbury Roastery or McCloone’s and see as many smiling, familiar faces as we can in downtown Kingston. That feeling is irreplaceable and this weekend, that feeling will be temporarily missing.
For those of you that do make it to the Shore, have a Jameson’s at the back bar in the Pony for us and take a minute or two to remember just how Goddamned lucky we are to be part of this community.  Where else can you be surrounded by people who travel hundreds or thousands of miles to sing arm-in-arm and put a little money in the kitty for a good cause?
To paraphrase that guy from Jersey:
Tonight, tonight the highway's bright
Out of our way, mister, you best keep
'Cause Light of Day’s here and the time is right
For racin' in the street.

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