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.