My Springsteen Sin: A Public Apology
I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Really. Sorry.
Although my transgression occurred long ago and I could blame it all on youthful ignorance, I still feel compelled to publicly apologize for this grievous error in judgment. I don’t do this for the sake of a few cheap laughs, nor am I eager to embarrass myself out of prevailing guilt or the need to do some kind of penance. Rather, I’m ready to admit this sad truth for the greater good. I sincerely hope that by confessing my sin and acknowledging my personal weakness that it might help us all do better in some way. I mean, it could, couldn’t it?
It was the summer of 1984 and one of our casual friends from college, let’s call him Mike, had gotten a block of free Bruce Springsteen tickets from his workplace. Mike generously invited a number of us to come over to his house for a backyard barbeque, and then all go out to the Rosemont Horizon in the northwest suburbs of Chicago to see The Boss and his E Street Band. Springsteen's latest tour was just starting to roll and he was doing three nights at the Rosemont -- it was bound to be a real good time.
So we all went to the barbeque, most of us in our mid-twenties and still discovering the ways of the world. I guess you could say that we were partying heartily, eating and drinking, smoking and dancing, just jiving around with each other in an upbeat, summer style.
Of course, everybody was excited to see the show, including myself. I had first caught Springsteen way back in 1977 at the Fabulous Fox Theater in St. Louis and immediately became an avid devotee. In 1980, I saw The Boss four different times on The River tour -- twice in Chicago, once in Carbondale, Illinois and once again in St. Louis.
Now this is the part of the story where things get a little awkward. I have to say that I honestly didn’t have any idea what the plan was before I got into the van that Mike had brought from work. I thought that we were taking large vehicles to the Rosemont because it would be convenient and fun to keep hanging out together. That’s all I knew.
Now remember, I’m really sorry ok? There was a lot of peer pressure and it was pretty much last minute. I just didn’t know any better, even though I should have.
So, the crux of the deal was that Mike worked at a physical rehabilitation center in Chicago and the van was filled with all sorts of stuff like walkers, crutches and wheelchairs.
It was then finally revealed that these concert tickets were intended for the staff and patients at the rehab center. Mike, being trusted staff, had somehow connived to garner all of the tickets for himself. The caveat being the tickets were marked for the handicapped, and we were going to play the parts of staff and patients in order to get into the show.
Now I know this is horrible enough to consider, but I must further admit that after we got to the parking lot at the Rosemont Horizon, I allowed myself to be talked into being one of the guys who would actually sit in a wheelchair in order to gain access to the Springsteen concert.
Like I said, it all happened very quickly. I don’t recall the exact discussion, but it was determined in short order that my buddy Berry would push me in the wheelchair, and with our two tickets we’d sit in a handicapped section.
I certainly recall being uncomfortable making my decision but off we went -- Berry pushing my chair, me handing the security guards our tickets and encountering absolutely no resistance at the front entrance. Now all we had to do was make our way to the handicapped zone on the main floor.
I also remember the gaze of other concertgoers as we navigated the hallways towards our designated section. I received looks of pity, kindness, sympathy and curiosity. It reminded me of those sensitivity training exercises where you’d take on a challenging, unfamiliar, perhaps stigmatized role -- like using a wheelchair -- to help one empathize with people whose lives had left them no choice in the matter. My involuntary crash course in what it might feel like to be physically disabled had begun.
An Andy Frain usher led us to our section and it finally began to dawn on me how thoughtless and unaware I had been about this ridiculous charade.
The handicapped row was moderately close to the stage on an aisle cleared out behind some regular seats. It had a decent view, but it never occurred to me who I might be sitting next to during the show. Naturally, it was a guy in a wheelchair -- someone who really needed a wheelchair -- while Berry sat in a folding chair on the other side of me.
As you might imagine, I was pretty horrified with myself by this time and didn’t talk very much to anyone before the concert began. I just sat there feeling foolish, desperately waiting for the E Street Band to take the stage.
By 1984, Springsteen and his E Street Band were performing like a well-oiled machine -- poised to make that inevitable step up to becoming a full-fledged stadium attraction. This was the start of their now-legendary Born In The USA tour. I was just hoping that their iconic stage show would take my mind off of this lame situation, but no such luck.
I was numb with embarrassment and unable to enjoy the event in any way, shape or form. I just kept sitting there watching the concert, feeling like an idiot. Then I looked over to my left at the guy in the wheelchair next to mine. He was totally into the show and having a really great time. He looked happy, entertained and inspired, like someone at a Bruce Springsteen concert should look.
Finally, I couldn’t stand it any longer. I turned to Berry and pleaded, “Dude, get me out of here.” He replied, “What?” and I said again, “Man, you’ve got to get me out of here, right now!” So Berry got the keys to Mike’s van from somebody and wheeled me out of the Rosemont as fast as we could go. The show wasn’t even half over but I didn’t care at all, I just couldn’t take it.
Back in the parking lot, Barry and I stashed the wheelchair in the van and considered our options. Ultimately, we decided to try and get back inside to see the rest of the gig. Despite our trepidation about being recognized as callow charlatans and refused re-entrance or perhaps worse, the security guys barely glanced at our ticket stubs and let us back into the Rosemont Horizon with no trouble at all.
Unable (and unwilling) to return to the handicapped row and unmoored from the constraints of my wheelchair, I split off from Berry and did what any red-blooded American Springsteen devotee would do. That is, I ran up to the front of the stage with the other hardcore Boss fanatics.
Now, I’m not sure what songs were performed that evening, but I could look up the set lists from those three nights in July when Springsteen performed at the Rosemont Horizon in 1984. I could even pretend to remember which of the three gigs I actually saw -- but I won’t.
I do know that I stayed until the end of the very last encore and jumped around like I was supposed to do, but I have no recollection of anything from Springsteen's set that night. I don’t remember any joy or any elation and I don’t recall any concert camaraderie other than Berry pushing me back outside when I was totally freaking out.
For me, on that night, there was no celebration. Only regret. Like I said before, I’m sorry. I’m sorry -- very, very sorry.
Mitch Myers is a Billboard contributor and the author of The Boy Who Cried Freebird: Rock & Roll Fables and Sonic Storytelling