Date of event: 29 January 2014
Original publication date: 11 February 2014
External publication: Texx And The City (Cape Town, South Africa)
Elvis Presley shaking his kingly hips. The Beatles’ landmark Ed Sullivan performance. Jimi Hendrix closing out the original Woodstock.
Although the recorded albums get passed down from generation to generation, allowing fans of all ages to scrutinize and rewind the music through whichever medium they choose, one can’t quite transfer the live concert experience with the same success. Live DVDs and concert albums valiantly attempt to capture lightning in a bottle, but like Robin Williams’ character in the film Good Will Hunting once said: “I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling”.
Look busy, The Boss is coming
The recent arrival of the veteran rocker Bruce Springsteen to South African shores allowed not just another generation, but another country to witness the “heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, booty-shaking, Viagra-taking, love-making” power of the The Boss and his E Street Band for the first time in the flesh.
Amongst artists who’ve been in the business for decades, not many can match Bruce’s indefatigable desire to just perform. He’s a master craftsman of set lists and showmanship, presenting a bespoke experience each time his crew steps on stage, and it’s that originality and freshness which has kept many of his fervent fans following him since the early 1970’s.
For Springsteen diehards, ‘following’ is meant literally from place to place, not just knowing every lyric from Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. off by heart. Due to South Africa’s cultural and hence geographical isolation because of apartheid, most Boss fans here - even the older ones who grew up in his late 70’s/early 80’s heydays - are unlikely to have ever seen the E Street Band perform live, or bear witness to the equally-interesting breed of fan whose commitment to supporting their hero almost matches the hero’s tireless touring feats.
In welcoming Bruce to our land, we also welcomed a treasure trove of memories from foreign fans, many who had seen him in concert tens, even hundreds of times. It’s quite staggering to hold a conversation with someone who can claim that sort of devotion, but it was such a frequent occurrence at Bruce’s third and final night in Cape Town that I couldn’t help but dive into this world behind-the-scenes that doesn’t show up on album covers or appear in your favourite song: the life of a superfan.
This is not teenage hysteria or mindless obsession; all the people I encountered displayed a calm, steadfast, scholarly approach to music appreciation, but you could feel the undercurrent of passion that fuels them to travel the world, run unofficial fan sites and own lucrative memorabilia from past tours like a badge of honour.
Now you might be thinking “what makes Springsteen’s fan base so unique or different from any other artists’?”
The answer is a workmanlike sense of tradition that comes with experience, much of which predates social media and other technological tools that have brought artists closer to their fans. They are a reflection of Bruce himself, and his everyman charm. It has allowed them to mobilise over a very long period of time, and broker deals with his security detail in each city to have a special first-come-first-served section of the General Admission, run by the fans themselves.
The Politics of The Pit
‘The Pit’ – as it is affectionately known – is where the majority of superfans will be found, because they’ve usually travelled long and far to see their hero, and they’re not going to do that seated and/or far from the stage. Depending on the arena, the number can vary from 450 to 4000 (I arrived early enough to be number 255 out of 450), and regulars often recognise each other from previous concerts and tours, especially if Bruce has played a couple of nights in a row at the same arena.
This is because superfans will try to buy tickets for all the shows in one city or country, with a sort-of religious zeal (not to mention a healthy financial backing). How else can you explain the charming Dutch lady who proudly declared 150 Springsteen scalps, or the bald German gentleman whose first tour was in 1981 and his 94-show experience makes you as a debutant feel like you’re stepping onto the pitch with a living legend?
Matthias, a 30-something Austrian gent (Springsteen concert rating: “about 40 times, I guess”), assured me that the queuing process for the Cape Town shows was far less brutal than in Europe, where rabid fans arrive up to three days before a show to secure a hallowed spot. According to him, shows in Spain and Italy are particularly lively, and it’s what prompted the organization of The Pit back in 2006.
Since then, groups of fans in each city herd the faithful flock first into arenas and stadiums, and their implied authority keeps the stampeding and pandemonium to a minimum. The same was true in Cape Town, although with booming American accents leading us through each checkpoint. Two hours before showtime, we were finally inside the empty Bellville Velodrome, and reality started to sink in two metres from the edge of the stage.
I found myself in a circle of people who I’d struck up conversations with through the afternoon, and we continued the Bruce discourse with vigour. Did you ever attend the Tunnel Of Love Express Tour? What do you think of the new version of ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’? What is the rarest song of his that you’ve ever heard live?
Seated behind me, a 60-something American couple gently entered the conversation, and I asked Rena the stock questions that I’d asked most foreigners that day: when was your first concert, and how many times have you seen Bruce live? Her response immediately placed her in deity-status:
“Right back in 1975. I've spent a lot of my life in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, so I can’t tell you how many shows of his I’ve been to - rehearsal shows, Christmas shows, benefit shows. We’re the same age, we’re like family".
Flabbergasted, I did a quick mental calculation of the era that they might’ve come from. If they had seen Bruce from so young, surely they must’ve borne witness to other legends in their time? I decided to press her and her husband further. Here are some of Rena and Jack's amazing musical memories:
The Beatles (Rena: "I saw them 3 times between 1964 and 1966. I was 14 years old at the time, so yeah, I was one of those screaming teenage girls who witnessed Beatlemania firsthand. Right place, right time!")
Led Zeppelin (Jack: "Oh yeah honey, that was the night we took downers"; Rena: "I don't remember too much, but we had a good time.")
The Rolling Stones (Rena: "This was one of my first live concerts, around age 14. James Brown was opening for them, and then Mick followed James, and I realized that if there was music on at night, I never want to stay at home.")
Jimi Hendrix (Rena: "Now this I remember vividly. 1968 at the Shrine Auditorium in LA. I had never seen a person play a guitar like that before. The whole audience was spellbound.")
Janis Joplin (Rena: "She came to play at my college in LA. A couple of weeks later, Cream paid a visit. Our student union somehow organized it.")
The Doors (Jack: "I saw them at the Whiskey A-Go-Go in LA when they were just starting out. The place was a sit-down joint, could order food at your table. I didn't say hi to Jim Morrison afterwards, but Robby Krieger was playing handball later on at my college with one of my friends, so I got to meet him at least.")
The concert hadn’t even begun and I felt like I could go home happy right there and then. Being in the presence of these musical mavens had been a true honour, and all the wise counsel and storytelling throughout the day was a bonus that I had not envisioned.
I indicated this to Rena, and humbly thanked her for sharing her fascinating life experiences.
“Oh no-no dear, you wouldn’t wanna go home now,” she laughed, “the show’s about to start.”