The Iceman

OK, time for a sad admission: There are fewer and fewer things exciting enough to get me out of the house these days. I suppose this comes down to age, it comes down to inertia, it comes down to this incredibly lucky life I’ve lived. I just attended my 22nd Masters in Augusta. Twenty-two Masters! That’s crazy. I’ve been to more Masters than Tiger Woods. I’ve been to as many Masters as Phil Mickelson. That’s kind of insane.*

*The only place my 22 Masters is unimpressive is at the Masters itself, where it seems like every other writer is on their 50th ... or 60th ... or 593rd. There are several writers covering the Masters who were there when Bobby Jones was surveying the land.

I promise the point here is not to brag or even humblebrag about the events I’ve attended, but it is true I’ve now reached 20 or so on most of the big ones -- 20-plus Super Bowls, 20-plus World Series and so on. This lucky life has taken me to dozens of Final Fours and National Championship games and U.S. Opens (golf and tennis) and NBA playoff games and NHL playoff games. World Cups. Ryder Cups. Olympics. I’ve seen games at every single Major League Baseball stadium (I’ll come up with a stadium ranking shortly) and every NFL stadium too. I’ve covered sports on six continents. The 12-year-old in me remains stupefied at this charmed existence. But with all that comes something else, something that I find myself constantly trying to fight off: Jadedness. Weariness. A loss of wonder. Here’s a quick story: Years and years ago, I went to a Super Bowl, one of my first, and I was talking to a friend of mine about it. He asked me how it was being at the Super Bowl, and I started to complain. My hotel room was terrible, I recall. There was some problem with my rental car. The Super Bowl itself is a beast, a billion reporters and radio talk show hosts and television cameras all bumping into each other chasing after stories which aren’t stories and I probably whined about that too.

“You know what?” he told me. “I don’t want to hear that. I’ll probably never go to a Super Bowl. I’m living vicariously through you. That means you are the closest I will ever get to the Super Bowl.”

Never forgotten that. Every single great event I’ve been fortunate enough to cover for 25 years now I have tried (at least briefly) to see through my friends eyes, as if it was the first time. Mostly, I must admit, it’s been pretty easy. The Final Four, the Olympics, the World Series, the Masters -- as a lifelong sports fan it’s not hard to become a kid all over again. This week, for instance, I’m going to San Francisco because my childhood hero, Duane Kuiper, is having a bobblehead day at AT&T Park Friday. Taking the wife. I won’t miss that. I can’t miss that. Kuiper (being the greatest guy ever) actually emailed me the other day to say that, while of course he would be thrilled to see me, he could save me the expense by sending along a bobblehead or two.

I told him: No chance. I’ll be there. Of course I’ll be there.

But that’s my profession. And that’s different. In other parts of life, I must admit, I’ve definitely grown more fatigued through the years. Like I say, it’s a sad admission. Take music. I used to do crazy things to hear live music. I remember once, at the very last second, I drove from Augusta to Atlanta just to catch the last 45 minutes or so of The Sundays in concert. That’s THE SUNDAYS, for crying out loud.

Of course, I have traveled all over the place to see Bruce Springsteen play. As you know, if you follow this blog at all, Bruce is my musical core. I readily admit: The albums are hit and miss any more. The songs are hit and miss too. But the concerts are transcendent; the energy in the arenas, the force of his music, the compulsion Springsteen has to go higher -- the concerts always take me to places no other music can take me.

Lately, though, I’ve found myself ... well ... even weary when it comes to Bruce. I’ll tell you something I’m embarrassed about: I was given a chance to go to the 12-12-12 concert, you know, with Springsteen and the Rolling Stones and Clapton and all that. The details are unimportant but I was in New York, and someone I knew who had an in there. The younger me would have dropped everything, gone through whatever hoops necessary. The older me decided to hang out with friends instead. It seemed like too much trouble.

That’s an aged phrase: “Seems like too much trouble.”

In Dallas, at the Final Four, Bruce performed a live, free concert. The younger me would have dropped everything, gone through whatever hoops necessary (no pun ever intended). The older me thought about the crowds and the traffic and the hassle and the difficulties and stayed in a hotel room and did some work.

This is the way I find myself living more and more. It’s not an entirely negative thing. I’m older. I’m a Dad. I’m not that kid who would jump in a broken down car and race off on some madcap adventure to try and catch some band a few hours away or go on a three-day marathon to see every movie nominated for an Oscar or drive along some two lane road in the middle of nowhere to find the minor-league baseball game playing. I don’t want to be the kid anymore.

Still, I want to have SOME of that kid in me.

What I’m trying to tell you is: Bruce Springsteen played in Charlotte on Saturday and I considered not going.

Well, hey, it was raining. It rained all day and the day before too. The weather was dreary, a cold rain fell, and everything was gray, and traffic in Charlotte is abysmal in the rain, and uptown Charlotte is a drive away, and a cold rain fell, and parking at the Charlotte Time Warner is blah, and a cold rain fell, and there’s construction around the place, and a cold rain fell, and the tickets were crazy expensive, and a cold rain fell, and the seats did not seem to be in all that promising a location, and ... and ... I’m getting old. That’s the essential “and,” isn’t it? I already had seen Springsteen a dozen times in many places (including in Charlotte) ... and how many times do I need to see him ... and a cold rain fell ... and ... I’m getting old. Six years ago, I flew back from China and the Olympics a day early and drove right from the airport to the Kansas City arena to see Springsteen. Saturday, I found myself looking out at the rain, looking longingly at the couch and thinking: Do I really need to go?

Is six years really so long? What was I really worried about?

I don’t know much about getting old, obviously -- first time oldster -- but I I guess maybe I worried that it wouldn’t be the same. How much did I really need to hear Bruce sing “Dancing in the Dark” one more time? Isn’t it just easier to sit this one out? And lately, like I say, I’ve been losing that battle a lot. My buddy Pop Warner was in town with family; he’s an even bigger Springsteen fan than I am. He was feeling some of those late 40s blues too. “We have to go,” he finally said. “We can’t be together, in the same town as Bruce Springsteen, and not go.”

So we took our wives, got into the car, and drove uptown in the cold rain.

* * *

Springsteen opened with “Iceman” -- a somewhat obscure song he first recorded back in 1977 when he was doing “The Darkness on the Edge of Town” album. It didn’t make the album. More to the point, according to this authoritative site, Springsteen forgot he even recorded it, wasn’t reminded until decades later when he was compiling the Tracks box set. This is pretty mind blowing because “Iceman” is an absolutely fantastic song. This was the first time Springsteen had ever played it with the E Street Band.

Once they tried to steal my heart, beat it right outta my head
But baby they didn't know that I was born dead
I am the iceman, fightin' for the right to live

Man, Bruce Springsteen used to write so many brilliant lyrics he couldn’t even remember them all.

So, this was going to be a different kind of Springsteen show from any that I had ever seen. He was roused, hungry; he was ablaze. I had heard a fascinating interview with him a few days earlier and he started talking about what it is to be 64 years old and still on tour. He said that people will see that he does these wild concerts because “I have to.”

That’s what it looked like, all night in Charlotte. He was a man compelled. I’ve written many times about how amazed I am by Bruce Springsteen’s dedication to the moment. Night after night after night, for about 40 years now, he has played Born to Run, and he has played it with the fire he had as a young man. I’ve often wondered: How is that possible? How can he not be sick of playing that song by now? Or if not sick, how can he not go through the motions with it?

But he doesn’t -- not on Born to Run, not on Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, not on Dancing in The Dark, not on any of those songs that fans know so well entire arenas sing along, word for word. He sings them as new, or he certainly gives every appearance of doing so, and to me that has been the great and wonderful mystery of Bruce Springsteen.

But Saturday night, I saw something else. I saw him go into the crowd and grab posters with song titles. He does this at every concert -- he basically takes requests and hundreds of fans bring posters with their favorite songs -- but this time he was pulling posters of different songs. The first request he took was “Louie Louie.” What inspired him to play “Louie Louie” on this night -- it was the first time he had played it in five years. Then he played “Mustang Sally” ... again, first time in years. A little later, he played “Brown Eyed Girl,” which again is a crazy Springsteen rarity. Even he was sort of in wonder about it later: “Louie Louie, Mustang Sally, Brown Eyed Girl,” he said on stage, shaking his head, as if he could not believe he had done those songs.

Why had he? I can only guess: I think he wanted this night to be a classic old rock and roll night like something out of his past. Why Charlotte? Why not? He brought more people up from the crowd than I can ever remember. He was more wild-eyed than I can ever remember. He chugged an entire glass of beer while the crowd sang the first verse of “Hungry Heart.” He unleashed another Springsteen rarity, “From Small Things (Big Things One Day Come).” He took request after request -- “No Surrender” and “Racin’ In The Streets” and “Out In The Street.” He and Tom Morello (of “Rage Against the Machine” fame) about blew up the place with this hard version of “The Ghost of Tom Joad.”

Maybe it was just the rain or the blues of age, I don’t know, but I saw Springsteen in a different way Saturday night. I saw how much he needed it. He has talked a lot about that through the years but I had never quite understood. Maybe I wasn’t old enough to understand. The crowd, the love, the intensity, the volume, the waving arms, the thousands of voices as one -- it keeps him feeling young, doesn’t it? This is a more poignant thought now than it was five years ago or 10 or certainly 20.

There I was, my feet ached, and my throat was raw, and I was surrounded by all these people I didn’t know, and I was singing, at the top of my lungs, “Dancing in the Dark,” a song I’m not even that crazy about. And it was fantastic. Everything else drifted away except for the music and the familiarity and the shared memories and the guy at the microphone who looked every bit of an in-shape 64 singing “This gun’s for hire” like he was still a young gunslinger.

Sure Springsteen needs it. We all do. The years do take their toll. Cynicism waits for you around this corner, and exhaustion looks to trip you up around that corner. The older you get, the more incompetence you run into, the more deceit you endure, the more traffic you find. The older you get, the harder it is to feel awe. The first time you see a magic trick, it amazes. The second time, it amazes less. The third time, you notice that the magician palmed a card. Your neck hurts. The cough is harder to shake. The recliner is easier to fall asleep in.

And all of this is not bad, no, it’s life. Hey there are real advantages to experience, advantages in seeing the traps you’ve fallen into, advantages in knowing what is high quality magic and what is flimflam. There are things you have to experience once, but you don’t really want to experience twice. It’s nice to have those experiences in the past.

But there is a part of growing old that you’re better of rebelling against. There is something I see in friends, something I sometimes see in myself, a loss that is hard to put into words. If I’m being honest, I have to admit it: If I had been given an easy way out, I probably would not have gone to the Bruce Springsteen show Saturday night. I would have begged out and watched some movie or read in bed or something. And I wouldn’t have found myself in the arena, near midnight on a Saturday night, singing along as Bruce Springsteen led 15,000 or so people in “Shout.”

“I’m a prisoner!” Springsteen shouted, and Nils Lofgren wrung a sponge that dumped a bucket’s worth of water on Bruce’s head.

“I’m a prisoner,” he shouted again. “I’m a prisoner of rock and roll.”

He is. Still. After all these years. And for a few moments, through him, I was a prisoner too. No, being a prisoner of rock and roll on a Saturday night in Charlotte doesn’t stop the back from hurting now and again or the hunger for a nap creeping up or slow the ever-growing urge to say no when your younger version would have said yes. But, as I have often in my life, I watched Bruce. He played his heart out one more night, for one more crowd, and you know what? He will do it again in Pittsburgh on Tuesday and in Raleigh on Thursday and in Atlanta on Saturday. Because stopping is the opposite of living. And the Iceman is fightin’ for the right to live.