Springsteen in SA: Ready to grow young again

From Backstreets, the largest Springsteen fanzine, for which I was privileged to write about my experience:

Cape of High Hope 1Bruce Springsteen landed in Perth earlier today, where he and the E Street Band will begin a month-long Australia/New Zealand run on Wednesday night. But before we turn our full attention to Oz, let’s take one more look at Bruce’s first visit to South Africa, which wrapped up on Saturday. These four shows constituted a massive road trip for writer Connor Kirkpatrick, who flew 14,000 miles in covering Cape Town and Johannesburg for us. But we also wanted to hear from someone who wasn’t traveling, but rather traveled to — someone for whom South Africa is home. Alta Cloete, who administers a Bruce Springsteen South Africa Facebook page, found Springsteen’s first visit to her homeland “a tremendous experience.”

When I was privileged to see Bruce Springsteen for the first time in the UK in 2012, I never thought for one moment that he would ever come to South Africa. For that matter, when I became a fan in late 2009 I never thought I would ever get to see him live.

Bruce has proved me wrong again and again. He taught me to dream and to work for my dreams. So I, not an adventurous traveler and aged only a few years younger than Bruce, made it to the pit in Sunderland — and survived to tell the story. It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive!

When I came home after those two shows, I tried to convince myself that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, that I will never spend so much money and endure so much stress to see Bruce again. But the notorious post-show Bruce blues hit me with a vengeance. It was only when I admitted that I would try again, if and when the opportunity arises, that I got back on track.

When the second round of dates for Australia and New Zealand was announced last year, the thought started sneaking in: Would it not be possible for them to make a pit stop in South Africa? Well, the rest is history. Bruce Springsteen not only came to South Africa, he also did three shows at a small venue less than an hour’s drive from my home, and I could make it to the fourth in Johannesburg.

Belville-VelodromeThe first night I was jittery with excitement and anxiety, anxious because I did not know what to expect from the SA audience, because I thought he would still be very much jetlagged, because it was the start of the new tour and people did not know High Hopes yet. Also because my friend from Johannesburg could not come to Cape Town and I was left to the mercy of my non-fan husband, who luckily happens to love me very much. Oh, and I was worried about the effect of the heat on Bruce and on me. A real old worrier, me.

The night was a blast. My hubby did his best to let me enjoy myself. The Bellville Velodrome is small (Bruce made sure we knew that he came 8,000 miles to play a place which feels exactly like the Convention Hall back home). We had a good standing place against the railings at the side of the pit. Already in the queue people were friendly and chatty, and I even landed myself on TV News and YouTube for about ten seconds.

NabyBruce came out like a happy child on a huge playground. Yes, I know he is always like that. But one must still see it to believe it. He worked the crowd like an inspired man (which he is, of course), passed right by us at least five times, kissed the ladies, crowd-surfed right across the pit. Found a child with a great voice for “Sunny Day.” Had at least four women on stage for “Dancing in the Dark.” Leaned backwards into the crowd several times and let himself be probed and patted. Let people touch and “play” his guitar during “Born to Run.” Oh, and I forgot the piano: Not many 64 year olds can stand on a piano, dripping wet and sweaty in a thin T-shirt and just look drop-dead sexy. (If Bruce taught South Africans one thing this last week, it must be what a 64-year-old can look like if he abandons the classic SA lifestyle of too much food and too little exercise.)

IerlandWith friendly fans around me I found it easy to let go. Yes, it was hot. Yes, it was cramped. But my, oh my, was it fun! As with my first two shows, my sense of utter joy was overwhelming.

For the second show I felt like an experienced fan. Gone were the anxiousness, the jitters, and the fear of the unknown from Sunday night. In was the heady feeling of something great drawing near. I knew the venue, how the process of entering is handled, where I like to stand, what to expect of the audience.

HobieOf course I knew what to expect of Bruce. Has he ever had a bad show in his life? The audience was much more jubilant and expectant than on Sunday night, even outside the gates. It was mostly international fans who got numbers and went for the pit, but even among them the atmosphere was filled with more excitement than the first night. I am sure many friendships had been formed or renewed among them. One also noticed quite a few reddish necks: although it was cooler and cloudy, the African sun still took its toll. Not that it seemed to bother anybody. One of the things that made me happy was seeing so many international fans who came out for the shows, who seemed to be enjoying Cape Town tremendously.

Before the first show, the early birds right after the pit-goers queued quietly and calmly. On the second night there was a more determined shuffle to get in right after the guys getting in the pit. No stampede, but lots of energy and good-humored maneuvering. Thanks to my 24-year-old non-fan companion (with his Dave Matthews T-shirt!) we made it to a good position and were able to get the same spot against the railing right outside the pit (and, importantly, right on Bruce’s way to the little stage center front). The almighty roar that went up the moment Bruce came onstage I will not forget easily. People were ready to party from the word go.

Outside I noticed several signs for “No Surrender,” one of my great favorites and symbolic of the way I try to live my life. After “Free Nelson Mandela” (a choice that most people did not understand, because they are not familiar with Stevie’s campaign in the ’80s) Bruce immediately grabbed a sign and blew me away with “No Surrender.” After that “Two Hearts”… after that… Well, you have seen the set list. Lots and lots of different songs from the first night. Energy. Passion. Joy. Sweat, beer, emotion.

I am no great fan of “Spirit in the Night,” but it was a blast. As was the rest of the show. (Of course I am not being objective here. Who wants to be objective?) Crowd-surfed right across the pit again. The landing seems to be a bit more difficult nowadays, with Nils and Jake quickly coming in to support him, which I think is very wise. He kissed fewer women, I think. Spent quite some time with a group of girls with Courteney Cox photos used as masks. Danced with a lady who survived breast cancer and gave her so much close attention, it was just beautiful to see. Shouted “Security! Security!” when a girl snuck onstage near the end of the show. He made it sound like a joke, but I think they got the message that he does not want that to happen again.

Met Pete Seeger 1Bruce was jubilant and funny (again the routine of the SA ass sending the message to the SA brain) and energetic, but clearly sad when talking about Pete Seeger and what he stood for, and singing a beautiful “We Shall Overcome.” He was also more serious than usual during “Born in the U.S.A.”

Next to me stood a couple about my age who had been ripped off on the internet and paid R10,000 for their two tickets. I told them they would get their money’s worth. Judging by their faces, they did.

I made various interesting discoveries, mostly about myself and mostly not very positive, during the third show in Cape Town. Firstly, I need to feel at home, even in a crowd of strangers, to really enjoy myself. Unfortunately I could not really relate to the fans around me, simply because they were not fans.

There were clearly more young people in the audience than the previous nights, which was good, as Bruce has surely made some new fans. The fact is, however, that many of them did not know the music and they did not care. (Of course, I was more than willing to share my great knowledge of all things Springsteen with anybody acting vaguely interested.) They were there to have a great time, and they had just that. Of course, Bruce always delivers, and they were surely in for a few surprises. Probably firstly that he is so OLD. Secondly that one can be old AND stunningly sexy. Thirdly, just the sheer energy that he exudes. Fourthly, the frequent interaction with the audience. And finally, the length of the show. I am sure Bruce made many, many new fans in South Africa among young and old alike.

NabyIn my opinion, Bruce had to work much harder to get the crowd engaged than on Night Two, especially, when the audience was ready for a party from the very beginning. But of course we know he is not scared of hard work. “Shackled and Drawn” must surely be rated among the most moving performances of the three nights, for the sheer enthusiasm he puts into it alone.

So, sadly, I did not experience quite the overwhelming joy I felt during the first shows. But Bruce can not be accused of lack of trying. Although he must have been tremendously tired, there was no slackening of the pace. I do think he went into the audience and on to the small stage center back of the pit fewer than the previous nights, and the crowd surfing was a bit shaky at a time, although at least he managed to get delivered feet-first this time.

I think there were 16 changes to the setlist: one really got the feeling that he was trying to share the maximum number of songs with us. I expected that to some extent, but when he charged into “Adam Raised a Cain” and “Something in the Night,” I was quite surprised after starting with “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Night” (not one of my favorites), and “Rosalita” (also not one of my favorites, and yes, I know most people would disagree with me), one really got the feeling that everything could happen. What happened was that I got another few of my absolute favorites, especially “Wrecking Ball,” “Tougher than the Rest” (Bruce laughingly took great care to emphasise that the sign said: If you play “Tougher Than the Rest,” I will give him a blow job, not you). My real treat was the tour premiere of “This Is Your Sword,” a song I fell for at first hearing. Some fun was added by Stevie clearly reading the lyrics from the teleprompter after being called to center stage.

The one song where Bruce certainly lost the audience was “Sun City,” as he had by opening with “Free Nelson Mandela” the previous nights. The ironic fact is just that there were very few members of the audience who knew anything about the role those songs played in the struggle history. I am constantly wondering if Bruce and the band are conscious of this irony. Actually, I am quite sure he is.

HandeOn Saturday afternoon in Johannesburg six formidable women (yes, I include myself!) packed themselves into a sexy silver 4×4, turned Wrecking Ball up real loud, and got ready to grow young again. As we went barreling along the highway way above the speed limit, I felt like I was living dangerously for the first time in my life. (Yes, I know that’s a bit sad, but so be it.)

Of the dangers of Johannesburg I did not see anything. I saw thousands of excited people streaming into the beautiful stadium affectionately dubbed The Calabash, and groups of friends preparing Boerewors (sausage) on gas fires and drinking lots of beer. I saw diehard fans from Europe who had spent the day in the African sun for that treasured place right in front. I experienced a level of anticipation that I have never felt at any other show of an international artist.
Bruce Springsteen had not only conquered Cape Town during the last week, he had conquered South Africa and evoked much more media attention than I had anticipated. On Saturday the nation (or rather the rock-loving part of the nation) was ready for him.

We only had to spend one hour in the hot sun (and got moderate tans) before we were led to the golden circle right on time. After a quick scramble we could sit down and settle in for some serious waiting and beer drinking (not my strong point). Anticipation was in the air. I was silently hoping that the show would not start as late as in Cape Town as I watched the stadium slowly filling up.

Crowd surf val Pauline SmitAnd then it happened: a few guitar chords and people frantically scrambling to their feet. Bruce was there for a few pre-show songs. I am not sure how I got to my feet so quickly. Nor do I know if people realized he only does a pre-show on special occasions when he really wants to thank fans for their dedication and the hardships (including financial ruin) they are prepared to face for his shows. He looked relaxed in his sunglasses and checked shirt and immediately grabbed a sign that read I was your first black fan in South Africa. A short chat (which we could not really hear) and “Working on the Highway,” “I’ll Work For Your Love” (a great treat for me) and “Growin’ Up” set the scene for a great evening.

Then the hardest wait started as we hopefully watched the guys in black on stage, watched that white rope going up, coming down, going up, coming down… It was 20:50 when I was the first in my surroundings to spot Nils and Max and shout: “Hier is hulle!” (Here they are!). And at that moment, everything becomes worth your while. The money, the arrangements, the stress, the non-understanding of non-fans, the travelling, the waiting, the standing, the drunks around you, the elbows in your face (not mine, I am too tall), everything suddenly makes sense when Bruce and his “small army” fill the stage and proceed to blast 60,000 people (give or take a few cynics) away.

I won’t discuss the show song-by-song. All real fans probably already know all the details, like the fact that this show consisted of 31 songs plus the three of the preshow, that it lasted three hours and 22 minutes and contained five tour premieres, bringing the total for the four shows to, I think, 63 different songs. After four shows in one week, details tend to blur into one great haze of happiness. It is the emotion that stays with you (and easily develops into the classic post-Bruce blues). It is the passion and energy I will remember, the solidarity of the crowd in the pit, the sweat and the tears and the laughs and the rain.

Ria in reenYes, the rain. It started gently, drifting through the echoing lines of forty-one shots… forty-one shots….People were reluctant to break their concentration to put on rain gear, many just opting to get wet and enjoy it. The rain seemed to bring the show to another level, with Bruce (of course) coming out into the rain, also bringing the horns, getting thoroughly wet and just enjoying it. Surely it invigorated a man in his fourth three-hours-plus show less than a week after arriving from across numerous time zones. But something more happened than the physical. The spiritual aspect of the show became more pronounced, making one think of a baptism, of the cleansing of sins, of new beginnings, of forgiveness and hope. The image of that soaking wet man, standing with his face turned into the rain, has captured the minds of many South Africans. Bruce Springsteen at that moment became a symbol of what can be done in this country, of what we believe in, of what a great joy life can be despite difficulties and setbacks.

I could not take my eyes off Bruce’s back when he slowly walked backstage after the third lovely acoustic version of “Thunder Road” I had the privilege to hear in a week. I was not the only one. And it was certainly a bonus to catch another glimpse of him appearing next to the stage as we were ascending the stairs to leave.

The six women in the silver 4×4 were quiet on their way home. They will never by quite the same. In a good way, a very good way.

When we reached home at two in the morning, I could not sleep. The atmosphere, the exuberance in the rain, the happy faces, the raised arms lingered with me through the night, waking me early with Tom Morello’s guitar screaming in my head and Bruce’s face turned to the rain in my mind’s eye.

For one week, Bruce Springsteen brought to South Africa a little bit of the magic we had lost with the passing of Nelson Mandela. Bruce brought the sheer joy and gratitude for being alive that we had experienced when a nation grieving for their leader turned their grief into a celebration of life. He brought an example of an honest man living a clean life, working hard and giving freely of himself. He showed us how to defy age and death and keep on working on your dream. Bruce Springsteen made an impact on South Africa that will linger for a long time.

Of course, he first of all brought the music. The music that breaks your heart and makes you dance at the same time. The music that evokes a sense of fun, of sensuality, of hard work, of determination and dedication. The kind of music that penetrates your life and makes you a better person.

Yes, life goes on. Bruce and the Band have already left for Australia. But for thousands of South Africans the memories will linger for many, many years to come. For me they will stay forever.

Original post in Backstreets: http://www.backstreets.com/news.html

Thanks to Schalk Cloete, Nadia de Kock and various unknown photographers!

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