Flipping through channels not long ago, I came upon a PBS pledge drive playing one of those aging-rock-star concerts the network uses to cater to baby boomers. It was a little startling that this time the star was Bruce Springsteen. I still struggle with the idea that Big Bird had conferred Old Fogy status on the Boss.
The “Live in New York City” concert originally aired in 2001 and also was released as a CD. Its release reminded me of the first time I ever saw Bruce in concert: January 26, 1981, at Notre Dame’s Joyce Center at the beginning of my sophomore second semester. I know the date exactly because for years the ticket stub was stuck in the mirror of my dresser in my family home. I remember sometime around Finals Week a month earlier sitting with friends on the floor of Stepan Center during the concert-ticket lottery waiting for our number to be called. It took hours, but the anticipation and the conversation were worth it even if the seats weren’t spectacular.
Because I was converted to Springsteen at Notre Dame, his music has always taken me back to college. I resisted Bruce at first. I couldn’t remember his music from high school—and, like other troglodytes, originally I thought they meant Rick Springfield. But by the end of freshman year, I’d come around and when I went home for the summer I packed my newly purchased Springsteen albums. Some might say it was the beginning of an obsession. I prefer to believe it launched a symbiotic relationship between ND and the Boss. When I think of one, the other often reflexively comes to mind.
Bruce was the soundtrack of my Notre Dame, and not mine alone. I often wonder how that could be. Springsteen sings about street kids, blue-collar workers, low-level hoodlums and their small victories, romances, desperation and lost dreams. How could such music possibly resonate with middle- and upper-middle-class ND students living out one of their own dreams? Somehow it connected with us.
One might propose that Springsteen’s Catholic upbringing, common with most of us, could explain the connection. Sometime after Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. came out, I saw a side-by-side comparison of him and Michael Jackson, whose Thriller album had been released, in a Springsteen fan magazine. The only thing I remember about the comparison was the description of Bruce’s religion as “reformed Catholic.” The term suggests that his childhood faith isn’t active anymore, but one could speculate that Springsteen’s Catholic roots had some impact on a body of work about original sin and faith, failure and redemption, frailty and dignity, and ultimately hope and love. If that’s not evidence of his Catholic influences, consider that on his Devils & Dust tour, Springsteen reminisced about his Catholic youth, speaking of the Church as a place of “great beauty, poetry and hideous terror.”
There’s another dimension to the Springsteen-ND connection. Since the Hesburgh era began in the 1950s, Notre Dame has been coming onto the national and international stage as a world-class university. For a century prior, it seemed to have more modest aspirations, simply aiming to provide Catholic men with a safely Catholic place to go to college. These ND students of generations past—and the subway alumni who aspired to be—are, I think, the fathers of many of the heroes of Springsteen’s music, and as history and the music played out, their values often clashed with their children’s. While we Reagan-era ND students didn’t live the lives of soulful desperation of Bruce’s music, by the nature of the place we attended and the heritage we brought to it, we had a kind of filial connection to what he sang.
Springsteen was everywhere at Notre Dame, at least if Zahm Hall was any indication. Every party included a healthy dose of his music. You always heard “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)” and “Born to Run,” and the dance floor always filled when they came on the party tape. Frequently Springsteen blared onto the quad from dorm windows like a call to prayer, and it wasn’t uncommon to hear his music waft into the chapel during Sunday night Mass. Someone, somewhere always seemed to be playing Bruce in a form of perpetual adoration.
Most rock music is fun, of course, but not much engages and activates your head, heart and feet like Springsteen’s. The poetry, the imagery and the intimate detail of the lyrics take you deep inside the lives of unforgettable characters. While their occasional despair can drive you to that darkness on the edge, the music on which the lyrics ride saves you. The soaring guitars, the wailing sax, the pounding piano, the driving drums energize and restore hope. The studio albums are great, but the live Bruce—in concert and even bootlegged—is another experience altogether. The go-for-broke, one-take-only approach of the band, the energy of the audience, and Bruce’s freelance philosophizing and standups mingle the intellectual, emotional, sensual, physical, even the spiritual, turning the sensation into something more—something not unlike the average Domer’s connection to Notre Dame.
I like to unpack those memories of Bruce and Notre Dame from time to time. It’s fun to peel away the layers of experience, feeling, image and sound. Even with all the pieces laid out before me, the glue still seems invisible. Just what is it that holds the parts together and integrates the whole? In the end, it’s simple. The glue is the love for the place, the music and the people. It’s the conversations and flirtations, the disappointments and successes, the celebrations and stumbles—sitting on a floor for hours waiting for tickets—all of which seemed to occur with the same background score, music whose magic mixed with the mystique of the place.
Although I know it can’t be true, my heart tells me anyway that my epiphany of 25 years ago is still current and that somehow, ineffably, Bruce’s music is and always will be a fixture at Notre Dame.
Springsteen’s music still takes me back to Zahm Hall and some of the best times of my life; I won’t call them “glory days.” I remember the party we had in my room before that January 26, 1981, concert. Seeing my excitement, one of my friends joked that it was the “pinnacle” of my life. Not exactly, but it was the start of something.
Patrick Gallagher lives in Aberdeen, South Dakota, with his wife and four children and works for the Catholic school system.