The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, a 63-year-old rocker who began his career in his native New Jersey struggling for success in the late 1960s and taking off by the mid 1970s has become a musical icon. I saw him for the first time in 1976 at Ottawa's National Arts Center and became a devoted fan.
The Boss appeals to the boomer generation but is embraced by us all. When my kids were in their teens I took them to a Springsteen concert in Toronto. An eclectic mixture of boomer-rockers ranging in age from 50 to 75, teenagers, thirty somethings, all exuberantly joining The Boss as he held out the microphone to his packed audience as they effortlessly sang the full lyrics to "Hungry Heart." The Boss and his fans they are like one.
Springsteen in crowd
I have had the good fortune to see Bruce on many occasions. Each concert had its own vibe, its own passion. "The E Street Band" those devoted musicians like guitarist Stevie Van Zandt, lead Guitar the tiny but mighty Nils Lofgren, drummer and center piece Max Weinberg, keyboardist Roy Bittan, bassist Gary Tallent and the late saxophonist Clarence Clemons and organist Danny Federici, were the true heart. And even with the passing of the "Big Man" (Clemons) and Federici one of Springsteen's oldest and closest friends he has managed to maintain that heart and soul.
Springsteen's relationship with his audience is a love-love affair. He unlike many other famous rockers famously has few if any body guards. Indeed quite the contrary, it's not uncommon for Bruce to literally throw himself into the crowd where his adoring fans lift him full body on to their shoulders passing him from shoulder to shoulder around the entire auditorium as he sings Cadillac Ranch or Glory Days.
Fans arrive for the concerts with self made placards, requests for their favorite songs. And from time to time he will bring these fans on to the stage where he spontaneously plays there requests, sings and dances with them; it's truly an astounding sight.
Last week in Hamilton Ontario at the Copps Coliseum The Boss played arguably one of his most frenetic concerts that lasted his usual three hours plus. It had all the ingredients one would expect at a Springsteen gathering. The energy began to build among the 18,000 plus fans and when The Boss hit the stage the crowd went wild; a typical Springsteen concert with a unique exception; eleven year old Grace Mahler.
Grace Mahler has attended five Springsteen concerts in the past with her parents, devoted Boss fans, but this time she had a goal in mind, to ask Bruce to sing Terry's Song. Bruce has only sung this song live once before. It was written by Bruce as a testament to his old friend and personal assistant Terry Magovern who had died in 2007. It spoke of love as being a power greater than death. It spoke of friendship and loyalty and memory.
"Love is a power greater than death, just like the songs and stories told. And when she built you, brother, she broke the mold. That attitude's a power stronger than death."
You see 11-year-old Grace was struggling with death -- a burdensome issue for even adults to face. Her good friend and basketball team mate, Sydney Wood, had died suddenly this past August of a brain abnormality and Grace has been trying to understand how and why. Bruce Springsteen became that key to understanding.
Grace felt an especially strong connection to Terry's Song; "I picked Terry's Song because I knew that Bruce had written that song after his friend had died so he knows how I feel - that love is stronger than death," Grace explained. So with determination and hopeful exuberance only real children understand Grace sketched out her sign "Terry's Song for my friend Sydney up in heaven" and she made her way with her parents John and Mary as well as her sister Ella to the Hamilton concert.
In order to get "into the pit" fans line up hours in advance. Wrist bracelets are distributed with numbers for a lottery. Grace got # 13, ironically Sydney's soccer number. The Mahlers made it into the pit by 13 numbers. The last person in the pit had bracelet 311-11 was Sydney's basketball number.
Grace had faith that the Big Man, Danny and Terry were with her that night. Indeed the faith was well founded. It was strangers in the pit who lifted Grace up onto their shoulders to try and get the sign to Bruce.
Bruce and Grace
Bruce missed her his first time around but Grace was determined and in his next foray into the crowd Bruce leaned in and took the sign. Bruce takes many signs, does his best but cannot sing them all. Yet something mystical happened that night in Copps Coliseum; Bruce read the message approached the mic and with the house lights dimmed and a pin light shining on him he told what has become known as the message of hope, Terry's story, one of love, true camaraderie, and utter devotion. He then dedicated Terry's Song to Sydney and played it for only the second time in a live performance. As Grace's Mom Mary remarked, "Grace at that moment was the picture of pure joy; joy that so many people now knew how loved Sydney is by her friends."
Bruce singing Terry's Song
In my tradition we speak of those who do wonderful deeds out of nothing but selflessness, we call them Mitzvahs. On that night in Hamilton Bruce Springsteen did a true Mitzvah. He helped a little girl deal with her grief. He helped Grace understand that while death hurts love is so strong it is more powerful than death. Said Grace after the concert: "My best feeling is knowing that Sydney is smiling up in Heaven and that Coach Greg and Miss Sue and her sisters can smile knowing Bruce sang for Sydney."