By Ann Conway
Why was it love at first sight when, accompanied by my boyfriend, Blake, I first saw Bruce Springsteen perform in 1977? Was it because of my up-and-down relationship with Blake? He hadn’t even wanted to go to the concert at the Augusta (Maine) Civic Center.
Or was it because I just loved Born to Run and really loved Thunder Road, whose semi-tragic theme personified my twenty-three year old, self-dramatizing persona?
Or was it that the whole Born to Run breakout album was so Rhode Island, so Catholic, so full of things that seemed hard-edged and dramatic and real? So life and death?
Springsteen knew what he was up to, even then. “The desperateness presentness of so much great rock music,” Bruce calls it, in an Observer (U.K.) interview of less than a month ago. “The life force in it, it’s a ranting against the other thing.”
More than thirty years ago, even Bruce’s black leather jacket seemed real. Blake wore his grandfather’s worn World War II bomber jacket, but that was an affectation, since he hadn’t done much except grow up in the Philly suburbs and graduate from Colby.
It was like Blake, though. You had to closely look at the jacket to realize how cool it was. It took an effort.
But Bruce baby—man, he was right there. No BS about him. He reminded me of people I knew before I went to Colby and met Blake. Bruce was mondo, like John Cafferty, the leader of Rhode Island’s Beaver Brown Band.
We idolized Cafferty at my girls’ high school, East Providence’s St. Mary’s Academy, Bay View. But he never quite made it it. It was Bruce’s fault, people said in their Rhode Island, grudge-culture way; there was always something to be pissed off about. Cafferty was too much like Bruce. Still, Beaver Brown had one national hit, On the Dark Side, a great song which I sometimes hear on the truly abysmal classic rock stations of Central Maine.
In Providence, the mondo’s—the Bruce’s and the John’s—were tough blue-collar guys, greasers. They didn’t go to college; they didn’t go anywhere.
Ironically, mondo meant “world” in Italian. But the mondo’s world was everything I was bent on escaping—a tough, old Catholic universe, where everybody knew you, knew your father, knew your uncles. Knew “who you were,” e.g., Irish, Italian, French, or Portuguese. Knew your history.
The mondos, I thought, were part of all that, the dark side.
I wanted the light and thought Blake was it. He was preppie handsome, sailed. Naturally, he adored Hemingway. Blake smiled often with his perfect teeth and planned to attend architecture school at Harvard.
He was always letting me knowing that I didn’t measure up.
“I never went out with someone who had a discernible accent before,” he remarked affably.
My Aunt Gabe, who adored me, hated him. Why I stayed with him, I do not know. I was young and dumb and didn’t then understand that I could be loved purely for who I was.
Blake had led too easy a life to take risks, but at the Civic Center, Bruce was so honest, singing about running from something. This mondo was like me, I thought. He thought salvation came through music and cars; I thought it came through a withholding man whom I needed to please.
Even then there appeared to be something eating at Bruce, a fact he referred to in The Observer interview: “The artists people are interested in have something eating at them. Elvis. What was eating at that guy? What was eating at Hank Williams? Johnny Lydon? Something was.”
I almost married Blake; people change, so perhaps things might have worked out with him, but I doubt it. At any rate, it’s just as well. Had I stayed with him, I doubt I would have eventually turned out to face that mondo place I came from, helped along the way by Springsteen’s stories.
I don’t think I would have understood what was eating at me then, what still is. As Bruce concludes, sounding like one of Flannery O’Connor’s old-time prophets:
“The past is never the past. It is always present. And you better reckon with it in your life and your daily experience, or it will get you. It will get you really bad. It will come and devour you, it will remove you from the present. It will steal your future and this happens every day.”