The Boss in Barcelona

Bruce Springsteen rehearses -- and a global group of lucky fans gets a free concert.


Michael Yessis
May 22, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Normally, the relaxed fingering of an electric guitar wouldn't have seemed
strange music
for Barcelona. During my week-long stay, I had already heard a severely
pierced rapper
rhyme to the beat of a plastic kazoo and a shoeless saxophonist in a powder-blue suit
playing a half-speed rendition of "Blowin' in the Wind." But that was on La
Rambla, the
busker-friendly pedestrian throughway in the heart of the old city. I was
spending the
afternoon on Montjuic, Barcelona's hilly and quiet patch of green which,
during the 1992
Summer Olympics, had hosted several events. Up there, far away from the bustle,
the faint,
amplified waves startled me.

While they appeared to come from all directions at first, the licks
grew louder as I
walked along. Then, suddenly, a powerful rhythm section kicked in. Each beat
of the snare
drum snapped through my body; these were no stray buskers. I checked my map
and
pinpointed the origin of the sound: Palau Sant Jordi, where the U.S.
basketball Dream
Team had captured its gold medal. Before I could get nostalgic over the memory of Charles
Barkley
violating his over-matched Angolan opponent with his elbow, a sax player joined
the mix
and a familiar tune rattled the air. I recognized the song, yet I couldn't
quite place the
artist or the title. Before my excited brain could process what was
happening, it was
scooped by an unmistakably hearty American growl: Bruce Springsteen.

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I broke off my intended route and, moving double-time, followed his
voice to the
side of the arena. Men in orange safety vests were moving heavy objects in
and out of the
arena with forklifts through a giant service entrance. The Springsteen
classic "Prove It All
Night" soared through the opening unimpeded. Either it was Springsteen or one
hell of a
cover band. I fell into place with a half-dozen other people atop a small,
grassy hill. We
stood 50 yards from the door, restricted from further access by a chain-link
fence. I closed
my eyes and listened. It sounded as good as any outdoor concert I've ever
attended,
maybe better.

"This is nice," I mumbled out loud and to nobody in
particular.

A man with his face pressed against the fence turned around.

"This is very nice," he said. His smile was huge.

His name was Doug and he wore a T-shirt with the words "Battlefield
Orchards,
Freehold, NJ," printed across the front. Doug knew precisely why Bruce
Springsteen and
the E-Street Band were performing in an empty arena in Barcelona at 2 p.m. on
a
Thursday. He had come to Barcelona specifically for the first concert of the
group's
reunion tour, which was scheduled for the following night. Today, he said,
was the final
rehearsal. We had just gotten lucky by stumbling onto a big open door. My timing, he added, was
impeccable.
Clarence, Roy, Max, Nils, Garry and the rest of the band had pulled in much earlier -- but Bruce had just arrived 15 minutes ago. Doug turned away
for a moment,
moving his arms and one foot frantically in coordination with the drumbeat.

In the span of a drum fill, Doug and I had bonded like brothers. I
made fast friends
with a few others there, too: Netherlands Dick, who, like Doug, referred to
the band
members only by their first names, and wondered aloud about things like whether
Roy was
playing the grand piano or the synthesizer; and Javier, a skinny man in a
baseball cap,
who speculated on when people would line up to get into the show the next night.

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Doug,
however, was our point man. He seemed to know everything from song titles to
the names
of the band members' pets, and he told us the story of a rehearsal in New
Jersey a few
weeks earlier. Several fans, he said, had waited outside for hours on a cold,
bitter day.
Toward the end of the rehearsal, a security guard approached the group and
told them it
was their lucky day. He escorted them inside, where they were treated to a
five-song set.
Bruce even took requests.

As the band fired up "Two Hearts," I found a comfortable spot on the
grass,
peeled an orange and settled in, hoping for a repeat of the New Jersey story.
Javier
wandered off, returning minutes later during "Darkness on the Edge of Town"
with a terse
message: It sounds better in the plaza at the front of the arena. We packed
up and sped
around the corner to the plaza where, indeed, several doors were flung open and the sound
was strong
and clear. Doug said he hoped it sounded this good opening night.

But that
wasn't the
best part. Dozens more people -- both hard-core fans and unknowing wanderers like
me -- had
discovered the gig, and they were having an impromptu party. People danced
with
strangers and sang along with Springsteen. Young girls dressed in black sat
cross-legged
and smoked Marlboros. Grizzled men in shabby denim and dirty baseball caps
silently
bobbed their heads. Mountain bikers in bright Lycra straddled their machines
and listened.
Those with cellular phones called friends to share the experience. At one
point, two
couples even plopped down with a few boxes of deep-dish pizza.

Inside, our exclusive party band played on: "Youngstown," "Murder,
Inc.,"
"Badlands." Occasionally someone would arrive on the scene, pause in
recognition, then
yell, "Brooooooce!" Others pledged their allegiance to the sax player,
Clarence Clemons,
with shouts of "Beeeeeeg Man!"

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As the rehearsal progressed, the story of the
freezing but
fortunate New Jersey fans rippled through the crowd. It's doubtful we'll get
in for a
private audience, I thought, as I shed a layer of clothing, reapplied
sunscreen to my face
and reveled as a lovely, haunting version of my favorite Springsteen song,
"The River,"
wafted into the plaza. Still, I hoped.

More than two hours in, the band revved up a lengthy "10th Avenue
Freeze-Out."
Amy and Patty, two Chicagoans just on the scene, looked at each other with
their mouths
wide open. A famous rock critic from a big-city paper dropped in, too,
comparing notes
with Doug on times and set lists. And Doug, whenever inspiration struck,
jumped back on
the air drums. Netherlands Dick, who had seen several Springsteen concerts in
Europe
over the years, wandered around in rapture. We started talking.

"After every tour I say it's over," he said of his enchantment with
Springsteen.
"Then I'm sitting here and I hear him and it catches me." He stopped and
raised his hand
to his face. "I almost start to cry."

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I wasn't prepared for such an emotional reaction. Yet as I looked
around the
plaza, his overwhelming happiness didn't seem nutty or unwarranted. We had
Springsteen
all to ourselves. We had uncommon camaraderie between complete strangers. We
even
had deep-dish pizza. Something special was happening here. I chalked it up to
the power
of music and beautiful serendipity, the greatest joy of traveling. Dick, I
guess, just
attributed it all to Springsteen.

Eventually, Patty, Amy and the critic joined the rest of us in a
circle on the ground.
We talked about chord progressions and Elliott Smith records, Charles Barkley
and
hometowns. And we listened as the band cranked out hit after hit: "Lucky
Town," "The
Promised Land," "She's the One." True to legend, the band was playing
forever. Then,
during a tender version of "Bobby Jean," a security guard on a motorcycle
pulled up
beside us. I couldn't remember whether Doug had mentioned anything about a
motorcycle in
the New Jersey story. Still, I hoped.

"Son las seis,""he said. "Tienen que salir."

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It was 6 p.m. and we were being ordered to leave the plaza. This was a
setback, for sure,
but we wouldn't be denied our encore. Many of us boomeranged to the hill near
the
service entrance. Springsteen's scream of "One, two, three, four," signaling
the beginning
of the end of "Born to Run," easily pierced the now-closed door. Doug's
timing on the air
drums remained impeccable. After "Thunder Road," "If I Should Fall Behind"
and "Land
of Hope and Dreams," the music stopped. But we remained. After four hours
listening
blindly, we wanted to actually see Springsteen. And, in equal measure, we
wanted him to
see us.

Clemons walked out first. We cheered. He smiled and waved. Consensus
among
the crowd was that the Big Man is, in fact, very big. Soon after, the rest
of the band
filed out. We cheered again. They smiled and waved, then boarded a futuristic
mini-bus
and drove away. Minutes later, Springsteen emerged wearing sunglasses, a
beret and a
leather jacket. A bottle of water peeked out of one pocket. In an instant it
was Idlewild,
1964, the day the Beatles arrived in America. Women screamed high-pitched
screams and
men yelled their hero's name. We all applauded wildly.

Springsteen's next decision thrilled everyone except me and his
bodyguard: He
started running up the hill toward us. In response, the crowd devolved into a
giddy mob,
collapsing against the fence. Not prepared for the rush, I was swept into the
chain-link. My
sunglasses tweaked against the metal and twisted off my nose. As I braced
myself to
remain upright, others began climbing the fence. Springsteen's burly sideman
shooed them
away as best he could and yelled vague instructions to his client. "Watch it,
Boss, watch
it."

But Springsteen, undoubtedly a veteran of giddy mobs in many nations, was
unflappable. He shook hands through the fence, asked where a few people were
from and
thanked us for being there. Calm prevailed. Then, as quickly as he came up,
Springsteen
descended the hill, hopped into a vehicle and fled. The party was officially
over.

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I said goodbyes to my new friends. Doug kindly offered to sell me one
of his spare
tickets for opening night. I was booked for the sleeper train out of town,
however, and
politely declined. I gave him my e-mail address, though, and asked him to fill
me in about
the show when he got a chance.

Days later, I received a missive: "Oh my GOD!!! You should have seen it/me on the floor among the
masses. I was
standing dead center, directly in front of Bruce's mic., approx. 30 feet from
the stage. I
was literally covered in sweat, occasionally short on breath, and quite sure
that at that
moment, there was nowhere else on earth I'd rather be."

I smiled, thinking back to my own experience with Bruce, Clarence,
Max and the
rest of the band. I knew exactly how he felt.


Michael Yessis

Michael Yessis is a writer who lives in San Francisco. He has previously written for Playboy, Men's Health and Men's Journal.

MORE FROM Michael Yessis

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Bruce Springsteen Music Travel

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