O Tannenbaum

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“And while you’re not going to sing, Shaunie, you’re going to be at the center of things!”

When my intrepid Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Marshall, cheerfully informed me that I would “the Christmas Tree” in a child production based on the old German yuletide ballad, “O Tannenbaum,” my eyes lit up like a Broadway light bank. “You mean, Mrs. Marshall that I’m going to be the star?” I unknowingly punned.

“In a general way,” she replied with a smile.

As we began to rehearse for our kindergarten Christmas play, we children in Mrs. Marshall’s class soon learned that the crux of the story involved a somewhat droopy Christmas tree in a forest, which was unloved and ignored by the people of the surrounding village. After all, there were far more impressive and sturdier trees than this somewhat pathetic evergreen, which was both undersized and undervalued. “Its branches hung down to its base as if the tree was both ashamed and weak. Many thought that it would be cut down, but the children of the town always convinced the adults to let the tree live.”

As the narrator in the play explained, one of the traditions of the people in the town had been to congregate around the most imposing pine tree on Christmas day, where carols were sung, and gifts were presented. For years, the desolate evergreen stood in the dark as everyone danced and sang around the mightier trees.

However, on the day before Christmas, when a sudden nor’easter hit the village and its peripheral forest, the villagers were shocked to discover that the one surviving tree in the windstorm was the previously secluded evergreen that had once been the laughing stock of the entire community.

As Christmas Day dawned, the children of the village began to slowly gather round and pay homage to the formerly destitute tree. Eventually, the adults too began to gather around the evergreen, which was now decorated with Christmas lights and ornaments. The 20-minute performance was supposed to conclude with a vigorous singing of “O Tannenbaum.”

Dad, forever a big-picture guy, reminded me that I would be the principal player in a drama without any lines. “That is something to cherish,” he remarked. Mummie was instructed to dress me entirely in dark green pants and a corresponding shirt. Mrs. Fitzmaurice, our art teacher, made special brown shoes to represent to the base of a tree, and we kids all made a gold star that would be planted on top of my head. Mrs. Fitzy also inserted real pine needles from an overarching evergreen that stood resolutely outside on my school’s playground. When my older brother, Chris, saw me decked out in the outfit, he cried out, “In the valley of the Jolly Ho! Ho! Ho! Green Giant!”

After a series of rehearsals, it was time for the big show, which Mrs. Marshall put on for our parents and friends a half-hour before dismissal for Christmas vacation. Because of the name of the musical, the plotline, and how I was the entire focus of the show, I was visibly nervous as the play began. Miss Scoboria, our well-intentioned Headmistress, did not help things when she peaked backstage, saw me in my entirely emerald outfit, and exclaimed, “Well, look who’s the star of the show!”

Thankfully, one of my peers, a little girl whose nickname was – I swear to God – Buttercup, bellowed, “Oh, Miss Scoboria, Shaunie isn’t the star of the show. Here it is!” She then held up…well, the star in the show – the object we had made in art class that would be placed on my head to conclude the performance.

Everything went entirely too smoothly until it came time for me, the previously ignored Christmas tree, to “shine in the light.” Until that time, I had looked appropriately despondent and had kept my arms to my side. Mrs. Marshall smiled broadly at me as the play unfolded, and I knew I was somehow nailing it.

However, when it came time to come alive and sprout my arm-branches out, that’s when things began to go asunder. As the townspeople slowly gathered around me, my arms, now stuck out like a crossed railroad crossing, began to increasingly twinge. Within a minute, my limbs, still held like sticks at a ninety-degree angle, commenced to sag with unrelenting pain. The agony in both of my arms increasingly throbbed as I continued to hold both of them out. A minute later my eyes began to roll, and I felt like passing out.

What was I to do?

I suddenly came up with an inspired solution. Just as the chorus paused between verses of “O Tannenbaum,” I yelled out off-script, “Here comes the wind!”

Everyone in the audience – and on stage – suddenly looked at me with unyielding alarm. A lifelong mimic, I slowly began to make a series of howling noises like a Nantucket gale, my fierce, ghostly sounds reverberating across the room like a swirling overhead fan. I then swayed my arms and body like a majestic seagull, flapping the pain away. After ten seconds of purposeful bluster, I noticed that the audience was now reduced to sustained laughter, with my wheezing mother leading the charge.

My classmates, of course, were horrified, while my teacher, Mrs. Marshall, who had been holding a towel after she had cleaned up some spilled water, buried her head in the cloth and silently laughed herself to tears. While I knew I had precariously gone off script, I was determined to continue blowing and thrashing until the agony in my limbs ceased. Finally, I ceased making gale-like sounds and corresponding arm movements. I then stood as still as a statue.

In the crowded classroom, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. This remarkable metamorphosis so transfixed my peers that they almost forgot to then shout out in unison, “Merry Christmas, Everyone!” when they had completed encircling me. Needless to say, I received a near-standing ovation when I took my bow very majestically a minute later.

The only fallout from my experience as a Christmas tree in my Kindergarten play occurs each holiday season when I inevitably hear the familiar musical refrain, “How lovely are your branches!” on the Sirius Holiday Music Channel.

When I do, my arms immediately begin to twitch.

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That Certain Grace

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On January 20, 1969, Lyndon Johnson left the steps of the Capitol Building after attending the swearing-in ceremony of his successor, Richard Nixon, profoundly dejected and forlorn. “At least I won’t hear kids chanting, ‘Hey, Hey, LBJ – HOW MANY KIDS HAVE YOU KILLED TODAY’ anymore,” he quipped to his longtime aide, Bill Moyers, as they motored to the airport.

When the former President arrived at Andrews Air Force Base to fly back to the LBJ Ranch outside of Austin, he was momentarily uplifted when a few hundred Democratic supporters unexpectedly greeted him in front of Air Force I, many of them veterans of the Civil Rights Movement. There was one solitary Republican in the crowd amidst a sea of Democrats who had come to pay respects to former President Johnson as well:  then-Congressman George H. W. Bush of Texas.

Good luck and thank you, Mr. President!” George H. W. Bush shouted out to LBJ as they shook hands. Lyndon Johnson never forgot it.

When asked later why he was there to wish the nation’s 36th president well in retirement, Congressman Bush answered, “President Johnson is from Texas, he was our Commander and Chief for more than five years, and I felt it was the right thing to do even though I disagreed with him politically.”

It is that kind of decency that we are saying goodbye to this week.

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“Who The Hell Are You?”

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30 years ago this week, my longtime friend, Peter Green, and I were driving to our Harvard graduate school classes when we heard on the radio that Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis was about to vote at his local elementary school in nearby Brookline. “Hey, when can we ever see a man running for president vote in that election? Let’s go check it out!” I exclaimed.

My buddy, Peter, was all for it. A few weeks previously, another teacher friend, Dave Wall, was driving me to a class when we heard that former President Jimmy Carter was being interviewed by a news reporter from WBZ Channel 4 at the station’s Soldiers Field Road near Harvard. Dave and I veered toward the studio’s front entrance, waited outside, and then greeted ex-President Carter when he exited the building. Dave and I ended up conversing with the nation’s 39th chief executive for more than five minutes until his Secret Service detail reminded Mr. Carter that he had another appointment!

Peter Green and I were now in a similar situation. With the same kind of impulsivity that had enabled me to converse with an ex-President, the two of us were now reconnoitering away from Harvard Square to the Longwood section of Brookline. Ten traffic-filled minutes later, we pulled into the driveway of the Amos A. Lawrence Elementary School where a phalanx of satellite trucks was already there covering the event.

We immediately leaped out of our car and sprinted to the nearby voting area. On our way to the school, we skirted past a reporter who was on the air; I heard her say breathlessly, “Governor Dukakis and his wife, Kitty, are already inside the school voting. They should be out momentarily!”

A minute or so later, the Klieg lights fired up, a gaggle of supporters began to converge, and a string of reporters instantly surrounded the candidate along with the Secret Service. Governor Dukakis and Mrs. Dukakis then strolled out of the school amidst a flurry of people surrounding them.

At that instant, Peter and I were about 20 yards away from the couple. However, instead of heading for his awaiting Secret Service limousine, Governor Dukakis made a beeline to the voters who were grouped outside the school’s perimeter. “Kell!” Peter barked to me, “They are literally heading our way!” 

Our impulsiveness in “witnessing” the historical event had now turned into something approaching the surreal. Seconds later, the governor approached us, vigorously shook our hands, and introduced himself to us.

“Mike Dukakis from Brookline,” the Governor said to me.

“Shaun Kelly from Wellesley,” I replied. “I have already voted for you today, Sir!”

The governor and his wife smiled, thanked us, and then got into their limo and sped away with Secret Service agents riding the ramp of the car and sirens echoing from the three police cars accompanying it. Sam Donaldson, a prominent ABC reporter at the time, sallied up to us and grumbled, “Who the hell are you?”

“I am a graduate student at Harvard,” I replied. He scratched his head and disappeared.

Peter and I were so astounded by the entire experience that we blew off our classes and ended up drinking way too-many-beers at the Cask ‘N Flagon, which overlooks Fenway Park.

Thus, if anyone ever asks me, “Have you ever conversed with a presidential candidate just after he or she voted in his or her district on election day?” I can answer in the affirmative. After all, life is what happens to us when we’re making other plans.

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Don’t Ask

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Dom and Emily DiMaggio

On the evening before Game 2 of the 1967 World Series, I answered the phone in a huff. A diehard Red Sox fan, my stomach was already churning in anticipation of a most improbable World Series appearance by the 100-1 shot Impossible Dream Red Sox.

As fate would have it, on the line was none other than Mr. Dominic DiMaggio, an old friend and former neighbor of ours in Wellesley, Massachusetts. The younger brother of the immortal Joe DiMaggio, Dom had been an all-star center fielder for the Red Sox in his own right – and a very successful businessman in Boston thereafter.

After hearing Mr. DiMaggio’s observations of Game 1 (a Bob Gibson complete game 2-1 Cardinals victory), I handed the phone to Dad, who listened for a minute, smiled broadly, and then exclaimed, “Well, I’ll be damned, Dom, YES, of course! We’d be honored!”

When my father got off the phone, he turned to me and explained that Dom and his wife, Emily, had been bombarded by neighbors and friends for Red Sox tickets to the 1967 World Series. When the couple compared notes, they realized that the only Wellesley people who hadn’t called them were Larry and Laurie Kelly, my parents.

Ultimately, that is why the Dimaggios generously offered them two tickets for Game 2 of the ‘67 World Series. Thus, Dad and Mum proudly went to Fenway, sat with Dom and Emily DiMaggio, and saw Yaz hit two home runs and Jim Lonborg pitch what nearly was a perfect game (he gave up a two-out, 8th inning double to Julian Javier)!

Later on, Dad said to me: “The lesson to learn here, Shaunie, is…don’t ask!”

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A Winning Political Formula In 2018: Emotional Intelligence

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Ten days after President John F. Kennedy’s burial at Arlington National Cemetery, the Attorney General of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy, made his first public appearance at a local elementary school in Washington, DC. A horde of national and local reporters attended the event, although the press kept a respectful distance from President Kennedy’s grieving younger brother.

When the Attorney General entered on a crowded first-grade classroom, a five-year-old boy suddenly raced up to Bob Kennedy and shouted, “Your brother’s been shot! Your brother’s been shot!” At that instant, every adult in the room flinched and then looked downward, too anguished to even see the response of the Attorney General. The little boy, knowing that he had somehow just said something terribly wrong, burst into tears and began sobbing despondently.

Bobby Kennedy reached down, grabbed the five-year-old by the shoulders, kissed him on the cheek, and whispered to him. “That’s all right, son. I’ve got another brother.”

The Attorney General then asked the first grader to take him to his seat and show him what he had been working on earlier that morning. For the next five minutes, Mr. Kennedy sat next to the little boy, who proudly showed him his arithmetic work as Bobby looked on intently, his arm around the young man’s shoulder.

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50 years after his tragic assassination, everyone from Ben Sasse and Joe Scarborough to Kamala Harris and Michael Moore have paid homage to RFK for virtually the same reason: Robert F. Kennedy was the epitome of a politician who possessed an abundance of emotional intelligence. It is why Americans have a lingering fondness for leaders across the political spectrum who had it – Franklin D. Roosevelt and Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and George H. W. Bush. More than any political factor over time, emotional intelligence has served as the great dividing line between good and bad leaders. There are a plethora of candidates who are steeped in emotional intelligence running for office these days. As a voter, it is up to you to vote for them.

Psychologist Daniel Goleman popularized the notion of emotional intelligence in a bestselling book 23 years ago. It is, according to the author himself, “being aware that emotions can drive our behavior and impact people – positively and negatively – and learning how to manage those emotions – both our own and others – especially when we are under pressure.

When you vote this fall, ask yourself if the candidates you are voting for are true to themselves. Know who they are. Follow the Golden Rule. Take criticism as an opportunity for reflection. Think before they speak. Listen as well as they pontificate. Have the courage to admit that they can be wrong. Possess innate decency.

Admit their past mistakes and don’t resort to covering things up, especially if they have hurt others in the past. Are empathetic to the degree that they take the time to walk in the shoes of others. Say “we” and “us” much more readily than “I” or “me.” Have the audacity to change. Possess the courage to stay the course even if is unpopular. Have the fearlessness to forgive, and, just as importantly, have the courage to ask for forgiveness.

Possess enough humility to say “I’m sorry” when they are wrong. Have the capacity to keep their commitments. Help others without the expectation that it will be helpful to themselves. Remember the needs of the most vulnerable—children, the infirmed, the disabled, the sick, immigrants, and the elderly.

Finally, we need elected officials who embrace the time-honored Cherokee principle, to give dignity to others is above all things.

If every American voted for those candidates with the highest emotional intelligence, then our great Republic would enter a more enlightened period of history in which our leaders will make decisions that would benefit the next generation as much, or even more, than their own. It is no accident that the President with the highest emotional intelligence, Abraham Lincoln, also proved to be our greatest.

As usual, it is up to you, the voter. After all, the power in this great country of others is derived, thankfully, from We the People.

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Puck, Not Hamlet

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With the Boston Celtics 2018-19 season about to begin, I found myself recently recalling the exploits of the team’s late broadcaster, the legendary Johnny Most, who held forth “high above courtside” from 1953-90. Ultimately, his unyielding, theatrical narrative – an ongoing saga in which the good guys were forever attired in green and white – was “must-listen” radio. His gravelly voice – thanks to smoking a silo full of Camels over the years – was easily the most imitated voice in New England for two generations.

A well-seasoned storyteller who was well-read and loquacious Most was able to describe in excruciating detail the heroic plight of a “warranted championship team” that even malevolent referees and hooligan thugs couldn’t conquer. As one Boston sportswriter once commented, Johnny didn’t broadcasting a basketball game. He thought he was narrating The Passion Play.” When he died, sports broadcasting homerism in extremis died with him.

 Unlike the sedan-like quality of such lyrical baseball announcers as Vin Scully, Red Barber, and Ned Martin, Johnny Most’s voice sounded like a car crash at a demolition derby. He would sit, emperor-like, in his haughty perch just below the rickety third balcony at the old Boston Garden, inhaling non-filter after non-filter, creating a minefield of smoke that shrouded him in a perpetually dimming stupor. For more than two hours, Johnny then would inexorably describe the proceedings taking place on the historic, parquet floor below, whining over the inequalities of life even as his team won a gaudy 16 championships in 30 years.          

Amidst Buick-sized rats, plastic beer cups, and drunken louts, his grating voice and discriminating commentary became a welcomed adhesive for legions of Celtic fans in what might have been the most flourishing Off-Broadway production in history. There were very few critics; nearly every Bostonian seemed to warm to his antics like a warm southerly breeze. An uncompromising original, Johnny Most made even the most irrelevant game in November seem important.

It is also certain that Johnny’s hyperbolic storylines knew no bounds if he was into it that night. His habit for glorious embellishment would invariably be replicated the very next day in countless schoolyards across the Route 128 area: “Tall Paul Silas snags the rebound, and gets absolutely cuffed in the stomach by Kareem! Oh my goodness! But, of course, Jake O’Donnell isn’t calling anything because there’s no blood on the court! Do you believe that?”

 Even the immortals wore black hats in Johnny’s unambiguous world: “Oscar Robertson gets the rebound…… and puts his left elbow right in the face of Satch Sanders! Right in the face! And Manny Sobel has the audacity to call a foul on Satch! Well, ladies and gentlemen, those of us who have been blessed to see ‘The Lord’ in the flesh know that Oscar Robertson would never, ever commit a foul!”

 One night, I actually heard him bawl: “Gene Shue just gave his Bullets’ players an armful of tire irons so that they may attack anything out there in green and white….knowing that Mendy Rudolph will call it ‘justifiable homicide!’”

Some of the more unique Mostian broadcasts occurred away from Boston when opposing fans learned to unmercifully bait such a polarizing figure with aplomb. Inevitably, after being peppered by coffee cups and cigarette butts throughout much of the game, Johnny would growl, “I just got hit by a bagel! They’re throwing things at me, ladies and gentlemen, because the miserable fans here at the Civic Center are frustrated that their shabby, less-than-mediocre team always loses to the Celtics!”

 It’s not to say that John didn’t have a sense of humor. His recurrent cackle sounded like a Ford Falcon attempting to start on an arctic January morning. When Detriot’s Dave Bing was traded to the C’s in the mid-seventies, Johnny couldn’t wait to sing out, “The ball goes out to Dave Bing. He backs up to the right of the key as Big Red clears the way. It’s Bing from the corner – Bing……..bang!”

In the end, though, Johnny Most’s calls were both original and extraordinary. His signature phrases became compulsory axioms for an entire region of basketball fans:

        “This is Johnny Most high above courtside.”

        “Cousy fiddles and diddles – now he daddles.”

        “Outside to Sudden Sam Jones – SWISH!”

        “Russ blocks Wilt and then gets the rebound all in one fell swoop! What a play by Bill Russell!”

        “Jarring John tricky-dribbles with the ball…”

        “DJ dishes it off to Larry for the three-pointer. It’s Bird-time!”

        And, of course, his nightly sign off, “This is Johnny Most – bye for now.”

In every way, Johnny Most was our Puck to Vin Scully’s Hamlet.

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A Reason to Believe

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He walked alone with a single spotlight following him to a stool that was placed downstage nearly at the lip of the platform. The audience around me erupted with glee, a vocal lava that spewed forth a series of BRUCE!!!!!!!!!!! The refrains echoed off the old arena walls, which basketballer Larry Bird once called an oversized gym.

Despite the mayhem, he sat down quietly in front of a boom mike and an electric guitar placed beside in its own stand like a gun in its holster. At first glance, he seemed like a scruffy waif who could use a little food. Of course, there is nothing in a caterpillar that remotely suggests that it will turn into a butterfly. Nevertheless, the young man who just wandered onto an expansive stage holding a newspaper had somehow captured the attention of 15,000 people instantaneously.

As the cries continued to resound throughout the bulging and shabby edifice, the spry performer in the spotlight took out that day’s edition of The Boston Globe, September 25, 1978, and began to methodically peruse through it. The audience became transfixed and began to hush themselves to a semblance of quietude. In the meantime, the urchin on stage continued to read the local daily newspaper as thousands looked on with reverent silence.

Suddenly, as if struck by an electrical surge, Bruce Springsteen shot upright, hurled The Globe skyward, lunged for his guitar, grabbed it in one fell swoop, and then screeched into the mike, “Have you heard the news? Everybody’s rockin’ tonight!”

13 months after the death of the first King of Rock ‘n Roll, we who were in Boston Garden at that moment recognized that standing before us was Elvis Presley’s successor. For the rest of the evening, those of us in the ancient arena hardly sat. We danced, sweated, jumped, and swayed along with a performer and his band who seemed immortal at that moment.

In retrospect, this was just another evening in an extraordinary year that would prove to be Bruce Springsteen’s version of Picasso’s Blue Period. After a three-year gap between albums brought on by contractual obligations and legal battling with former manager, Mike Appel, the Boss had finally released a follow-up to his seminal disc, Born to Run. On June 2, 1978, Darkness on the Edge of Town was released to universal acclaim. Unlike the adolescent exuberance of Born to Run, “Darkness” was primarily an adult album, a disc whose ballads described a never-land where expectations and dreams were often swallowed up by life’s obligations.

Because he could not legally release the album until that date, the contractual restrictions triggered a wellspring of creativity within Springsteen. Over an 11-month period, Bruce Springsteen wrote a staggering 70 songs, enough to fill five albums (much of The River was composed at this time as well; the rest of these tunes were eventually released years later on Tracks, a 64-song retrospective). In addition, he had churned out a gaggle of original tunes like pieces of candy to both soloists and bands who then gratefully recorded them that year. These included Patti Smith’s searing cover of “Because the Night,” the Pointer Sisters’ evocative treatment of “Fire,” Greg Kihn’s infectious recording of “Rendezvous,” Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ rollicking version of “The Little Girl,” and five indelible tracks, which Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes included in their most successful album, Heart of Stone.

Springsteen even gave Welch devotee Dave Edmunds, a revered new wave producer and performer, a genuine chestnut to record, “From Small Things, Big Things One Day Come.” When I first heard Edmunds’ Freddy Cannon-like version in August 1978, a dirge about a young beauty who becomes a waitress and attracts the attention of a well-connected young man, which included the line – She took his order – then she took his heart…” I turned to my girlfriend at the time and exclaimed, “Bruce Springsteen had to have written that!”

What made all of these songs so intoxicating is that they presented people who resided in a shades-of-gray world, and yet when an explosion of colors suddenly hit them out of nowhere, it gave them a star of hope. It reminded me of the hordes of Beatles fans who fervidly sang along with John Lennon throughout a live performance of “I’m a Loser.” In the final analysis, the assorted singles that Springsteen ground out like coffee turned out to be about all of us. “The great challenge of adulthood,” Bruce would write decades later in his 2016 autobiography, “ is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence.”

Beginning on May 23, 1978, at the Shea’s Performing Arts Center in Buffalo and ending on December 31 at the Richfield Coliseum in Cleveland, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed to 114 audiences from intimate settings to arena-sized venues. Throughout the seven-month tour across both the US and Canada, he performed with his just-as-famous backup group, who were at the height of their individual musical powers. That, of course, meant Clarence, “The Big Man” Clemons on tenor sax; Roy Bittan on piano; Danny Federici on the organ and accordion; Garry W. Tallent on the bass; “Miami Steve” Van Zandt on both rhythm and lead guitar, and “Mighty Max” Weinberg on the drums.

At the time, Bruce Springsteen was just 28-years old. Buff; ambitious; and unswerving, he was a bandleader who prided himself and his group into normally producing four-hour concerts. Given that reality, you would attend such performances with expectations that were off the charts and still be transformed afterward into an oasis of personal emancipation that was both moving and unexpected.

As Los Angeles Timecritic, Robert Hilburn wrote later on, “I realized the faith I was beginning to put in Springsteen the December day in 1978 that I drove 400 miles to Tucson, Arizona, to see him in concert – for personal reasons, not as a professional assignment. The show was part of a short western swing near the end of the ‘Darkness Tour’ that skipped Los Angeles…. [a] swell of emotion came to me during Bruce’s concert in Tucson … seeing Springsteen push himself so hard on stage and listening to the eloquence of his songs made me forget about doubts and think about my own dreams again.”

As Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band crisscrossed North America that summer, the word got out that he and his bandmates were putting on a show that was so good that even if you had to sell your soul to see it, you made sure that you did so. Consequently, I took the T to the Garden the day that tickets went out on sale, and secured two of them in a loge section 100 feet away from the stage.

In the meantime, Bruce Springsteen, perpetually attentive to his fans, agreed to have a few of his 1978 concerts broadcast live on local FM radio stations in the Northeast. Through a stereo loudspeaker at home, one could easily feel the indefatigable energy of both the band and its audience. As biographer Dave Marsh wrote, “The screaming intensity of those ’78 shows are part of rock and roll legend in the same way as Dylan’s 1966 shows with the Band, the Rolling Stones tours of 1969 and ’72, and the Who’s Tommy tour of 1969 – benchmarks of an era.”

On September 19, 1978, the Boss performed a particularly enlivening homecoming concert live from Passaic, New Jersey to listeners on such radio stations as WBCN in Boston, WNEW-FM New York, WIOQ-FM Philadelphia, and WIYY-FM Baltimore. This now legendary broadcast, expertly mixed by producer Jimmy Iovine, was listened to by hundreds of thousands of fans across the I-95 corridor. Within a year, a pristine bootleg of the radio broadcast, Piece de Resistance, would be sold in record stores in both the US and Canada.

Six evenings later, after the Boston Garden crowd stood up for Springsteen’s reverent version of “Everybody’s Rockin’ Tonight,” Springsteen and his band broke into “Badlands,” the ballad that opened Darkness at the Edge of Town. Racing into it at a breakneck speed, as if daring his band members to keep up, we all knew that we were all in for some kind of special experience that night. As he belted out the first stanza of the song, Bruce reminded us all of the crucibles of adulthood, admitting: “I’m in a crossfire/that I don’t understand.” Like thousands of other young men in the Boston Garden audience, I was then an angst-ridden young man who wanted to change and take control of my life. As I wrote in a review of the album earlier that summer, “Right out of the gate, ‘Badlands’ hits the listener smack between the eyes.”

The Boss then went to familiar territory, an audience participatory version of his 1973 classic, “Spirit in the Night,” which featured the familiar call-response echo from the Garden crowd, who repeatedly shouted, “ALL NIGHT!” to his refrain. By the last stanza, even the ushers were bawling, “All night!”

Springsteen then purposely toned it down and dutifully sang a deferential version of “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” The title song of his then-new album, Bruce was somehow able to cut to the core of contemporary American ennui, which often stemmed from systemic financial and societal alienation in a nation where one’s hopes and dreams were often defied by reality. This was followed by another poignant ballad about loss and absolution, “Independence Day,” a staggering number about letting go even as one took on the mantle of supposed freedom. As Springsteen wrote decades later in his autobiography, “Our children are never really yours; they’re on loan until they’re all on their own..”

The Boss then revved it up and introduced his first single from “Darkness,” “The Promised Land,” a version that both kicked butt and took names. A veritable rock ‘n roll encyclopedia, Bruce dedicated his harmonica solo that began the piece to the great Delbert McClinton, whose work on Bruce Channel’s “Hey Baby,” back in 1962 inspired John Lennon to imitate it on the Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do.” For many, including me, the pulsating saxophone solo by Clarence Clemons, which formed the bridge of the ballad, turned out to be the proverbial icing on the cake.

In a concert of astonishing moments, one of them occurred near the beginning of the song when Bruce motioned to the audience to sing the chorus of the song acapella. Given the fact that the album had only been out for three months, this was a ballsy thing to do, but the Garden crowd was up to the challenge. Ultimately, they nailed it perfectly.

The dogs on Main Street howl

‘Cause they understand

If I could take one moment into my hands

Mister I ain’t a boy, no I’m a man

And I believe in a promised land!”

For his next musical foray, Bruce Springsteen decided to remind his Boston audience that we were not only his captives but his lovers for the evening. Accordingly, he and the E Street Band broke into one of my favorite numbers on Darkness on the Edge, “Prove it All Night.” The number was launched with a flamboyant riff from pianist Roy Bittan, and then Springsteen took over for a stellar guitar solo that lasted three minutes of unadulterated brilliance. He and the band then broke into the recognizable opening refrain, and the song literally took off from there. Not only did he then prove it musically, but his gymnastics throughout the number turned out to be utterly jaw-dropping.

“Goddamn!” shouted one fan in front of me when Bruce sprint across the stage jumped five feet up onto one of the large speakers, began serenading us from there, jumped down, took 10 steps at a full run, and then slid across the stage on his knees while still playing the lead guitar. I remember thinking at the time that Bruce Springsteen was a musical centerfielder, and, like Willie Mays, he could get to every ball hit his way.

After such an explosion of sustained effervescence, it was predictable that Bruce would subdue it once again, but to do so with the signature song of “Darkness” bordered on the sublime. Roy Bittan initiated “Racing in the Streets” with an emotive piano introduction, which was not only a stroke of genius but actually set us up for the radiance to follow. As we were constantly reminded that evening, Springsteen was an old-fashioned balladeer who sang about the plight of “every-man,” individuals whose compromises and decisions led them to settle for the best they could make of their lives. Bruce wasn’t singing about the mapped-out lives of the well-connected, but about the vast majority of us who simply make up the lives we had on the fly. When he got to the crescendo of the number, a young woman below me began to weep as The Boss crooned:

But now there’s wrinkles around my baby’s eyes

And she cries herself to sleep at night

When I come home the house is dark

She sighs, “Baby, did you make it alright? “

She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house

But all her pretty dreams are torn,

She stares off alone into the night

With the eyes of one who hates for just being born

For all the shutdown strangers and hot rod angels,

Rumbling through this Promised Land

Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea

And wash these sins off our hands.”

As Bruce Springsteen sang the haunting ballad, the E Street Band purposely backed in reverence as he completed it on his own. When she reflected back on the highlights at the concert, my girlfriend recalled that winter, “Now that was a moment.

After the obligatory “Thunder Road,” “Kitty’s Back,” and “Fourth of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” which the audience lapped up, clapped along with, and sang it all back to a jubilant Springsteen, he closed the first half of the show with a transcendental version of “Jungleland,” featuring the incomparable saxophone work of “The Big Man,” Clarence Clemons (from 3:42 – 6:05). Amidst a flurry of helter-skelter chord changes and infectious guitar riffs, Springsteen’s poetry dripped forth images that bored into one’s soul, from “barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge/drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain,” to “outside the street’s on fire/in a real death waltz/between what’s flesh and what’s fantasy.” At the end of the anthem, when the entire group sprinted off the stage like schoolboys to cool off, you thought they would live forever. Sadly, Danny Federici would die of melanoma in 2008. The seemingly immortal Clarence Clemons would succumb to a stroke three years later.

After a 20 minute break in the action, Bruce Springsteen and his bandmates came back onstage for the second set, which began with “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” a sprite holiday tune that he had just begun to include in his sets that fall. The Boss deftly used the brilliant arrangement that Phil Spector first incorporated on his 1963 Christmas album with the Crystals, turned up the energy a bit, and let the mirth of the song take over. As “The Big Man” began to “ho ho ho” during the song’s bridge, fake snow began to fall from the rafters, covering the Boston Garden stage! Magic.

From his bag of tricks, Springsteen then rolled out five disparate tunes, which he had both written and recorded earlier that year, including “Candy’s Room,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Streets of Fire,” and “Something in the Night.” Except for the newly-composed ballad, “Point Blank,” which he would include on The River album in 1980, the hyperkinetic participation of the crowd was so intense that Bruce had us sing the chorus lines to every song.

The next number of the set, “Fire,” a hit song for the Pointer Sisters that fall, instantly turned 8,000 women in the Garden that evening into weepy, sweat-soaked sirens all intent on slaying the Odysseus-like figure singing to them. That was followed by The Boss’s smoking version of “Because the Night,” which put Patti Smith’s cover into the proverbial dust in the process. After a Santana-like guitar solo to begin the ballad, Bruce’s distinctive baritone took over:

“Take me now baby here as I am
Hold me close, try and understand
I work all day out in the hot sun
I break my back till the evening comes
Come on now try and understand
I work all day pushing for the man
Daylights gone, take me under your cover
They can’t hurt us now
Can’t hurt us now, can’t hurt us now
Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to lust
Because the night belongs to lovers
Because the night belongs to us!”

Of all of the songs that Bruce performed that evening at the Garden, “Because the Night” proved to be the one that most lingered in my memory, mainly because his band matched his passion and his prowess.

The E Street Band then went back to the well for two beloved numbers that had been staples in the group’s repertoire for almost four years to that point. “Incident on 57th Street,” one of the great story-songs from Bruce’s highly underappreciated second album, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, focused on Johnny and Jane, two Hispanic-Americans, who found themselves wrapped in the charms and clutches of the New York City gangland. A Scorsese-like plot then unfolded all the way to an unexpected conclusion.

Springsteen then followed this with a non-fictional account of how his own band formed in his hallowed song from Born to Run, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” When Bruce hit the autobiographical third verse and cried out, “When the change was made uptown, and the Big Man joined the band/From the coastline to the city, all the little pretties raised their hands!” the Garden crowd literally erupted with spasms of delight. An overhead spotlight shone on an ivory-suited Clemons throughout this stanza, which inspired him to project an extra bit of sound from his tenor sax. This caused the audience’s screams to then reverberate to the rafters high above the stage.

 Bruce then followed his signature song with two iconic masterworks, “Rosalita,” followed by “Born to Run.” While his version of “Born to Run” was to die for, it was the group’s performance throughout “Rosalita,” that put another exclamation mark on the evening. When the young bard finally punched out the climax of the number at the 4:20 mark, the audience was there, bellowing out the lyrics in unison.

Now, I know your mama, she don’t like me, ’cause I play in a rock and roll band

And I know your daddy, he don’t dig me, but he never did understand

Your papa lowered the boom, he locked you in your room, I’m comin’ to lend a hand

I’m comin’ to liberate you, confiscate you, I want to be your man

Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny

But now you’re sad, your mama’s mad

And your papa says he knows that I don’t have any money

Well, tell him this is his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance

Because a record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!

Even as Bruce played on, a string of girls climbed onto the Garden stage and kissed him, one of them avec vigueur. Steve Morse of The Boston Globe later wrote that he had never seen such joy onstage. None of us had!  

Exhausted and yet clearly exhilarated, The Boss ended the second set with Eddie Floyd’s 1967 soul anthem, “Raise Your Hand,” later made famous by Janis Joplin. For this one, Springsteen played the role of a lounge singer and worked the audience with an old-fashioned standing mike as his main prop. That he ended up singing on top of the stage’s tallest speaker system, some 15 feet off the ground, made it even more remarkable! While Bruce was dancing, crooning, and carousing, it was the translucent sax work of “The Big Man”, who drove the musical bus on this number to the last note. 

After five minutes of an entire Boston audience screaming, “BRRRRUUUUUUUCCCEEE,” Springsteen and the E Street Band came on for a mindblowing rendition of Gary “U. S.” Bond’s 1961 top ten hit, “Quarter to Three.” Forever a zealous fan of early rock ‘n roll, Bruce was determined to conclude the evening playing from the genre’s Book of Genesis. When the last note was struck and the audience enveloped him in a wall of sound that was somewhere between a scream and a cry, The Boss shouted out, “Thank you, Boston! As always – keep rocking!

20 minutes later, I poured into an impossibly crowded subway car and headed back to the Woodland T-stop feeling as if I had just pitched a nine-inning shutout. Dripping with sweat – we all were – people commenced high-fiving one another as we boarded the train. As if on cue, many of the passengers, all of whom had just attended the concert, spontaneously broke into their own version of “Prove It All Night” as we rolled on into the Boston night on the Green Line.

Often times in life, we invest way too much passion in the stuff of dreams that we sometimes fail to love what is right in front of us. In the end, life is not about searching for the things that can be found, but it is about letting the unexpected happen and finding things you never searched for previously. As he had done throughout the legendary “Darkness Tour” during the last seven months of 1978, Bruce Springsteen ended up giving all of us who had attended his concert that evening a reason to believe.

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