Updated: Oct 3
October 3, 2023
EDITOR'S NOTE: Just as we were readying our first-ever podcast, focused on Bruce Springsteen's female fans, we happened to hear from a bona-fide "newbie" female fan. Maggie Wheeler shared with us her first-hand account of how she became a newly obsessed fan during Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band's stand in Chicago, just under two months ago. Check out Maggie's story below.
And if you can be in Asbury Park, NJ this coming Saturday, consider yourself invited to attend a FREE presentation and book-signing event with our podcast's guests, Lorraine Mangione and Donna Luff, co-authors of Mary Climbs In: The Journeys of Bruce Springsteen's Female Fans. The event will take place on Saturday, October 7, beginning at 7pm, at Asbury Book Cooperative. Click here for more info and to secure your FREE event-ticket.
"Baptized By Bruce"
by Maggie Wheeler
I was not a Bruce Springsteen fan. When “Born in the U.S.A.” first hit the airwaves, I was not interested in his music. Back then, I saw a musician whom I perceived as too commercial and East Coast elite, who didn’t speak to someone like me living in a “flyover state.” Admittedly, “Dancing in the Dark” is a catchy tune, and I admired how he plucked a girl from the audience to dance with him in the video (although I later discovered it wasn’t a random selection at all.) But John Mellencamp represented those who grew up in the Midwest like me. And “Rain on the Scarecrow” is an amazing song. John knows what life is like in the heartland.
I married Ray in 2012, and though we’d known each other for years, we never talked a lot about our musical tastes. That he is a huge Bruce fan eluded me. I’m not sure why. Ray has Bruce box sets and CDs and books all over the house. But Ray scarcely talked about his fandom to me. It was stealth, private. Clearly, he sensed my disinterest. He never mentioned wanting to go to see the 2016 tour. Or maybe he did, and I paid zero attention. Looking back on this part of our marriage now, it all seems odd that he never shared with me something so important to him. But we had other things in common, like a passion for animal rescue, and that kept us busy, and still does. For us, that was enough.
But in 2023, I knew Bruce was on tour because this time Ray talked about it. I knew Bruce was in Europe and would be back in the U.S. at some point. I knew Bruce fell on the stage stairs somewhere. I knew Bruce possibly had COVID and had to postpone several shows. Ray decided now was the time to make me listen. And he did. “Bruce is coming to Chicago,” he said as he emerged from his home office one day in the spring.
I didn’t look up from my computer. “How old is he now?”
I shrugged. “How much are the tickets?”
I paused. “Listen, do it if you want to. He’s not getting any younger.”
He went back into the office, and that was the last I heard until the day the tickets went on sale. Then I heard a loud expletive coming from the office. “They’re all gone.”
I was sad for him, but I continued doing personal things and forgot about it until a few days later when my husband told me they’d added a second show. “Do it,” I told him again. He bought expensive tickets and started counting down the days until the show. I couldn’t even remember the exact date and he had to remind me multiple times.
August arrived and, amidst the stress of going back to teaching at our local university, I didn’t want to go to this concert. I hoped I’d get sick. I hoped Bruce would postpone the show (since I knew he’d had earlier in the tour.) Something. Anything to get me out of this. To my disappointment, nothing prevented me from going. We took the train to Chicago like we’ve done at least twenty times since we’ve been together, and I prepared to endure for three hours. Then I’d go home and things would go back to normal.
On concert day, August 11th, my anxiety about navigating the Red Line to Wrigley and getting back to our hotel again distracted me from my disinterest in going. After an event-free ride, we made it to Wrigley Field right as the doors opened and settled into our pricey seats. I relaxed. And sweated. And prepared for an okay time.
The show started, and the venue ignited. My problem was I didn’t know any of the songs for the first part of the show, so the palpable energy moved past me with no impact. Instead, I amused myself by watching the audience reactions on the big screens and taking in the atmosphere while my husband became one with the crowd.
Something happened between “Mary’s Place” and “Last Man Standing.” Bruce talked about the passing of the one remaining band member from his first band. “Death is about what is possible in this life now.” "Wait, Bruce is talking about life and death?," I asked myself. Not what I expected in a rock and roll show. I glanced at my husband. Nodding at me, he already knew that life and death and the joy of living were the threads through the songs on this tour. He had followed the set list and watched clips from many prior shows. To date, I have lost both parents, a best friend, many pets, and three close friends. For the first time, I knew what others already did: Bruce gets it. Bruce’s songs have depth and resonate on levels I hadn’t understood before. Because I never gave him a chance.
Something inside me broke and healed simultaneously. The wave of emotional energy from the crowd that had been crashing around me during the first half of the show finally swept me away. Metaphorically, I was crowd surfing. I felt like a presence wrapped its arms around me. My knees buckled, and I held onto the seat in front of me to compose myself.
I had to sit for “Backstreets” because I felt dizzy. Surrounded by the surge of energy that moved around and now through me, I needed to catch my breath and process what I’d experienced. My head pounded, but in the best way possible. I lost myself in introspection. I’ve been to over fifty concerts in my life, but I have never experienced a transformation like this. Not once.
When I heard the opening of “Because the Night” it pulled me out of my head — and out of my seat. “He’s singing my favorite 10,000 Maniacs song,” I whispered to my husband, who laughingly corrected me. Wait, Bruce wrote that song? How did I not know that? I love the song, and Bruce wrote it. What other surprises were in store for me?
After that, I listened more closely to the lyrics. I listened to my husband’s whispered explanations leading me out of the darkness. I danced to “Rosalita” and “Dancing in the Dark” (without thinking about Courtney Cox once.) When he played “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” I swallowed the baseball-sized lump in my throat. Now, I didn’t want the night to end. I didn’t want any of it to end. Everyone in Wrigley but I knew that this was the last song on the setlist, and I refused to believe it. The night was over, but it wasn’t.
On the train ride the next day, I fought back tears. Something is wrong with me. When we got home, I sobbed. After I dried my eyes, I fought to understand why I felt so emotional. Why was I crying about a concert - about an artist - that 24 hours prior I didn’t even care about? I rationalized it as being tired, though I knew I wasn’t tired at all. When I woke up the next morning after a restless night of Bruce songs peppering my dreams, and I still felt like crying, I knew this was not a fluke. That morning, I surreptitiously watched YouTube concert videos like someone sneaking glances at porn. Later in the day, I realized I was being ridiculous. What are you ashamed of? As I fought back tears, I confessed to Ray, “I think that concert changed my freaking life.”
Ray smiled at me. “I think that’s a common theme," he replied. "Let me send you something.” He went to his computer and sent me the link to a post from a Bruce Facebook fan group. A guy who had been at the concert on August 11th, posted that he “got it” now. Finally, I exhaled literally and figuratively; I wasn’t alone in this transformation. Though the feeling was new and uncomfortable, as change often is, it would soon fit like my favorite pair of boots.
I’ve debated a career change for over a year, but I feared losing the stability the job offers. As I read the post Ray sent me, I kept thinking about Bruce’s words: “Death is about what we make of life now.” Maybe now was the time to launch a writing career. Is a dream a lie if it don't come true...? I didn’t want to know the answer to that question.
When my husband came back into the room, he looked at me like he hadn’t in a long time. Something had shifted between us we now talk a lot about. But right then, the gravity of my personal evolution struck me. “Like, I’m not joking. This concert messed me up. Maybe now is the time to do what I love.”
“Do it,” he said.
No more wasted days.
For the next seven days, I watched concert videos on YouTube with my husband and listened to E Street Radio all day long in order to catch up on the fifty years of Bruceness I have missed. During the seven days after the concert, I wondered what would have happened if I’d gone to a show sooner. I asked myself if this conversion would have happened earlier.
Immediately, I understood what happened at Wrigley Field on August 11th, 2023 was something special. I’m perfectly where I need to be. Bruce's music did that. I believe it’ll help to lead me forward the rest of the way. My life hasn’t gone back to “normal.” My new normal is powerful. I cried for seven days - and counting; I swam in the songs for seven days. For seven days - and counting - I understood more fully where I’m destined to be.
Seeing the joy on my husband’s face when I ask him about song lyrics or a biographical detail about Bruce makes my heart sing. Not only was I transformed, but our marriage was, too. It’s an intimacy that we share with millions of other humans, and I am happy I now join my husband in it. When I enter a room and shout “No retreat, baby, no surrender,” he laughs. When I sing along to “Badlands” in the car, he joins in. Our membership in this "congregation" transcends the hard responsibilities we also share.
On that seventh night, Ray told me, “I hoped this would happen, but I didn’t want to push you into it.” He led me to the ceremony and let me decide whether to immerse myself in the water. But I didn’t choose to be baptized; something chose it for me. Only those who’ve been to the river will understand.
I saw Mellencamp perform recently. “Rain on the Scarecrow” is still awesome, and he rocked, as he always does. But this time, I exited a venue bone-dry.