From Our Ghosts to Your Ghosts: The Gospel of Springsteen

Here is the moment from last night’s Bruce Springsteen concert that I want to remember.

He worked the crowd like an old-fashioned revival preacher, at times using the language of church – “Can you feel the spirit? Give me a ‘Yeah!'” – and in other ways more obliquely, walking into the crowd for the laying-on of hands. I grew up in church, and I find this stuff both familiar and discomforting, achingly beautiful (how I long to feel close to the sublime, to lose myself in the gospel-choir backup singers’ ecstasy) and dancing on the edge of frightening mob mentality (twenty thousand pairs of hands raised in the air at the bidding of a single charismatic figure).

The first hour or so was all fire and brimstone, big anthems excoriating the perpetrators of social injustice, intermingled with big, crowd-pleasing singalong numbers. Then he changed the pace, introducing “My City of Ruins,” saying that he had written it in honour of Asbury Park, New Jersey, a town that had experienced a 25-year period where it had been sapped of its life force, a shell of its former self. He said the band had performed it for a wide range of occasions, but tonight… tonight it was simply a song “from our ghosts to your ghosts.”

When we’re kids, he said, we’re scared of ghosts. But as we get older, and we start losing the people we love, we begin to collect our ghosts, to hold them close to us, walk around with them wherever we go. And we’re comforted by their presence.

“Are we missing anybody tonight?” he called.

Cries erupted around the arena. We all had ghosts we wanted to remember.

“Are we missing anybody here tonight?”

I couldn’t shout, couldn’t clap, couldn’t even move. I was falling apart, dissolving in tears as the preacher led us in a prayer for our dead. The only kind of prayer I can bear these days, since I stopped feeling at home in church. Grieving my lost friend, crying at a rock concert, awash in sadness while those around me hooted and swayed to the music.

“I said, are we missing anybody tonight?”

I knew – we all knew – the band was missing members. Clarence Clemons, The Big Man, died last year, and Danny Federici a couple of years prior. Bruce was missing people tonight. And all of us were missing someone tonight. I wasn’t alone – I was in a sea of people who were walking with their ghosts. That familiar-discomforting feeling deepened.

And then, Bruce leaned into the mike and crooned:

I’m in a sad mood tonight… I’m in a sad mood…
I’m in a sad mood tonight… I’m in a sad mood…

And that was the moment. The moment where you feel: He just did that for me, and me alone. How did he know? Two lines of a Sam Cooke song. No one else seemed to notice. Sam Cooke, one of my favourite singers of all time – and another wounded, flawed preacher-performer, who left the church and gospel music to sing worldly soul. Sam Cooke, who never sounded more real or more raw than when he cut loose with “Nearer My God to Thee,” loading it up with every ounce of longing for the sublime anyone ever felt.

I’m not going to say I was healed. I didn’t experience a miracle. But I might have felt something like communion: A sense of not being alone, of sharing a bittersweet cup with an assembly of people who were taking a moment to remember the missing and the dead.

And for that I am thankful.

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