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Saturday 25 November 2017

Bruce Springsteen: From the Boss to the Lord of the Manor

He wasn’t ‘The Boss’ when he arrived,but when he left there was no disputing Springsteen’s power, recalls Liam Fay

Liam Fay

LOOKING back, I’m pretty sure I never heard anyone calling him ‘The Boss’. Springsteen mania was a global epidemic in 1985, and the contagion’s local strain was exciting something close to delirium by the time he and the E Street Band leapt onstage just after 5pm on Saturday, June 1.

However, even his most slavering Irish fans refused to ape the subservient reverence that is the hallmark of Springsteen’s American devotees.

We’d come to Slane to kick our heels up, not to bend the knee.

“Brooooce!” was the commonest male yell on the day. “Brucie, baby!” was the preferred female alternative, a come-on that seemed specially popular among the legions of teenybopper converts whose heads had been turned by the rippling

physique of the ass-shaking Springsteen featured in the ‘Dancing In The Dark’ video, a promo that had been receiving heavy rotation on Vincent Hanley’s MT USA for over a year.

Nevertheless, there remained a doggedly oblivious few for whom the name of this newly sculpted American icon was evidently a little too exotic; I still have a handmade wooden keyring I bought on the way into the gig, bearing the word ‘Sprigstein’.

Call him what you like but nobody who attended the Slane concert will forget the electro-shock zap that surged through the assembled throng during the first notes of the opening number.

There are good reasons why ‘Born In The USA’ never features on lists of Springsteen aficionados’ most cherished songs but – right there, right then – the pounding, lockstep, chanting nature of the track facilitated a mighty release of tension.

In the countdown to showtime, as the estimated crowd of 100,000 grew restless and gaggles of drunkenly belligerent youths elbowed their way to the stage-front, the atmosphere had become increasingly taut and oppressive – Max Weinberg’s reveille drumbeat was the cue to give the air the fist-punching it deserved.

When Springsteen began hollering, in character, about the ominous circumstances of his birth – “the first kick I took was when I hit the ground” – the ground almost gave way.

USA was a weaponised phrase in mid-80s Ireland, loaded and likely to backfire.

For those of us who’d recently left school, it was the distant land of opportunity to which many of our friends and former classmates had emigrated in search of work.

It was also the dream factory that produced what seemed like the most thrilling music and movies.

At the same time, it was the evil empire ruled by Ronald Reagan, the brainaddled megalomaniac who we’d all been encouraged to regard as the most malign individual on the planet.

One of the attractions of Springsteen’s music is that it can accommodate contradictions like these, often within a single song.

The multi million-selling album on which the 1985 world tour was built was an upfront celebration of bluecollar patriotism but it also bore witness to the devastation wreaked in suburban and small-town America by Reagonomics.

At face value, Springsteen’s lyrical concerns – like the aforementioned tale about an embittered Vietnam vet – could hardly be further removed from the mundane realities of Irish life and politics.

The macho poses he struck onstage should also have rung alarm bells among the many punters in this country who possessed a highly developed distrust of mock-heroic grandstanding.

In these parts, after all, ‘The Boss’ was the favoured nickname among Fianna Fail lickspittles for their party leader Charlie Haughey, a petty crook with a laughably grandiose self-image.

Nevertheless, there was a grittiness to Springsteen’s songs and singing that imbued them with rare urgency and universality.

We got the message: to be born in the USA was a great privilege; but, if you grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, it could be the death of you.

In the bleak mid-’80s, many among us harboured a similarly conflicted attitude to the perks of an Irish birthright.

There was, however, nothing remotely bleak about that day in Slane.

The unstinting sunshine bathed everything in a bullion glow which seemed destined to provide the backdrop for golden memories.

The sound quality was no less glorious.

The sloping grounds of Slane Castle form a majestic amphitheatre, with the stage backing on to the Boyne, but the beauty of the setting wasn’t always complemented by the acoustics.

Bob Dylan played Slane the year before and, from the hillside where I watched that gig, the sound seemed muddy and abrasive, a clapped-out mono Dansette with a worn needle.

Springsteen’s stage production was much slicker and smoother, showcasing an audio clarity worthy of what we would soon realise was the beginning of the CD age.

He’d also had the sense to install giant video screens at either side of the stage, in a much-needed nod towards intimacy.

There were loud gasps from some corners of the crowd when the screens showed the first close-ups of Springsteen in his striped red-and-white T-shirt, with the collar cocked up Presley-style.

Many of those present knew every member of the E Street Band by name, and another cheer erupted when the cameras zoomed in on saxplayer Clarence Clemons in his dayglo orange suit.

Even today, there are few megastars who can bind and control an audience quite like Springsteen.

It was extraordinary to watch the speed and confidence with which he and the band turned an amorphous gathering in an enormous field into a community with a unified sense of purpose.

We didn’t know it at the time, of course, but Springsteen himself was a nervous wreck.

Already intimidated by the challenges of playing to such a vast crowd, he was shocked by the melee in front of the stage and fearful that someone would be trampled or suffocated.

On several occasions, he asked the crowd to move back but to no avail.

Beyond the dozens who fainted and were passed over the barriers to security personnel, however, there were no serious casualties among the crush.

A relatively small corps of stageside stewards attempted to cool the milling hordes in the moshpit by spraying them with water from hosepipes and hand-held dispensers.

Before long, the combination of intense body heat and moisture created a mini rainbow over the crowd.

There was something else in the air too – an ocean of plonk.

The etiquette of open-air concerts was still a work in progress, and I recall palpable shock among some acquaintances when they bought their Slane tickets and discovered that the conditions included “no bottles, cans, tape recorders or cameras”.

The prospect of a long day’s rocking without plentiful supplies of beer was terrifying, so it was with queasy trepidation that many opted to investigate one of western civilisation’s oddest innovations: wine in a box.

Each box contained a bag of wine that could be accessed through a flipcap nozzle. Throughout the sweltering afternoon wait for Slane’s main event, every second person seemed to be guzzling from one of these silver bladders while holding at least one other in reserve for later refreshment.

When the crowd rushed forward, thousands of the wine-bags were squashed and flattened, sending gushes of their contents squirting skywards for an instant before falling back to drench those below.

The rainbow above us was soon accompanied by what literally amounted to a haze of alcohol.

MUSICALLY, 1985 was a different country, a more naïve place where we simultaneously over- and underestimated the power of the big beat.

Springsteen’s Slane concert took place six weeks before Live Aid, and years before the idealism of the era’s rock star campaigners would curdle into stadium bombast.

Even on that Saturday evening in Meath, however, we knew enough to appreciate that we were experiencing something extremely special.

The undoubted highlight came six songs in when Springsteen all but silenced the raucous multitude with an aching rendition of ‘The River’, the poignancy and topicality of its story about a doomed young couple in a ruined factory town vividly heightened by our position on the banks of the Boyne.

We may not have called him The Boss but, for three unforgettable hours, Springsteen was the undisputed lord of the manor.

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