By Michael Wilson
“I don’t wanna go home,” Bruce Springsteen told some 20,000 cheering fans Saturday night in Madison Square Garden. “New York, wanna go home?”
An age-old showman’s shtick, sure, recalling when James Brown feigned being dragged offstage by bandmates fearful for his health — a gag Springsteen himself, now 73, has toyed with over the years.
But on this night, in this city, during this week, the question perhaps carried greater weight. Home, for New Yorkers, is a complicated and unsettling place these days.
On Tuesday, 3 miles away downtown, a former president of the United States is expected to surrender and face charges in Manhattan Criminal Court, a scene without precedent. The arrival of Donald Trump in the heavily Democratic city he long called home promises to be met with fervent protests and counter-protests.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, a firebrand Republican representative from Georgia, has promised on Twitter to come to New York to protest the “WITCH HUNT” and urged her 667,000 followers to join her.
Trump himself has warned of “potential death and destruction” on Truth Social, his social media platform.
This specific drama has, for now, overshadowed the lingering fallout of the pandemic and other issues in New York City, with increased wariness of crime, the stubborn persistence of vacant office buildings, an influx of migrants transported from the southern border, and — well, you name it, any economic or social or cultural crisis, and we’ve got it, right here.
So, no, Bruce, we do not want to go home. Keep playing.
Like many in the house, Springsteen was at home Saturday, just across the river from his home in his native New Jersey after two months of barnstorming the country on his first U.S. tour with the E Street Band since 2016. With all respect to those cities where he has recently performed, beginning in Tampa, Florida, and heading west, for New Yorkers, a Springsteen tour only really begins when it arrives at that legendary address on Seventh Avenue in Midtown.
“It’s a Garden party,” said Maggie McManus, 60, from Astoria, Queens, sitting in a nearby Irish bar with her sister, Rory Brown, 61, before the show, their latest in a series dating back to the 1980s when the Boss wore a bandanna on his head.
“When he’s in New York, that’s when the show explodes,” Brown said.
“Like seeing Pearl Jam in Seattle — he’s home,” her sister added.
Springsteen’s first outing in the Garden was not met fondly when he opened for the band Chicago in 1973, a perhaps odd pairing that did him no favors. But the critics were soon on board — “Mr. Springsteen has evolved into one of the most exciting young figures in rock music,” The New York Times declared in 1974 — and in 1978, his three-night return to the arena, behind the album “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” was a triumph.
Headlining the first August night of that run was “the most important night of my life,” he told Eyewitness News afterward. Then 28, he seemed to falter for words: “It was, like, real special. Crowd was great. Kids were, like, they were great, you know? It was good.”
He would return more than 40 times in the decades that followed, putting him shoulder-to-shoulder with most every musical act except Billy Joel, who still performs at the Garden frequently enough to have his mail forwarded there.
In 2001, after a global E Street Band tour, Springsteen released a concert album, “Live in New York City,” recorded at the Garden and a reminder of the city’s place in his creative thinking. That album contained the first recorded version of “American Skin (41 Shots),” about the 1999 fatal police shooting of Amadou Diallo in the Bronx as he reached for his wallet. The song divided fans and infuriated members of the Police Department, who reportedly refused to provide Springsteen with an escort out of the city after he played it at a later show.
In the years since, Springsteen has taken on other weighty issues, most notably on his Sept. 11 album, “The Rising.” And he has in the past spoken critically about the man who is appearing in court this week, calling him “a threat to our democracy” during Trump’s term in office.
“Maybe he’ll be at the show tonight,” joked Mark Evan, 59, of Long Beach, New York, who had just scored a $300 ticket on Saturday.
Springsteen and Ticketmaster have taken heat for a new supply-and-demand method of pricing on this tour, sending the best seats well into the four-figure range, but as the concert dates neared, the prices seem to have cooled somewhat.
The timing of the concert Saturday, scheduled months ago, was purely accidental. But would Springsteen be able to resist the temptation to mention the former president’s legal troubles?
“I prefer when performers stay out of politics,” said Bridget Boccini, 53, of Poughkeepsie, New York, sipping a drink with her husband, Manny, 61, on the way to their first Springsteen show since the George W. Bush administration — a gift from their children.
She would have been pleased, then, that Springsteen never mentioned Trump onstage Saturday. He appeared to have more personal matters front of mind, running through a set that threaded his earliest material — “Kitty’s Back,” “The E Street Shuffle” and “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” all 50-year-old songs — to his latest rock album, “Letter to You” from 2020.
He introduced one new song with a story about joining his first band, the Castiles, as a teenager, and 50 years later, standing at the deathbed of the bandmate who had invited him in, George Theiss.
“Rock of ages, lift me somehow,” he sang. “Somewhere high and hard and loud, somewhere deep into the heart of the crowd — I’m the last man standing now.”
Springsteen shows are the stuff of myth, and it is widely held that to attend one is to leave behind your troubles and differences for three hours or more, to celebrate with a shared community of fans from all points on the political spectrum.
But even the most committed fans in the house on Saturday — from Shug Hannaway of Scotland, a Garden first-timer at his “bucket list gig,” to Paul McCartney, seen in the stands beside his wife, Nancy — could hardly pretend, for long, that everything was going to be fine.
A somber Springsteen, speaking of the clarity that a dear friend’s death brings, could have been directly addressing this moment in New York.
“Be good to yourselves,” he said. “Be good to those you love, and be good to this world around you.”
The show ended, and everyone in the Garden spilled out into a Saturday night city bracing for the week to come, and headed, whether across town or across the globe, toward home.