SOPHIE’S SPRINGSTEEN TAPE
Bruce Springsteen released his 12th studio album, The Rising, in July 2002, beginning a creative streak that has not let up in ten years. With the U.S. still reeling from the 9/11 terrorist attacks and stories of fallen soldiers in the headlines, the Boss recorded a masterful reflection on loss, sorrow, love, hope, redemption and trying to find one’s way through the darkness. Each song stands up with his finest material from an extraordinary career that dates back to 1973. Making the album even more compelling was the fact that Springsteen recorded The Rising with the fabled E Street Band for the first time since the early 1980s sessions that resulted in Born in the USA. Springsteen fans rejoiced, as this was what we’d been waiting for since Springsteen and the E Street Band had reunited for a triumphant tour in 1999.
At that time in the life of my family, we were coming to grips with our own feelings of hopelessness, sorrow, anger, love, hope and struggles with faith. It was a mere seven months after Jacob had been diagnosed with cystic fibrosis. Personally, I had bottled up many of the fears and doubts that had taken up residency in my mind, foolishly assuming that Julie would not want to discuss my feelings because she was going through the same emotions. There were many times I wound up crying alone, either secluded in my car, on the couch, or quietly at night while my wife slept next to me.
Just as I’d done throughout my life, I turned to music to help me through some of those dark times. More than any album I listened to, The Rising tapped into the well of feelings I was experiencing. In many ways, it saved me. What The Rising also did was bring the music of Bruce Springsteen into the hearts of my children and create a special bond for our family, providing joy and inspiration for all four of us.
The album was a critical and commercial success. In true Springsteen fashion, he and the E Street Band toured the world, including a stop in Barcelona, Spain that was filmed and broadcast on European television. Around the time of the 2003 Grammy Awards, for which The Rising received multiple nominations, the CBS TV network aired an hour of the Barcelona concert footage to drum up anticipation for the awards show.
I freakishly set up the VCR to record the program on the Friday night it aired. Sophie watched in fascination as her wild-eyed fanatical father pressed buttons and frantically searched for a blank VHS tape. She asked what I was doing, and I explained that I was taping the Springsteen concert. Excited, Sophie told me she wanted to watch “The Springsteen."
It was a little dishearteningly when, the next morning, the first thing she asked to watch was...Rugrats. But it was okay, because the next thing she wanted to see was, yes, “The Springsteen.”
Feeding off of my enthusiasm, Jacob agreed to forego his favorite music videos during his morning breathers therapy. At the time, he only liked the Wiggles (or “Wiwis,” as he called them) and Sesame Street. Together the three of us watched The Springsteen, and my kids loved it. Once his breathers were completed, Jacob insisted on replaying the performance of “Dancing in the Dark.” Free of his Vest and nebulizer tubes, he danced around the room, mimicking Springsteen’s manic behavior. As for Sophie, she fell in love with violinist Soozie Tyrell. In a matter of days, my little girl created her own “violin” by taking a recorder, pulling off the bottom piece and shoving a drumstick in the end. Tucking it under her chin, she’d hold her violin with her left hand and use a second drumstick as the bow. I was on cloud nine having introduced my children, a new generation, to the music of an artist who had inspired me since my senior year of high school.
A month or so later, Sophie requested her own Springsteen mix tape. I leapt at the opportunity and created “Sophie’s Springsteen Tape,” incorporating the upbeat songs from the CBS special (there would be time for the sad songs later in life) along with an assortment of Bruce classics every child should know: “Badlands,” “Give the Girl a Kiss,” “Seaside Bar Song,” and “Glory Days,” just to name a few. Through long road trips and short drives around town, Sophie and Jacob sang along to the choruses from “Lonesome Day” and “The Rising.” They would bounce their heads to “Lion’s Den” and scream “the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band” from “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out.” My children knew who Clarence Clemons was. The Big Man! How cool is that? Eventually they came to know all of the E Street Band: Max, Garry, Nils, Patti, Danny, the Professor and Little Stevie.
Their favorite song may have been “Mary’s Place.” During this rousing number, Sophie misheard the chorus, singing “Meet me at the wedding place,” which I always felt gave the song a touch of innocence. During the last verse, as the music quiets and the back-up singers begin calling out “Turn it up,” Julie made it a tradition to literally turn up the music with each call out, then quickly back down again. This made the kids ecstatic each and every time, and they would laugh and sing with all of their hearts. I can’t tell you how many times we listened to that tape in our van over a two-year period, until it finally got tangled and snapped from having being loved to death.
In a year that found my children beginning a journey into Springsteen fandom, 2003 also took our family on a journey from our California home to the beaches of Hawaii. Julie and I were already involved with the CF Foundation’s yearly fundraiser, Great Strides, but I wanted to do more. People knew so little about cystic fibrosis, and I felt the urge to educate and raise more money for the cause. At a CF parents function in March I was handed a pamphlet about marathon training. In a moment of clarity, a single word came to me:
I could run a marathon and raise money for the CF Foundation! By writing letters about my goal I could educate friends and family, and by punishing my body, I could inspire people to donate and help the efforts to find a cure for CF. It was a crazy thought, especially given the fact that I hadn’t been a dedicated runner since my high school cross-country days, although “dedicated” is a big stretch when describing my teenage athleticism. Nevertheless, sixteen years after the last time I’d run more than two miles, the idea of running twenty-six-point-two of them was an epiphany. In fact, it felt like a calling. And so, I signed up to run the Honolulu Marathon.
Julie, Sophie, Jacob and I flew to Hawaii in December, 2003. As any amateur marathon runner will tell you, that first marathon is an exhilarating experience. It doesn’t matter how fast you run or where you finish, it’s the sense of accomplishment you receive once you cross the finish line. Think about it: after months of training and raising $10,000 for the CF Foundation, I was going to be running twenty-six (point two) freaking miles! The exotic sights of the island only heightened the experience, from the sun rising over the mountains to the vast ocean and the tropical foliage.
The highlight of my race wasn’t the sight-seeing, though. It came at the dreaded twenty-second mile, “the wall,” as runners call it. I was met at that point in the race by my trainer, Robert, who jogged alongside me for that offensive mile, the whole time offering words of encouragement and distracting me from the cramp in my side and the aches in my feet. During our short time on the road together, Robert called Julie on her cell phone.
“We love you,” she said, her voice full of excitement. Speaking to the love of my life gave me the extra boost I needed when I thought I might keel over. Pushing forward, I sang to myself the Springsteen songs that I’d taught my children, the very melodies that filled my heart with love, that buoyed me across the finish line to collapse into the arms of my family.
After the race, we began a weeklong stay in Hawaii. It was one of the greatest vacations ever. Unlike our trips to Cleveland or Tucson to visit family, this time it was just the four of us. In that tranquil tropical environment, our lives were on hold, as if the troubles and fears that were a part of our daily routine had been left back in California while we basked in the sun and splashed in the turquoise ocean.
At week’s end, Julie and I wanted mementos for the kids to remind them of our tropical holiday. Sophie and Jacob asked for ukuleles. The size of the instrument was perfect for their little hands, and thus they became the kids’ “guitars.”
Once we returned home, the children continued watching The Springsteen on a regular basis, Sophie with her homemade violin and Jacob with his ukulele/guitar. They would prance around the living room, singing along to their favorite songs. Sometimes I would imagine them learning to play the actual instruments and jamming with the real E Street Band. Hey, a father can dream, can’t he?
“Sophie’s Springsteen Tape,” and its replacement, “Sophie and Jake’s Springsteen CD,” kind of ruined my listening experience of The Rising. Whenever I hear the title track, I expect to hear “Mary’s Place,” followed by “Lonesome Day,” instead of the original track listing. I don’t mind, though (sorry, Bruce), because that mix tape not only made the music of Springsteen an important part of Sophie and Jacob’s childhood but provided many lasting memories. On days when I’m melancholy and I feel that elephant sitting on my chest, I think back to that Hawaiian trip and recall the light in the eyes of my children, or I conjure the sound of their voices singing Springsteen. Although many years have passed since that time, all it takes to place me in the right frame of mind is to imagine Sophie singing, “Meet me at the wedding place!”
That’s the power of music, my friends.
That’s the power of Bruce Springsteen.