The February 1981 issue of Musician magazine has Bruce Springsteen on the cover. Inside, in a twelve-page interview, the rock star discusses his music, his concerts, and his experience with fame. I keep a page of this interview in my desk drawer so that I can take it out every so often and read it. It’s the page where the interviewer asks Springsteen, whose popularity is rapidly growing, if he can still walk down the street without being recognized, and Springsteen responds with a story:
The other night I went out. . . . Went to the movies by myself, walked in, got my popcorn. This guy comes up to me, real nice guy. He says, “Listen, you want to sit with me and my sister?” I say, “All right.” So we watch the movie [laughs]. It was great, too, because it was that Woody Allen movie [Stardust Memories, about a famous director who’s beleaguered by his fans] . . . and this poor kid says, “Jesus, I don’t know what to say to ya. Is that the way it is? Is that how you feel?” I say, “No, I don’t feel like that so much.” And he had the amazing courage to come up to me at the end of the movie and ask if I’d go home and meet his mother and father. I said, “What time is it?” It was eleven o’clock, so I said, “Well, OK.”
So I go home with him; he lives out in some suburb. So we get over to the house, and here’s his mother and father, laying out on the couch, watching TV and reading the paper. He brings me in, and he says, “Hey, I got Bruce Springsteen here.” And they don’t believe him. So he pulls me over, and he says, “This is Bruce Springsteen.” “Aw, g’wan,” they say. So he runs in his room and brings out an album, and he holds it up to my face. And his mother says [breathlessly], “Ohhh yeah!” She starts yelling, “Yeah!” She starts screaming.
And for two hours I was in this kid’s house, talking with these people. They were really nice. They cooked me up all this food, watermelon, and the guy gave me a ride back to my hotel a few hours later.
Springsteen got most of the details right, except for the city: he thought it was Denver, Colorado, but it was St. Louis, Missouri. And though it’s true that the mother didn’t believe he was Bruce Springsteen, it wasn’t the album cover that convinced her. Only after she’d examined Springsteen’s American Express card did she finally accept his identity. But all the rest is true, especially regarding the “real nice guy” who invited Springsteen to sit with him and his sister, then took him home and served him watermelon. That guy was my friend Steve.
Steve and I were both raised in the heavily Jewish, upper-middle-class suburb of Ladue. We went to the same elementary school, but we weren’t friends then. Steve was popular and known for his jokes. I was a shy girl who had only one close friend. In the spring of our sixth-grade year, Steve was absent for several weeks. Rumor had it that he was in the hospital. Finally a teacher reported that Steve had diabetes. None of us really knew what this meant, but we passed the word diabetes back and forth like a medicine ball. When Steve returned, he looked the same as he had before, so we stopped talking about it.
In ninth grade Steve and I had adjacent lockers. Whenever I went to deposit my books, I’d see him holding court with a group of people, going on and on in mock seriousness about, say, the difference between a Steak ’n Shake Steakburger and a Dairy Queen Brazier Burger. For Steve, daily existence consisted of a series of absurdities, and his role was to expose them. He poked fun at everyone and everything, including himself. His disarming and self-effacing humor transcended the social divisions in high school, and everyone from the jocks to the debate-clubbers stopped by his locker for a bit of banter.
Of all the subjects Steve liked to expound on, music was his favorite. His father owned a music store in north St. Louis, and Steve knew every band, singer, and song on the rock scene. I, on the other hand, listened to only the top ten on KXOK. I even had a poster of teen idol David Cassidy on the door of my locker. Every time Steve passed me in the hall, he’d belt out Cassidy’s Partridge Family hit “I Think I Love You” with exaggerated emotion.
I was drawn into Steve’s inner circle and soon began spending time with him after school and on weekends. We played in pickup softball and soccer games, cruised around in his red Bonneville convertible listening to music on his eight-track-tape player, and in the winter went sledding on Mrs. Cave’s hill. Nobody had ever set eyes on Mrs. Cave, and rumors circulated about her: Widow? Spinster? Witch? One night, standing at the bottom of her hill, we noticed a lamp burning in her third-floor window. “Go on,” Steve dared me. “Knock.”
It was there, with Mrs. Cave’s mansion looming behind us, that we first kissed. From that moment on, Steve and I were a couple. I never did knock on Mrs. Cave’s door.
In 1973 Bruce Springsteen released his first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and Steve bought a copy. “You’ve got to hear this guy,” he would tell anyone who stopped by his locker. Most of us didn’t get it. Springsteen was not singing typical pop or rock songs. He was narrating long, rambling stories about growing up on mean streets that could not have been more different from our manicured cul-de-sacs. Granted, his stories were packed with colorful characters, but his music was a far cry from the fluff that the Carpenters and others were offering on the radio. “Blinded by the Light” came the closest to something we could snap our fingers to, and still we’d get lost in its winding lyric. Except for Steve. He memorized every word to every Springsteen song. I can still see him driving and singing “For You,” his face pinched and red. Springsteen’s restless yearning spoke to him. Perhaps this should have been my first clue that Steve had his own restlessness brewing beneath the surface.
After high-school graduation Steve and I headed in different directions, but we remained close. I went to a small school in Colorado. Steve enrolled in Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. We talked often that first year, and in the spring he hitchhiked to Colorado and surprised me with a visit. We never defined the rules of our relationship while living apart, but it was obvious that neither of us was ready to call it quits. When we returned to St. Louis that first summer, we resumed our usual pastimes, which included my listening to Steve sing along to Springsteen albums. Born to Run had just come out, so he had a whole new repertoire. As Springsteen’s fame grew, the singer gave no sign of selling out. “He’s really a nice guy,” Steve told me again and again. This fact was important to him.
In the spring of my sophomore year in college, I squeezed into the phone booth at the end of the dormitory hall and listened as Steve spoke to me from Israel, where he’d gone over spring break. Between the bad connection and the noise in my dorm, I could hear only bits and pieces: “The Wall . . . We davened . . . invited me for Shabbat . . . yeshiva.” The gist of it was that he was not returning to school after spring break. He wanted to stay and study under the auspices of a program called Aish HaTorah (Fire of the Torah). Founded in 1974 by the American rabbi Noah Weinberg, Aish HaTorah began as a learning center whose activities included reaching out to wandering Jewish souls and delivering them back to their roots via study and observance of ritual.
I had never considered Steve a wandering soul, and the idea of him wanting to immerse himself in religious study seemed absurd. Surely his cynicism would prevent him from committing wholeheartedly to the irrational demands of religion. But then again, I realized, it can be difficult to live a life in which one’s only sacred belief is that nothing is sacred.
In our correspondence Steve began referring to God as “G-d” and “Hashem,” and Israel as the “Promised Land.” His letters were sprinkled with Hebrew and signed with his new name: Shlomo Zalmon. Most disturbing to me was the absence of any words of affection. I got a queasy feeling that I was losing him to a competitor far more daunting than any college coed.
Steve — or Shlomo — finally returned after finishing his studies in the yeshiva. Bearded and wearing a hat and a tallit with the traditional fringes (tzitziot) hanging at his sides, he backed away when I stepped forward to hug him. (Orthodox Jewish men are forbidden to touch any woman but their wife.) That single gesture marked the end of our relationship as I had known it.
At first I tried arguing Steve out of his newfound faith, but he was unshakable, and the distance between us grew. Then I adopted a different approach: Perhaps if I found my own faith, the two of us could stay together. If nothing else, I might understand Steve’s transformation better. And maybe an Orthodox life would provide me with the same answers he had found. I spent a year walking to an Orthodox synagogue every Sabbath, learning Hebrew and the prayers, and practicing the daily rituals. I even studied Torah with a rabbi. But invariably I’d come up against a rule that I just did not get. (Why couldn’t I tear toilet paper on the Sabbath?) It wasn’t that I didn’t understand Orthodox Judaism; it was that I couldn’t accept it. In order to observe the 613 mitzvot, or commandments, one has to have faith that every word of the Torah is God-given. It was I, and not Steve, who was too cynical.
Still green in his devotion, Steve tried to convince me that this was the right way for every Jew to live. He pushed, I pulled, and we finally came to an unspoken acceptance of each other’s choices. We would still be friends. We just wouldn’t touch.
Steve made many other changes in his life: He kept kosher. (Because his family wasn’t observant, this meant eating all his meals on disposable Styrofoam plates.) On Friday nights he slept at Orthodox families’ homes. And since listening to female singers was prohibited, his musical tastes narrowed. But Springsteen, with his all-male E Street Band, remained OK.
In October 1980 Springsteen was scheduled to perform two nights at the Kiel Opera House in St. Louis. Steve got tickets to the sold-out Saturday show from a connection through the family’s music store. The Thursday before the concert Steve called to ask if I wanted to accompany his sister and him to see Stardust Memories. I don’t remember why I said no. I think I just didn’t feel like going to a Woody Allen movie. This, of course, was the movie where Steve saw Bruce Springsteen standing at the concession counter with a rolled newspaper under his arm.
Steve told me later that, when he realized Springsteen had come alone to the theater, he thought, Maybe he wants company. What do I have to lose? I will never get this chance again. So he approached him, and they ended up sitting together. While watching the movie, Steve began to feel guilty: Was he the sort of obnoxious fan the film depicted? Springsteen assured him that it wasn’t the case; in fact, he was enjoying himself. Steve relaxed, and when the movie was over, he offered to drive Springsteen back to the hotel. First, though, he wanted to introduce him to his parents.
What Springsteen did not mention in that Musician interview is that while they were in the car, Steve, with his felt hat and his tzitziot dangling down the sides of his jeans, slipped a bootleg tape of one of Springsteen’s concerts into his eight-track player and began to sing. At one point he turned to Springsteen in the passenger seat and asked him to help out with the chorus. For those of us who had spent countless hours in Steve’s front seat, listening to him sing Springsteen songs, this is the best part of the story.
When Steve and his sister walked into their parents’ house with Bruce Springsteen in tow, they found their father sprawled on the couch in a sleeveless undershirt and slippers, watching television. Their mother was sitting at the kitchen table in a housedress. In high school Steve’s mother had been known as “the short mom with the big mouth.” She was funny and generous, but she was not afraid to speak her mind, and she refused to believe that this man standing in her living room was Bruce Springsteen. So she made him pull out his wallet and show her his credit cards. After that, they talked, and she served him watermelon. “You seem like a nice boy,” she told him, and she asked if he was a good son. He told her about his family and, as he was leaving, asked if she wouldn’t mind calling his mom in California and telling her that he was doing fine. (Because this request sounds so un-celebrity-like, I called Steve’s mother recently to confirm it. It’s true: she did call Springsteen’s mother, and for the next couple of years they corresponded through cards.)
Steve invited Springsteen to Sabbath dinner the following night and told him to bring his band mates — especially his Jewish drummer, Max Weinberg. But they had to play their first concert at the Kiel Opera House that Friday night. Springsteen did, however, give Steve a dozen tickets and backstage passes to his Saturday-night performance.
In the Musician interview, Springsteen concludes the story this way: “And I went back to that hotel and felt really good because I thought, ‘Wow [almost whispering], what a thing to be able to do. What an experience to be able to have, to be able to step into some stranger’s life.’ ”
Steve invited me and a group of his friends to accompany him to the concert. We were skeptical of his story at first. It’s not that we didn’t trust Steve. Maybe we just couldn’t believe that, every once in a while, life could actually meet our expectations: a fan can meet his favorite singer, and that singer can turn out to be a really nice guy.
Sitting in the center of the concert floor, we sang and clapped, but, as much fun as we were having, we were still waiting for proof of Steve’s story. As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long. Midway through the concert, Springsteen leaned into the microphone and dedicated the next song to his new friend Steve.
When the concert was over, we all hurried backstage, and I shook Springsteen’s hand and mumbled something about enjoying the show. The rest is a blur. I remember sticking my hand in a jar of M&M’s on the way out.
After that Steve’s life resumed its inevitable uneven course. His father died the following year, and not too much later Steve began to struggle with his diabetes. In and out of the hospital, he underwent dialysis, a kidney transplant, a heart bypass, eye surgery. On October 11, 2003, Steve died. The last time I saw him, he was completely worn down, but he never wavered in his religious faith.
I still think of that night when Springsteen dedicated a number to Steve in front of thousands of concertgoers. The song was “The Promised Land.” Sometimes even worldly moments can be holy.