Bruce Springsteen is the only person alive who has attended every single Bruce Springsteen concert. And in his expert opinion, one of the very best was at the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
He makes that abundantly clear in "Born to Run," his new, 510-page autobiography, which shares a title with one of his most popular anthems.
It was the E Street Band's Super Bowl halftime performance in 2009 that first compelled Springsteen to start writing about his experiences. Intermittently over the next seven years, he filled notebooks with memories, thoughts, observations and context relating to his creative life.
The end result is a literate and insightful look at how and why Springsteen became The Boss.
He devotes four full pages of "Born to Run" to his 2006 Jazz Fest experience. For many of those who stood on the Acura Stage field at the Fair Grounds that day, Springsteen's show was a watershed event, an emotional meeting of music and moment.
He apparently felt the same way. He prefaces his account with, "There was one show in America that stood out as not only one of the finest but one of the most meaningful of my work life: New Orleans."
The stakes were high that day for both Springsteen and the city. Not only was this the first Jazz Fest following Hurricane Katrina — with much of the city still in tatters, and much of the populace still raw and shell-shocked — but it was also the first public performance of the Seeger Sessions Band, which Springsteen first assembled to record songs by folk legend Pete Seeger.
"I finally had a band that I felt would contextually fit Jazz Fest," he writes. "I understood the great symbolism the festival would have to New Orleans that year and I wanted to make sure we honored it."
He goes on to describe how he researched "When the Saints Go Marching In" and turned it into a "meditation" informed by the song's lesser-known lyrics: "It was a quiet hymn, the way we presented it, but it was our thanks and our prayer for the city that had birthed blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll and so much of the most epic American culture."
He recounts arriving at the Fair Grounds at 8:30 a.m. for a sound check before the festival opened. U2 guitarist The Edge, an old friend, was there bright and early, as well, watching from the side of the Acura Stage as the Seeger Sessions Band rehearsed.
Details fill Springsteen's prose. The Acura Stage itself was "acoustically dead; there was very little ambient sound." For the musicians onstage, "this can make things sound flat and unexciting."
Allen Toussaint, whom Springsteen calls "New Orleans's spiritual godfather," preceded him at the festival that afternoon: "That's a hell of an opening act and tough to follow." Toussaint visited with Springsteen and company in their backstage trailer.
They arrived onstage to what Springsteen describes as "not tumultuous, but welcoming" applause. He "immediately sensed the crowd was not going to be easy," so he and his bandmates "went to work."
He made sure to clearly enunciate the lyrics of the old Blind Alfred Reed folk song "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," to which he'd added lines that mocked President George W. Bush's lackluster response to Katrina's devastation. "My City of Ruins," a song he originally wrote about Asbury Park, New Jersey, sealed the deal with the crowd. "That's what it took," he writes. "A mutual acknowledgment of pain and hard times."
After winding down with the prayerful "When the Saints Go Marching In," he "watched white handkerchiefs flutter from a thousand hands in the last rays of the sun. There were some tears both on and off the stage."
He concludes, "I've played, many, many, many shows, but few like this one. ...You cannot book, manufacture or contrive these dates. It's a matter of moment, place, need, and a desire to serve in your own small way the events of the day. There, in New Orleans, there was a real job to do."
Elsewhere in the book, he emphasizes how critical performing is to his existence; it is his primary drug. "I've never gotten anywhere near as far or as high as when I count the band in and feel what seems like all life itself and a small flash of eternity pulsing through me. It's the way I'm built."
His capacity to do the work necessary to play those sorts of shows is "the upside of being a control freak, a bottomless well of anxious energy that, when channeled correctly, was a mighty force. It served me well."
During a description of the torturous, monthslong process of mixing "The River" album, he lays out his motivation for what he does. Music, for him, is "a salve, a balm, a tool to tease out the clues to the unknowable in my life. It was the fundamental why and wherefore of my picking up the guitar. Yes, the girls. Yes, the success. But answers, or rather those clues, that's what kept waking me in the middle of the night to roll over and disappear into the sound hole of my six-string cipher while the rest of the world slept."
The whole of his musical output revolves around a central question: "My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else's shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I'm compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It's one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day."
Fans sometimes come to believe their heroes sprang up, fully formed, from some special place. "Born to Run" makes clear that this is not the case. Springsteen was and is susceptible to the same challenges and potential pitfalls that dog everyone else, from a strained relationship with his hard-drinking father, to an awkward adolescence, to, later in life, physical ailments and depression.
But he possessed the desire, drive, luck, talent, sobriety — and antidepressants — needed to rise above and achieve something extraordinary, to live the sort of life very few humans experience. "Born to Run" fully illuminates it, including a very special day at Jazz Fest.