The humility of Bruce Springsteen
Born In the USA, released in the heat of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential re-election campaign, made Bruce Springsteen the quintessential arena rock superstar ‘— a master of the populist grand gesture whose appeal matched that of his pop counterparts Madonna and Michael Jackson. For my generation ‘— born in the mid-’70s ‘— Bruce represented crass commercialism, and we revered new American bands like HÃ¼sker DÃ¼, the Replacements, the Minutemen and REM that were burrowing underground and planting the seeds for new genres such as grunge and alt country.
But we sold Bruce short. In addition to mastering the showmanship of American icons like Elvis and James Brown, Springsteen has also achieved a remarkable intimacy with his audience and has carried himself with a humility that is his real nobility (I’m one of those fans who can’t quite bring myself to call him ‘The Boss’). Part of that intimacy is his willingness to walk out on stage armed only with an acoustic guitar and a mess of masterful songs, as he did Tuesday (7/26) at the Greensboro Coliseum.
Another part is the joyful camaraderie he shares with other rock and rollers, whether it be heroes like Roy Orbison or lesser artists. It was natural then for Springsteen to walk into the Rhinoceros Club on a Wednesday night in January 1985 and jam with a now largely forgotten band called the Del Fuegos.
Springsteen had just finished two nights in Charlotte and had the day off before two scheduled appearances at the Greensboro Coliseum on Thursday and Friday.
‘“I would guess he probably slept most of the day, and then decided he wanted to get a beer and found out the Del Fuegos were playing,’” said John Rudy, then the owner of the Rhinoceros Club. ‘“He was a real gentleman and not the least bit arrogant.’”
While Born In the USA clinched Springsteen’s superstardom nearly 10 years after Born To Run won him critical acclaim, a band from Boston called the Del Fuegos was also generating excitement in 1985. Their current record, The Longest Day, earned them the honor of being named the best new band of 1984 by Rolling Stone magazine.
‘“They were really good and really nice kids,’” said Rudy, who booked the band. ‘“That was the last time I got ’em because they started to make a name for themselves. They played [the Rhinoceros Club] two or three times, and each time they just jammed the place.’”
Rudy now owns CafÃ© Europa, and the Rhinoceros Club has since operated under a succession of different owners.
In the mid-’80s, Rudy was booking roots rock acts ‘— ‘“rockabilly, doo wop and rhythm ‘— we basically did the beginning of rock and roll,’” as he describes it ‘— and a band like the Del Fuegos that played stripped-down rock and roll fit right in. Rudy visited the Double Door club in Charlotte to scout bands for his club. He tapped into a circuit of touring bands from the Northeast, lining up acts like the Blue Sparks From Hell from New Jersey, Bill Price & the Keystone Rhythm Band from Pennsylvania, bluesmen like Pinetop Perkins, and oldies acts like the Coasters and the Del Vikings.
‘“The Rhino was small, but I could afford to get ’em because I’d get ’em on a Thursday and they’d go down to Charlotte the next night to make their money,’” Rudy said.
When Springsteen visited in January 1985, he came with his guitar player and a couple others, but he wasn’t accompanied by a conspicuous entourage, Rudy recalled. In fact, he didn’t even realize Springsteen was in his bar at first.
‘“He wasn’t the flashy rock star. He just got a beer and went in the backroom and played some pool,’” Rudy said. ‘“Then he came back up to the front and watched the band. The reason he stayed is because people left him alone. Nobody was pestering him for autographs.’”
According to Bob Thornley, a local soundman who was mixing the Del Fuegos that night, Springsteen played two songs, ‘“Hang On Sloopy’” and ‘“Stand By Me,’” with the Del Fuegos. Rudy remembers Springsteen and the Del Fuegos stretching the two songs into an extended jam. He said Springsteen finished the show with the band at around two in the morning.
Before he got up on the stage, Springsteen reportedly ran afoul of the management, but in a congenial way. John Hammer, who would go on to found The Rhinoceros Times (reputedly named after the bar), was working the door that night, when he spotted Springsteen violating the club’s strictly enforced decorum.
‘“Bruce was sitting on top of one of the booths, and John went over there and told him he had to get down,’” Rudy said. ‘“And he did. He was very polite.
‘“It was a universal standard,’” he added. No exceptions, even for the Boss.
Part of the magic of the night was that Springsteen didn’t expect to be treated like a celebrity and the Rhino’s clientele didn’t force him to be one, Rudy said.
‘“A lot of people still continued to play pool; they didn’t even watch him,’” he said. ‘“It was just a lucky crowd that was sophisticated enough to not ignore him, but leave him alone.’”
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