Local musician and editor of the Philadelphia Weekly Joey Sweeney recalls 1987 in Salon
In the 1980s, after the “Born in the U.S.A.” juggernaut has run over the entire United States, it is as easy as it will ever be to misinterpret Bruce Springsteen. Although this is probably not what is on my mind when I see Bruce Springsteen in the flesh for the first time. What probably is on my mind is something pretty harsh, for I am now 13 years old, have discovered the willy-nilly world of punk, post-punk and the accompanying disdain for all that has gone before. Karen Akers and I are in the stands at JFK Stadium on a late-September night, tiptoeing on the bleachers so that we can see U2, nearly 100 yards away as the crow flies. Karen is goth before goth is goth — Siouxsie hair, blue-black lipstick and nails, and so on — and this is also that strange moment when U2 are playing stadiums and can still be considered alternative.
In the fall night, we are exhilarated — not only by the band, which is already playing stadiums and will soon be even bigger than that, but also by the fact that we were almost crushed at the gates of the show, on the way in, like English soccer fans. We’re happy to be alive, but when Springsteen comes onstage to perform the Ben E. King classic “Stand By Me” with U2, it is like someone has farted in our sleeping bag. For this is the era when as much as he doth protest, the Boss was in his darkest hours of synthesizers (and not even the cool kind that OMD used) and jingoism, mislaid or not. It is all I can do not to boo him, because I am a teenager now, and that vulnerability and sincerity that Bruce so naturally tapped into feels like a kind of death. Everything is affected cynicism now, and I believe that Bruce has no place here, onstage with my avowedly political and anti-establishment Irish band. And playing that corny song to boot! Send him away, the creepy Little Lord Fauntleroy inside me intones.
For me it was 1985. I was thirteen myself then. And listening to Black Sabbath. Ozzy. Metallica. If it had synths, it was compromised. If it was on the radio (like U2), well it wasn’t any good. James Hetfield had scrawled on the back of his Gibson Explorer the words “Kill Bon Jovi”. I understood them Back then, I really hated Bon Jovi too. “Pop metal” we called it.
Man was I closed minded! It took a few years but my mind opened considerably. It was probably Guns N’ Roses that did it for me. They were undeniable. And yet, still popular. “Pop metal” didn’t seem so bad to me any more. And I listened with new ears all sorts of music. Bon Jovi especially. I became a fan. As a teenager, the band’s songs had all sorts of relevence to me. Some of their songs seem custom written for my relationship with my wife to be.
Well I was 17, and a new aquaintence of mine, one that would become a good friend (yes it’s you Steve.. if you’re reading this), introduced me to the Springsteen album “Nebraska”. Just like Sweeney, it was my first apartment.
Joey Sweeney is standing in the living room of his first apartment, a hovel in South Philadelphia that is, at this moment, completely dark save for the blue light of the television and the snow reflected in the night outside. He is on mushrooms. Between the TV and the snow outside — from a blizzard that only subsided in the last 18 hours — there is an otherworldly glow and when he remembers this, even to this day, he still cannot remember if he is alone in the room or not. On the stereo is a record he rescued just days before from the dollar bin at the Book Trader — “Nebraska.” And if the cover image of bleak, high, lonely plains beyond a windshield suggests his soul, when he places it on the turntable and turns it up, it sounds like that even more so.
Joey Sweeney has been doing a lot of drugs lately, because it is the early ’90s still (and the late teens, still), and, well, it just seems like that’s what people are doing. He listens to “Nebraska” all the way through. That dull fire-alarm whine of the harmonica resonates with him to a degree that it feels like all he has ever known. When it is over, he just sits in the room, listening to the hail on the snow and the red light changing outside the window and he feels as bleak and as exalted as he ever has.
It had that same effect on me. Thanks Steve.