Saying Goodbye to America’s Showplace

Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night
you know they blew up his house, too.
-Bruce Springsteen

I hate seeing things I loved as a kid get torn down or paved over.  Green space in Lehigh and Montgomery Counties, PA, for example.  The cornfields behind my old neighborhood mowed down for overvalued McMansions that block the fireworks from three cities on the 4th of July.  More recently, Veteran’s Stadium.  Now, finally, the Spectrum.

America's Showplace

You might not know this, but the Spectrum invented the concept of arena as rock show apogee.  Without it, Bruce Springsteen would, quite literally, not have been possible.  Opened in 1967, the Spectrum was the first of its kind, “America’s Showplace.”  The Sixers and Flyers won championships there.  I saw Dr. J play there, and Charles Barkley.  I held a Hulk Rules sign and swore the Red and Yellow pointed right at me from the ring in post-win celebration.  I saw Shawn Michaels roll Marty Janetty over while the seeds of their inevitable feud were being sewn.

Bruce Springsteen and hundreds (thousands?) of others got their first big-venue gigs at the Spectrum, due in part to Philadelphia’s legendary support of rock radio and working-class talent.  Sure, there were old-time concert halls and places like Madison Square Garden, but the Spectrum was the first indoor sports facility to have been specifically built with popular music shows also in mind. It was the first premier arena of the rock era.  As such, it was the place to be seen and heard, and like Esther Smith would say, it was right here in my own back yard.

Last night, they finished tearing the last old concrete guts and bones from this historic place.  On October 20, 2009, I was lucky enough to be on hand for Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band’s last-ever Spectrum show.  In case you don’t know, Bruce is a Philly favorite, an adopted son from just across the river, and he and Billy Joel had their own banners in the rafters of the Spectrum for their record-setting streaks of consecutive sellout shows (still counting.  The banners have been in the CoreState/First Union/Wachovia/Wells-Fargo Center for years, but Bruce’s was moved back for his last stand at the Showplace.)

The 10/20 show was historic by default: the last rock arena, the last rock star, the last time in Philly.  The last time in the place where modern concert-going and giving started, the last time in the place where The Boss cut his teeth.  Sitting in the Spectrum, you’re right down the street from all other kinds of American history.  Throw in the themes of the Born In The USA album, which was played in its entirety, and you’ve got yourself a certain kind of seminar.  In the context of the financial crisis, the wars, the Revolution, the loss of dear things, the loss of dear people, the loss of whole places, it was powerful to feel so obviously American and so absolutely not ironic.  When the band opened with “The Price You Pay,” which they hadn’t been played live since 1981, the tone was set:  recognition, celebration, sincerity, thanks.  “Wrecking Ball,” a paean to the lost shrines of our youth, was exuberant even in its decidedly antifatalist fatalism:

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you’re burning the clock down
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires, are scattered through the wind
And hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
And hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
Yeah just to come again

Bring on your wrecking ball
Bring on your wrecking ball
Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got
Bring on your wrecking ball
Bring on your wrecking ball (bring on your wrecking ball)
Bring on your wrecking ball (bring on your wrecking ball)
Take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got, bring on your wrecking ball

The view form our seats.

That this set would be a once-in-a-lifetime rock and roll moment was never really a question, but there are all kinds of emotional intangibles going on in settings like this.  It wasn’t just Bruce’s last show at the Spectrum.  It wasn’t just the last time the Spectrum would welcome Bruce or any of us home.  It wasn’t just Clarence Clemmons’ last time ever in Philly as part of E-Street (be healthy, Big Man), and it wasn’t just the ghosts of 42 years piled to the ceiling.  It was all of these things, but also the kind of joy that comes from impossible defiance and being in the company of thousands of strangers celebrating something immediately collective. That E-Street, the tightest band to ever grace the Earth, and Bruce, the greatest figure not named Elvis, were the evening’s spiritual directors meant the farewell ritual would be orchestrated perfectly.  That these fans are passionate and savvy, that these songs are about them, meant something else entirely.  This was rock and roll church in a very sacred sense. Afterward I texted one word and one word only: transcendent.  There were even random acts of kindness. When Joe Torre and Donnie Baseball casually assumed regular-guy seats in the middle of the Phillies/Dodgers NLDS, Philly fans actually greeted them with warm applause and good-hearted jibes.  Call that appreciation for a respected baseball man (Philadelphia knows its baseball and its baseball manners. Remember when we booed Brett Meyers for walking Griffey when Griffey was sitting at #599?), call it Brotherly Love.  I call it everyone being in on what the night was all about.  Grown men cried.  Children laughed. Bruce slow-danced with his 90-year old mom.  Quite simply, it was perfect.

Below are two videos from the night of the show.  The first is a short clip of “The Price You Pay” taken on my camera phone.  The second (not by me) is “Higher and Higher.” Given the angle of the later shot, it’s quite possible that two of the smiling, transfigured faces behind Bruce belong to me and my #1 Bromance respectively.  Yep, I got to go to the best rock show ever with my best friend, and he’s also the one who orchestrated the logistics and made the whole thing happen.  Seeing the concert of a lifetime with my life-long partner-in-crime, concert-going, and Meg Ryan movies was really the only way to do it.  What?  We also go see all the Apatow movies.  Hmmm? You don’t remember how cute Meg Ryan was in 90s?  So what if I cried when she died in City of Angels?  You were right, Johnny Rzeznik, the world won’t understand.  To Jonny my BFF, thanks again, brother. You’re the Nils Lofgren to my Steven Van Zandt.  The Nic to my Cage.  The Conan to my Andy Richter.  The David Spade to my Chris Farley.  The Ramon to my Vic.

There are lots of videos from 10/20 all over the web, but these two are significant to me:

Goodnight, friend.  America just lost of piece of itself. Thanks for the memories.

11 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye to America’s Showplace

    1. Exactly. We were at the movies with three girls and one other guy. When it was over, the three of us were fighting back tears and the girls said “That was soooo stupid.” Meg Ryan, people. There’s just something about her. Who knew she’d be so polarizing.

      1. I think that girl and I would get along well. I didn’t even cry during Titanic…I actually laughed. That makes me sound rather robotic and unfeeling, doesn’t it? lol.

        So, Meg Ryan, huh? Dare I ask if you cried during Sleepless in Seattle?

        1. Now we’re talking: I laughed at Titanic, too. Especially when Rose is all like “I’ll never let you go.” I think James Cameron laid it on just a little thick. Also, I think most 17-year old guys were probably with me in sort of enjoying the demise of Leo’s character. Now that makes me sound pretty awful, but I’m going to blame Celine Dion. Who knew that Leo would go on to become a go-to guy for the likes of Martin Scorsese and Christopher Nolan? I still remember him from “Growing Pains.” His name was Luke, and he lived in a dumpster.

          When Sleepless In Seattle came out, my family was on vacation (in Canada, by the way), and one night we decided to go to the movies. I took my sister to see Free Willy and my parents went to see Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks. I’m pretty sure I cried, though. How could you not? Poor whale.

          A few years later, my BFF and I totally went to see You’ve Got Mail. No tears were shed in the viewing of that movie. I sort of wanted to be Greg Kinear’s character.

  1. Oh my gosh…okay, the fact that you laughed during Titanic just saved you, here. ;) I still remember Leo from Growing Pains too…he’s always going to be Luke from the dumpster; the kid that was hired in order to breathe new life into a failing show. And, you’re right…who knew that he’d blow my mind in Inception. That’s some good acting there, Luke.

    I think I’ve tried to watch Sleepless in Seattle about 4 times. It bores me a little too much (I’m sorry for saying that…I know how much you like Meg Ryan!). I have a hard time watching chick-flicks. Now, if Meg Ryan were holding an AK-47, perhaps I’d watch….nah, probably not even then.

    As for Free Willy, whatever happened to that kid that was in that movie?? He was so famous during those monumental Free Willy days (weren’t there 3 or 4 sequels to that movie?). Now, sadly, I don’t even remember what his name was. But that’s ok. He’s probably livin’ it up with his Free Willy cash, surrounded by aging pop stars and stuffed orcas.

    I’ve never seen You’ve Got Mail. Again, tried to watch it and got bored in the first 5 minutes. I have somewhat of a short attention span…except when commenting on blogs because this appears to be exceptionally long. lol.

    1. I do, indeed, have a weak spot for 80s and 90s MR. I know I’ve seen Sleepless in Seattle, probably because of a girl, but I really can’t remember it except for the end.

      I also went to Lilith Fair. Also because of a girl. It didn’t work out.

      1. No relationship can even hope for success if the girl takes the guy to Lilith Fair. That’s just cruel. I mean, I love Indie music, but c’mon people…

        Still, it’s nice that you indulged her and actually went. I’m not sure many guys would do that. :) And, I have to ask…did the relationship end solely because of your Lilith Fair experience? Because if it did, wow…that must have been one terrible experience. lol

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