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Bruce Springsteen and me: How ‘The Boss’ speaks to the sportswriter in Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian has seen Bruce Springsteen in concert 48 times; this is a show in St. Louis.
Vahe Gregorian has seen Bruce Springsteen in concert 48 times; this is a show in St. Louis.

I’ve screeched Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics at 48 of his concerts, including one for which I postponed a trip to Italy — to the ire of my future wife, Cindy.

He also was a source of tension between us when she had the temerity to sit during “Badlands” at one of his shows, leading to her probationary status for his next few concerts.

For a college football initiation, I donned a pillowcase for a bonnet and a sheet for a dress and pantomimed the part of Mary in “Thunder Road.”

When I hear “Factory,” I think of my late father-in-law, Vernon Billhartz, an autoworker.

If I’m stuck in traffic, I’ll laugh and tell myself “the highway’s jammed with broken heroes.”

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When I hear “Backstreets,” I sometimes cry over my late buddy Cris Hansen, who was instrumental in connecting me with Springsteen.

It’s hard to recall the first time I heard Springsteen’s gravelly voice, or even if it immediately moved me.

But his songs — and the phenomenon that is his show — became something I live for.

If you grew up as I did in the Philadelphia area in the mid-1970s, chances are you felt the same way.

Whether you were driving aimlessly or headed “downtheshore,” whether Springsteen came over WMMR, a clacking 8-track cartridge or those newfangled cassette tapes, you heard something you figured was scripted just for you.

Even when it was about stuff that had absolutely nothing to do with you.

That intimate engagement is much of the enduring magic of Springsteen, particularly in marathon performances like he’ll deliver on Thursday at the Sprint Center.

The fascination started young for us in my hometown, Swarthmore, where in 1974 he performed before 300 people in the Swarthmore College amphitheater.

Legend has it that Swarthmore High seniors a few years before our Class of ’79 had Springsteen booked for their prom. But they had only an $800 budget, and his manager wouldn’t budge from a $1,600 fee.

Through Jeremiah’s record store in Delaware, we were on the cutting edge with bootlegged concert records and tapes.

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Even now, I can hear Cris rewinding the tinny sound of “Rosalita” over and over and over again in his family’s station wagon.

Cris, who went on to become a paramedic and fire chief, could’ve been a character in any number of Springsteen songs. He died from cancer at 47.

For all that, I didn’t see Springsteen for the first time until Dec. 8, 1980, at the Spectrum during the original tour of “The River” he’s reprising now.

It was intoxicating, mesmerizing, unlike anything I’d ever experienced before.

Every song was its own adventure, with Springsteen bounding from a piano or sliding on his knees across the floor or telling stories or fading into a ballad or mugging with saxophonist Clarence Clemons.

The way he hypnotized the audience during “Jungleland” was almost frightening, with every last fan pumping a fist in precise rhythm with his.

When it ended 34 songs and nearly four hours later, I couldn’t believe what I had just seen.

On the way out of the Spectrum that night, a reporter from the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin waited to ask our thoughts about the murder of John Lennon a few hours before.

Some wondered if Springsteen would play the next night. He did.

“It’s a hard world that asks you to live with things that are unlivable, and it’s hard to come out and play tonight, but there’s nothing else to do,” he said, before lighting into the first song of the night, “Born to Run.”

He finished by playing “Twist and Shout” to honor Lennon.

By the next summer, I was going to show after show.

One night I finagled an assignment to work security at a concert … only to be assigned to bathroom duty while my more resourceful friend John Shirk got stage duty and slipped into the crowd.

A day after I finished graduate school at Missouri, I drove to New York for a show; I barely made it on time after getting stuck behind an accident in the Lincoln Tunnel.

Once, my brother Dareh got tickets for a show at the Meadowlands but almost forfeited them when he saw Bill Murray on a Manhattan street and asked him to autograph them.

Sure, Murray said, and then pretended to run off with them.

The 1999 reunion tour with the E Street Band rekindled my imagination, so I started traveling to see him everywhere I could — including in 2002 at Kemper Arena, where I plucked a set list off the stage after the show.

I’ve seen him perform in Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland and Columbus and Detroit and Greensboro, N.C., and Indianapolis and Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Normal, Ill. — multiple times in most of those cities and often with sportswriter friends.

The very things that draw us to sportswriting, it seems to me, draw us to Springsteen: storytelling; uncompromising, relentless performance; appreciation for what it takes to win; empathy for the losers; and being part of something bigger than ourselves.

Or maybe it’s more like broadcaster Bob Costas once told me: Springsteen radiates a presence that makes people feel like “I feel when I feel best about myself — this is who I imagine I am.”

All these years later, I still feed off that energy and bask in how he honors his craft and audience.

He still gives poignant voice to our world and our lives. Just listen to his album “The Rising,” in response to 9/11.

Superstar multimillionaire that he is, Springsteen still projects authenticity, accessibility and a land of hope and dreams without ignoring, as he says in “Nebraska,” that “there’s just a meanness in the world.”

You’ll see and feel it in the way he responds to signs in the audience, hoists people up on stage and trusts having his body passed through the crowd.

[Watch Bruce Springsteen invite 91-year-old superfan to dance with him (again)]

He still breathes the fire he was born in, as he put it in “Adam Raised a Cain,” compelling him to treat every show like it’s your first and his last.

I’m going to miss his show in Kansas City because of a work assignment. But I’ll see him April 23 in Brooklyn.

Cindy’s off probation, so she’s in. And so is my oldest friend, Becky.

But this is all about Becky and Cris’ daughters, Kelsey and Kristen, who will be seeing Springsteen for the first time.

About anything he’ll sing will make us think of Cris, but I’m already girding myself for one song I know he’ll play: “The Ties That Bind” — you can’t forsake those — and I’m hoping for “Rosalita.”

Thursday

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform Thursday night at the Sprint Center. Tickets are $55 to $150; availability is limited. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.

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