WORCESTER – “We never thought it was even going to happen, because really, why would it?”
In an interview last week, Mark Senior of Worcester, looked back on late February 1988 and shared what appeared to be a familiar sentiment among Worcester residents and media outlets across the country.
In early Jan. 1988, legendary rock n’ roll artist Bruce Springsteen announced his 43-show “Tunnel of Love Express Tour” would kickoff with a three-night performance [Feb. 25. 28-29] in Worcester.
The 1988 shows weren’t the first time Springsteen was in Worcester. He had already come to the Centrum in Aug. 1984 during the Born in the U.S.A. tour. He would return to Worcester in Sept. 1992 during Springsteen’s World Tour.
But this time around, Springsteen fans and followers — both local and national — couldn’t help but ask the question: “Why start a tour in Worcester?”
“People were shocked. We couldn’t believe it.,” Senior said. “You would have thought he would’ve started the tour in the Meadowlands.” [Springsteen was born in Long Branch, NJ]
In 1988, the Worcester Centrum was only six years old, Union Station was abandoned, and the Worcester Common Fashion Outlets were still six years away from opening [and 18 years from closing]. Worcester’s Mayor at the time was Jordan Levy [now a talk radio host on WTAG], Shrewsbury Street had only a handful of restaurants, and Water St. was a Sunday morning destination for fresh bulkies and bagels.
SEE VIDEO BELOW: MTV Coverage of Springsteen’s ‘Tunnel of Love’ Tour Opening in Worcester
A headline in the New York Times read ‘Town Asks Springsteen, Why Here? (and Smiles).’
The article’s author Allan R. Gold asked “Why is Bruce Springsteen, the nation’s biggest rock-and-roll act, beginning his first national tour in two and a half years in this gritty central Massachusetts mill town?”
A Chicago Tribune article surmised that playing Worcester was in Springsteen’s wheelhouse.
Sid Smith of the Tribune wrote, “The choice of Worcester, a mill town that has seen better days and is striving for a new life, couldn’t be more perfect for the working class poet of modern rock `n` roll. The town might be a setting for one of his blue-collar odes.”
According to the Times article, “Tickets for the three shows by Mr. Springsteen and the E Street Band are long gone – 37,000 were sold in a few hours at $20 apiece. Most people know someone who spent frustrating, freezing hours on line, only to come up empty-handed. The Mayor cannot get a seat.”
It’s been 30 years since Springsteen, joined by the E-Street Band and the Horns of Love, reeled out a three-hour, 28-song, double encore performance on his first night in Worcester on Thursday, Feb. 25, 1988. The first performance included the live debut of Springsteen’s hit single ‘Tunnel of Love,’ an acoustic version of ‘Born to Run’ to open the first encore, and a cover of Elvis Presley’s ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love.’
Springsteen would go on to play two more sold-out shows on the following Sunday [Feb. 28] and Monday [Feb. 29], rocking the Centrum with hits like ‘Born in the U.S.A,’ ‘I’m on Fire,’ ‘Cover Me,’ ‘Brilliant Disguise,’ ‘Dancing in the Dark,’ and the tour debut of ‘Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.’
Why did Springsteen have to take two nights off in between shows? The United States Hot Rod Mud Bog Drag Racing Championships, featuring the Battle of the Monster Trucks were in town and took over the Centrum on Friday and Saturday evening.
Ironically, the Monster Trucks still come to Worcester and will be in the city this coming weekend at the now DCU Center.
Fond First Night Memories of His Father, and Wearing a Tour T-Shirt
In 1988, WooBerry Ice Cream & Frozen Yogurt shop owner Brendan Melican was only 11-years-old when he attended Springsteen’s opening night show and witnessed the live debut of ‘Tunnel of Love.’
Then a student at West Tatnuck Elementary School, Melican attended his first ever “real concert” as a kid with his father, Robert Melican, who passed away a few years ago.
Although Melican doesn’t remember where his seats were exactly — “I just remember they were great seats from an 11-year-old’s perspective. Somewhere stage right.” — he fondly remembers sharing the experience of seeing Springsteen with his father.
“He was a huge Springsteen fan, and he was really just a fan of music in general and this was the first time I really saw my father get excited about being at a show. I still have his record collection and it’s amazing to realize as an adult how your parents sort of shape a soundtrack to your life via the music they listen to,” Melican said.
The Horns of Love [Miami Horns] that played along with the E-Street band made a very positive impression on Melican, who said that he was “floored” by saxophonist Clarence Clemons’ performance.
“Clemons was a larger than life musician for me as a kid. I remember being floored by his sax in the Dancing in the Dark video. That was like the high-water mark for cool by ’80’s standards. But the additional horn section was just crazy to see and hear — also probably where my tinnitus originated from even if it’s more fun to blame that on late nights at the Lucky Dog in my 20’s,” Melican said.
“But my biggest memory overall is of the tour t-shirt,” Melican added. “I was so excited to wear it to school the next day, but it wasn’t the most masculine shirt ever designed and I was a small kid, so it was basically a flowered dress featuring Bruce holding a bouquet, of more flowers. I got picked on a lot for that shirt, not an easy look to pull off in Worcester circa ’88, but I wore the shit out of it. “
Later that same year, Melican’s mother, Beth, took him to see David Lee Roth’s “Skyscraper Tour.”
“Pretty sure [my mom] drew the short straw on that one,” Melican said. “However, Springsteen didn’t ride over the Centrum crowd on a surfboard, so maybe it’s break even?
Wife is at Home Pregnant, But the Show Must Go On
Senior attended the Sunday night show on Feb. 28 with Peter Keefe, a co-worker from Nissen Bakery Co. Before they went into the show, Senior and Keefe went to the former Red Baron Pub on Main St. for beers. Senior and Keefe’s seats were in the back of the stage, viewing Springsteen’s performance from behind.
“That was okay sitting back there,” Senior said. “They didn’t have a big production stage with curtains and videos like they do at concerts now. It was just the band and you could see everything.”
“One of the few things I remember from the show was a girl sitting in the front row with a t-shirt on that said ‘Tramps Like Us,’” Senior added, who still has two t-shirts from the Springsteen show.
Senior, then 31-years-old, remembers well how Springsteen opened up with “Tunnel of Love’ [as he did all three shows] singing to his now wife, Patti Scialfa, with the stage set up like an amusement park on the Jersey Shore boardwalk.
“He was acting like a kid going on a first date during ‘Tunnel of Love’ and then the show kicked off from there. It was a great show,” Senior said. “It was crazy. The show was over in three hours, but it went by real fast.”
At the time, Senior’s wife Barbara was at home pregnant with his youngest child, Kristen.
“She still let me go. Back in those days there were no cell phones, so it was kind of taking a risk by me going and her at home pregnant,” Senior said, now a receiver for Austin Liquors in Shrewsbury. “I was working nights at Nissen’s and I remember having to call into work that day, too. There wasn’t a chance I was making it in after the show.”
The Coolest Kid in School Tomorrow
Nick D’Andrea was 15 years old and a sophomore at Holy Name high school when he attended the third show at the Centrum on Monday, Feb. 29 [1988 was a leap year]. D’Andrea attended the show after receiving the tickets from WXLO for doing volunteer work with the Friendly House Biddy Basketball program.
“The night of the show I met up with two more recipients at WXLO. At that time, they were located in the former Worcester Center Galleria. We took a tour of the station and then walked over to the show with a couple of representatives from the station,” D’Andrea said.
D’Andrea, now 45, is a Sales Operations Program Manager with Fallon Health in downtown Worcester and a reporter for ThisWeekinWorcester.com.
WXLO’s seats were in the top level away from the stage, but D’Andrea said it was still a great vantage point for the show.
D’Andrea said. “I remember the energy of the crowd. It was pretty electric. I specifically remember, as the concert was coming to an end, Bruce had acknowledged the crowd and the city of Worcester for being a great place to open up his world tour. He said to the crowd ‘We are now going to rock the rest of the world for you.’
D’Andrea also remembers Springsteen’s unique take on his hits ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Dancing in the Dark.’
D’Andrea said, “I am a big fan of ‘Born to Run.’, I still have it on my running playlist, so I was amped to hear that song. Bruce took a different approach with it this time. He played it acoustically during one of the encores — the first one, I think.”
“He also played ‘Dancing in the Dark’ kind of in the way of the song’s music video. He brought a woman on to the stage to dance, just like in the video. It was little to staged for me, but it was cool to see. The song I thought he knocked out of the park was a cover of Edwin Starr’s hit “War”. Bruce has the perfect voice for it,” D’Andrea added.
High Hopes for Springsteen’s Return to Worcester
In the summer of 1975, United Way President and CEO Tim Garvin first saw Springsteen perform while he was doing an internship in Washington, D.C. It was the first concert Garvin had ever been to in his life.
“We were given free tickets to see this CBS recording artist. This was before ‘Born to Run’ came out. When we asked what Springsteen was like, we were told he sounded like Dan Fogelberg, which couldn’t be more different,” Garvin said.
“This scrawny guy with a really bad beard walks out on stage in Chuck Taylor high tops and performed for two and a half hours. My world was changed. I went back to Connecticut and got a record of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band. It was the most glorious sounding music. Each song was about ten minutes long. It was just incredible,” Garvin said.
LISTEN BELOW: Audio from full Springsteen show – Feb 28, 1988
Following his first taste of Springsteen’s live act, Garvin would go on to attend the 1984 show in Worcester and would even get to meet Springsteen at the former Embassy Suites hotel downtown [now part of Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences].
When Garvin graduated from Clark University in 1985, he and his parents pitched in for his graduation present and was able to see Springsteen perform overseas.
In Feb. 1988, Garvin, who was 30-years-old at the time, paid $125 to see Springsteen at the Centrum and couldn’t get over how different the ‘Tunnel of Love’ tour was from previous Springsteen concerts.
Garvin said, “When you’re a Springsteen fan, you love him almost without critique, but this was a very different show. The ‘Born in the U.S.A’ show was a stadium show. Springsteen would tell funny stories in between songs and they went on forever.
“This show was orchestrated more than any other show that I had seen. There was a lot of new stuff which I thought was good, but I wasn’t used to it as much as I was the old stuff. I was really a traditionalist.”
“But it was an excellent show because I hadn’t seen him in three years,” Garvin said, who attended the show alone. “I was dating a woman, Theresa, who is now my wife, and there was no way I was going to spend $250 when I was only making $200 a week.”
“[Theresa] loves Springsteen and she has since gone to about ten shows with me,” Garvin said.
Garvin remembers Springsteen performing the live debut of ‘Part Man, Part Monkey’ — “it had kind of a reggae beat,” ‘Seeds’ – “a brilliant song about the state of the nation’s economy,” and ‘Two Faces.’
“I’m not a huge fan of ‘Brilliant Disguise.’ I’ve never been a fan of ‘Hungry Heart.’ I think it’s the worst song he’s ever performed and that’s his biggest hit ever. And I think this show was the first time I’ve ever seen Springsteen play ‘Born to Run’ acoustically which I thought was interesting.”
This year, Springsteen is performing on Broadway — “Springsteen on Broadway” — five shows a week from now until June 30.
“My hope is that after reading this story, Springsteen will want to come back to Worcester and do a show at Mechanics Hall when he’s finished up on Broadway. That would be absolutely fantastic,” Garvin said.