It was a hot summer day on July 26, 1984 when I drove down Highway 401 to see a Bruce Springsteen concert at the CNE in Toronto. I had been hooked on The Boss ever since seeing him deliver a marathon show in January 1981 at the Ottawa Civic Centre.
In 1984, Springsteen’s album Born in the U.S.A. was mammoth, delivering hit after hit — Dancing in the Dark, Glory Days, No Surrender, Darlington County, and the title track, Born in the U.S.A.
Certain albums can freeze time. And no matter how many years go by, the minute you hear that album, you are transported back to that period of your life. In the summer of 1984, Songs from Born in the U.S.A. blasted from car radios at red lights. You could hear the Boss everywhere, at a party, at the beach, the unmistakable voice singing I’m on Fire, volume reaching across Vincent Massey Park from a boom box that required 8 “D” cell batteries.
In those days, I wrote radio commercials for CFRA/CFMO (now BOB FM) and I was lucky enough to have my own office. An office that had a tiny cassette player with surprisingly loud volume — which I put to maximum use for hours on end, playing nothing but Bruce Springsteen music. It’s a wonder that none of my co-workers punched a hole through the wall.
Since my first Bruce concert, I was determined to own every album he ever made, and I knew all the words to all the songs.
I spent most of the summer of ’84 hanging out with two guys: Jeff Cohen (now the owner of the legendary Horseshoe Tavern in Toronto), and Barry Kaplan (now an Ottawa real estate agent). We had one thing in common: the ability to talk about Bruce Springsteen for hours and hours. Jeff even started dressing like “Born in the U.S.A.” Bruce Springsteen, right down to the bandana tied around his head. I tried that look too, but I could never get the bandana tight enough and it would slide down and cover my eyes.
Not only did Jeff have the look, he had all the connections. And it was through Jeff that I learned a couple of things on July 26th, 1984. Number one: Bruce Springsteen enjoys a hearty swim at his hotel on the day of a performance. And number two: In Toronto, that hotel was the Harbour Castle.
It was early afternoon when I arrived in Toronto, almost six hours before I was meeting a friend at the CNE to see Bruce Springsteen. I had left Ottawa ridiculously early because I had visions of Highway 401 construction containing me and my Acadian for an entire day and missing the show.
I thought about killing time by going straight to the CNE, eating some pogos and standing in line for the Twister ride, but then I had a better idea: I decided to try to get Bruce Springsteen’s autograph.
The concierge at the Harbour Castle Hotel didn’t flinch when I marched right up and asked, “Hi, where’s your swimming pool?”
I grabbed an elevator, and up I went. I arrived at the indoor pool area, where three kids were having a great time splashing about. Besides the kids and a hotel towel guy, there was no one else, which neither surprised nor disappointed me, as I had little faith that my hotel side trip would actually lead to anything interesting. I started to walk away from the pool area when a sound made me turn around. In hindsight, my about-face was likely due to a rather loud gasp from the towel guy. Which was quickly followed by a gasp of my own.
Bruce Springsteen had just slipped through a back door and entered the pool area. He wore a navy T-shirt, camouflage pants, and a baseball cap, all of which were being peeled off and tossed onto a patio chair. Now clad only in his regular-guy swim trunks, the Boss dove into the swimming pool and swam right by me. I froze. I knew that getting Bruce’s autograph would be tough, considering the fact that he was now wet.
The kids had climbed out of the pool and disappeared. Even the towel guy was nowhere in sight. That left just two people in the pool area: Bruce Springsteen. And me. I did my best to blend in, sitting casually in a patio chair next to the hot tub, stealing only the occasional glance at the Boss, who, as it turned out, was a Spitz-like super swimmer. Ten laps of the pool. Twelve. Fifteen. I kept my head down and waited for that amazing moment, when Bruce Springsteen would be dry enough to sign an autograph. Bruce finally climbed out of the pool, toweled himself off, and just as I summoned the courage to ask for his signature, walked straight past me and jumped into the hot tub. Yet again, the Boss was wet.
“It’s really nice in here,” I heard the words but didn’t think they were being directed at me. “Yes, I’m talking to you.” A gruff but friendly voice from the hot tub. “Why don’t you come on in?”
The fact that I was wearing street clothes was a minor detail. I wanted more than anything to be super cool, to say the right thing, even be a bit aloof. “I guess I could come in for a minute or two.” So, in the hot tub I went, shorts, T-shirt, sandals and all. Bruce was kind enough to ignore the fact that both of my sandals quickly floated to the surface of the hot tub and one of them was sucked onto a filter.
I couldn’t bring myself to admit why I was in the pool area in the first place: for the slight possibility that he would be there. I was nervous but I couldn’t look nervous because that would give away the fact that I knew who he was, which I did, but I didn’t want him to know that I knew who he was, and that made me even more nervous. I abandoned any hope for an autograph, because that would give everything away. Bruce Springsteen was my rock and roll hero, he was in amazing shape, he was sitting across from me in a hot tub.
Then a funny thing happened. We had a lovely conversation. We talked about things that anyone would talk about … weather, movies, the Toronto Blue Jays. Why it’s a good idea to swim every day. Which carnival ride is the scariest. Bruce was engaging, he was funny, he made me laugh. The time flew by and about an hour later Bruce finally said “I gotta go … it’s sound check time.” I responded with, “I know. I have tickets to your show tonight.” He looked a bit surprised. But nothing prepared me for what he said next. “Would you like to join me for sound check?”
I often wonder how many people in my shoes (or, waterlogged sandals) would have jumped at the chance to join Bruce Springsteen for a pre-show sound check. Probably all of them. But, in that Toronto hotel hot tub, I turned down the invitation from the Boss. I felt it was more important that I earned his respect. I didn’t want him to think I was a “groupie.” Do I regret my decision? Sometimes. But at least I had my pride. As much pride as someone can have while trying to pull her sandal out of a hot tub filter.
Moments before Bruce Springsteen disappeared through the back door, I took advantage of the fact that he was finally dry, and asked for an autograph.
Friday night at Scotiabank Place was my 31st Springsteen show. But I will never forget one show in particular, where it was impossible to wipe the smile off my face, after a sweet afternoon with the Boss. Just don’t call me a groupie.
Sandy Sharkey is a radio personality with 93.9 BOB