5 Things I Learned From An Old Issue of "Backstreets"

Five Things I Learned From An Old Issue Of Backstreets

I recently got my hands on a near-mint copy of the Summer 1985 issue of Backstreets. Backstreets, for the uninitiated, is the Bruce Springsteen fan publication. I follow Backstreets’ online presence every day on social media, but it is a whole other experience to have a vintage copy in hand. Now, fans are spoiled with multiple Springsteen news outlets-- Backstreets, Blogness on the Edge of Town, Blog it All Night, Burgers and Bruce, and the list goes on. This magazine was like opening a time capsule to a very specific era of Springsteen-- in the midst of the mega Born in the USA tour and just following his first marriage to model Julianne Phillips. This was a time when Born to Run was a relatively recent event, many were still scratching their heads over Nebraska, and the Tunnel of Love era band dismantling was unheard of. Here are some things I learned:

1. There was a Bruce Springsteen party line.

Casey and I often talk about the good ol’ days of early web forums-- the bountiful Megaupload and Rapidshare links, the avatar/banner requests, the fan drama, and the people who seemed to spend every second of their days posting on every topic. I suppose I never considered the need for these spaces in a pre-Internet era would be filled by a phone line. However, the Bruce Springsteen hotline was a very exciting new community in 1985. A fan from Southern California, Bert Epstein, created the line, which was free, unless you were long distance from LA, of course. Backstreets explains how it works: “You call one number and leave a message, saying pretty much whatever you want. When you call a second number you hear a compilation of last week’s messages edited down.” Backstreets also mentioned that they were thinking of starting their own 24-hour Bruce info line, and chided CBS for not keeping their Dial-A-Bruce line updated. While the idea seems fun and I so wish I was able to hear some of the calls, I shudder at the thought of the sort of fan drama that forums bred playing out in recorded phone calls.

2. Buying tickets has always been soul-crushingly difficult.

There are multiple areas of this issue of Backstreets that discuss the issue of ticket procurement, which is obviously a fan’s number one concern. We all know now that Ticketmaster.com is a dream-killing digital disaster, and I’m still reeling from getting shut out of Wrigley Night One in 2012 by the lesser known enemy, Tickets.com. This issue of Backstreets taught me I need to count my blessings, as buying tickets has always been awful, and at least I do have the internet now. Backstreets recommends that the 1985 ticket buyer should first of all, not contact them-- “Backstreets is in no better position than you for getting tickets”-- and secondly, echoing the Girl Scout Motto, always be prepared. “Before the shows are announced, make sure you’re ready.” You can’t check Twitter for the latest show rumors, but make sure you’re in touch with your fellow local Springsteen fans and pen pals and pay attention to your local radio station. “And finally,” Backstreets writes, “be prepared to wait in line. Many outlets do offer phone orders-- however, the lines are usually so jammed (usually by people with repeating dialers) that you’re usually better off in line.” Damn those repeating dialers! The advice column ends by saying, in so many words, don’t even think about trying to get tickets to the Meadowlands or Madison Square Garden, as it will be equivalent to running the gauntlet and you might not even get tickets at the end. This advice, despite changing technology, has remained constant.

3. Fans didn’t know what to do with the information of Bruce’s first marriage.

There is a lot of caution around the Backstreets discussion of Bruce’s marriage to Julianne Phillips, which occurred in May of 1985, a year after they met. Backstreets opens this issue by saying “Bruce Springsteen got married. Since the marriage was covered in every newspaper and magazine in the world (from the National Enquirer to the New Delhi Times) we figured we’d just leave this one alone. ...Backstreets can sum up in one phrase what we think about his marriage: Congratulations, we wish Bruce and Julianne all the best.” Fan reactions were notoriously not positive to the union, but the fans on the pages of Backstreets seem to be behaving themselves, but allude to less diplomatic attitudes of their fellow fans in their writing. “There seems to be a major problem among Springsteen fans in dealing with Bruce’s recent marriage,” Sue Stack from Vancouver, BC writes, in her letter titled “The ‘real’ Bruce.” She comes to the defense of romance: “The guilty ones are not Bruce and Julie since falling in love is not a crime,” and then continues to urge upset fans to separate Bruce from his music, and that although he is a working class hero, he is a star, and stars marry models. Gail Turley, from Richardson, Texas, hopes the couple “stays married forever and have a bunch of wonderful little Bruces.” She also writes that she sent them a wedding card so as to not behave like her mother, who was upset when Elvis got married. Interestingly, Sue’s letter also references Elvis’ marriage, reminding us to treat Julianne nicely, as “remember what poor Priscilla Presley went through?” There is only a slight hint of what was to come, found in a show review from the Netherlands: “The intensity of the singing, the support of the music and especially the back up of Patti-- her voice had the song move into its highest gear.”

4. Bootlegging was not endorsed, but still openly practiced.

The authorization of E Street Radio on Sirius has since made Bruce’s stance on bootlegs known, but it was a big question mark for fans in 1985. In a profile on two fans who ran a Springsteen dance club for fans, the two recount meeting Bruce and mentioning they play bootlegs of shows at the club, but noted that “Bruce had no discernable reaction to the matter of the bootlegs.” While Backstreets mentions in an ad for the retail portion of their operation that “we don’t sell bootlegged or unauthorized releases,” the classifieds section is full of fans requesting tapes to trade. Older fans must excuse my naivete and amazement at the idea that fans had to buy a classified ad to list their addresses, wait for someone to answer the ad, then trade xeroxed catalogs of releases, determine who wants what, and then mail the actual bootlegs to each other. I also love that in addition to tapes of shows, some fans just wanted photos. If you’re in the market for any photos, Nancy from Interlaken, NJ has the hookup, just send her $2 for a color sample. I tip my hat to these older fans, who make the exchange of bootlegs effortless now. Thanks for taping, thanks for doing all of this tedious snail mail business, and thanks for sharing today.

5. The fan connection to Bruce and each other has remained the same.

I knew a Springsteen fan on Tumblr, Janet, who had been a dedicated fan since the early 80’s. When us young’uns were going bezerk over the latest tour rumors, or complaining that we knew nothing about the next album release, she would remind us that we were lucky to have the internet to communicate and share with each other in the times of Springsteen information drought. She would joke that she lived through the band breaking up, the Patti/Julianne divorce fallout, the unpopular 90’s albums, and made it through the ebbs and flows of everything Bruce Springsteen just fine. Janet passed away suddenly about two years ago, but her lessons remain. Reading this issue reminded me a lot of her, and her stories of how things used to be done by pre-internet fans. It is very cool to see the community of Springsteen fans in a different format, and I was especially touched by a passage from a fan-submitted concert review. Wendy King, of West Sussex, England, writes this about a Wembley Stadium Show: “At the end of the tour in 1981, it was a beginning for me, a time of meeting people and learning. Now I feel I’ve found myself and Bruce gave me that. This time it was like an act of faith, my being there. Like when I heard the Born in the U.S.A. album for the first time-- it was like a message to say, this is how it is. ... The July 4th show was the greatest night of my life. Nothing is going to equal that.” It has been said a million times before that every Springsteen fan has a story like that, but I never tire of reading them. That means I probably would’ve been the type to purchase a classified ad in search of Bruce pen pals, like Lisa Rodgers from Powder Springs, Georgia, who welcomes all letters, by the way. I met Casey through the Springsteen fan community on Tumblr-- would I have met him through snail mail? Maybe. The hotline seems more probable, though.