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September 1, 2014

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Ice Ice Billy

Thunder Road in Switzerland? Take a right at the light…

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Billy Johnson

Las Vegas Wranglers President Billy Johnson and his wife, Erica, show off their tickets to see Springsteen in Zurich.

Springsteen in Zurich

The crowd waits for Springsteen to perform in Zurich. Launch slideshow »

Swiss concert goers clap out of time. They also insert a rolled R to chants of "Bruce" which adds an L-ish sound – a bump that flaps around in there someplace after the B. And they chant "Bruce" rather than hold it out as we do in America.

Bruce Springsteen's European audience also knows its cues. Over a run of European shows that flew through sets as long as 4 hours, 6 minutes and drove noise curfew police to hard liquor, fans knew when to raise and wave their hands and sing along in English.

In Switzerland, they waited for their chances to sing the bah-buhs-buhs. And when they got to a line they didn't know, they made it up.

"Got a wife and kid in Baltimore, Jack, we went out for a ride and we love you Br-lr-lruce..."

It had been more than 13 years since I had been to church. Misaligned stars created a series of conflicts, missteps and bad luck.

A lot happens over a baker's dozen number of trips around the sun. But throughout that second half of my adult life the words and the phrases lifted by the music and the arrangements were just an iPhone or DVD away. But while four decades of Springsteen's recorded work was always near, it was never a substitute for being there.

I realize the risk of using the word "church" here. This could be viewed as sensational or cliché, contrived or too easy. Some may tune out because they wrongly associate Springsteen with something political. And others still may be thinking of blasphemy in the non-secular sense.

So I go forward with the wee-bit of insight that I was raised Catholic and attended 12 years of parochial schools. I have an idea of what I would like my church to be, and how I would like to feel and who I would like to be when I leave.

As Joan Walsh wrote for Salon.com in April, "If there were a church like this, I'd be there every Sunday."

Amen.

I finagled a rare chance to catch Springsteen play a distant road game on a beautiful Monday night in July. It was the only option, and thus for me it became a pilgrimage. For my wife, Erica, who had never seen him and the E Street Band in their native habitat of the live stage it was –as my friend John Padon predicted – an anointment.

I've lost count of the times I had seen him before 2000. There was as string of three or four nights over about a week in Boston (respelled "Bosston" for the occasion). There was an acoustic solo performance in Atlanta, and another time with the not-E Street band in North Carolina. There were many cities in between.

I had never seen him the way I did in Zurich.

I was intrigued, nearly clinically so, to see how Springsteen reels in a frantic international audience. My lazy assumption was that any lyrical nuance or an American point of reference would be lost in translation. But from the early queues outside the Letzigrund Stadion (required since our tickets were for stage front general admission standing) the buzz crackled more loudly than the uber efficient electric trams that passed us by.

Some details may be lost, but the broad strokes are not.

Springsteen's only gimmick as a live performer is that there isn't one. It's a simple guarantee that is best left to any individual to define. It's as much or as little as one wants. But for some unknown reason on this occasion, I was more fixated than ever before on a man take immeasurable joy in hard and exhausting work.

Darkened by the giant shadow of the missing – saxophonist Clarence Clemmons – themes of goodbyes and torch-passing permeate this current Wrecking Ball tour. But Springsteen always takes us back to joy and resurrection. And as always, there is a skyscraper of hope and an invitation to answer a call.

The soccer pitch was lined with broken English on a last chance E Street ride, and the call was answered in unfamiliar languages and noises wrapped in Springsteen tour T-shirts, many of which were 25 years old.

Springsteen is 62 now. He played for 3 hours and 20-or-so minutes without a single costume change or a detectable pre-encore break. And while that sounds like a long night, he has a lot to get done in that time. So he works at it, delivering a knockout blow to everyone but himself while, in Switzerland anyway, including an attempt at yodeling and summoning the hills for the sound of music.

Through the millions of notes, thousands of words, hundreds of arrangements, and dozens of songs over 200 minutes of pure power, I recalled my friend Chappy saying over a pint that a hundred years from now Springsteen will be in text books and remembered as one of the prolific poets, greatest musicians and documentarian voices from our time.

So I imagined that if I could jump into a time machine to quietly watch over Van Gogh's shoulder or slide into a chamber while Mozart performed, I certainly would. And with that, then, Zurich didn't seem to be that far to go.

Billy Johnson is the president and chief operating officer of the Las Vegas Wranglers.

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