On one unforgettable night in 1985 I met one of my heroes, Bruce Springsteen. How did
that happen? Like so many events in my life, it’s a long story.
starts a decade earlier, in 1975. I was driving along Elizabeth Drive, past the market gardens west of Liverpool, in Sydney’s
southwest. The car radio was on, but I wasn’t paying particularly close attention. Until, that is, a dramatic drum roll,
a crashing guitar chord and a killer riff assaulted my ears and I had to pull over to the side of the road and listen. What
followed was four minutes that encapsulated the very spirit of rock ‘n’ roll. It had girls, cars, escape, loneliness,
desperation; it had crescendos, climaxes and dramatic pauses. It had everything. It was, of course, Bruce Springsteen’s
Born to Run.
I was surprised
when the announcer named Bruce Springsteen as the performer of this magnificent piece of rock ‘n’ roll. I was
already aware of Springsteen’s reputation as “the New Dylan,” but was not yet aware that he was also being
called “the future of rock ‘n’ roll.” At that time I was a frequent visitor to the Pact Folk Club
in Sydney, where every Friday night at least one of the singers would perform a Springsteen song. So I had heard his songs
performed with guitar and vocal, but not with a rock band. And I had not heard the man himself. The effect on me was as profound
as the day about twelve years earlier when I heard Bob Dylan for the first time, having previously only heard other people
doing Dylan songs. It was 1975, and I had been instantly transformed into a Bruce Springsteen fan.
Now we go
back to 1985. Bruce Springsteen’s first tour of Australia is announced, and no Australian is more enthusiastically awaiting
the opening of ticket sales than me. But my hopes would be dashed by a dirty trick played on Springsteen fans by his tour
promoters. Another digression in the story will provide some background.
In 1985 I
was national secretary of the Vietnam Veterans Association of Australia (VVAA). In its early years, the Association had encouraged
Australian Vietnam veterans to become involved in the American Agent Orange class action. Although there was no certainty
of success, this was the only option available at the time for Australian veterans to obtain any kind of compensation for
illnesses caused by exposure to toxic chemicals in Vietnam. In this effort we were vigorously opposed by the dominant organization
representing Australian veterans, the RSL.
chemical companies decided to settle the class action, and pay 180 million US dollars to veterans, with three million US dollars,
then worth about five million Australian dollars, coming to Australian veterans. Shortly after the settlement was announced,
the Minister for Veterans Affairs, Senator Arthur Gietzelt, contacted the VVAA to inform us that, in a breathtaking act of
hypocrisy, the RSL had approached the Australian government with a claim that they were the only organization capable of handling
and distributing the class action money on behalf of Australian veterans. Senator Gietzelt could see how unfair this would
be, given the RSL’s opposition to the class action. Unfortunately, he was also aware that in Australian politics, the
RSL has traditionally had the ear of the Prime Minister, and would therefore be likely to succeed in getting their hands on
the class action money. Senator Gietzelt invited the national body of the VVAA, and all state presidents, to a meeting in
Canberra, to formulate a response the RSL’s claim. At that meeting, we agreed to set up a Trust, with the VVAA and the
RSL as equal members, together with several other veterans’ organizations. The new organization was to be called the
Australian Vietnam War Veterans Trust Limited, and was chaired by a retired judge chosen by Senator Gietzelt. The Trust that
we set up back in 1985 still lives on today, as the Australian Veterans’ Children Assistance Trust.
Australian Veterans' Children Assistance Trust
Now I return to the dirty trick played
on Springsteen fans by those who organized his Australian tour. They decided to turn the demand for tickets into a promotion
opportunity by announcing that tickets for the Sydney concerts would only be available at one ticket venue on one day. This
forced anybody who wanted tickets to camp out at the ticket office for several days and nights in order to be sure of getting
tickets. For the promoters, this meant great pictures in newspapers and on television. But for most Springsteen fans, with
jobs and family responsibilities, it meant disappointment and anger. Those who were able to camp out for tickets would fall
into two main categories. Firstly, younger fans who had only discovered Bruce Springsteen through the video clip of Dancing in the Dark, and secondly, scalpers who could hire people to camp out, and would then advertise tickets
for sale at inflated prices in local newspapers.
By sheer coincidence, the date announced
for ticket sales for the Sydney concerts was the very day that Arthur Gietzelt arranged for the VVAA meeting in Canberra.
So, even if it had been possible for me to camp outside the ticket office, I could not have done so. Once the Trust had been
set up and time had taken the edge off my anger at Springsteen’s tour promoters, I thought about the relationship Springsteen
had built up with American Vietnam veterans throughout his career, and I decided that I should at least try to make a connection
with Australian Vietnam veterans while he was here. It helped that Springsteen’s record company was CBS, the same as
Redgum, and I still had contacts within that company because of the close relationship between Redgum and the VVAA. Indeed,
I still had a Redgum platinum record hanging in my living room. The VVAA had been invited to a platinum record presentation
for Redgum’s live album, Caught in the Act, and the band and CBS surprised
us by also presenting a platinum record to us. It was accepted by VVAA national president Phill Thompson, but at the subsequent
party, Phill handed it to me and said “you’d better hang on to this. I might drink a bit tonight.” I took
the platinum record home, and in the following months I reminded Phill on many occasions that I still had it, but he couldn’t
think of a suitable place to hang it, so it stayed at my place.
I contacted CBS, told them about Bruce
Springsteen’s high standing with Vietnam veterans in the US, and suggested that it might be a good idea for Bruce to
meet Phill Thompson, as a representative of Australian Vietnam veterans, while he was in Sydney. At this stage I didn’t
really have any concept of how or where the meeting might take place, but I just floated the idea, with no real confidence
that it would happen. To my surprise, CBS called back and told me Springsteen’s touring manager had agreed to meet Phill,
and that the meeting would take place backstage at one of the Sydney concerts. I should add that, unlike me, Phill was not
a Springsteen fan. His taste was more mainstream pop. A couple of years earlier, I had driven Phill to Brisbane for a VVAA
meeting, in his car, listening to his music. I remember the cassettes he kept playing over and over were The Best of Bread and an album by Bonnie Tyler, containing the song Total
Eclipse of the Heart. I’m not knocking either of those choices, because David Gates of Bread is a fine songwriter,
and Total Eclipse was one of those songs that cross all boundaries, and had become
a mega-hit. But Phill didn’t really go for music with a hard edge. He did, of course, make an exception for Redgum.
On that Australian tour, a Bruce Springsteen
concert lasted about four and a half hours, with an interval of about half an hour, when Bruce would have a massage to prepare
him for the physical demands of the second half of the show. The arrangement was that Phill and his partner would attend one
of the Sydney concerts, and during the interval they would be escorted backstage and meet Bruce in his dressing room. So I
had missed out on tickets myself (unless I was willing to pay a scalper), but at least someone was going to meet Bruce on
behalf of Australian Vietnam veterans.
This is where the story takes a dramatic
turn. Phill Thompson was not a healthy man. He had recently been forced to have a radical ileostomy operation because of an
inherited form of cancer that had already taken the lives of several male members of his family. He also suffered ongoing
pain from his war wounds, and although it had not been diagnosed, after two tours of duty in Vietnam as a combat infantry
soldier with 1RAR, it would be surprising if he did not suffer from PTSD. In addition, in the years that he had been running
the VVAA case at the Agent Orange Royal Commission, Phill had developed a lifestyle that involved sleepless nights, during
which he would keep in contact with scientists and veterans’ organizations in other time zones around the world. He
would then try to grab a couple of hours of sleep in the morning or afternoon, depending on his diary requirements, while
either the national treasurer, Tim McCombe, or I took care of the office. Phill often needed prescribed medication to get
to sleep and to stay awake. A couple of days before the Bruce Springsteen concert, I tried to wake Phill at a prearranged
time, after his afternoon sleep. I had great difficulty waking him, and when I did he was only semi-conscious. I couldn’t
get him to tell me how what pills he had taken, and in what quantity. I called Tim, and tried to keep Phill awake until he
arrived. Then we called an ambulance, and Tim and I walked Phill around and around the office, trying to keep him awake until
the ambulance arrived. Phill was admitted to Concord Repatriation Hospital that day, and kept in for several days. That is
how the opportunity to meet Bruce Springsteen, on behalf of Australian Vietnam veterans, passed from Phill Thompson to me.
My partner at the time, Rosemary,
had also been a Springsteen fan for ten years, so we both arrived at the concert bursting with excitement. By the time the
first half of the show ended, it was clear that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was one of the two best live rock
‘n’ roll acts I had ever seen, the other being The Clash. The interval came, and we were ushered backstage by
a woman who was the manager of the Springsteen tour. We were told that I was one of three people, plus their spouses or partners,
who had been invited backstage to meet Bruce on this night. One of the others was a radio disc jockey who was organizing Bruce
and the band’s charity appearances in Sydney, and the third was Mel Gibson, who was there because Bruce Springsteen
was a fan of the Mad Max movies.
There was a circle of chairs backstage,
where the invited guests sat with members of the E Street Band, chatting while we waited to be called into Bruce’s dressing
room. The saxophone player, Clarence “Big Man” Clemons wasn’t there, because, like Bruce, he had his own
dressing room. To my left sat Rosemary, then Mel Gibson and his wife. To my right was the future Mrs. Springsteen, Patti Scialfa,
and guitarist Nils Lofgren. They were very friendly, and told me they had been taken by surprise in the first half of the
show when Bruce decided he wanted to sing Open All Night, which had not been on
the set list for years. Rosemary was rendered speechless by the proximity of Mel Gibson, and I hoped I wouldn’t suffer
the same fate when called upon to speak to The Boss.
By the time we were called, Bruce
was just coming out of his dressing room. When the tour manager introduced me as a representative of the VVAA, Bruce said
“Alright, how ya doin’!” He shook my right hand, threw his left around my shoulder and gave me a hug. We
chatted briefly about the situation of Vietnam veterans in Australia and America, and I thanked him, assuring him that anything
he did for American veterans helped Australian veterans too, because of the public recognition it gave to our cause. I took
off my VVAA badge and pinned it on his leather jacket, and he wore it throughout the second half of the show. He also started
the second half with Shut out the Light, a song about a Vietnam veteran trying
to adjust to life back in the world, which he dedicated to Australian Vietnam veterans in the audience.
When I think about my years as national secretary of the VVAA, my memories are mostly of constant struggle and occasional
tragedy. The aims we worked and suffered for would only be achieved years and even decades later. That is why the memory of
the night I met Bruce Springsteen stands out as my own personal highlight of those years, simply because it was an unequivocally
exciting and happy experience.