Sean O'Toole:

I’m no hero

As told to: Staff Writer

It’s 5 a.m. on a cold, snowy morning in December 1980 and my brother Pat and I are driving from Ottawa to Buffalo for our first Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band concert. I’m 16 years old and as we head down a pitch-black, snow-packed Highway 16, I’ve never felt so free.

The plan was to get to Toronto mid-morning, hit the record stores on Yonge Street, pick up Pat’s buddy Mike in Mississauga, and head down the QEW to Buffalo for the show.

On Yonge Street we snagged some records and T-shirts and got hassled by some born-again freak who forced us to buy this Jesus-is-coming book, which we promptly tossed in the garbage; we’d take our chances. After lunch, we picked up Mike and shuffled off to Buffalo.

The Buffalo Memorial Auditorium was old, grubby and beautiful, and our seats were brutal – behind the stage and way up in the rafters – but it was all good. The lights went down, the lighters went up and Bruce and the band tore into “Born to Run.” The show roller coastered through dance-party rave-ups (“Sherry Darlin,”) call-to-arms tunes (“Darkness on the Edge of Town,”) soulful ballads (“The River”) and fist-pumping anthems (“Jungleland”). They banged out 34 songs in a 3 ½-hour show and I wrote every song on the back of a dollar bill, that I still have 29 years later. When the show ended, our voices were hoarse, we were soaked in sweat and we didn’t want to leave. So we didn’t.

Courtesy Sean O'Toole

We’d heard that if you hang around after a show, Bruce would stop by, say hello, and sign some autographs, so we thought we’d give it a shot.

We waited in this tunnel-like area backstage and watched the roadies take down the stage. After an hour or so, Bruce walked up to us and, in a voice like gravel, said hello. Jesus Christ, we couldn’t believe it. He was wearing a long, black grave digger’s coat and an easy, natural smile. We were stunned that he was standing before us. We told him we loved the show and we’d never had so much fun in our entire shitty lives and we’d driven from Ottawa in a snowstorm but it was worth it and why didn’t you play “Backstreets” and you’re coming to Ottawa in six weeks can you play “Sandy”?  He thanked us, signed our programs, told us he played “Drive All Night” instead of “Backstreets” and he’d try to remember to play “Sandy” for us in Ottawa.  Right on, Bruce, you’re the man, see ya later. He got into a chauffeur-driven black AMC Pacer and drove away. Pat and Mike and I high-fived each other and hit the road. We dropped Mike in Mississauga and drove through the night to Ottawa.

The next day at school we told everyone we saw Bruce and he played “I Fought the Law” and we met him and got autographs and he’s our hero and holy shit life’s fuckin’ awesome!

Three nights later, some psycho shot John Lennon – who’d once claimed his band was bigger than Jesus Christ – in New York City. The next night Bruce played a show in Philadelphia that was raw and emotional and stood for something, even if nobody was sure what it was.

Six weeks later, Bruce played the Ottawa Civic Centre and we had amazing seats on the floor, four rows from the stage, dead centre. I sat between my buddies Hop and Geoff, and Bruce played “Sandy” for Pat and me even if he didn’t really mean to and it was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life with my clothes on.

Courtesy Sean O'Toole

Fast-forward to 1984 and Bruce is riding the Born in the USA wave and is king of the universe. His catchy new songs have bounced him into a world of outdoor stadiums, slick videos and dance mixes. He’s a new-and-improved buffed-up Boss and he’s everywhere – cover of Rolling Stone, People, National Enquirer. That summer I saw him in Cleveland, Toronto and Montreal, with Buffalo coming up in the fall. I couldn’t wait.

On a late-September day, five of us loaded into a van to make the trek to Buffalo. It was two of my best friends, Ray and Eddie, my buddy Dwayne from work, and his friend Donny. The concert was slated for the following night so the plan was to get to Buffalo, grab a hotel, go out for some beers and see the show the next night. All good.

After some Buffalo nightlife, we were about to go back to our hotel when somebody told us Bruce and the band were staying at The Hilton, so we figured let’s head to the Hilton bar, have a few more, and see if Bruce shows up so we can wish him a happy 35th. Right on.

We get to the Hilton and the bartender tells us, yeah, Bruce and the guys are staying there but are at some pizza-bowl celebrating the Boss’s birthday, and who knows, they may pop in later. So we grab some barstools and holy shit! in walks Bruce’s bass player Garry Tallent and new guitar guy, Nils Lofgren. Behind them are Mighty Max Weinberg (drums), Professor Roy Bittan (piano) and backup singer Patti Scialfa. They pull up seats beside us at the bar and it’s holy shit we’re hangin’ with the E Street Band buying them beers and talkin’ tunes fuckin’ right! I ask Roy about playing on Dire Straits’ Making Movies record and he says yeah, Mark Knopfler, great guy! Garry tells me about the rockabilly record collection he shares with Southside Johnny and Patti writes “For Sean, Rock on! Love Patti Scialfa” on a Hilton-logo napkin/coaster thing. She tells me her brother’s name is Sean and he spells it the same way and isn’t that cool and I’m all yeah, this is awesome when in walks Bruce. We’re all, Jesus Christ he’s right over there five feet away holy fuck!


We grab some napkin/coaster things and go up to Bruce. He looks like he just walked off the cover of Born in the USA, T-shirt and Levi’s, all pumped up from working out. We tell him happy birthday and we’re here for tomorrow’s show and we can hardly wait and Nebraska’s awesome are you gonna play any songs from it and how about an autograph? He’s smiling and a little wobbly and says sure to the autographs.

While he’s writing his name for us, we toss a few more questions his way but he doesn’t say much, just signs and heads to the corner of the bar where it’s dark.

We go back to our barstools, talk some more with the E Streeters and cast the occasional glance to the corner and see that Bruce is making out – like, total making out, swapping spit and all – with this girl who looks to be 18, 19 max. We find out her name is Holly and the next night at the Buffalo Aud, before Bruce plays “Promised Land,” he says “This is for Holly tonight.” I’ve got the bootleg from that show and all I can think when I hear it is the word tonight.

We keep on keepin’ on with the E Street Band and we meet this old-guy lawyer who calls himself Buffalo Bob and when we point out Bruce in the corner, Bob says he’s never heard of him. I tell Bob that Bruce’s name is Fred Springsteen and he plays defence for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Bruce overhears me and laughs and somebody asks him for an autograph and he writes Fred Springsteen on a napkin/coaster and I bet the damn thing’s worth a fortune today.

The E Streeters file out and Bruce is still heatin’ it up with Holly in the corner. We’ve left him alone this whole time so he could do his thing and finally, he gets up to leave, alone. We figure we’ll snag him on his way out and get some autographs for our buddies back home.

Bruce is almost out of the bar and we ask him for one more autograph and he doesn’t say anything, just looks at us, blank, and gets down to signing. I’m last and when he gets to me, he says something like this: “No more fuckin’ autographs. I’m sick of this shit. Everywhere I go people are all over me. If you have any respect for me, you’ll fuckin’ leave me alone and get off my fuckin’ back. Ya got that? Get off my fuckin’ back.”  The get-off-my-fuckin’-back part I remember clearly because he said it twice. I tell him okay, fine and he walks out of the bar.

I’m totally rattled. Ray and I head out into the parking lot and sit on the curb and wonder what the hell just happened. The only thought running through my head is don’t cry man don’t fuckin’ cry.

We go back into the bar and order a round because I need one. The boys tell me they felt something brewin’, saw it comin’ on, not to take it personally, I mean, waddaya expect, the guy can’t go anywhere without people buggin’ the shit out of him and it’s gotta be tough. But all I can think is Bruce told me to fuck off and I’m a loser and I wanna jump off the Peace Bridge and I’m never gonna get over this.

And then I feel a hand on my shoulder.

I look up and it’s Bruce. He’s standing firm, no more wobble. He says something like this: “Hey, sorry about that, man. I didn’t mean to do that to you. It’s just tough sometimes. Now lemme give you that autograph.” I’m stunned by the whole thing – the get-off-my-fuckin’ back and Holly and sorry-about-that. What the fuck? My head’s spinning. “Nah, don’t worry about it,” I tell him. “No big deal. I don’t need that autograph.” My buddy Eddie grabs a napkin/coaster and gives it to Bruce and tells him here you go. Bruce signs it and puts it in my hand and tells me not to let this ruin me and I say yeah, thanks, okay and I sorta mean it. He shakes my hand, shakes everyone’s hands, and says see ya at the show tomorrow. Dwayne asks him to play “I’m Goin’ Down” and he says yeah, sure and he leaves.


The next night we’re trying to buy scalped tickets to the show and having no luck when we spot Buffalo Bob, the old guy from the bar who said he’d never heard of Bruce. Bob’s with his daughter and they’re trying to score tickets and he leads us to this out-of-the-way ticket window and we get floor seats 15 rows from the stage and we can’t believe our luck.

Bruce opens with “Born in the USA” and rocks the place for 3 ½ hours and he even plays “I’m Goin’ Down.” I dance and sing and raise my arm in the air and enjoy it, even though I’m seeing the show – and the world, and my life, and pretty much everything from that point on – through a new pair of eyes. Which are now wide, wide open. Which is good.



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