In December of 1984, Bruce Springsteen was Rolling Stone magazine’s cover story, as he has been many times. But the first three paragraphs of that story – an interview by Kurt Loder (of MTV fame) with the meteoric mega-star – were all about Tacoma.
The article described how, earlier that year, Springsteen took his “Born In The USA” record on the road, touring all over the world. He declined to play the Kingdome in Seattle, opting instead for the Tacoma Dome, ostensibly because of acoustic advantages. But shortly after arriving in Tacoma from Vancouver on October 17, Springsteen and many from his crew became severely ill. Bruce struggled through the first of two sold-out shows, but delayed the second by 24 hours.
Loder opened his thesaurus and launched into a description of the apparent cause, relating Springsteen’s recollection of his memorable encounter with Tacoma.
“Something in the air”, he wrote, “‘The Tacoma aroma,’ locals call it, a lung-raking stench of noxious lumber-milling fumes and other foul industrial emissions that imparted a green-gilled tinge to most members of the Springsteen tour party and made Bruce himself sick to his stomach.”
The article goes on to describe Seattle as a place with cleaner air and higher culture, while Tacoma is “bilious”, and part of the “embattled world of the working class”.
A lot of negative things had been said about Tacoma since it began its post-war decline. But with this high-profile story in one of the most influential pop culture publications in history, it became a place where Bruce Springsteen pukes and suffers for America’s industrial sins, like a sexy martyr.
For most people, it was no stretch to believe that the Tacoma Aroma was potent enough to strike down The Boss. In fact, with Springsteen’s encouragement, the incident added urgency to ongoing discussions in Tacoma about clean air and corporate disclosure laws for industrial emissions.
As it turned out, the humbling Rolling Stone story was questionable at best, and wildly incorrect at worst.
An Associated Press Story came out on November 21, 1984, which placed the blame for Springsteen’s malady on the flu. According to that story, Springsteen arrived in Tacoma on Tuesday, October 16 and felt perfectly fine; he even went to a local fitness club to work out.
The next day, at 2 pm, he began to get stomach cramps and went to see a doctor. At that point, it was only five or six hours until show time.
The Tacoma doctor who treated Springsteen described him as very ill, and said with no uncertainty that he was suffering from the flu. The doctor preferred to remain anonymous. And that’s where the story first gets a little weird. How did Springsteen and the affected members of his crew become so convinced the Tacoma Aroma was at fault if the doctor had already diagnosed him with the flu? And it’s hard to believe that a man who is famous for coming from New Jersey could be so immediately sickened by noxious air.
Despite the evidence presented in the Associated Press article, there was probably never any chance that a common flu bug would replace the Tacoma Aroma as the story’s villain. It was too late by then – and there was no denying that the city’s odor was sickening.
Bruce chose to take the stage that day, probably rushing from the doctor’s office to the soundcheck at the Tacoma Dome. He struggled through a 3 ½ hour set list, torrents of sweat the only evidence of his extreme discomfort. By all accounts, it was a hell of a concert. Springsteen and the E Street Band opened with “Born In the U.S.A.”, and mixed some sobering material from “Nebraska” with hits from “The River”. With the last bars of the Clarence Clemmons sax solo from “Darlington County” echoing across the dome, the show was hitting its stride. Springsteen started to tell a story as he introduced the song “Glory Days”.
Now, this is a song that’s about old times. You don´t gotta be very old to start having old times. I got my share. Clarence has got more than me, but he has maintained his youthful beauty, no doubt about it. [...]
Every time I go home after the show – we get done, it’s late – the only thing on is “Twilight Zone” re-runs or something like that.
I was watching “Twilight Zone” one night about this actor, and he was old. All he did was sit around all the time thinking about what a great time he had when he was a young man.
He was thinking how all the girls were after him all the time and – you know, he got all the good parts.
And all he used to do was sit around moping. So he’s sitting there, and all of a sudden, [plays part of the theme of ‘Outer Limits’] he goes into the Twilight Zone.
Anything can happen in the Twilight Zone now. I think Tacoma may be the Twilight Zone.
Bruce had introduced and played “Glory Days” dozens of times, in dozens of cities, before – It was, after all, one of the hit singles from “Born in the U.S.A.” He even had two different explanations for what the song was actually about (the other involved his disappointing experience with junior league baseball). But never before had he compared one of his host cities to the Twilight Zone that inspired the lyrics.
Springsteen finished his rambling narrative introduction to the song, describing the disappointment and futility of looking back on the past, concluding, “In the end, it ain’t nothin’ but glory days… and all things must pass.”
Then, with the signature country blues guitar riff and anthemic drum-bashing, the band started the song. “Glory Days” is a rousing, tavern-friendly tune; the lyrics, however, are downright dour. After sorrowful tales of has-beens, divorces and joblessness, in the final verse, Springsteen’s determined growl obscured the fatalism of the words:
I think I’m going down to the well tonight,
And I’m going to drink until I get my fill.
I hope when I get old, I don’t sit around thinking about it -
But I probably will -
Just sitting back trying to recapture
A little of the glory.
Time slips away
And leaves you with nothing, mister,
But boring stories of glory days.
What made The Boss think Tacoma was the Twilight Zone – a place where anything is possible? Certainly, he made his living by marketing his famous authenticity, so it’s easy to see the statement as an attempt to connect with the audience. In this case, though, I wonder if the comparison is favorable.
Even taking good showmanship into consideration, it was an odd observation given the state of the city at the time – a place of hard realities and limited possibilities. Another review of the concert, in the San Francisco Chronicle, described Tacoma as a “grimy, odorous mill town”. It had harsher words for the Tacoma Dome itself: “[it] looked disconcertingly like a giant igloo, with rows of cheap benches and some embarrassingly bad seats, so high above the floor that people could get nosebleeds.”
Optimistic words about Tacoma in those days were rare indeed. And if Bruce really believed the city’s malodorous air was wringing his guts out, calling Tacoma a place where “anything can happen” seems either truly generous or rather foreboding.
Before the encore, Bruce exhorted the audience to contribute to an organization called Washington Fair Share, which advocated overturning Governor John Spellman’s veto of a controversial worker’s “right to know” bill. The bill would have forced employers to notify employees of toxic materials in the work environment. He also promoted Northwest Harvest, which still collects and distributes food to approximately 300 hunger programs in Washington State.
After that show, Springsteen all but collapsed. He spent the whole next day in bed at the hotel, resting in preparation for the now-delayed second show.
He was still pale and weak when he played on Thursday. By the end of the set, he confessed, “I can’t do it… I can’t go on. I’ve been so ill… I still feel so weak.”
In true Springsteen fashion, he tore through “Twist and Shout” nonetheless, and again urged the audience to check out Northwest Harvest and Washington Fair Share.
When he stepped outside after the concert, Bruce Springsteen was confronted with the acrid reality of the Tacoma Aroma. The odor must have seemed even more offensive in his weakened state. He was so desperate to leave Tacoma, he abandoned his plans to rest at the hotel and caught the first plane out to – of all goddamned places – Oakland, California.
On that sour note, Bruce Springsteen left Tacoma, but not before donating thousands of dollars to Washington Fair Share and Northwest Harvest.
Barely a month later, in November of 1984, the rather churlish Rolling Stone article hit newsstands. The manager of the Tacoma Dome at that time was Mike Gebauer. He seemed to take the whole debacle in stride – almost too easily. As quoted in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, he mused, “I promised when I came here that I would get us mentioned in Rolling Stone… It’s a case of ‘I don’t care what you say about me just as long as you spell my name right’”. He also noted that the Tacoma Dome was the only concert venue mentioned in Loder’s rather lengthy article. The man had a talent for counting blessings, I guess.
But perhaps Gebauer shouldn’t have taken the perspective that all publicity is good publicity. It wasn’t necessary to be so deprecating. For one thing, the doctor who treated Springsteen in Tacoma all but refuted the notion that Tacoma Aroma had anything to do with his illness. Furthermore, arguably, the air quality in Tacoma was not inferior to that of Seattle – It just smelled worse. Jim Tucker, of the Puget Sound Air Quality Control Agency, stated at the time, “Based on criteria of (measured) air pollutants, the two cities are generally comparable.”
But that was the Tacoma of 1984. If such negative reviews of Tacoma venues were to appear today, any manager or official who publicly welcomed them would probably quickly lose their job. Over the past two decades, this city has grown more and more uncomfortable with the insulting perspectives it once endured. We understand now that there is more in Tacoma’s soul than belching industry, steely labor, and stoic banality. Tacoma is not a cultural dead-zone wedged between Seattle and Olympia. There is value here for everyone, just like any other city. This is not an inferior place.
Tacoma has evolved, and our glory days – days of festooned streets, bustling docks, billowing smokestacks, timber kings and railroad magnates – are so far behind us, few can even remember them. But as the echoes of history get more faint, we’re not haunted by the dust on our trophies; because, as a city, most of our victories lie ahead of us. For the old actor in Springsteen’s anecdote, letting go of the glory days made the present more satisfying.
Maybe that’s why Tacoma is the Twilight Zone: when there’s no direction to look but forward, anything is possible.