The line starts here

For a spot near the stage, Springsteen fans go the distance

Bill Daverne isn't positive, but he doesn't think he'll make it to Friday night's Bruce Springsteen concert at the new Gwinnett Arena. This seems reasonable, as Daverne lives in Ontario, Canada — 18 hours away by car. Still, this is the same man who, after a Springsteen show in Detroit last August, drove 27 hours straight to the next one in Las Vegas. He's racked up 350,000 kilometers (forgive the metric, he's Canadian) on his Chevy Blazer — most of which have been in following Bruce from show to show. Of Springsteen's last 89 North American concerts, Daverne has seen 85. So it is with a certain amount of regret that Daverne mulls the prospect of missing out on the Gwinnett show — Springsteen's second concert in three months in the Atlanta area.

But even if Daverne doesn't come, his presence will be felt. He and a few other hardcore fans are the creators of the orderly yet unofficial system for general-admission entry to Springsteen shows — masters of the line that snakes outside virtually every venue on Bruce's current North American tour. If you're a Springsteen fan and you want to be front and center at a concert, at some point you'll probably meet Daverne and his team. And you'll soon learn this is no ordinary line. Bitch about the rules, and you'll probably hear at least one rabid fan tell you, "You've gotta want it." Spend a few hours — or a few days — in line with these guys, and you'll find out just how bad.

One of the many paradoxes of Bruce Springsteen is that, for a guy who sings about the downtrodden and disenfranchised, his fan base is anything but. The downtrodden can't afford $75 for a concert ticket. The disenfranchised can't take off days from work to follow his tour from city to city. So when Springsteen prevails upon his audience to help out the local food bank, the same audience applauds between gulps on their $7 beers and then, on the way to the $15 parking lot, dutifully throws a few bucks into the charity buckets.

For years, there's been a part of Springsteen's live show off-limits to all but the most privileged — the front row. If a Springsteen concert is, as many have called it, a religious experience, front and center is ground zero for conversion. Die-hard fans, though, devoid of industry connections or the big bucks to pay off a scalper, were screwed.

Until this tour. Last summer, Springsteen's manager, Jon Landau, announced that for this tour, in support of the Sept. 11-inspired The Rising, arena floors would be entirely general admission. No seats.

With one fell swoop, Springsteen took the best seats in the house from the scalpers and put them in the hands of fans. "It leveled the playing field," says Chris Phillips, who edits Backstreets, a quarterly magazine devoted to all things Springsteen. Front and center now required only a general admission ticket. Egalitarianism in action.

But who would get those lucky spots near the stage? With 1,800 general admission tickets sold for each show, there was a risk of pandemonium. Imagine, 1,800 middle-aged white people rushing to stake out a spot near the front of the stage.

Not to worry. Bruce's people set up a barricade about 20 feet back from the stage, and would allow only 300 people into the "pit." Which led Daverne and friends to wonder, "How will the line for those 300 coveted spots work?" At the early shows, they tried out a system: They set up operations outside the arena and started a list. Join the line, and you got your name on the list and a number on your hand. You were told you must return at certain times for roll calls. Miss any of the roll calls and you lost your place in line.

It seemed simple. Check-ins meant that fans could come and go; as long as they made their check-ins, they were free to take a nap, go back to their homes, their jobs, whatever. "It was, in effect, a virtual line," Daverne says. "People would be healthy and awake at the time of the concert."

What's more, on the day before a show, Daverne and company would stagger the check-ins — 8 a.m., noon, 4 p.m. — to feasibly allow a fan to go to work. In this way, the line would accommodate the realities of the typical Springsteen fan — who, frankly, doesn't mind acting like a teenager, but has the responsibilities of an adult.

"Look, I'm not a Limp Bizkit fan," says 44-year-old Woodstock resident Julie Stobbe, who first saw Springsteen back in 1974 at Kent State. "I'm not gonna stay out all night. We're all responsible job-holding members of the community."

Daverne and fellow line organizers hold no official title. They're not endorsed by the band, the promoters, the arenas. Their legitimacy is conferred only because nature abhors a vacuum; somebody has to do it.

"You have to give credit to them for giving it some semblance of order," says Phillips, the magazine editor. "If it's not an impartial body — whether the Springsteen organization or the venues themselves — taking it into their hands, I'm glad someone's doing it."

Of course, the line is not without flaws. Its unofficial status means that word of it is spread not by concert promoters or even by most arenas, but through message boards on the Internet. And even Daverne admits that he'd just as soon not let everyone know that the general admission line even exists.

"We really work hard to reduce the stampede effect. We urge people in line not to mass broadcast that there is a line. Not to put it on the Internet. [Because] suddenly, you'll have 250 people in line two days before the concert."

Attitudes like this likely aren't appreciated by the uninitiated, who might have thought they had a shot at getting close to Bruce by showing up just two hours before show time. Fat chance.

"The counter-argument is if you've bought this ticket, and you're not sure what GA [general admission] means, you should look into it," Daverne says.

Last December, the message boards were burning up with accusations of favoritism. That puzzled Daverne, who said that, on average, he would field about one complaint for every 300 people in line. And Stobbe, who's stood in a few GA lines herself, says, "A lot of it is sour grapes. I know the guys who run the line. It is a thankless job."

For Springsteen's Dec. 2 show at Philips Arena, Angel Sorrells was second in line. Starting Saturday morning, she came back time after time for roll calls, leading up to the Monday night show. The weather was bitterly cold that weekend, and check-ins would often be done in the warmth of the CNN center. But on Monday, the lines moved outside, along the northern wall of the arena.

With her was her 17-year-old niece, Marti Dunaway, who'd driven up from Forsyth, just north of Macon. Says Sorrells: "She's leaving for college in the fall and I said, 'You need a little religion before you go.'"

Marti can be forgiven her skepticism. "He's Bruce Springsteen and I'm 17," she says, and that pretty much sums it up. But the concert was on her aunt, and she'd been listening to some of the studio stuff. So, after 60 hours of line navigation, there she was, front and center, clutching a sign that said, "Kiss me Bruce. It's my first show."

Two months later, she's still in awe. "That old man can work it! He's like 53. He works it like he's 12 or 13. It was just amazing. When he brought that guitar down during 'Born to Run' and let us play it? That was me, dude!"

Today, all she listens to is Bruce. And suffers the slings and arrows from her peers.

"They're like, 'You like him?' I'm like, 'Yeah, he's the greatest.'

"People just don't understand."


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