The 5 Best Displays at the New Bruce Springsteen Live! Exhibit at the Grammy Museum

“Once Bruce walks out on stage, the only question in my mind is: is this going to be an absolutely great show, one of the greatest shows he’s ever done or the greatest show he’s ever done? That’s the range,” says Bruce Springsteen’s longtime manager Jon Landau in a video at the new Bruce Springsteen Live! Exhibit at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles.

While that may be a bit (but only a little) hyperbolic, The Boss is renowned for both the high caliber and marathon duration of his concerts, and the exhibit — which officially opens Saturday (Oct. 15) and runs through April 2 — gives fans a backstage pass to five decades of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s live shows, including rare memorabilia and clothing, instruments, photographs and interactive displays. The exhibit was co-curated by the Grammy Museum and Eileen Chapman, director of the Bruce Springsteen Archives & the Center for American Music at Monmouth University.

As Springsteen and his band get ready to return to the road next year for the first time since 2017 (excluding his solo runs on Broadways in 2018 and 2021), the exhibit serves as the perfect way for fans to whet their appetite. Taking a little license with some Springsteen lyrics, here are five of the best displays/experiences at the exhibit.

“I Got This Guitar and I Learned How to Make It Talk”

The exhibit features a number of Springsteen’s guitars, but perhaps none as gloriously roadworn and famous as his 1950s Fender Esquire (the display IDs it as 1953-1954). The beat-up butterscotch beauty, well known to fans, features a Fender Telecaster body and Esquire neck and Springsteen used it on the road from 1972 until 2005. Alone in its own glass case, it feels as if it still reverberates with a thousand songs in it waiting to be played. Even those who didn’t get to see Springsteen play it live will recognize it from the album covers for Born to Run, Live 1975-95, Human Touch and Wrecking Ball

“I Got Debts No Honest Man Can Pay”

In an undated letter from what is likely the early ‘70s, Springsteen writes a charming note to his landlord, apologizing for not paying his rent on time. Addressed to “Dear Landlordess,” and penned on a torn-out page from a spiral notebook, he adds not one, but two endearing postscripts: “P.S.: Do you like this classy writing paper?” and “P.P.S: I’m practicing my autograph. Whadya think?” In the same display case, there is a scrapbook from the ‘70s that his mom kept as her son’s career took off. It was opened to a page that included a 1972 review from Variety — one of his first — and a postcard from the road from his then-manager, Mike Appel, as a reminder that Springsteen, too, was once a struggling artist.

“I Want Pounding Drums”

For an exhibit devoted to touring, there is very little footage of Springsteen playing live, but in one of the most enjoyable displays, drummer Max Weinberg gives wannabe drummers a tutorial and then the chance to play along with a video of Springsteen performing before tens of thousands of people at a stadium gig. Fans sit at a mini-drum kit while Weinberg teaches them how to play bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat to “Born in the U.S.A.,” a song the longtime E Street Band member says is one of his favorites to play, before turning them loose to play along with the video.  

“Is There Anybody Alive Out There?”

In one of the many interactive elements, fans can build their own five-song encore to a live show and see how close they come to what Springsteen played that actual night. For someone who is revered for his ability to call an “audible” and change up the set at a moment’s notice, it turns out a great deal of thought goes into the encore. In a video, Springsteen, with guitar in hand, explains how he selects the encore songs based on smooth key changes and rhythm changes as he slides from “Born to Run” into “Devil With the Blue  Dress On” (usually part of what is known as “The Detroit Medley”) into “Glory Days” into “Land of Hope and Dreams.” “You want to constantly kick it up,” he says. 

“A Prayer for the Souls of the Departed”

While casual fans may pass right by the displays to beloved late E Street musicians Danny “The Phantom” Federici, who died in 2008, and Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons, who died in 2011, longtime devotees will appreciate the mementos that celebrate the longtime members. Federici is feted by a display with one of his accordions, a photo of him as a young boy playing the instrument and a note from his son talking about how Federici, who was also Springsteen’s organist, began playing the accordion at 5. For Clemons, one of his saxophones is on display, but the item that will tug at hard-core fans’ heartstrings is “The Throne,” the upholstered, gold-painted armchair that Clemons had onstage with him so he could sit as he got tired in later years and where he reclined and took in his adoring fans when the rest of the band left the stage before returning for the encore. Both are gone but never forgotten.

Melinda Newman