It could be the dance moves, or the tight pants, or the man-of-the-people lyrics. It could be that video with Courteney Cox in it. Whatever it is, people — ordinary, otherwise law-abiding people — cannot resist rushing the stage at Bruce Springsteen concerts.
It's a phenomenon that's led journalist and Springsteen fan Julian Garcia all the way to Phoenix, the site of a stage-rush immortalized in the "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" video. He's working on a documentary about the phenomenon — I Could Use Just a Little Help — and he's got one last target for interviews: the girls who manhandled the Boss at the Coliseum on July 8, 1978.
Manhandle is an almost unnervingly perfect word for what happens. "Rosalita" closed Springsteen's sets, in those days, and in the punch-drunk last minutes before the encore, a series of increasingly brazen female fans rushed the stage to get a piece of their 20-something hero.
Not a big piece, at first: "One woman just sort of touches him," Garcia says, "like he's a statue of Jesus or something like that." The girls slip in behind the band and dart toward him as if they're in a spy movie, and then they slip back into the crowd like people who've just gotten away with something a little risky.
But "Rosalita" is a long song, and things escalate quickly. Another fan kisses him on the cheek; he doesn't seem to mind. After that they start leaping onto the stage in pairs, sprinting ahead of the security guards.
And as the song erupts into unbridled Springsteen-character joy — "the record company, Rosie, just gave me! a big! advance!" — the barrier between the crowd and the band disappears entirely.
Springsteen, still playing his guitar, wades into the crowd; the crowd, not especially interested in letting Springsteen play his guitar, collapses around him; and while a very frustrated-looking member of the security staff looks on, Bruce Springsteen is briefly at the bottom of a powderpuff football pile, being kissed from all angles.
Finally the security guard, who appears to be the only person in the frame not having a lovely time, manages to pry the ringleader free, whereupon Springsteen returns to the stage looking oddly refreshed and closes out the show.
The urge to touch Bruce Springsteen is as old as "Blinded by the Light," but Garcia's documentary didn't take shape until a year ago, during the Wrecking Ball tour. "A friend of mine went to see Bruce," he says. "He was in the front row and he ended up in a video — like someone's YouTube video, shot from behind the stage."
They got to talking about what it takes to get that close — to end up in the pit. "He told me it was a really grueling process, [that] you had to really stand around for a long time. So I just said to him, 'That would be a pretty interesting documentary,' not really thinking anything of it.
"It sort of evolved into, 'Maybe I'll try to talk to people who have actually done that.'" Since then he's been on a social media crusade for Springsteen stage-jumpers, peppering Twitter, LinkedIn, and Bruce Springsteen message boards to track down as many dancers in the dark as he could.
He's done pretty well so far, especially with fans who've been on stage in the last decade. One reason: At this point, getting up on stage with Bruce Springsteen is more about careful planning than spontaneous overflows of affection.
"He brings up people for basically two songs, nowadays," Garcia says. For "Waitin' on a Sunny Day," off The Rising, some children from the pit are brought up to sing along; for "Dancing in the Dark," of course, a young woman is brought in to play the role of Courteney Cox Surrogate in the sequence that informed white-guy dancing for a generation. You've got to get into the pit; you've got to get lucky; you've got to know when he brings people up on stage.
That was not the case in 1978. If the girls rushing the stage in "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" are ringers, they were playing a long game; the video wasn't produced until 1984, when a song that predated MTV suddenly needed one.
They look, at least, like fans who were so enthusiastic (or so into Bruce's period-appropriate open-shirt look) that they had no choice but to leap onto the stage and tackle him during the never-ending saxophone outro. They look as though they understand intuitively the real reason that people connect with the song and the artist.
Which is exactly why Julian Garcia wants to find them.
The '70s were filled with fan interaction that seems impossibly dangerous in hindsight; "Rosalita" in Phoenix is kind of the musical equivalent of Hank Aaron rounding the bases accompanied by a phalanx of sketchy-looking fans.
But even for its time, there's something special about it — something that points to something special about Bruce Springsteen. "I think Bruce almost gives his fans the invitation [to rush the stage]," Garcia says, "just by the way he behaves."
What's odd about the moment is just how natural it all feels; if it had happened to somebody else, any number of other rock heroes through history, you'd be able to hear the faint sound of writers preparing think-pieces about one party or the other being oppressed. Getting that close to Axl Rose seems dangerous and/or unclean; getting so forward with one of your folkier indie rock stars could inspire a series of social justice Tumblr posts about sexual harassment.
But Springsteen and these girls seem, with all their goofy passion, like nothing so much as two characters in a Bruce Springsteen song.
"They've gotta be out there somewhere," Garcia tells me. "Let's say they were between the ages of 16 and 22, or something like that . . . My hope is that they're in the Phoenix area still, and maybe they read this and they can get in touch with me. I'd like to just tell the story of that day and how it all went down. If they're still Bruce fans, if they've ever had any contact with him after that."
It's easy to imagine they might have, because that's how Bruce Springsteen is. "He's so open, and so accessible to his fans, that when you go to a show you're like, 'Hey, tonight might be the night that I get invited up there by one of the biggest rock stars that has ever walked the planet.'
"It's not like, 'You stand over there and let me do my thing, and I'm going to put these security guards between us so you can't get close to me . . .' It's made very clear, like, 'Hey, we're in this together.'"