BRENDA “BUBBLES” PHILLIPS MET THE BOSS 30 YEARS AGO. SHE WAS TENDING BAR IN PRESCOTT WHEN HE CAME IN FOR A BEER. WHAT HAPPENED NEXT CHANGED HER LIFE.
Scott Craven, Arizona Republic
Published 7:00 a.m. MT Sept. 29, 2019
A shaft of sunlight penetrated the darkness, like clouds briefly parting, before the door shut behind the four men, returning the saloon to its normal state.
As if anything would ever be the same again for those who visited this particular bar that Friday, Sept. 29, 1989.
For most it would be an amazing story, one told at parties or on first dates or during happy hour with colleagues.
For a few others, it would be much more. And for one woman, it would be the day that changed everything.
It was the time Bruce Springsteen jammed at Matt’s Saloon on Whiskey Row in Prescott.
‘SO YOU WANT TO KNOW ABOUT BRUCE’
Brenda Phillips pushes her way through the two doors leading into Denny’s, pulling an oxygen tank that clatters behind her.
She approaches the hostess stand with a warm smile, which is returned by the woman who greets her. Phillips is a familiar face at the Prescott Valley restaurant, which is just minutes from her home. And after three heart attacks and two strokes, she rarely travels more than a few minutes from home.
Brenda “Bubbles” Phillips met The Boss 30 years ago. She was tending bar in Prescott when he came in for a beer. What happened next changed her life.Tom Tingle, The Republic | azcentral.com
The former bartender heads toward the reporter waving to her from a booth. He’d set up this meeting just a few days before, asking her to share her memories of the day a rock star dropped in out of nowhere and changed her life.
Phillips carefully maneuvers the tank along a narrow aisle before plopping herself into the booth. She slaps a plastic binder bulging with papers on the table.
Phillips has no idea the reporter assumes it’s a Bruce Springsteen scrapbook, filled with photos and news clippings stemming from her brief time with The Boss.
But these papers tell a story Phillips would rather forget. They detail her medical history, and they never leave her side when she ventures from home, should she collapse among strangers.
Today, however, she’s ready to tell a happier tale, one that can still make her pains go away, at least for a while.
“So you want to know about Bruce,” she says. Her eyes sparkle as her mind drifts back three decades to a day that was more summer than fall.
“It was a Friday,” she continues as if reading aloud. “The weather was gorgeous. It was probably around 2 in the afternoon when these guys came in, looking fresh off the road.”
‘I KNOW WHO YOU ARE’
At 9 a.m. on Sept. 29, 1989, Matt’s Saloon in Prescott was open for business, as it was every day.
Thirty-nine-year-old Brenda Pechanec — her surname after a July 4 wedding (her eighth and last; it ended a month later) — stood behind the bar enjoying the silence that came with the early hour.
Bruce Springsteen ended up doing an impromptu performance after he walked into Matt’s Saloon on Whiskey Row in Prescott on Sept. 29, 1989.
(Photo: Photo courtesy of Brenda Phillip)
By the time four men dressed in blue jeans and leather vests walked in several hours later, Bubbles, as she was known along Whiskey Row, was expecting them. Friends from a bar down the street had alerted her that freshly arrived bikers looking for fun were headed her way.
Such calls routinely were made, friends looking out for friends. The fact that it was Bubbles’ first week behind the bar after months of radiation and chemotherapy for stomach and vaginal cancer also may have had something to do with it.
Bubbles eyed the four as they took seats at the still-quiet bar. The one in the middle quickly caught her attention the way he kept peering over his sunglasses as if daring her to look at him. She stood in front of him.
“I know who you are,” she said. “Don’t try to hide from me.”
Bubbles had no idea why Bruce Springsteen happened to drop into Matt’s Saloon. According to reports in The Arizona Republic and Prescott’s Daily Courier at the time, Springsteen was on his way from Los Angeles to the Grand Canyon. (Attempts to reach Springsteen through his public relations representative for this story were unsuccessful.)
Springsteen ordered a Budweiser. She poured the same for his friends. If there was much small talk over the next 15 minutes or so, time has long since washed away the details.
What remained with Bubbles after that first encounter has been more of an impression — Springsteen was pleasant. Friendly. Someone who, for the moment, wanted to be just another guy enjoying a beer on the road.
A guy who was anything but a rock star.
That was about to change.
Denny Orr doesn’t play it as much as he used to, the Fender Stratocaster he’s had for, like, ever. Not since 2007, when he fell in the tub and jammed his middle two fingers. But nowadays he’s getting back into music, picking up a few gigs around his current home in Grand Junction, Colorado.
And each time that guitar settles into its familiar spot, Orr’s left hand cradling the fret board, his right plucking at the strings, he remembers the greatest night of his life, the time his Fender hung around someone else’s neck.
“I’ll never forget that day, not in a million years,” Orr says by phone.
Each time he tells the story — and he’s lost count how many times that’s been over 30 years — he’s back on that stage playing harmonica as Springsteen coaxes the perfect melody out of Orr’s beloved Strat.
While the people in the bar may disagree about how it happened, their stories of jamming with Bruce Springsteen 30 years ago are still vivid.
(Photo: Photo courtesy of Brenda Phillip)
In the crowd, fans as excited as Orr has ever seen are cheering every note. As a member of the Mile High Band, Orr was accustomed to enthusiasm.
But nothing like this. Not before and not after. For those fleeting moments, he felt like a rock star.
Memories aren’t so clear as to how it all came about. At first Orr remembers having coffee at the end of the bar with other members of his band when Springsteen and his friends came in. He recalls drummer Jimmy Moorhous chatting with The Boss, inviting Springsteen to play for a while.
“No, no, that’s not how it happened,” Moorhous says by phone from his home in Prescott Valley, where he works at an auto dealership.
Moorhous says he, Orr and their bandmate David Kellerman were at the saloon going over songs for their gig that night when the front door opened. Orr said, “Hey, it’s The Boss.”
Moorhous remembers thinking the saloon’s owners had just walked in.
No, Orr said. The Boss, as in Bruce Springsteen.
At first Moorhous didn’t believe it, but soon saw Orr was telling the truth.
No stranger to talented musicians, Moorhous struck up a conversation with Springsteen, even sharing a few songs he’d written. It wasn’t long before Springsteen was on stage, borrowed guitar in hand.
Yet neither of these versions dovetails with Phillips’ recollection. She says the Mile High Band came in after Springsteen had been there a while. A short conversation ensued at the bar before Springsteen said those two magic words.
All three agree on what happened next.
Bruce Springsteen grew up in New Jersey and created rock-and-roll music that has touched millions of people around the world. His first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” was released on Jan. 5, 1973. 41 years later, on Jan. 14, 2014, he released his 17th studio album, “High Hopes.”(
‘PEOPLE WERE GRABBING FOR HIM’
Phillips had seen rowdy crowds at Matt’s before, but never like this.
About 20 minutes had passed since Springsteen joined the Mile High Band on the saloon’s stage tucked into a loft. Or perhaps it had been as long as 40 minutes.
Brenda “Bubbles” Phillips was behind the bar 30 years ago at Matt’s Saloon, her first week back after life-threatening health problems, when Bruce Springsteen walked in.
(Photo: Photo courtesy of Brenda Phillip)
Either way, it was enough time for everyone within 5 miles of Matt’s to descend upon the bar to hear The Boss whip through rock ‘n’ roll standards, including some from Chuck Berry and Elvis. He even offered his own rendition of “Route 66” it was reported at the time.
The saloon had gone from silent to rambunctious in record time, so much so that Bubbles stopped serving. There was no need to fuel the frenzy with alcohol.
Bubbles and members of the band would later learn that several people hit the streets Paul Revere-like to spread the word of Springsteen’s arrival. Businesses along Whiskey Row and around Courthouse Plaza temporarily shut down as workers raced to Matt’s.
At one point, Bubbles looked up to see one of Springsteen’s companions calling to her. He had a question.
“What’s your favorite song?” he asked. He didn’t say “favorite Springsteen song.” He didn’t have to.
“‘I’m on Fire,'” Bubbles said without hesitation. A few minutes later, The Boss’s slow rendition filled the saloon. When asked to do another original, he begged off, saying he didn’t remember the words to “Pink Cadillac.”
People continued to pack themselves in. Then, after 20 minutes, or maybe as many as 40, Springsteen handed the Stratocaster back to Orr, descended to the floor and jumped on the pool table, an island in the sea of people.
Hands reached for him on all sides. He swam to the bar, launching himself behind it and into the safe harbor provided by Bubbles.
Once the performance came to an end, Bruce Springsteen ducked behind the bar where Brenda “Bubbles” Phillips was serving drinks.
He posed for photos and answered questions, but turned down one autograph request after another. As the crowd swelled even further, and with music no longer a distraction, Springsteen’s companions made the tactical decision to extricate him from a situation growing untenable.
“People were grabbing for him like they wanted to tear his clothes off,” Phillips said. “It was almost like a riot was about to start.”
Springsteen followed the three men as they carved a path toward the door. They quickly crossed Montezuma Street, where The Boss jumped on a silver and blue Harley-Davidson and drove away without looking back.
The crowd thinned and the Mile High Band went back to rehearsal. That night, they played to a crowd larger and more enthusiastic than usual. Perhaps some attended thinking Springsteen might appear again, or simply to be in the place where he was mere hours ago.
But that was hardly the end of the Springsteen echo.
Not by a long shot.
‘I GOT A CALL’
“I don’t remember exactly.” Phillips shifts on the upholstered bench in Denny’s, reaching for the story she rarely tells. She sips at her raspberry tea, more than three-quarters of an hour after a server placed it in front of her.
“It was two or three days later, no more than that,” she says. “I know everybody says I got a check. I never got a check. I got a call.”
One afternoon, Phillips’ phone rang. It was a Daily Courier reporter asking Phillips if she knew her hospital bill had been paid.
That was news to her. Phillips called a friend who worked at Yavapai Regional Medical Center and asked the same question.
She was hardly prepared for the answer.
“It’s been paid in full,” her friend said.
Not possible, Phillips remembered thinking. By whom?
“Bruce Springsteen,” her friend said.
Phillips knew the bill was north of $160,000. So worried about her longtime prognosis at that point, she’d given little thought to how she’d pay it, especially on a bartending job that paid $1.25 an hour with few tips.
Now she didn’t have to.
“I was stunned,” she says in a voice that suggests her reaction is unchanged after 30 years. “I didn’t know what to say.”
In the weeks and months after the impromptu jam session, Phillips’ name was mentioned in nearly all the articles, along with a photo of her and The Boss posing behind the bar.
(Photo: Photo courtesy of Brenda Phillip)
To this day, she has no idea how the rock star knew about her treatments or her bill. Her best guess is Dave Kellerman, the third member of the Mile High Band, whom she’d seen talking to Springsteen before and after the jam session.
“I haven’t seen Dave since, so I don’t know if it was him,” Phillips said. “And if it wasn’t him, I have no idea.”
She wishes above all that she could thank Springsteen, let him know what it meant. Because his gift has gone beyond the financial.
In the weeks and months after the impromptu jam session, Phillips heard from people around the world who’d read about Springsteen’s surprise appearance. Her name was mentioned in nearly all the articles, along with a photo of her and The Boss posing behind the bar.
She answered each bit of fan mail that arrived at Matt’s Saloon, from those who wanted her autograph or to just say hello, asking what Bruce Springsteen was really like.
Among Phillips’ cherished memories of her post-Boss life: hosting fans visiting from Australia, England and Africa. In each case she spent a few days with her international visitors, showing them around Prescott, including Matt’s Saloon.
“My life really changed after that,” Phillips says. “I’m so blessed.”
‘IT’S A MIRACLE I’M EVEN ALIVE’
Life went on for Brenda “Bubbles” Phillips, as it did for everyone at Matt’s Saloon on that September Saturday afternoon.
Denny Orr looks back fondly, calling that day a highlight of his life. Each time he picks up his guitar, his mind conjures every precious second he spent on the same stage as Springsteen.
“It’s my claim to fame,” Orr says. “There is no drug in the world comparable to playing with him.”
Jimmy Moorhous enjoys telling the story, though his time among other musical luminaries gives it some perspective. Over the years he’s met and/or played for Tammy Wynette, B.J. Thomas and Waylon Jennings, among others.
Brenda “Bubbles” Phillips day with Bruce Springsteen became even more memorable when Springsteen paid her medical bills.
(Photo: Tom Tingle/The Republic)
“I’ve been lucky to play with a lot of famous people,” he says. “But that was an amazing day.”
The day takes up much more space in Phillips’ life. The bedroom in her small apartment is filled with photos and memories from those few hours. She does have that presumed scrapbook, filled with stories and clippings approaching their 30th anniversary.
She says she’s been blessed many times over since Springsteen boarded his Harley and rode out of her life. She has 10 grandkids and six great-grandkids in addition to her three grown children. She was a bartender for 23 years, and a licensed practical nurse in the second chapter of her life.
She co-founded ABATE of Arizona, a charity dedicated to motorcycle safety, and in 1993 she appeared in the film “Beyond the Law,” a biker film starring Charlie Sheen. She has her own page on IMDB.com.
Even as she struggles to make ends meet on her monthly Social Security check, she frequently calls herself lucky.
“It’s a miracle I’m even alive,” she says. “I’m just happy to be here.”
On occasion over the years, Phillips has sat down and written Springsteen a letter. She’s talked about how she’s doing and what she’s been up to. The kind of letter cross-country friends might have penned before email and Facebook. There have been 30 letters. Maybe more.
Each time she put it in an envelope addressed to Springsteen’s agent, each time making a trip to the post office to send it certified mail. Without fail she’s received the return receipt indicating someone at the office accepted delivery. Whether Springsteen has ever seen one, Phillips can only hope.
Many years ago, too many to remember, she says, Phillips bought tickets to a Springsteen concert in Phoenix with every intention of talking her way past security. Just to let him know she was still alive, if he ever thought about that bartender he met before jamming at a small Arizona bar. But she fell ill before his encore and never got the chance.
If she could meet him face to face someday, this is Bubbles would say.
“God bless you, Bruce. Let’s jam.”