“This is bullshit! This is bullshit!”

“This wasn’t too fixed, was it?”

“Boycott Tower! Boycott Tower!”

And those were a few of the nicer things a group of angry rock fans was saying early last Saturday morning. Why? They’d apparently caught some Tower Records employees red-handed turning over the best seats for an upcoming Bruce Springsteen concert to scalpers.

The concert, scheduled for December 3, had fans excited: Springsteen’s first concert in town in three years, an acoustic solo performance in the relatively intimate confines of the brand-new 4,200-seat Rosemont Theatre. Tickets went on sale Saturday morning at eight by phone and at only two locations in Chicago, both of them Tower Records outlets.

The Lincoln Park Tower reported no problems, but the Wabash site (formerly Rose Records’ flagship store) had a big one. Here’s what happened.

By seven on a nippy morning more than 100 people had gathered, most of them prime representatives of the species Yuppicanus northsideicus. Indeed, many brandished cell phones, trying their luck at buying tickets by phone as well. At about 7:15 red numbered tickets–“carnival tickets,” people called them–were given out to assign ticket buyers’ places in line. This randomization process stops fans from camping out overnight.

Sometime after 7:30 a Tower security guard in a white windbreaker prepared to call out the first number and told fans to line up in order when he did:

“551578!…-570!…-580!… -581!…”

Soon a queue of more than 50 fans had formed. As many or more stood nearby or watched the proceedings from the steps to the nearby el platform. As the process went on many of the onlookers started to notice something strange about the demographics of the line. Almost all of the first 25 were black males, and all of them, in rather sharp contrast to the well-scrubbed whites milling around, looked a bit down on their luck. Considering, and then rejecting, the possibility that Springsteen had enjoyed a sudden crossover appeal, the crowd quickly came to the not unreasonable conclusion that the men had been hired by scalpers to buy their tickets, and that some legerdemain in the alleged randomization process had conspired to put them in front of the line. That’s when the hooting started.

“It was all fixed!”

“Call Tower, call Jam, call Ticketmaster!”

By this time, the crowd could see what was happening. The black men in line–the crowd figured they were clients of a nearby mission–were being managed by a few controllers on the sidewalk. One man in particular drew the crowd’s attention. A mustached white guy with brushed-back hair holding a cane, he carried on whispered consultations with various down-and-outers.

The situation was getting uglier by the moment, but neither the guard nor a pair of superiors–the store’s manager, Thomas Lopez, or a female Ticketmaster employee on the scene–seemed inclined to do anything. Enter, at this point, the woman who turned out to be the day’s heroine. Diane McGowan, an accountant and longtime Springsteen fan, had been watching things carefully ever since she’d seen the man with the cane handing out money and little red carnival tickets to some of the scruffy-looking men. Once she saw that similar tickets were being used to determine line placement, she got a little mad.

Enterprisingly, she bought one of the front-runner’s tickets for $10 and went to the beginning of the line to confront the manager and the Ticketmaster rep. What exactly she meant to do wasn’t clear. “I just thought if I incited something and made a big enough situation I could turn the thing around,” she said later.

By this time a cop, driving squad car 9043, had arrived. This did not turn out to be the arrival of the cavalry. “I don’t give a shit, lady,” he snarled at one fan who tried to explain the situation to him. But finally McGowan, the cop, Lopez, and the Ticketmaster rep disappeared inside.

Outside, the crowd’s anger focused on the white-jacketed guard. “Hey, do you want $10?” taunted one onlooker. The guard kept calling out numbers. “It doesn’t matter, you asshole,” shouted another voice. The guard looked up angrily. “Whatever! Whatever!” he shouted.

Tension continued to build–until the guard consulted with the figures inside the store. He returned to announce that all the numbers with a 551 prefix were disqualified and that a new line, starting with number 552000, would be formed.

This caused a new round of consternation–because after the scalper minions there were a lot of Springsteen fans with 551 tickets who up to that point had had a shot at getting tickets.

But by this time it was nearly 8 AM, and everyone could see that the new lineup was probably legit. In the event, Tower began letting in ticket buyers at seven minutes after the hour. And in the end, the sale’s two-tickets-per-person limit meant that a pretty large proportion of the crowd who wanted tickets eventually got them.

As for McGowan, she was eventually allowed to buy tickets for the show herself. “Even if I didn’t get tickets, I wanted to lash out,” she says now. “I was just really angry.”

Hitsville can’t come up with any explanation of events that doesn’t place at least one Tower employee in some sort of complicity with the scalpers. Thomas Lopez, the store’s manager on the scene, strongly denied any involvement by him or any other employee. I’ll have Tower’s–and, hopefully, Ticketmaster’s–full version of events next week.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Steven Arazmus.