It Ain't No Sin to Be Glad You're Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteenby Eric Alterman
Political journalist Eric Alterman examines the unique phenomenon that is The Boss and how he has come to reflect and interpret a turbulent quarter century of American history.
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Follow That DreamLenny Kaye, the rock archivist and guitarist with the Patti Smith Group, has boiled down the essential myth of rock 'n' roll as follows: "In the either/or mythos of teenagery, you either hang with the quasi-thugs or the bespectacled intellectuals, the jocks or the jokesters. But what if your developing personality doesn't fit with such preconceived notionsor even odder than odd, you move between both polarities, a mutation on par with the paired opposites?...Why then, you form a band. Find a bunch of other misfits and start playing the music that still other misfits pass along."
Bruce Springsteen is the mythos of rock 'n' roll sprung to life. During his quarter-century career as a recording artist, any number of commentators, beginning with one for the New York Times in 1975, have voiced the complaint that "if there hadn't been a Bruce Springsteen, then critics would have made him up." The argument is exactly backwards: the problem with Bruce Springsteen was not that he was a critic's invention; rather, it was that he was too good to be true. No responsible writer would dare invent him.
Beginning in 1963, when fourteen-year-old Bruce Springsteen walked into Freehold's Western Auto Store and handed over the eighteen dollars he had saved housepainting, roof tarring, and gardening for his first real guitar, the boy had pursued his dream with a degree of relentlessness that makes Captain Ahab seem a Gen X slacker by comparison. He was a loner and something of a social leper. His face was scarred with acne, and his personality crippled by shyness. He was teased and abused at school, first by nuns and later by his classmates. He was on the receiving end of little but barely muted rage from his father. He grew up in a house with no books, where "art," he later said, was "twenty minutes in school every day that you hate." But the house did have a radio atop the kitchen refrigerator, and through the magic of the music inside that radio, Bruce Springsteen found what for him was the key to the universe: he was going to make the kind of music that liberated his young soul from the prison of a misfit Jersey adolescence, or he was going to die trying. And, wonder of wonders, he did it and somehow managed to bring a few million of the rest of us along for the ride.
The story of Bruce Springsteen's childhood recalls a bad Dickens novel written with the Who's Quadrophenia playing in the background. Though the surname is Dutch, Bruce Springsteen was born in Freehold, New Jersey, on September 23, 1949, the firstborn child of Irish and Italian parents. His father, Douglas, was an embittered man who struggled to find a place for himself in the local economy. He worked, for brief periods, in the local rug mill, as a jail guard, and as a cab and bus driver. He had no friends; not one person, claimed Bruce, came to visit his father in twenty years.
Bruce's home life was dark and oppressive, filled with menacing authority. His relationship with his father involved little but discipline and rebellion. As Bruce ruefully recalled in concert, "When I was growing up, there were two things that were unpopular in my house: one was me, the other was my guitar." He has joked about his father's apparent belief that his guitar was manufactured by a company called Goddamn, as in "turn down that Goddamn guitar." When Bruce would practice alone in his room, his father would turn on the gas jets on the stove and direct them into the heating ducts that led to the boy's bedroom in an attempt to drive his son out.
According to Bruce, his father especially used to enjoy needling him when young men were being killed in Vietnam at a prodigious rate: "I can't wait until the army gets you. When the army gets you, they gonna make a man of you. They gonna cut off all that hair, and they'll make a man of you." (Though he did express relief when his son succeeded in failing his draft-board physical.) Once, according to a typical early father-son concert monologue, Bruce suffered a motorcycle accident and was briefly laid up in bed. Douglas Springsteen took the opportunity to call in a barber to cut off Bruce's hair. "I can remember telling my dad that I hated him and I would never ever forget it," Springsteen would tell the crowd.
Springsteen has said he "did a lot of running away and a lot of being brought back. It was always...very terrible." Often he would take the bus to Manhattan and try to spend the night at the Port Authority bus station. When the police would call his parents, it was always his mother who showed up to pick him up. At home, his father would sit alone in the kitchen drinking beer and smoking cigarettes, waiting for his son to come home with all the lights in the house turned off. The only visible light would be the smoldering ember from his father's cigarette, which Bruce could see through the screen door. Sometimes Bruce would try to wait him out in the driveway, next door to Ducky Slattery's Sinclair station, slicking his hair back in a futile attempt to conceal its length. Sometimes he would go in, and the two would argue about Bruce's hair, his attitude, his future. "Pretty soon," as Bruce told it, "we'd end up screaming at each other, and my mother would come running up from the front room, trying to pull him off me, trying to keep us from fighting with each other. And I'd always end up running out the back door screaming, telling him...that it was my life and I could do what I wanted to do." (Springsteen used to tell this story before launching into his version of the Animals' "It's My Life.")
Adele Springsteen worked as a legal secretary. She took pride in her professional identity and remained in the same job for Bruce's entire childhood. To Bruce, she "was just like Superwoman. She did everything, everywhere, all the time." At night his mother would "set her hair and she would come downstairs and just turn on the TV till she fell asleep. And then she'd get up the next morning and do it again."
Springsteen's deep affection for his mother is immortalized in his song "The Wish," which may be the only great mother-love song written outside the realm of country-and-western music. When Bruce was sixteen, Adele, who worked for minimum wage, took out a sixty-dollar loan to buy her son "a brand-new Japanese [electric] guitar." He found it, a "barely tunable" Kent guitar with a small amplifier, "lying underneath...a Christmas tree [that] shines one beautiful star," and the moment remains one of the only happy childhood memories that have found their way into Springsteen's writing. Sixty dollars, Bruce remembered, "was more money than I [had] ever seen in one place in my life." Because the finance company was located just around the corner from the family's home, Bruce had to watch his mother go in and make those payments on the loan every single week. "It was a very defining moment, standing in front of the music store with someone who's going to do everything she can to give you what you needed that day, and having the faith that you were going to make sense of it," he later explained. Douglas and Adele Springsteen also had two daughters, Virginia, born in 1950, and Pamela, born in 1962. While they did not figure heavily in Springsteen's earlier work, he speaks today with considerable love and affection whenever either one's name comes up.
The Springsteens lived in a lower-middle-class section of Freehold called Texas, where a group of Appalachian refugees had come together with a smattering of white ethnics in one of America's less publicized migrations. The 1939 WPA Guide to New Jersey observes of the town that "in an unobtrusive way it seems to embody America's growth from farm to factory." Yet Freehold was largely bypassed by the prosperity enjoyed by much of white America in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of the available work came from the local 3M factory, a rug mill, a Nescafé factory, and a number of much smaller manufacturers. Deeply segregated, Freehold's whites and blacks lived, respectively, on the "right" and "wrong" side of an actual railroad track. To Bruce, his hometown was "a small, narrow-minded town...very conservative...stagnating....There really wasn't much." With the distance of more than a generation, he later sang
The distancing irony Springsteen usually employs to talk about his childhood can turn to bitter anger on the topic of the nuns who were his teachers. "I hated school. I had the big hate," he said in 1978. In the third grade a nun stuffed Bruce into a garbage can she kept under her desk, because, he said, "she told me that's where I belonged." He also had the distinction of being the only altar boy knocked down by a priest on the steps of the altar during Mass. In eighth grade, after "wising off," Bruce was sent down to the first-grade class, where he was forced to sit at a desk made for a child a fraction of his size. When he accidentally smiled at the nun who forced him into the tiny seat, she turned to one of the students and commanded, "Show this young man what we do to people who smile in this classroom." To young Bruce's horror and amazement, "This kid, this six-year-old who has no doubt been taught to do this, he comes over to mehim standing up and me sitting in this little deskand he slams me in the face. I can still feel the sting."
The following year Bruce demanded to go to public high school, which, because it had been integrated, was shunned by virtually all students whose parents could afford an alternative. The reaction, he explained, was rather dramatic. "Freehold Regional...it was like 'Are you insane? You are dirt! You are the worst! You are a barbarian!'" At high school Bruce participated in no activities, sports, or even much in the way of academics. One of his teachers even suggested to his classmates that, for the sake of their own "self-respect," Bruce not be allowed to graduate, given the indecency of his long hair. "I didn't even make it to class clown. I had nowhere near that amount of notoriety," he later recalled. "I didn't have, like, the flair to be the complete jerk. It was like I didn't exist. It was the wall, then me." One high school classmate concurred: "If he hadn't turned out to be Bruce Springsteen, would I remember him? I can't think of why I would. You have to remember, without a guitar in his hands, he had absolutely nothing to say."
Springsteen's formal education finally ended after a short period at Ocean County Community College. He arrived there in his standard uniforma Fruit of the Loom undershirt, tight jeans, sneakers, and leather jacketand was rapidly invited into a counselor's office for a friendly tête-à-tête. As Springsteen told the story to a reporter, the meeting went as follows:
"You've got trouble at home, right?"
"Look, things are great. I feel fine," Springsteen replied warily.
"Then why do you look like that?"
"What are you talking about?"
"There are some students who have...complained about you."
"Well, that's their problem, you know?" said Springsteen, ending both the conversation and his personal commitment to higher education.
Like the character Jenny in the Velvet Underground's anthem, young Bruce Springsteen's "life was saved by rock 'n' roll." Describing himself alternately as "nowhere," "on the outs," "weird," a "loser," "living in a trance," and "dead," Bruce rescued himself by buying a guitar and teaching himself how to play. "My first guitar was one of the most beautiful sights I'd ever seen in my life," he remembered. "It was a magic scene....It was real and it stood for something. 'Now you're real.'" In a 1974 interview Bruce explained that he had "tried to play football and baseball and all those things. I checked out all the alleys and just didn't fit. Music gave me something. I was running through a maze. It was never just a hobby. It was a reason to live." Tellingly, Springsteen observed, "The first day I can remember looking in a mirror and being able to stand what I was seeing was the day I had a guitar in my hand."
Inspired initially by seeing Elvis, and later the Beatles, on The Ed Sullivan Show, Bruce remembered experiencing some "shock" of recognition even at that young age. "I was nine years old when I saw Elvis on Ed Sullivan, and I had to get a guitar the next day. I stood in front of my mirror with that guitar on...and I knew that that's what I had been missing." But at nine Bruce was too young to learn to play. Later, after hearing Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, Roy Orbison, and the old-time soul and R&B singers who predated them, Bruce felt "a sense of wonderment" that furnished "both the dream and the direct channel through which I could fulfill that dream." Rock, he would note later in interviews, "provided me with a community, filled with people, and brothers and sisters who I didn't know, but who I knew were out there. We had this enormous thing in common, this 'thing' that initially felt like a secret...a home where my spirit could wander....It was the liberating thing, the out...my connection to the rest of the human race." No less important for Bruce, who was constantly losing battles to the arbitrary authority of his father and nasty nuns, was the promise of a land where a young man could stand his ground. "Rock 'n' roll was never, never about surrender."
The music likewise "reached down into all those homes where there was no music or books or any kind of creative sense, and it infiltrated the whole thing. It was like the voice of America, the real America coming into your home." To say rock 'n' roll was the "only culture" Bruce knew is no overstatement. Springsteen was hardly exaggerating when later he sang that he learned "more from a three-minute record than he ever learned in school." As a teenager, Bruce managed to hear what he understood to be "tremendous depth and sadness in the voice of the singer singing 'Saturday Night at the Movies'"an otherwise forgettable song about, what else, going to the movies. His cultural and emotional deprivation made Bruce hungrier when it came to ingesting the coded messages of rebellion, passion, power, and sex that rock had to offer. When it came his turn onstage, he wanted to capture all of it at once. Bruce Springsteen did not particularly care for rock stardom. He wanted to make music that would save lives.
While he accepted the frivolousness of most of rock's subject matter, he was, when it came to rock 'n' roll, decidedly a serious young man. Bruce understood that rock should be "fundancing, screwing, having a good time, but...I also believed it was capable of conveying serious ideas and that the people who listened to it, whatever you want to call them, were looking for something."
When one considers the emotional pain with which Bruce associated both home and school, coupled with his minimal social life, one begins to understand the degree of obsession with which he approached music. "A lot of rock 'n' roll people," he has noted, "that's where they came from, just this solitary existence. If you're gonna be good at something, you gotta be alone a lot to practice, there has to be a certain involuntariness to it." As a teenage musician, Springsteen showed the kind of self-possession and sense of purpose that are usually associated with high school valedictorians and National Merit Scholars. He never smoked a joint and rarely took a drink. Bruce estimated that as a kid, from the time he first figured out Keith Richards's lead on "It's All Over Now" (his first song), he practiced six to eight hours at a time, every night. At the school dances, he "was the guy standing with his arms folded in front of the guitar player, all night long." He recognized that music was "something that I was going to have to work at very hard to do well."
Bruce joined his first band about six months after buying the guitar. According to Tex Vinyard, a colorful Freehold resident who mentored young musicians, a pimply teenager showed up on his doorstep "one night [when] it was raining like cows pissin' on a flat rock." Bruce's career began when he asked to be the guitarist in the one-amplifier teenage band that Tex and his wife, Marion, were then sponsoring. When Tex asked him what songs he could play, Bruce said he didn't know any, so Tex told him to come back when he had learned five. The next night, while the band was practicing at the Vinyard home, Tex recalled, "there's a knock on the door. 'Hi. I'm Bruce Springsteen, remember me?'" The boy had mastered the lead guitar line on five songs by copying what he had heard on the radio during the past twenty-four hours. "Does this make us friends?" asked young Bruce. It certainly didat least according to Tex's version, which Bruce has said "is better than reality," though "almost exactly the way it happened."
The Vinyards got rid of most of the furniture in their living room to give the boys a place to practice. But when the band's first gig approached, they still had no professional equipment. All its members came from homes with no money, and Tex himself was already trying to make it on twenty-one-dollars-a-week strike pay, having borrowed, he said, $1,200 on a car. Following weeks of consistent badgering by the boys, Tex finally walked over to the music store and came home with a three-hundred-dollar amplifier with four inputs, for which he put five dollars down. Bruce Springsteen's first gig everin 1965, at the Woodhaven Swim Clubended with a Bruce-arranged version of Glenn Miller's "In the Mood." His band, the Castiles, dressed in faux Beatle outfits and received thirty-five-dollars; the boys insisted that Tex accept his $3.50 management fee. The group recorded a demo in the shopping center of the Bricktown Mall in May of 1966, and enjoyed the thrill of playing Cafe Wha? in Greenwich Village, where, according to Tex, they were witnessed by members of the Rascals and the Lovin' Spoonful. Thirty years later, at the 1999 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Springsteen would thank Tex, who was deceased, and Marion, who was present, for "open[ing] up their home to a bunch of rock 'n' roll misfits and let[ting] us make a lot of noise and practice all night long."
Even as a teenager, Bruce was not one to compromise what he believed to be the integrity of his music. Springsteen refused to play Top 40 material with his earliest bandsthe kind of music the other kids wanted to dance toin favor of his own originals and obscure soul and R&B songs that he felt were worthy. Moreover, his sound fit into neither the surf music in fashion on the shore nor the retro-rock favored among bikers and greasers in the tough-guy bars. Bruce's earliest bands played at the Elks Club, the Roller-drome, Sing Sing, and the local insane asylum, which the boys found more disconcerting than the prison. "We were always terrified at the asylum," Bruce explained. "One time this guy in a suit got up and introduced us for twenty minutes, sayin' we were greater than the Beatles. Then the doctors came up and took him away."
Following their own American Dream, the Springsteens gave up on New Jersey when Bruce was just eighteen and moved to California in the hopes of a better life. Bruce stayed behind in his parents' house but left within a month of their departure and spent the next five years crashing wherever he could. Amazingly, given one of his most obsessive themes, Bruce had not yet learned to drive. Meanwhile, his living arrangements alternated between rooms above an out-of-business beauty parlor (where he wrote much of Greetings from Asbury Park) and the shared digs in a surfboard factory inside an industrial park, owned by Carl "Tinker" West, who eventually replaced Tex Vinyard as the young man's mentor. Bruce's drummer, Vini Lopez, slept in one bathroom of Tinker's store, while keyboardist Danny Federici slept in another. "It was tough," Bruce remembered, "because the resin from the surfboards really knocked you out for a while. But it allowed me to spend time working on my music."
With little to tie Bruce to Freehold, his life revolved around the dilapidated blue-collar resort town of Asbury Park, located sixty miles south of New York City. In its glory days, the ornate palaces near its boardwalk hosted the likes of Sinatra, Billie Holiday, and the Marx Brothers. In later decades, a teenage Bruce Springsteen caught a Doors' performance there, and saw the Who smash their guitars onstage (going up to the stage to search for salvage afterward). While today, with its rotting boardwalk and blighted landscape, Asbury Park may look, as Ron Rosenbaum has observed, "like frozen death," back in the early seventies its demise remained an open question. Although a bitter race riot in 1970 had destroyed the town's potential as a resort, by then it had little to offer tourists: tacky hotels, cheap diners, a quaint Ferris wheel, and a narrow strip of beach eroding beside an equally narrow boardwalk. After the riots, families that could afford it took their vacations elsewhere, and Main Street was all but shuttered and the town's two hundred hotels dwindled down to one. Crime, drugs, and the accoutrements of urban decay eventually replaced the disappearing vacationers.
What did survive was its gritty, urban, and racially mongrelized music scene. In the early seventies, recalls Southside Johnny, "we had twenty or thirty clubs in a twenty-mile radius." Blues, jazz, and R&B cooked themselves into a musical stew that was unique to the area and rather insulated from musical developments in, say, New York or Philadelphia, to say nothing of San Francisco or southern California.
The Upstage Club on Cookman Avenue, located two flights above a Thom McAn shoe store, was the place where all the area's young musicians honed their craft. Through the haze of historical memory, the club has taken on a kind of iconographic status, not unlike Sylvia Beach's Paris bookstore, or Sam Phillips's Sun studio in Memphis. It was at the Upstage where Bruce forged his lifetime friendship with guitarist and musical alter ego, "Miami" Steve Van Zandt, along with the likes of "Southside" Johnny Lyon, E Street Band members "Phantom" Danny Federici and Garry W. Tallent, and E Street alumnus "Mad Dog" Vini Lopez. As Bruce would later write in the liner notes to Southside Johnny's first album: "That club brought out everybody's talents." The kids at the Upstage were "each in their own way a living spirit of what, to me, rock 'n' roll is all about. It was music as survival, and they lived it down in their souls, night after night. The guys were their own heroes and they never forgot." Later in life Springsteen would trace his earliest appreciation of the concept of community"a community of ideas and values" to "an extension of that thing you felt in a bar on Saturday night in Asbury Park when it was just a hundred and fifty people in the room."
The raunchy, raucous club, operated by Tom and Margaret Potter, was decorated with psychedelic, Day-Glo nudie posters and was equipped with high-powered amplifiers so that musicians could show up with just a guitar and jam. The Upstage stayed open from eight in the evening until five in the morning (with a one-hour break at midnight to clear out the minors), which meant that musicians could basically live there at night and crash on the beach during the day. The favored musicians were actual "club members," who were allowed in whenever they wished without paying. In return, they were expected to put together a band at a moment's notice and just get on stage and start jamming with whomever was in the room. The club occupied two floors, one for folk/acoustic types and one for rock, jazz, and blues musicians. Bruce played both floors and was, according to a former member, "the main man out front. A lot of things revolved around him." One musician at the time compared the transformation that the shy, inarticulate boy underwent when stepping on stage to that of "the Incredible Hulk. Put him onstage with a guitar, and he lit it up. It was like somebody had plugged him in."
While the Upstage operated on the timeless no hero, no class rules of all bohemia, it was clear to most that one of its denizens was living a larger destiny than the rest. As Garry Tallent later recalled, "If there was any chance of us making a living through music, we figured it would have to happen through Bruce." Another musician remembered the experience of jamming with Springsteen as "like having Einstein coming over and doing your homework for you." It was as a result of his unique status at the club that Springsteen first became saddled with the horribly inappropriate nickname "the Boss." (Springsteen detested the nickname. "I hate bosses. I hate being called the Boss," he has complained).
Springsteen's first band of any repute was called Steel Mill, and included Vini Lopez on drums, Danny Federici on keyboards, and Steve Van Zandt on guitar, all members of the future E Street Band. Bruce described its style as "basically a riff-oriented hard-rock thing" in the mold of Cream or early Led Zeppelin. Surviving tapes document a band of genuine originality but limited musicianship and melodic content. Still, they developed an extremely large following along the Shore, so perhaps they were better than they sound today. After a cross-country road trip in January 1970, the band landed a gig as an opener at the Matrix in San Francisco. A reviewer for the San Francisco Examiner, Philip Elwood, was so impressed by a January 13 performance that he ignored the headliners and reviewed Steel Mill instead. He wrote that he had "never been so overwhelmed by totally unknown talent" and called Steel Mill "the first big thing that's happened to Asbury Park since the good ship Morro Castle burned to the waterline of that Jersey beach in '34." Although the band unfortunately failed an audition to be the headliner at the famed Family Dog Ballroom, it did cut a demo for the impresario Bill Graham but Tinker refused his $1,000 offer of a contract. Eventually, they ran out of money and patience, and Bruce came home to Asbury Park that winter on the back of a flatbed truck. Steel Mill soon collapsed, and the rest of its members sought gainful employment. Not Bruce. He would take the bus up to Greenwich Village and play solo gigs for his food money, writing a new song or two on each leg of the journey.
Springsteen's next major musical venture was the legendary Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. More a traveling carnival than a band, the group was a remarkably democratic institution, featuring people who played no instrument but remained in the band as twirlers or Monopoly players. ("Yeah, I'm in Dr. Zoom. I play Monopoly" went the saying.) One of the Boom even repaired an engine on stage, wearing a tuxedo. It was an early form of performance art, and though the band opened for the Allman Brothers once, they could hardly sustain the level of chaos they generated. Among the thirty or so band members were Bruce, Steve Van Zandt, Gary W. Tallent, Danny Federici, and Southside Johnny. Typical pay for a gig was about five dollars per performer. It may have been fun, but it was no living.
Dr. Zoom eventually morphed into the Bruce Springsteen Band, featuring Van Zandt, Federici, Tallent, and David Sancious, a talented jazz musician who would play keyboards for the original, preñBorn to Run E Street Band. The ten-member group, including horns and three black female backup singers, was Bruce's first genuine artistic breakthrough, dedicated primarily to performing Springsteen originals, which were growing increasingly sophisticated. The band began to coalesce around an early seventies hard-rock sound, featuring important touches of Brill Building pop and Philadelphia soul, that was both unique and compelling. Its version of Bruce's "You Mean So Much to Me," played at Damrosch Park in New York City in the summer of 1971, and later recorded by Southside Johnny and Ronnie Spector, is a timeless piece of danceable pop craftsmanship. What's more, Bruce's lyrics were developing a touch of both humor and social commentary. At a January 1971 gig at the Scene in Asbury Park, Bruce demonstrated an ability to mock the pretensions of Woodstock Nation bands like the Jefferson Airplane and Country Joe and the Fish with lyrics that advised listeners to "Break out the guns and the ammo," and to "Take LSD and off the pigs." Summer, he sang, was over, and the revolution had arrived, and they were "gonna have ourselves a real good time." Over Bruce's vocals the band members cried, "Whoa, whoa, it's revolution," and, "Hey, hey, it's revolution!"
The first night the band played the Student Prince on Kingsley Avenue in Asbury Park, they were offered all the receipts from the door and ended up splitting fifteen dollars ten ways. But they soon developed a considerable local reputation and a dedicated following, sometimes drawing as many as three thousand people to a single gig. The Bruce Springsteen Band became the house band at the Upstage and played there every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday night to the club's capacity of 180 people, with the line three or four deep at the door. By virtually all contemporary accounts, they were among the greatest anonymous, unrecorded bands in the history of pop music. Robert Santelli, currently education director at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, caught one of the band's final performances there, just before Springsteen went off on his recording career, in early 1972. According to Santelli, "By the time he jumped into his rollicking version of 'Jambalaya,' all of us at the Student Prince were wedged between the stage and the few tables and chairs on the perimeter of the dance floor. With a fury of horns and soul shouts that would have impressed Wilson Pickett or even James Brown, the band climaxed with a twin-guitar solo shoot-outSpringsteen versus Miami Stevethat temporarily transformed the Student Prince into the center of the rock 'n' roll universe, with Springsteen as its ruler."
In the coming years, that universe expanded as its center exploded. Cinderella found her rock 'n' roll shoes.
© 1999 by Eric Alterman "
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