Bruce Springsteen, in the abstract, is just the kind of guy my little New Jersey hometown schooled me to despise. Born seventy-seven days apart, raised maybe fifty miles apart, this beatified greaser and I grew up sharing little more than what came over AM radio. In Mountain Lakes, a community of 4,000, we had a word for people like Bruce: Newarkylanders. The urban canker of Newark-Elizabeth was their state capital, but they lived and played along the boardwalked Jersey shore. They wore those shoulder-strap undershirts some people called “guinea-T’s”; we called them “Newarkys.” They drove muscle cars and worked in garages and metal shops. They ate meatball subs made of cat parts for lunch, and after work they shouted at their moms, cruised the drive-ins, punched each other out and balled their girlfriends in backseats.
Our contempt for Newarkylanders cut almost as deep as our fear of them. We looked on them as prisoners, a subclass that would not get the college degrees and Country Squires we were marked for. But we realized that prisoners sometimes bust out of their cages with a special vengefulness. The fear was as real as a black Chevy rumbling down your tree-lined block, and inside are six guys with baseball bats and tire irons.
Bruce Springsteen has seen all this from the inside, he’s seen the gates swing shut, he’s watched people turning the locks on their own cages. You can hear it in his music, a music with shack-town roots; paradoxically, it saved him from that life. I could not have heard his songs, especially the early, wordier ones, and expect our meeting to boil down to the wracking Jersey nightmare of Joe College vs. Joe Greaser.
While even among his ardent fans there are people who say Springsteen has gone to the well too many times for his favorite themes of cars, girls and the night, watching him perform the new songs, I came to believe he really was battering at new riddles: marriage, work and how people in America turn themselves into ghosts.
I would come to understand that this jubilant rock ’n’ roll cock of the walk never had cut it as Joe Greaser, that what had fathered his obsessiveness was doing time as a runty, bad-complected kid whom the nuns, girls and greaser had taken turns having no use for. There is finally something irrevocably lonely and restless about him. He’s never claimed any different Springsteen wants to inspire by example – the example of a trashed and resurrected American spirit. “You ask me if there’s any one thing in particular,” said E Street Band pianist Roy Bittan when we talked about Springsteen’s commitment. “There’s too many things in particular. He’s older and wiser, but he never strays from his basic values. He cares as much, more, about the losers than the winners. He’s so unlike everything you think a real successful rock star would be.”
Springsteen comes down the ramp at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and looks down the empty corridor: “No autographs,” he says in his characteristic parched cackle. “No autographs, please.”
This is exactly what he never says, of course, and when the tour party breaches the corridor’s double doors, he greets a pack of young, denim-jacketed guys familiarly. Some are holding copies of The River released just this day and headed very quickly for Number One. As the entourage loads itself into a string of station wagons, a kid who has been hanging at the edge of the pack tells Bruce about a friend who’s critically ill in a local hospital. Bruce tells the kid to get his friend’s name to him through the record company. Doors are slamming and engines gunning. It’s bitter cold. Just another stranger, I think.
Thirty-eight hours later, after performing “Out in the Street” onstage at the St. Paul Civic Center, Springsteen halts the show. “I met a bunch of guys at the airport yesterday coming in. One told me he had a friend who was sick. If that fella who told me his friend was sick will come to the side of the stage during the break, I got something for your friend backstage.”
After the kid appeared, and was duly loaded up with autographed mementos, I pondered the gesture. Springsteen could have scribbled his good wishes on an album at the airport and been done with it. But he had left the benediction to be arranged in public. There’s a lot of showman in Springsteen, and not a little preacher. Why had he let the anonymous kid slip so close to being forgotten, then given him his last rock ’n’ roll rites before the crowd?
“There’s not much people can count on today,” says Springsteen. “Everything has been so faithless, and people have been shown such disrespect. You want to show people that somehow, that somewhere, somebody can…I guess you just don’t want to let them down. That’s probably why we come out and play every night, there’s that fear, ’cause then nothin’ works, nothin’ makes sense. As long as one thing does, if there can be just one thing that goes against what you see all around you, then you know that things that goes against what you see all around you, then you know that things can be different. Mainly, it’s important to have that passion for living, to somehow get it from someplace.”
The inescapable cliché about faith is that it can always be doubted. That’s the thing about Springsteen – if you pay any attention at all, his lyrics and his every stance will force you into a corner where you must decide whether you believe him or not. I had to believe he wasn’t staging the benediction to pump up his image – in the tradition of Babe Ruth socking a homer for a dying child – but for the kid himself. Not to say “rise and walk,” but to offer something tangible – the momentary, empathetic suffering of this captive crowd of 15,000. And although most are in their wild age, perhaps some of them might even learn a little charity themselves.
Accuse Springsteen of being a “star” and he’ll flick his hand like he’s just been splashed with pigeon shit. He is eager to point out that he has the better deal in the meeting place between fan and star.
“I think the one feeling that’s most unique to this job, the best part of the whole thing, is meeting someone like this guy I met the other night who had been on a bus ten hours. He’s twenty-one years old, and he just grabs hold of me. We’re in a room crowded with people. He’s cryin’, and he does’t care. He says, ‘It’s my birthday,’ and I ask, ‘How old are you?’ He says, ‘I’m twenty-one, and this is the most important thing in my life.’ And you know they’re not kidding when they say it, because you look in their faces and they’re so full of emotion.
“You meet somebody, and it’s like an open well. In ten minutes I’ll know more about him than his mother and father do, and maybe his best friend. All the things it usually takes for people to know each other just go away, because there’s this feeling that it’s so fleeting. They tell you the thing that’s most important to them right away. It’s a sobering thing, because you know that somewhere you did something that meant something to them. It’s just a real raw, emotional thing; it’s like the cleanest thing you ever felt. You have a communication, a feeling, and I don’t know, you just gotta love the guy. If you don’t, there’s something the matter with you.
“And it ain’t some starry-eyed thing, and it ain’t some Hollywood thing, and it ain’t some celebrity thing. This guy, he loves you, and what’s more, he knows you in a certain way. That’s the thing that makes me strong. I get strong when I meet somebody like that.”
There is an obsessiveness to Springsteen – the underside of his manic onstage energy – that can be a little scary. It seems to spring from flash fires that ignite in his very detailed memory. “There ain’t a note I play onstage,” he says late one night, “that can’t be traced directly back to my mother and father.”
We’re riding in a rented Winnebago, rocking back and forth in icy crosswinds on a six-hour drive from Pittsburgh to Rochester, New York. We had started the drive at three A.M., an hour Springsteen takes to like a pup going for a walk. Still buzzed from a show that closed with Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train,” he merrily salts some fried chicken and picks up a remembrance. “It was a real classic little town I grew up in, very intent on maintaining the status quo. Everything was looked at as a threat, kids were looked at as a nuisance and a threat. And when you’re a kid, your parents become fixtures, like a sofa in the living room, and you take for granted what they do.” He lets out one of his oddly mournful laughs. “My father used to drive around in his car, and it would not go in reverse. Heh. I remember pushing it backward; that was just something you did, you didn’t even think it was strange.”
One of the things that makes Springsteen a whole different species of rock performer is his candor about the numbed, paralytic rage his father, Douglas Springsteen, a bus driver and sometime prison guard, converted to bitterness at a very early age. Bruce will stand on a darkened stage and remember out loud about coming into his house late at night, almost always seeing the kitchen light on, to face his father. One day his aunt showed him a picture of his father, back from World War II, about to marry and start a family that would include Bruce and two sisters. “He looked just like John Garfield, in this great suit, he looked like he was gonna eat the photographer’s head off. And I couldn’t ever remember him looking that proud, or that defiant, when I was growing up. I used to wonder what happened to all that pride, how it turned into so much bitterness. He’d been so disappointed, had so much stuff beaten out of him by then …. ”
“The best thing that ever happened to me was when I got thrown out of the first band I was in, and I went home and put on ‘It’s All Over Now’ by the Rolling Stones and learned that guitar solo.”
Sitting in various arenas, ten years gone from my own home, I envy the teenage audience that is hearing Springsteen talk to them about that troublesome blood tie. For many, it is the first time anybody has nosed around in their feelings about their parents; paradoxically, Springsteen’s anger seems to set beating, at least for a few moments, a kind of heartsickness that might turn out to be love for those parents. But it’s not a Sunday school rap: “ … so much beaten out of him that he couldn’t accept the idea that I had a dream and I had possibilities. The things I wanted, he thought were just foolish. People get so much shit shoveled on ’em every day. But it’s just important to hold on to those things. Don’t let anybody call you foolish.”
He takes the Esquire he has absently, slowly been stroking, shrieks once and slams into “Badlands” and the cathartic, energized slide licks that sound like the hand of God reaching down to rip the tops off fleeing cars: “Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/And a king ain’t satisfied/Till he rules everything …. ”
When he rocks back to goose out the taut guitar break in “Candy’s Room,” or jumps downstage with harmonica to race Clarence Clemons’s sax to the end of “Promised Land,” it’s invigorating to notice that the guy can play, that despite all his steeplechasing and singing, he doesn’t come off as a slacker on harp and guitar. Maybe that’s because there’s nothing ever casual about his attack.
At age nine, Springsteen saw Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show. But in 1959, Bruce found guitar lessons to be “oppressive,” his hands were too small, and aspirations toward big-league baseball took over. “I wanted it pretty bad at the time. Every day from when I was eight till thirteen I’d be outside pitching that ball.” But the guitar fantasy wouldn’t quit. “The best thing that ever happened to me was when I got thrown out of the first band I was in, and I went home and put on ‘It’s All Over Now’ by the Rolling Stones and learned that guitar solo.
“I think when I first started, I wouldn’t allow myself to think that someday …. I just wanted to get in a halfway band, be able to play weekends somewhere and make a little extra dough, working at some job during the week or something. Which is what my parents used to say that I could do. That was allowed. I could do it on weekends, but it was impossible to see or think at the time.”
Then it was bars and CYOs and clubs, in and out of various bands, playing, copping licks, going to the Village on Saturdays to catch matinee sets at the Cafe Wha.
“I don’t ever remember being introduced to Bruce,” says Miami Steve Van Zandt, who lived nearby and shared local guitar hero honors. “I just remember I would go to New York, to the Village, and one day seeing him come walking down MacDougal. We looked at each other like, ah, ‘You look familiar’ and ‘What are you doin’ here?’ It took a long time to become really close.” Stints in bands called the Castiles, Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom followed. And then there was Bruce Springsteen, leader of a band bearing his name.
He signed a management deal with a feisty entrepreneur named Mike Appel on the hood of a car in a dark parking lot. It was a signature that meant Springsteen and band would not make any serious money until the 1978 tour for Darkness on the Edge of Town, his fourth album. “People always say, ‘Gee, it must have been tough for you.’ But I always remember bein’ in a good mood, bein’ happy even through the bad stuff and the disappointments, because I knew I was ahead of nine out of ten other people that I’ve seen around me. ’Cause I was doing something that I liked.” Appel did get Bruce face to face with Columbia Records A&R head John Hammond. Bruce signed on with Columbia Records. After Jon Landau saw him perform at Harvard Square Theatre in 1974, Landau declared, in a review that was a landmark in both men’s lives, that Bruce represented “rock ’n’ roll future.” They became friends, and Springsteen asked Landau to come into the studio to help him and Appel produce Born to Run. Released in late 1975, it quickly went gold.
Springsteen is happy in the front seat of anything, and he spends the ride from Rochester to Buffalo, New York, gazing at the sunny, snow-covered fields on either side of the highway. Arriving at the hotel, he tucks his cap under his cap under his sweat shirt’s hood and invites me for a walk downtown in the “fresh [twenty-two degrees] air.” In high boots and a well-broken-in black cloth coat, he looks like a gravedigger off for the winter. He has pored over the local record store’s entire cassette case (choosing collections by the Drifters and Gene Pitney) before the guys who work there recognize him. (The cassette I’d found in Bruce’s portable player was Toots and the Maytals’ Funky Kingston. Bruce confesses a love for reggae, a music he calls “too complex and too pure” for him to interpret.)
The guys behind the counter put on “Hungry Heart,” which has plowed through the charts to Number One. It was a song Bruce originally didn’t even want to have on the album until Jon Landau (now his manager) insisted. Bruce describes the song as an evocation of what the Beach Boys and Frankie Lymon used to do for him.
Still gimpy from a stumble he’d taken during a show in Washington, he walks on incognito until some jewelry-stand salesgirls corner him for autographs in a bookstore.
We cross the street to McDonald’s. “Paradise,” he calls it. “I never did get comfortable with places that got the menu in the window,” he explains, making two Quarter-Pounders disappear. He looks contentedly around as the munching Buffalonians make no sign of recognizing him. “I love coming to these places where it’s nothing but real.”
Springsteen works hard at keeping his own life real. His mother is still doing the kind of secretarial work she began at age eighteen, and he predicted that his new money would not make any difference. “What’s she gonna do – quit and run around the world and buy things? In a certain way, the money aspect of it is not very useful to them. I gave ’em some money one day and found out later on they didn’t spend it. They thought that was gonna be the payoff, you know, there wasn’t gonna be anymore. They live around people like them [in San Diego]. The whole thing of driving your folks up to some big house and saying. ‘This is yours,’ they don’t want that. Then it’s not them anymore.”
Bruce himself still lives in a rented house near his hometown, with enough acreage to lure him into tearing about on his three-wheel, off-the-road scooter (though he gave his right leg a severe muscle tear by driving it into a tree last spring). Yet his life at home tends toward more quiet activity, like staying up all night watching late movies, often with his California-based actress girlfriend, Joyce Heiser.
Heiser, to whom Bruce frequently dedicates “Drive All Night,” has been subjected to backstage scrutiny this time around because one theme that takes up a lot of room on The River is marriage and relationships – the ties that bind. “That’s the hardest thing for me to talk about. I don’t know, I’m in the dark as far as all that stuff goes. It took me five albums to even write about it. People want to get involved, not because of the social pressure, not because of the romantic movies that they grew up on. It’s something more basic than that, it’s very physical and it presents itself. It’s just the way men and women are.
“My mother and father, they’ve got a very deep love because they know and understand each other in a very realistic way. Whatever form relationships take is up to the people involved, I guess. But on the album the characters are wrestling with those questions – the guy in ‘Stolen Car,’ the guy in ‘Wreck on the Highway,’ ‘Drive All Night,’ the guy in ‘Sherry Darling,’ even. It is a puzzle and a question, it’s hard to separate it from the tradition, very hard to separate it from all the impressions that are created in you as you grow older. That’s why I wanted ‘I Wanna Marry You’ and ‘The River’ together,’ cause they’re similar songs, similar feelings.
“Everybody seems to hunger for that relationship, and you never seem happy without it. I guess that’s good enough reason right there. It just got to a point where all of a sudden these songs about things of that nature started coming out. I think you do tend to think about that particular thing around thirty. But even up till then, when I was writing all the earlier songs, ‘Born to Run’ and stuff, they never seemed right without the girl. It was just part of wherever that person was going, that guy was going. It wasn’t gonna be any good without her.”
“If it wasn’t for John Lennon a lot of us would be in some place much different tonight.”
The night after John Lennon’s murder, Springsteen was scheduled to play Philadelphia’s Spectrum Arena. The band had been onstage at the Spectrum the previous night when the news came, but, as organist Danny Federici put it, “They saved it from us till after the show.” The next day, Miami Steve called the tour manager to see if the second night was going to be postponed. The answer was no. Steve was so upset he went to Springsteen shortly before the show, “saying that I felt really weird about going onstage, that I couldn’t put it together. And he really just reminded me of why we do what we do, and how it was important to go out that night in particular. I wish I could remember exactly what he said, like,‘This is what John Lennon inspired us to do and now it’s our job to do the same thing for these other people, that today it was Lennon and tomorrow it might be me, and if it is …. ’ That’s how he does every show, like it was his last. He lives every minute like it was his last. That’s the way to live. It’s really lucky to be close to him at moments like that.”
The band took the stage, most of them wearing black. Springsteen went to the mike. “If it wasn’t for John Lennon,” he said, “a lot of us would be in some place much different tonight. It’s a hard world that makes you live with a lot of things that are unlivable. And it’s hard to come out here and play tonight, but there’s nothing else to do.”
I’ve seen people digging firebreaks to save their homes, and I’ve seen some desperate fist fights, and, God knows, I’ve seen hundreds of rock ’n’ roll shows, but I have never seen a human being exert himself the way Springsteen did that night in Philly. His delivery of the last verse of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” was raw with a mixture of anger, grief and determination. I’ll remember “Promised Land” for the way the silhouettes in the top tier of the 18,500-seat arena were standing, striking the air with their fists. The crowd sang the refrain of “Thunder Road” so hard you could feel your sternum hum. “I’ve heard these songs a million fucking times,” Miami would say the next day, “and it was like I never heard ’em before. I’ve watched him write, months and months of digging, but last night was a weird feeling – like you were in exactly the same place he was when he wrote them.”
Springsteen works from the gut. There seem to be no planks of his ideology that are not nailed down by some hard-core, practical fact of life. There have long been hints that this lover of automobiles doesn’t like the big oil companies; for the B side of “Hungry Heart” he chose “Held up without a Gun,” which is partly about gas prices.
Yet many people were surprised when he made his passionate but furtive ideology explicit by joining the lineup for the “No Nukes” concerts at Madison Square Garden. While in Los Angeles in mid-1979, Bruce went to a Jackson Browne concert. Afterward, the MUSE people had a question for him. “They said they needed some help in New York City,” he recalls, “and they asked, did we want to help out?”
His manner, as he considers the politics of helping out, is not easy. There seems to be a heavy, slow beat somewhere in his innards before every word he speaks. “There’s too much greed, too much carelessness. I don’t believe that was ever the idea of capitalism. It’s just gotta be voices heard from all places, that’s my main concern, and when you’re up against big business and politics, you gotta have some muscle.
“People every day in different ways try to talk to people out there. Especially during the elections, they try to appeal to people’s secret hearts, you know, with the American dream – really it’s the human dream, and everybody knows by now that it ain’t about two cars in the garage. It’s about people living and working together without steppin’ on each other.
“There’s a cruel and cynical game that goes on,” he continues, letting his hands fall open, as if they could catch hold of whatever is bugging him so deeply. “A game that people with responsibility play with these immense hopes and desires. It’s disgusting the disrespect those people with responsibility can have. Like TV. You wonder what’s going on in this [NBC-TV chief] Freddy Silverman’s head sometimes, like how can he do that? There’s some good things on TV, but way too much of it is used to zonk people out.
“So that cynical game goes on; it’s like the carrot-in-front-of-the-donkey game. The cynicism of the last ten years is what people adopted as a necessary defense against having tire tracks up and down their front and back every day.”
Springsteen pauses and looks across a table littered with chicken bones and empty soda bottles. Outside the hotel room, Lake Erie’s gray expanse is whitening with the dawn.
“That was the spirit of rock ’n’ roll when it came in,” he goes on, “talking to kids in their secret heart. To promise to somebody that things are gonna be all right, you don’t ever have the room to do that. Then you’re a politician. All you can do is say there’s possibilities, some are gonna stand, some are gonna fall, and then try to say that the search and the struggle is a life-affirming action. Illusions make you weak, dreams and possibilities make you strong. That’s what I hope people get from our music. That’s what I got from the Drifters, say, ‘Under the Boardwalk.’ As full as the singer sounds, it always had that little sadness that made you love it, made you recognize it as being true.
“There’s this movie, Wise Blood [from Flannery O’Connor’s story in which a young religious zealot from the deep South blinds himself]. One of my favorite parts was the end, where he’s doin’ all these terrible things to himself, and the woman comes in and says, ‘There’s no reason for it. People have quite doing it.’ And he says, ‘They ain’t quit doing it as long as I’m doing it.’
“There’s this thing that gets conjured up at night. In fact, to me it’s different every night. I was always close to work. I found out very young what makes me happy. I stay very close to that. It just seemed like the secret of the world.”
[Photo Credit: The Breathing Girl via Wiki Media Commons]