There's a ton of Bruce Springsteen nostalgia hype in the air this week. They've put out a special 30th anniversary edition of his famous "Born to Run" CD (just in time for Christmas shopping for your favorite geezer), and the stories about the recording of the album and Bruce's early career are glutting the media.
So I guess it's as good a time as any to tell the tale of Bruce and Me -- my own "boring stories of glory days." (You youngsters who don't appreciate such things, better move on.)
It goes back, way back, before hardly anyone outside of New Jersey had ever heard of the Boss. He had a couple of albums out, but they weren't big hits, and his audience, though devoted (even passionate), was relatively small. He was still working obsessively on the recording of "Born to Run," and the record was far from finished yet -- hardly even started, in fact.
It was 1974.
I was a year away from finishing college, attending on the "five-year plan," since I had dropped out to become a newspaper reporter and was taking the last half of my degree at night. In July, in the middle of one of those seminal Jersey Shore summers, two of my good friends had a proposition for me. They wanted me to go with them to this new nightclub in Greenwich Village in New York City called the Bottom Line, to see this guy from Asbury Park named Bruce Springsteen play. My best buddy Jim (right) was the prime mover. He and I shared a taste for Motown and other soul music, and he thought Springsteen was one of the most soulful white performers around. I had never heard of him, but if Jimmy thought I'd like his stuff, I probably would. We knew each other so well.
So he and I and George (left) headed over to the city (in my yellow '72 VW bug, as I recall) and stood in line outside the Bottom Line to catch the show. It wasn't a very big club -- it sat maybe 400 or 500 people -- and you got a great view and a good listen for a $4 cover and a couple of New York-priced drinks. I had never before heard so much as a single Bruce song at that point. I had done nothing to prepare myself for the show; I hadn't given it Thought 1 ahead of time. One of those shot-in-the-dark concert experiences.
I was floored -- floored. Here was a sound that mixed Curtis Mayfield with Dylan, a guy who could cover Gary U.S. Bonds and "Then (S)he Kissed Me" by the Crystals, and then lay out a dozen or so of his own songs, many of which were riveting, multi-part, rock opera affairs. In addition to wonderful music, Springsteen had an onstage charisma that was almost scary.
Today, there are many Bruce fan sites that document just about every minute of his career, and the song lists from that engagement (he did shows over three days -- I think we were there for the early show the middle night) -- include numbers from his first two albums, which were already well known to many in the audience. He also performed a couple that few if any had heard before: "Born to Run" and "Jungleland," which are two off the album that's causing all the nostalgic hoopla this week.
Since this was the Big Apple, there was the obligatory heckler. Unlike in a large hall, where a performer could ignore such people, in the smallish Bottom Line, that nagging voice was right in your ear. Everybody on the stage and in the audience obviously heard the guy. "It sounds like Van Morrison," the voice kept saying, referring to the guitar, piano and sax combination that both Springsteen and Morrison emphasized at the time. At one point he added, "Why don't you just play 'Domino'?"
Springsteen, who is not a physically imposing man by any means, looks down at the heckler and says, "Why don't you just play 'Like a Rolling Stone'?" At which point, I nearly shot beer out my 20-year-old nose. Everybody let out a little gasp. This guy was not only good, he was real.
A Bruce show in those days was a rollercoaster ride. It went from really high highs to really low lows, and back again, at the drop of the hat. "The Nijinksy of rock," The New Yorker called him shortly thereafter. You never knew what was coming next.
After the performance, which ended with a bang and left us all sweaty and limp, I thanked my friends for "turning me on," as we then used to say, to something fantastic. "I can't get over the characters in his songs!" I raved to them as we headed home through the Holland Tunnel. "It's like 'West Side Story'!"
"The songs are all on the records," Jimmy explained. "Just get those and you can listen to him sing about those characters all you want. And there are some other ones, too."
And so I did.
A month later, I turned off the stereo and headed west on a road trip with a couple of other Jersey City friends. They were moving; I was just along for the ride. It was the first time I had been west of Philadelphia in my entire life. Everywhere we went, I told folks about the new musical hero I had discovered. The Jersey transplants we visited took note, and a few months later, after they had checked Bruce out for themselves, the verdict was unanimous. "It's just like when I lived in Jersey City," one friend reported from her Milwaukee digs. "When I put on that album ['The Wild, the Innocent...'], it's like sitting on my old fire escape in the summer and looking down onto the street."
That road trip changed everything for me. Nixon quit while we were camped out high above (in more ways than one) the Mississippi River in Winona, Minnesota, Dylan-land. (That's me, right, at just about the moment the President of the United States was resigning. We had been out in the woods for a day and a half and had no clue.) After we left Minnesota, I saw Rushmore, and Yellowstone, and Vegas, and L.A., and the Arizona desert in 110 degrees. By the time I flew back to Jersey in a new pair of cowboy boots, around Labor Day, I knew that if I could get a decent situation in California, I was going to give the West a serious try.
The enormity of this realization was still dawning on me a couple of weeks after I got back, when another invitation came along, this time from George. Did I want to go to hang out at Kean College with him and his girlfriend this weekend for a kegger?
That guy Bruce Springsteen was supposed to be playing.