Where we swore, "Forever friends"
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.
The scene at Kean (which had just changed its name from Newark State College -- it wanted no association with my hometown, and it wasn't in Newark, anyway) was a classic. It was a perfect fall day in late September -- I mean perfect. The sky was clear, the air had that wonderful end-of-summer smell in it, the barbecues were grilling, the frisbees were flying, the beer was cold, the college girls were beautiful. And as promised, Bruce and his band did indeed show up, to play a monster set, which included a cover of "It's My Life" by the Animals, and quite a few of the "Born to Run" songs, which apparently had come together over the summer.
This time around, I got up really close to the stage on the lawn to get a good look at this fellow. He was wearing big round shades -- dark shades, maybe even reflectors. Little skinny guy. And he had on this beautiful shirt, which had a peacock on it. The front of the shirt was the front of the peacock, and the feathers wrapped all the way around one side, to the back. Bruce and the band tore the place up, of course, and between the main set and the encore, as they came down off the riser, I walked around to be sure to shake the man's hand.
I knew. How could anyone not know?
I just counted it up tonight, and it turns out I've seen Springsteen and his band (mostly the same players, although two of the original cast left soon after the Kean gig) nine more times since then. Four of those times, we had seats so close to the stage that the guy breathed on us. Smash albums have come and gone, but the beauty of those concerts is what lives on the longest in the hearts of the audiences. There was the Halloween '75 show at the Paramount Theater in Oakland (failed attempt at photo, left), where my buddies and I in the front row had the rest of the close-up floor crowd carrying on so hard that the band came out for a third encore after Bill Graham had pulled the plug and told us all to go home. By then Bruce had become an athlete, jumping and diving all over the stage with a Fender Esquire (a type of Stratocaster guitar) around his neck. The crowds were going nuts right along with him.
In October of '76 I had the pleasure of sitting in the second row of a Bruce show in the University of Santa Clara inflatable "bubble" with a girlfriend who had never seen Bruce before. The first song ("Night," I think it was) was so intense that she squeezed my hand so hard it hurt. She nearly fainted. In Portland in 1980, I used the little-known but very effective tactic of buying mail order tickets for a Springsteen concert and wound up in the second row (with a different girlfriend). In 2002, I stood in the elite mosh pit at the Rose Garden Arena with my wife for a performance of "The Rising" that brought tears as well as smiles and middle-aged fist pumps.
But the later shows won't ever match 1974. Too many memories come along with those first Bruce concerts. It was such a heady time. Shortly after the Kean College dorm blowout, I took the law boards and got a killer score. I remember opening the test results and seeing a number that I knew put me into any law school I wanted. And so there was the ticket. As Bruce once said in a famous show memorialized on a live CD: "It was bye bye, New Jersey. We were air-borne." By the time "Born to Run" hit the record stores, and Springsteen was on the cover of Time and Newsweek the same week, I was in California, and on a little trajectory of my own.
Stars like Springsteen and I are worlds apart in most ways. But I like to think we share a few things in common.
We're older guys now. Somebody's fathers. We've got a little something for ourselves. And back when I first shook his hand, we were two skinny Jersey guys who were hearing a call from somewhere else.
UPDATE, 11/25, 5:50 a.m.: I have found some more photos I took at Bruce shows, and posted them here.
UPDATE, 5/2/12, 12:19 a.m.: To my great delight, I have stumbled across a wonderful blog post about the 1974 Kean show, replete with a couple dozen fantastic photos. It is here. Oh, what a day that was.