“I saw this guy last night at the Bottom Line in New York City, and he was powerful; never saw anything like him.”
These words were spoken by a drummer I once met at Crescent Beach. It was August in ’75. I had a few hours of slack time while working on the Quonset, so I went for a swim. The guy was doing a gig at the Yellow Kittens and had just gotten off the ferry. He said the guy’s name was Bruce Springsteen and told me the he was “all over the stage and was an amazing player.” He also noted how tight his band was. While in Florida that winter, I’d heard the name, Springsteen, because I hung out with some Jersey guys from Perth Amboy and they’d mentioned him. The conversation with the drummer was compelling and has stayed with me for 40 years. Bruce Springsteen went on to become The Boss. Furthermore, he has remained relevant as a songwriter and performer – no small feat in the fickle business of rock and roll.
In his new autobiography, aptly titled, “Born To Run,” (read it and you’ll see why), Springsteen tells us the genesis of his life as a journeyman musician, beginning with his upbringing in the working class town of Freehold, New Jersey. The following sub-headings inform that period: Italian and Irish Catholic roots, was taught by nuns, was an altar boy, was a bad student and loner, had a troubled dad and a powerful mom, and a weird extended family, et al. Springsteen writes about this period with an easy and conversational tone, (Bob Dylan’s “Chronicles” has a similar tone) and he objectifies himself and his experiences. He fearlessly lays bare this period, and we can feel his isolation. Then, his mom gets him a guitar, and the paradigm of this roughhewn misfit from Jersey shifts in a powerful way – game on!
Like many writers, Bruce Springsteen puts pen to paper so he can understand the world. For example, he wrote most of the songs on his album, “The Rising,” after Sept. 11. In his book he says, “First you write for yourself… always, to make sense of experience and the world around you. It’s one of the ways I stay sane. Our stories, our books, our films, are how we cope with the random trauma-inducing chaos of life as it plays.” This quote is revealing, his songs have a journalist’s eye for time, place and theme. He assimilated stories of firemen, ferry captains and other first responders at Ground Zero and created accessible, musical narrative. In this book we witness the evolution of a talented, flawed, and very prolific guy, who also has a singular purpose of mind. We also witness his savage work ethic demonstrated over a forty year career. Moreover, we witness a troubadour who tells us what he wants us to know in the truest bardic tradition – an Irish thing – warts and all. What is also very apparent in this book is how hard it is to be Bruce Springsteen: star, businessman, husband, dad, friend, performer, and Boss. The sum of Springsteen’s parts and his skill set are on display in this book.
As a young and scruffy saloon singer he travelled with a couple of key guys, who would eventually become known as the E Street Band. Earlier high school bands like the Castiles, and Steel Mill, helped the young Springsteen learn some guitar chops and hone his writing. At Asbury Park, he rolled with Garry Tallant, Steve Van Zandt, Clarence Clemons, David Sancious, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, and Danny “The Phantom” Federici. This was the core of the E Street Band. Max Weinberg and Nils Lofgren would later sign on as some changes happened.
In ’72, Bruce Springsteen, along with the hustle and hutzpah of his agent Mike Appel, was able to get an audition with John Hammond, Sr. (John Hammond, Jr., a very talented guitar player, could be seen in the bars on Block Island back in the day). Springsteen nailed his audition – heady stuff – in front of the guy who signed Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday and Benny Goodman, Pete Seeger, et al. He was the main guy at Columbia Records. Subsequently, the albums, gigs, and touring began in earnest. The Bottom Line was the premier room to showcase established, and up and coming talent. Eric Clapton, Linda Ronstadt, Carl Perkins, NRBQ, Van Morrison, and the list went on and on. If you were booked in to that room, you had a shot at getting noticed. In ’75, Bruce Springsteen tore down the house. The room held 500 people, and smoking was not allowed – long before it became politically incorrect. Springsteen mounted a five night run with two shows each night. This was what the drummer I met on the beach witnessed.
The magazines Time and Newsweek featured Springsteen the rising star who could turn a rock and roll phrase. In addition, he could shred the fretboard of his Fender Telecaster. This guy had it, and brought it all. And, he had the band that brought it all, too. The front guy is only as good as his side guys. Springsteen had a cultivated wellspring of talent that rose to his bar of excellence. His expectations were very high. His love and respect for his longtime friend, Danny Federici, is eloquently stated when he says, “Danny was a believer in the world as it stands. We never spoke a word about a single lyric or idea in any of the songs I wrote. The same songs that his fingers and his heart magically and instinctively knew how to color perfectly.” Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons are no longer alive; however, their legacy is embedded in the DNA of the E Street Band in perpetuity.
Throughout “Born To Run” we witness a driven man who gives himself no quarter. He is a man who still plays grueling four-hour shows and strives to be a witness to life as it is, and to remain relevant to his audience. Grab a copy of this book, and hold on to your hat; the reader will be at full gallop keeping up with Bruce Springsteen’s “Born To Run.”