Return of the Native
The Aquarian , 1978
By Mike Greenblatt
We've been sitting on a bench facing the ocean near the Casino Arena in Asbury Park. It's 45 minutes past our appointed meeting time with Bruce Springsteen and we're trying to light matches in the wind. It's past 1:30 now and we're wondering if he's going to show up. Hell, it's a beautiful sunny fall day, one of his very few days off from a grueling whirlwind tour of the country. And it's his birthday to boot. Maybe he just ain't gonna show.
But we're determined. We're prepared to wait for two more hours. Then, if he's still not here, we'll split. We've already tired of scrutinizing all the faces for something that will tell us it's him in disguise. We forgot our quest and go back to the matches.
"Hi", he says as he walks right up at us. "Sorry I'm late, I just got up." He's dressed in a blueish work-shirt and jeans. He has ever-present sunglasses on. We decide to break the ice over lunch.
Settling into a booth at the Convention Hall Coffee Shop, I order a BLT, photographer Sorce a cheeseburger, and Bruce a hamburger, french fries and coke.
"Yeah, we had a real rep", Bruce starts to say. "We could draw two, maybe three thousand people on any given night. We played our own concerts here and also down south. It's weird. Nobody would ever book us because we never did any Top-40. Never. We used to play all old soul stuff. Chuck Berry, just the thing we liked. That's why we couldn't get booked. We made enough to eat though."
The waitresses are starting to mill about the table so Bruce puts his shades back on and hushes up his tone. "The other night was amazing", he wispers. "I went to see Animal house, and when I came out of the theater there was a whole bunch of people that started following me to the parking lot. I wound up signing autographs for over an hour."
"Anyway, after a while the kicks started to wear off and a lot of the time we didn't make enough to eat. That's why i signed with Mike (Appel). Anything was better than what was happening at the time."
Little did the local rocker know that this early signing with Mike Appel would result in the latter claiming rights to the early material Springsteen had written. The rest of the courtroom drama is famous. Perhaps generously, Bruce had nothing bad to say about his former manager.
"He did a lot of good for me at that time", he says, dipping one particularly long french fry into a mound of ketchup. "He introduced me to John Hammond (CBS bigwig responsible for signing Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith and others). He helped me on that first album". He pauses as if he were ruminating on something. "I haven't seen him since that day."
"Actually, I was pretty shielded from the whole thing", he continues. "Mike put the onus on Jon (Landau), claiming he was the culprit."
I ask: You mean he charged Landau with stealing you away from him?
"Yeah, sort of. I was never good at the business end of things."
Asked about the famous line Landau wrote for his Real Paper review ("I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen"), Bruce says, "That line is misrepresentative of the whole review. It's funny. The review was nothing like that one line. It got taken out of context" - another myth shattered.
"I remember playing in a club where an earlier review that Jon wrote was splashed all over the outside wall. I was leaning against the wall, smoking a cigarette, when Jon practically bumped right into me. I had never met him. We hit it off right away."
"When asked if he ever gave up during the long months of inactivity, Bruce still remains bright, completely devoid of bitterness. " I knew that it was just a matter of time. We were playing almost throughout that whole episode even though we weren't supposed to. I mean, what kind of law is it that is written specifically to stop a man from doing what he does to make his money?"
"The only real frustrating thing which did cause me grief was the fact that my songs weren't my own. I didn't own my own songs. That hurt."
But that makes it all the more satisfying now. At Nassau Coliseum, thousands of kids screaming their guts out for him before he even played a song. They didn't let up until he finished, drained and exhausted. At the Capitol Theatre, two nights before, he was surprised onstage by a giant birthday cake out of which a scantily clad girl bounced. He swears he didn't know a thing about it ("I even told John Scher no cakes"). At Madison square Garden, 18,000 fans leand on every note as if it were the last they would ever hear. A gala party was held for him in the plush Penn Plaza Club located deep inside the bowels of the Garden. Security was the tightest I'd ever witnessed.
We paid for the food and split for the beach. The conversation continued amid the sea, the wind and the hovering presence of the Casino Arena.
"I'm into a little photography myself", Bruce says as Sorce adjusts his light meter. "I took some pictures of Lynnie (Lynn goldsmith, photographer) that were published somewhere."
When asked about his other interests, Bruce talks of softball. "Yeah, we used to play hard. we had to stop, though, when Clarence and myself used to get too battered up. We'd go on stage all wracked up and it would hurt. After a while, it got too important and too many people were into it. There's no softball on this tour. What else do I like? Hmmm, I'll tell ya...not too much besides music. Right now, music is it. I don't care about anything else."
We get back to talking of copy bands and the difference between making it with your own material and making good money playing copies. I tell Bruce I had to play "Shake Your Booty" to get booked anywhere.
"Shake Your Booty?" laughs Bruce, falling into the sand. "That's a great song. KC, man, he's great! He always comes out with those repetitive things. Over and over and over, that kind of stuff is great! It's like the 'Louie, Louie' of today."
Later on, in talking about what is written about him, he says, "I have Glen (Glen Brunman, CBS publicist) mail me everything that's written about me. Hundreds of things, man. I read them all at once. That way I can get a pretty good perspective on what my press is like, rather than reading one thing at a time."
"Near the end of Darkness, I wasn't doing any interviews", Bruce continues. "Then I did them until I noticed myself saying the same things to different people. There's only one answer to each question; you don't want to lie to these people. I really had myself in a spin. And each interview was a multiple interview situation with two or three people at once. I guess the problem was that I did too many of 'em." Walking off the beach, we talk of the Garden shows and his stretcher routine, whereby he sings himself silly until he has to be taken off the stage in a stretcher, only to break free and grab the microphone again until he's forcibly restrained from the stage.
That's a great routine. Where'd you get that from? I ask. I know that professional wrestling has a stretcher routine where the good guy gets beat so bad they have to carry him off in a stretcher and the bad guy always kicks him off of it as it passes by. It's classic.
"No", answers Bruce, "I didn't even know about that. We got it from James Brown. He used to get himself so worked up that the bassist led him offstage wrapped in a cape. He'd throw the cape off his shoulders and come running back to the mikestand some two or three times. It drove 'em wild. So that's where we got the idea for the stretcher routine."
Sliding into the front seat of a borrowed '78 burnt yellow Camaro, Bruce at the wheel, we're on our way to the neighborhood where he grew up in Freehold. Shoving a cassette into the receptable, he says, "A fan gave this to me outside a concert once. it's real good tape."
He turns up the volume, guns the motor and shifts into second. We take off. He turns up the volume a little more and starts looking for "Hello Mary Lou" by Rick Nelson. "This song has one of the greatest guitar parts ever on it."
He can't find the tune and settles for oldies like "If You Wanna Be Happy For the Rest of Your Life (Never Make a Pretty Woman your Wife)" and "Blue Suede Shoes". He shifts into third.
Now for the first time, we do not talk. The music is loud and damn appealing. The windows are down so the wind is whipping furiously into the car. He shifts into fourth and takes off.
We're rolling now. We settle uncomfortably behind a slow driver. He checks his rear-view mirror and roars past the driver. Seeing another slow-mover right ahead, he stays in the opposite lane and passes two in one fell swoop before settling comfortably back on the right. From the back, Sorce lets out a soft "Whew!"
It's great moment. Chuck Berry is wailing out with "Maybelline". Bruce is going faster. It's such a fuckin' beautiful day. The wind is rushing in and Bruce is feeling good, snapping his fingers, clapping his hands and letting out with a hoarse vocal or two on the last line of each verse. "Hello Mary Lou" finally comes on and suddenly everything is crystallized in one magic moment - the speed, the music, the sun, the wind, the company. Jeezez Christ! We're rolling down the highway with fuckin' Bruce Springsteen at the wheel! And he's driving the way you would think Bruce Springsteen would drive.
Later, when we reach a light, Bruce impatiently waits on it before saying, "This is what we used to call a 'quarterback sneak'"", and with that he takes off surreptitiously past the red light.
We're in the old neighborhood now. Bruce drives slowly down Institute Street until he reaches the right number. It's been painted now. "I lived here all through grammar school. There's a Nestle's factory near here. Man, when it rained we smelled that stuff all day long."
The elder Springsteen would go to work in the morning, come home, go to sleep and wake up and go back to work at the factory. "I guess there was other things he wanted," Bruce reflects.
We get back into the car and drive over to the factory. "Both my grandfather and my father worked here. It used to be a rug mill in the old days, but for some reason it ran out of business fairly quick. I was pretty young at the time."
When I ask about high school, Bruce clams up. "It wasn't exactly the best time of my life because I didn't graduate with any of the others. It was a rough period." I could see he really doesn't pursue this avenue too long so I drop it. But I wonder what mystery is veiled beneath this wall of secrecy.
We get back into the car and tear out of there. Ironically enough, the tape Bruce shoves into the machine this time is an old Animals cassette. The first song could be a forerunner to much of the music Bruce writes. As the opening line comes out of the speakers, the dusty factory is just fading from view..."In this dirty old part of the city/Where the sun refuses to shine/People say that there ain't no use in trying/My little girl you're so young and pretty/And one thing I know is true/You'll be dead before your time is due, yes you will/See my daddy in bed ad night/See his hair a' turnin' grey/He's been working and slaving his life away, yes he has. The song is, of cours, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place", and it was a fitting omen as we drove off.
As we drove, Bruce starts reminiscing. "Yeah, I lived in practically every single town around here, from Atlantic Highlands to Bradley Beach. We used to move quite often.
"That's where I had my very first gig," he laughs as we pass a mobile setup. Looking out of the window, the 10 or 20 mobile homes facing us look worn and old. "The gig wasn't bad...for our first job."
Hey Bruce, are you gonna show up at the Capitol again like you did last year on New Year's Eve? I ask him. It was announced earlier in the week that Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes would again party away the year in such grand fashion. Bruce turns around and answers, "I don't know where I'm gonna be on New Year's Eve.
"C'mon, I'll show you where my surfin' buddies used to live," he says, changing the subject. We swerve sharply off the highway onto an exit. "This used to be a surfboard factory," he says. We step out of the car near a small white building.
"Yeah, me and a fella named Tinker lived here for a year and a half, in one room. All the rest of this area used to be nothin' but sand dunes." He points to a huge expanse of stores, houses and construction. "None of this was here."
"They used to make the surfboards downstairs. Tinker and I, we had a ball. Just one room! Two beds, a fridge and a TV - the rest of the room was filled with surfboards."
"Since I was from Freehold, I was considered inland. All these guys used to surf every day. I was friends with 'em all but never went. Finally, they got to me. One afternoon they were merciless. They just kept taunting me and kidding me about not surfing that it just sorta got me riled. I grabbed a board and we all headed out to the beach.
"I must have been some sight surfing for the first time, but I'll tell you something - I got the hang of it pretty quick. Hell, it ain't harder than anything else. It's like riding a bike. I haven't surfed in awhile. Now that's something I'd love to do. As a matter of fact, I think I will."
He seems resolute.
He continues: "This guy Jesse taught me the finer points of surfing. We used to stay in North End Beach in Long Branch all the time. Some guy owned the beach so we had the use of it for almost two whole years. We'd be there every day. We'd stay on the beach, go in the water. It was great.
"This area is really amazing. There's really poor neighborhoods and then there's real nice neighborhoods all in a five-mile radius.
"I used to go to New York a lot back then. I played at the Cafe Wha? a lot in '68. I used to play there with Jerry Walker's old group, Circus Maximus. Let's see, I played the Night Owl (all these places were in the West Village). They had a lot of good bands there at the time - the Raves, Robin & the Hoods. Let's see, the Mothers of Invention were playing all the time in that area and so were the Fugs.
"I didn't go to too many concerts then. I much preferred playing and jamming with these people. There was a whole 'nother scene taking place over in the East Village that I wasn't part of at all - the Fillmore, the Electric Circus. I think my first experience seeing a rock star was going to Steve Paul's Scene and seeing Johnny Winter. That was really something. I remember between sets, he came out and sat at the very next table from me and my friends."
Let's go back to Asbury, I suggest.
Asking Bruce if he'd take me back to the old Upstage site where he held court almost every night, he gladly obliges and we get out of the car again in what could be termed downtown Asbury.
"I gotta be cool," Bruce chuckles. "I ran out of here without paying the rent."
We walk over to the site, which is upstairs from a shoe store.
"I lived here while Greetings From Asbury Park was being made. I slept in my sleeping bag on my friend's floor for a good portion of that album."
Bruce poses for pics while people pass by right and left. Surprisingly enough, nobody recognizes him (or if they do, they keep on walking).
"I'm lucky in that respect. What happened in the movies the other night is a rarity. Usually, I don't get recognized. I don't have that instantly recognizable feature that a lot of other people have."
Yeah, like Frampton's hair, I reply.
"My folks had already moved to California," Bruce remembers, "and I was out of high school by the time I got to Asbury.
"Asbury was a great place for us to play. We played here an awful lot."
In answering questions about his immidiate future, Bruce says, "I have one more day off before we finish the tour. Then I have a whole month off before we start up again. In February we go back into the studio for work on the next album. I'm hoping it will be out by next summer."
Just for the record, the tour ended officially in Atlanta on Oct. 1. It started in Buffalo on May 23. The new tour starts (possibly in New Jersey) on Nov. 1 and finishes by Dec. 20. If the time it took to cut Darkness is any indicator, then number five will be lucky to hit the stands by the summer after next.
The just-finished tour took in 70 cities and 86 shows in four months and eight days. That's why Bruce has to be listed as a "great guy" to do up an afternoon on one of his rare days off. Another highly impressive thing is that he spent the whole day without the protective cradle of a publicist's presence. Rarely have I done an interview without the artist's publicist in tow.
In talking about the current LP, Bruce says, "The guy who took the cover shot for that album is a friend of mine from south Jersey who works fulltime in a meat market. The shots were taken at his house. He's a great photographer."
Bruce's only comment about the self-destructive syndrome (dope-money-power) affecting so many rock stars is that "they let all the other things become more important than playing. Playing is the important thing. Once you forget that, you've had it."
Bruce, obviously, hasn't forgotten that. He's been having fun with music since the start. Bruce Springsteen is the perfect assimilator of many styles - Chuck Berry/Stones/Elvis/Buddy Holly/ Dylan/Little Richard/Animals. His image on stage is also an amalgamation of many images - Elvis/young Brando/James Dean. Somehow he melds all of these influences into one cohesive framework for his own strikingly original material. The man is all that he has devoured musically from the time he started listening to music, and it all pours out of hime every time he steps on stage. "That Elvis, man," Bruce says, "he is all there is. There ain't no more. Everything starts and ends with him. He wrote the book. He is everything to do and not to do in the business."
If Elvis Presley is Bruce's prototype then Bruce, himself, is the focus for a lot of envy and speculation. We all have fantasies - Bruce included - of making it big and living as stars. Well, Bruce is living the ultimate realization of that fantasy right now. He's made it through all the bullshit inherent in such a proposition. He's doing it. And doing it in style.
Yet if you talk to him, he's quite humble. Ask him what part he played in the writing of "Because the Night" and he'll tell you that he only wrothe the title line (although he admits he will probably put it on his next album.)
Seeing him so close up and listening to him speak makes one realize that, although not articulate, there is a certain aura about him. A certain intangible. His charisma is the well-worn persona of the working man. His handsome/beautiful face could even make the transition to the silver screen as a prophet of the proletariat. His facial features are tough, yet there's a certain hardness to him. You'd swear he's Italian before you're told of his Dutch descent.
His enthusiasm is real. The moment when Gary U.S. Bonds came over the car speakers with "Quarter to Three" - that's when Bruce really started to groove. The song is in his encores in most of his performances. He still loves the original and still sings along with it when it comes on.
The essence of rock and roll can be distilled into a performance that a fella by the name of Bobby Lewis did on American Bandstand many years ago. Lewis performed "Tossin' and Turnin'" on the show, lip-synched it, and drove the small television studio crazy with his slips and slides. Host Dick Clark did a never-before-done-thing - he, in his madness of the moment, screamed for Lewis to perform the same song again. The sound man cued it up and Lewis went back out onto the stage and really tore into it this time, twisting, turning, giving it all he had. By now his lip motions were completely out-of-synch with the record being played, but it didn't matter. It was a piece of rock and roll heaven. And one, I'm sure, Bruce Springsteen would have enjoyed.
Interview conducted Sept. 23, 1978