The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s landmark exhibit, From Asbury Park to The Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen, recently made its own epic journey from America’s heartland to Bruce country. Never before seen outside Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the exhibit opened this week in its new home at Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center. For hardcore Bruce fans, the show is a must-see event.
By April Lindner
For this Bruce fan, the excitement built even before I stepped into the building. “Out in the Street” wafted across Philly’s historic Independence Mall, getting louder as I got closer. And when I stepped into the building’s sweeping lobby, I felt something close to the thrill of the houselights going down just before the band takes the stage: the familiar, sweeping Constitution Center lobby glowed with huge, backlit portraits of Bruce and the E Street Band, taken by New Jersey photographers Frank Stefanko and Danny Clinch. In front of Stefanko’s iconic shot of Bruce leaning against the black-and-white 1960 Chevy Corvette bought with his Born to Run money sits the Corvette itself, gleaming in all its muscle car glory.
For those like me with a weakness for significant artifacts, the Constitution Center is a treasure trove. The story of Bruce’s long and varied career is told chronologically through his own words, strategically posted throughout the exhibit, as well as through video and audio clips; but the heart of the exhibit is its carefully chosen relics, objects that loom large in the imagination of Bruce’s fans.
Highlights include memorabilia from Bruce’s early days in The Castiles, Earth, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, and Steel Mill; childhood snapshots of Bruce and his sister Virginia on the rides in Asbury Park; Bruce’s battered surfboard; the leather jacket from the cover of Born to Run
; yellowed notebook pages with the lyrics-in-progress for “Jungleland,” “Backstreets,” and “She’s the One”; Danny Federici’s accordion and keyboard-operated glockenspiel; reel-to-reel tapes from Bruce’s audition for John Hammond; the jeans, t-shirt and hat from the cover of Born in the USA
; the cassette-tape PortaStudio on which Bruce recorded the demo tapes that became Nebraska
; the ticket booth stage prop from the Tunnel of Love
tour; the Harley Bruce rode through the southwestern United States in 1989; the Dior jacket he wore to President Obama’s inauguration; the table and chair at which most of his songs were written; and, as they say in the infomercials, much, much more. The exhibit even includes a handful of creations by the fans themselves, in the form of random song request signs Bruce saved from the Working On a Dream
tour. And one wall is reserved for Post-it notes scribbled by visitors themselves, expressing which song holds the deepest personal meaning to them, and why.
Many of the show’s artifacts were chosen by Bruce himself, who worked closely with Jim Henke, vice president of exhibitions and chief curator at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum; quite a few had never before been seen by the public. Bruce suggested items from his warehouse of personal artifacts, including what may well be the exhibition’s piece de resistance: the modified Esquire guitar immortalized on the cover of Born to Run. For much of the exhibit’s opening week, however, the Esquire was missing in action; Bruce borrowed it back for his 2012 Grammy performance and rehearsed with it, but ultimately didn’t use it in the performance. As of my visit last week, Bruce was still holding on to the Esquire for a Rolling Stone photo shoot, but he was expected to return it to its place in the exhibit soon after.
Philadelphia-area Bruce fans are lucky to have access to all this Bruce booty. In fact, the original Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibit, which ran from April 2009 to February 2011, wasn’t supposed to travel. Jennifer Darley, the Constitution Center’s Senior Director of Facility Rentals and Special Events, worked hard to sell the Center on the exhibit, and eventually triumphed. According to Henke, the Philly show stays true to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s original vision, but adds context for Constitution Center visitors who might not be as familiar with Bruce’s music, highlighting his relationship with the Philadelphia/New Jersey region.
In keeping with the Constitution Center’s mission, the show also explores the link between Springsteen’s songwriting and the first amendment right to freedom of speech. The walls of the exhibit are peppered with quotations highlighting that connection. “My songs, they’re all about the American identity and your own identity…and trying to hold onto what’s worthwhile, what makes it a place that’s special, because I still believe it is,” one reads. To judge by “We Take Care of Our Own,” the Constitution Center show’s slant seems to coincide neatly with the new album’s thematic preoccupation: what it means to be an American at this point in history.
In the coming months, the Constitution Center will hold a number of Springsteen-themed events. The first of these, and the occasion of my visit, was a February 15 press preview, which included a talk by Stefanko, whose portraits of Bruce grace the covers of Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River. Stefanko told the story of how he had first heard Bruce’s music on a radio broadcast of the legendary Main Point show, and how he met Bruce through their mutual friend Patty Smith, the beginning of a forty-year friendship and collaboration. After seeing some of Stefanko’s photos, Bruce called the photographer out of the blue, saying, “Hey, Frankie, let’s get together and do some photographs.” Stefanko adds, “Bruce was a great subject. He knew what he wanted to do, knew how he wanted to pose.”
Dedicated fans are likely to know the story of how the covers of Darkness and The River were taken at Stefanko’s house in Haddonfield, but they may not know that when the cover photo was being developed, Bruce called Stefanko up from the lithographer’s studio to say, “The bigger they make it, the better it looks.”
Stefanko recounted the story of being summoned to Bruce’s rented carriage house on the Navasink River to listen to the Nebraska tapes for the first time, and of being blown away by what he heard. He also showed a series of portraits taken right after Bruce learned that John Kerry had lost the 2004 presidential election. “You can see the pain,” Stefanko observed.
Future Constitution Center events include showings of The Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town
(scheduled for March 14), Who Do I Think I am? A Portrait of a Journey
, a new documentary tracing Clarence Clemons’ 2003 spiritual journey to China (May 23), and Blood Brothers: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
(August 15). A couple of parties--Glory Days: Throwback to the ‘80s Party (April 26) and Independence Day: a Fourth of July Kick-off Party (June 28)--will feature live music, a themed menu and an open bar. Tickets to all of these events and to the exhibit itself may be purchased by calling 215-409-6700 or on the internet at www.constitutioncenter.org
Also, in keeping with Bruce’s longstanding concern for the hungry, the Constitution Center will collect non-perishable food items throughout March as part of its Hungry Heart Food Drive. Visitors who bring in canned food will receive two dollars off the ticket price to the exhibit. The food will be donated to Philabundance, the Delaware Valley’s largest hunger relief organization.
From Asbury Park To The Promised Land runs through September 3, 2012, and visitors are encouraged to reserve tickets as early as possible. For Greasy Lakers who live in driving distance, the show is well worth a visit.
April Lindner is a professor at Saint Joseph's University, author of a novel, Jane, and long-time Bruce fan.