Received my copy of Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography this week, and eager to read his own words about his own life (Peter Carlin’s “Bruce” was outstanding, and “Born To Run” holds even higher potential – and it’s sitting in the top slot in Amazon’s best seller list). One of the online groups in which I lurk has burst open with contemporaries sharing their own stories, his life as viewed through their words, and two of my own floated to the surface.
Attending Freehold Township High School (Bruce went to Freehold High School, later distinguished with the surname “Boro” once the Township school was opened), there was quite a bit of shared history with teachers and younger siblings who had some effective arm’s length human touch with Bruce. At least half a dozen people claimed to know the identity of “Wendy;” another half dozen laid claim to the “giant Exxon sign” in its exact location as their own turf. My favorite story, which I hold up as the stuff of teenage rebellion and not fact, goes like this: A certain teacher (who moved from Boro to Township) vaguely hinted that he had failed Bruce Springsteen and wouldn’t hesitate to fail you. The wordier version included Springsteen’s reply that “One day, I’ll be famous and you’ll still be here teaching the same class and driving the same car” — punctuated with the remark that after “Born to Run,” Springsteen proved himself correct with a visit. With a lot of hindsight, I find that incongruous; Springsteen has never been one to gloat or boast, and the thought of diminishing someone who had an impact, however random or tangential, is just counter to just about every theme in every Springsteen song.
The better stories are variations on this theme: Parents said “You better shape up or you’ll turn out like Bruce Springsteen” and then every one of us who laments the wilting of our salad days of musical talent wishes our parents had actually been more correct in their predictions.
My own (weakly remembered, but directionally correct) story sits in the Venn diagram intersection of those storyline mechanics. At the beginning of each school year, we’d get text books that looked like they’d been through the wringer and conveyor belts at the mercy of United’s baggage handlers, and the first act was to flip to the back inside cover and see who had been issued the book in previous years. The golden ticket was to find one with a scrawled “B Springsteen,” a feat that required a book in service for about a decade in a class that was still in the academic rotation. Sure enough, one day I found the magic signature, and yet never considered stealing the book for later collector value. Bruce entered our lives on an almost daily basis, there was no need to pay a $15 fine to prove evidence of our shared geographic heritage. “Born to Run” thundered from our FM clock radios, usually introduced by a WNEW DJ with nothing more than “Bruce” or “This” or some other Mark Rothko colored impact statement; that was sufficient to remind us Bruce Springsteen turned out alright even if his English book suffered the slings, arrows and lockers of time.
For the next six years, Bruce constructed and destructed much of my musical life. As a DJ at WPRB-FM, we were implicitly discouraged from playing Top 40, but his obscure and wonderfully textured songs found their way into my shows. I mailed in a check (via “special delivery!”) for the ticket lottery for his July 1981 shows at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, the first arena rock show I attended. After meeting amazing keyboardist (later turned drummer) Steve, another Springsteen fan, I realized that my saxophone playing wasn’t anywhere near what was required to play in a band; as Steve said “Clarence is always playing, but you don’t notice it; he just plays what needs to be played”. That stuck with me as a metaphor for a lot of things, but also made me take stock of my own ability to hear and contribute musically. Thirty-five years later, “New York City Serenade” is one of my favorite songs; “Darkness” is a desert island album; the opening chords of “Born To Run” still give me chills; and yet I haven’t given up the dream of playing since I picked up the bass two years ago — maybe we all still have the chance to turn out the way our parents eventually wanted — creatively happy.
“Born To Run” is next up on my reading list (provided I finish Annie Duke’s book before attending her charity poker ball next weekend) and I know it will fill in the facts of my own stories, not diminishing them but giving them color and connection and concreteness.