It’s been thirty years plus a couple weeks since the last time I saw Bruce Springsteen; at the Fast Lane it was, a joint in Asbury Park on whose narrow stage the Stray Cats—already deep into a rousing set of Retro-Billy–briefly added the local boy as fourth piece for blistering rave-ups of Twenty Flight Rock, Be bop a lula, and Long Tall Sally. Then just as abruptly Bruce and his Telecaster were gone, out into a night which—if one can believe the electronic archival resources—began earlier for him in a sideman role with the venerable shore rocker Sonny Kett, during his set at the Monmouth County Fair in Springsteen’s home town of Freehold.
Down the Shore, 82 was a great summer for seeing Bruce but not for being Bruce, as New Yorker editor David Remnick reveals in this gripping essay. Springsteen’s spirits were even darker than the tone of Nebraska, the bleak solo masterwork he’d recorded in the bedroom of his Monmouth County home in January of that year. While his friend and biographer Dave Marsh’s claim that Bruce grew ‘suicidal’ during this period is sure to dominate the conversation over Remnick’s piece, the more enduring truth is that sometime during that year of 1982 Springsteen finally, directly confronted the implications of a story he’d been telling on stages in various forms for years; a story—set in the mid-60s at his family’s darkened Freehold kitchen–that Remnick himself heard Bruce share during a show at Manhattan’s Palladium in November, 1976.
The story (which Remnick warrants as “entirely accurate”) always ended with Bruce and his father “screaming at each other. My mother, she’d always end up running in from the front room crying, and trying to pull him off me, try to keep us from fighting with each other. . . . I’d always end up running out the back door and pulling away from him. Pulling away from him, running down the driveway screaming at him, telling him, telling him, telling him, how it was my life and I was going to do what I wanted to do…”
Springsteen makes it abundantly clear to Remnick that he remains driven by these nearly half-century old memories from that Freehold two-family house. Such memories never fade entirely: in fact recent studies of childhood violence have suggested that survivors—or veterans in my term of choice—of such traumas generally do not experience the full effects until decades later. But Bruce makes it just as clear that while those wounds “stay with you,” “you turn them into a language and a purpose:” a vocation, in the most literal sense. He then told Remnick something that nobody has ever said better:
“With all artists, because of the undertow of history and self-loathing, there is a tremendous push toward self-obliteration that occurs onstage. It’s both things: there’s a tremendous finding of the self while also an abandonment of the self at the same time. You are free of yourself for those hours; all the voices in your head are gone. Just gone. There’s no room for them. There’s one voice, the voice you’re speaking in.”
That summer of 82 when Bruce was fighting those voices in his head, I was teaching my first stand-alone history course for a Rutgers summer session. I had a student named Jeff Rosen now a dear friend of three decades with whom I’d walk the streets of the Hub City after class and hit the local joints , and one night Jeff told me I’d tried too hard during that night’s class to speak in somebody else’s voice in the interest of losing as few kids as possible from my various wending storylines. He urged I return to the one voice I spoke best.
Bruce Springsteen also has something to say about history: “That’s what we’re about right now, the communication between the living and the gone.” That’s my vocation too. “If I repair a little of myself, I repair a little of you. That’s the job.” That’s my job.
I once knew (fleeting moment) Bruce Springsteen and you’ll have no trouble believing me: I’m no Bruce Springsteen. But David Remnick summons forth all these ancent moments of hope and joy, 38 years after I first saw and heard Bruce in a two-thirds empty, broken down ex-vaudeville house in New Brunswick. After the show I slunk backstage and asked Springsteen if the Kerouac spirit was real or just my imagination running away with me. ‘Yeah,’ Bruce answered in that Asbury drawl; ‘yeah, I know that man.” And so Bruce has ever remained in and with us.
There’s a lot more to this story than I thought, as Terry Malloy tells Charlie the Gent in that fateful taxi. Naturally the ersatz rock and roll intelligentsia is currently going after Bruce and Remnick hammer and tongs; we’ll hold off that for now.
My beloved grandma Nonie took me to Asbury Park for the first time via bus in summer 1965; Springsteen musta been around somewhere. Charlie was born a quarter century after Bruce’s first record came out. He’s got that Bruce thing in him that thing—let’s face it, Jimmy–I never had. You can’t manufacture it any more than you can currently prevent 100,000 Swedes from reveling in their taste of the Shore courtesy this remarkable human being and his mates. It’s time we asked Dr. Chew to add Crazy Janey and her mission man to Charlie the Gent’s queue; from there we move forward yet again; both with and against the current.