Born to Run (2016)
My parents had no money for a second shot at the guitar, so there was just one thing to do: get a job. One summer afternoon my mom took me to my aunt Dora’s, where for fifty cents an hour I would become the “lawn boy.” My uncle Warren came out and showed me the ropes. He demonstrated how the lawn mower worked, how to cut the hedges (not too short, not too long), and I was hired. I went immediately to the Western Auto store, an establishment in the town’s center specializing in automotive parts and cheap guitars. There amongst the carburetors, air filters and fan belts hung four acoustic guitars, ranging from the unplayable to the barely playable. They looked like nirvana to me and they were attainable. Well, one was attainable. I saw a price tag hanging off of one funky brown model that read “Eighteen dollars.” Eighteen dollars? That was more money than I had ever held in my hand at one time. A lot more.
After a while I noticed my “living expenses” were cutting into my savings from my job at Aunt Dora’s, so I was going to have to step up my workload. Across the street from my aunt’s house was a lovely, older white-haired lady named Mrs. Ladd. She wanted her house painted and her roof tarred. My grandfather, when his electrician business went south, had become a housepainter, and I’d wielded a brush on the walls of our own home a few times. How hard could it be? I enlisted my pal Mike Patterson to join my workforce and together we’d finish it off in no time. Mrs. Ladd bought the paint, showed us what she wanted, was meticulous: black shutters, white house, period. If she didn’t like the way the paint was lying, you did it again. One week I had to miss a day’s work. Mike said “no problem,” he’d handle it. When I came back, one whole side of the house had been painted yellow! “Mike . . . Did you clean the brushes?” “I thought I did.” One more time. We got it done, it didn’t look too bad and we went on to the roof. I knew nothing about tarring a roof, so Mike led the way. It was midsummer New Jersey, 90 percent humidity, Fahrenheit ninety-five degrees; the tar was hot, sticky and burning as we slathered it on in the midday sun . . . hell on Earth.
It was done. Me and my twenty dollars went straight downtown. The salesman pulled my ugly brown dream out of the window and snipped off the price tag, and it was mine. I skulked home with it, not wanting my neighbors to know of my vain and unrealistic ambitions. I hauled it up to my bedroom and closed the door like it was some sex tool (it was!). I sat down, held it in my lap and was utterly confused. I had no clue about how to begin. The strings were thick as telephone wires, so I just started making noise, playing by ear. If I accidentally hit on something that sounded like music, I tried to remember it and do it again. I concentrated mainly on the lower-sounding strings, trying to make a “thunk, thunk” sound, a rhythm. It hurt like hell. My soft, pink fingertips were not prepared for the cables strung across this wooden box pretending to be an instrument. I stood up, went to the mirror on the back of my bedroom door, slung the guitar across my hips and stood there. For the next two weeks, until my fingers screamed for mercy, I worked up a whole repertoire of non-tunes to be played on an untuned guitar. I convinced myself I was getting somewhere, then fate and family intervened. My mom, Virginia and I went one Sunday to visit our aunt Eda. Her son, Frank, was an ace accordionist and every time we’d visit, he’d be called on to bust out his box and swing through “Lady of Spain” or some other accordion anthem. (Inspired, I actually took a shot at the accordion one Christmas, ensuring job security for E Street keyboardist and accordionist Danny Federici forever after. It was impossible.)
One Sunday, Frank came into the living room with a guitar instead of his candy-wagon accordion. He proceeded to wail through the folk hits of the moment. The folk boom was full throttle at the time. Hootenanny was a prime-time television show and Frank had picked up the guitar and was playing it pretty well. That weekend he sat on the living room floor, guitar in hand, wearing a white T-shirt, black socks, black chinos and white sneakers (I thought this was the coolest thing I’d ever seen up close and I immediately returned home and tried to emulate the look). He was doing a lot better than I was. He took me into his room, showed me how to tune the guitar, taught me how to read chord charts out of an American folk music collection, gave me the book and sent me home. I tuned my guitar as best I could and realized immediately I’d have to start from scratch. All of my non-tuned “tunes” were now revealed as the complete crap they were. I opened up the book, went to “Greensleeves,” read the opening E-minor chord (only needs two fingers!) and set back to work. It was a beginning. A real beginning. Over the next few months, I learned most of the major and minor chords; scrubbed my way through as many folk standards I could; showed my mother what I was accomplishing, to her encouragement; then put together the C, F and G chords that allowed me to play “Twist and Shout.” This was my first rock ’n’ roll song. It was good-bye to “lawn boy” and the only real job I would hold my entire life. “Well shake it up, baby!”