Born to Run (2016)

BOOK ONE

GROWIN’ UP

TWELVE

WHERE THE BANDS ARE

Five months later, I’d beaten my Western Auto special half to death. My fingers were strong and callused. My fingertips were as hard as an armadillo’s shell. I was ready to move up. I had to go electric. I explained to my mother that to get in a band, to make a buck, to get anywhere, I needed an electric guitar. Once again, that would cost money we didn’t have. Eighteen dollars wasn’t going to cut it this time. In my room I had a cheesy pool table I’d gotten the Christmas before when I planned to follow in my father’s footsteps as a pool shark. I got pretty decent playing in the basement of the Y on canteen nights, but I never got good enough to challenge my old man. However, it still was good cover to get my girlfriends up into my bedroom. Once I’d romanced them to the bed I’d lean up once in a while and toss the pool balls across the table to keep the old man happy down in the kitchen. But by now the thrill was gone. Christmas was coming. I made a deal with my mom: if I’d sell the pool table, she’d try to come up with the balance for an electric guitar I’d spotted in the window of Caiazzo’s Music Store on Center Street. The price was sixty-nine dollars and it came complete with a small amplifier. It was the cheapest they had but it was a start.

I sold my pool table for thirty-five dollars; a guy tied it to the roof of his car and headed out the drive. So there on one slushy Christmas Eve, I stood with my mother staring into Caiazzo’s window at a sunburst, one-pickup Kent guitar, made in Japan. It looked beautiful, wondrous and affordable. I had my thirty-five dollars and my mother had thirty-five dollars of finance-company money. She and my father borrowed from season to season, paying off their debt just in time to borrow again. Sixty-nine dollars would be the biggest expenditure of my life and my mother was going out on a limb for me one more time. In we went. Mr. Caiazzo lifted it out of the window and stuck it into a leatherette cardboard case, and we drove home with my first electric guitar. In the living room I plugged in my new amp. Its tiny six-inch speaker “roared” to life. It sounded awful, distorted beyond all recognition. The amp had one control, a volume knob. It was about the size of a large bread box but I was in the game.

My guitar was as cheap as they came but compared to the junker I’d been playing, it was a Cadillac. The strings were smooth wound. Their distance to the fret board was minimal and allowed for easy intonation with the slightest pressure. I got better fast and was soon meeting at a friend’s house for jam sessions. I knew a drummer, Donnie Powell. We convened in his living room while his parents were out and made the most god-awful racket you’ve ever heard. Being able to play a little was one thing; playing “together” was something else . . . uncharted territory.

The one tune every aspiring ax man struggled to master in those days was Bill Doggett’s “Honky Tonk.” It was unbelievably rudimentary, theoretically within the grasp of the most spastic idiot, and a hit record! “Honky Tonk” was a two-string blues concerto, a low-down dirty stripper’s groove, and is still a cool record today. Donnie, the drummer, taught it to me and the two of us hacked at it like ax murderers. Years before the White Stripes, the two of us beat the crap out of the blues . . . except we stunk! Singing? . . . Into what? With what? No one had a microphone or a voice. It was just way below garage-level thrashing, lasting all night long until his parents came home.

We called ourselves the Merchants. A few other neighborhood kids came in, there were a few more exuberant, painful rehearsals, and then the day was done. It was finished and back to my room I went. But . . . there was one kid in the neighborhood who could really play. He’d taken a few years of guitar lessons. His dad was a successful businessman. He had a Gibson guitar—a real instrument—and a real amp. He knew how to read music. I spoke to him and drafted him into a revamped Merchants, now called the Rogues (Freehold version, not to be confused with the later Shore version consisting of actual playing, singing musicians). Suddenly, we sounded close to music. My amp was a joke, so he let me plug into the spare channel of his. We even found a bass player—well, someone who had a bass and, more important, another amp. He joined our combo. He couldn’t play but he was a nice, handsome Italian kid and his friendship would literally save my ass from a beating years into the future in a funky little backwoods dive down Route 9 called the IB Club. We plugged on, rehearsing semiregularly, with one radical and rebellious idea: someone would sing.

Showtime

In small-town Jersey in 1964, no one sang. There were vocal groups with backing bands. There were bands with no vocalists who performed strictly instrumentals, taking the Ventures as their guiding light, but there were no self-contained playing, singing combos. That was one of the revolutions the Beatles brought with them when they came to America. You wrote the songs, you sang the songs, you played the songs. Before that, a typical local band’s set list would consist of “Pipeline” by the Chantays; “Sleep Walk” by Santo and Johnny; “Apache,” “Out of Limits,” “Penetration,” “Haunted Castle”—all purely instrumental pieces. In the early sixties at a high school dance, a top hometown band like the Chevelles would play all night, unmiked, without a word being uttered to the audience of frantic dancers. The Chevelles were the instrumental kings of our local scene (challenged up Route 9 by the Victorians). They were real musicians, teachers at Mike Diehl’s music school, with good equipment and matching suits.

One day our young combo heard of Sunday matinee shows for teenagers at the Freehold Elks Club. It cost thirty-five cents to come in and all the bands played for free to a crowd of about seventy-five locals. The show was run by an unusual husband-and-wife team of entertainers, Bingo Bob and Mrs. Bob. They were a circus act and a little on the freaky side but for a few months, until someone stole one of Mrs. Bob’s maracas and Bingo launched into a psycho fury, locking us all in the Elks Club until someone pulled a maraca out of their ass, it was a good place for your first baptism by fire. The almost strictly instrumental bands would set up in a circle and square off for a few hours.

With anxiety somewhere around pre–Super Bowl levels, my bandmates and I loaded our gear into our parents’ cars, hauled it down to the Elks and set up. Being the newest group, we went on last. We spun through our tunes; panic and cold sweat aside, we weren’t bad. Then . . . we released our secret weapon: me . . . singing “Twist and Shout.” I blared my way through it, putting on the hip-shaking show of my young life, or so I thought. There was a huge, grilled forties-style microphone plugged into the Elks’ few horrible squawk box speakers, which passed for a sound system. I hid behind the big microphone and screamed my head off . . . “Ahhhh, ahhhh, ahhhh, ahhhhh . . . well shake it up, baby, now . . .” An embarrassing performance but I felt pretty good about it. Some kids even told us we sounded “great.” I thought almost everyone else was better than us. They had nicer equipment, more experience, but . . . barely anyone sang.

From there we were booked at a high school dance opening for the Chevelles. Being booked to play at your high school was the top, top gig in town. It was a risky booking for us. That night we went down to Diehl’s and rented an extra Gretsch amplifier with reverb! Reverb, that magic echo chamber that seemed to make you immediately sound like all your favorite records and lent an air of professionalism to what you were doing. Down to the Freehold Regional High School gymnasium we went. We were going to blow the sheet music out of the Chevelles and send them and their fancy music lessons crying back to Mike Diehl’s music school. We were the “new wave.” No matching suits, no music school, just blues shouting and rock ’n’ roll.

Trouble began almost immediately. Our lead guitarist had forgotten his guitar strap, so he had to play the entire set with one knee propped up on his amp supporting his guitar . . . not cool. Also, unfortunately, our bass player remained unable as of yet to play a note, so he stood, knee up (no strap either) on his amp (the one that got him in the band), with his bass turned firmly off for the evening. I brayed into the high school public address system microphone and a nightmare of unintelligible sound poured forth from somewhere in the rafters of the gymnasium. What was even worse, we were so excited about acquiring reverb, my lead guitarist and I plugged into our rented amp, turned the reverb on full and reduced our sound to a quivering, echoing mash, a cheese-ball shitstorm of submerged instrumentation that sounded like it was being puked up from the bottom of some dragon-infested ocean. Our new “effect” reduced whatever we were playing to meandering gibberish. (Full reverb in a high school gymnasium . . . don’t try it, young ’uns!) It was humiliating. You could tell as it was going by. I stood there head down, red faced, knowing we sounded awful and without a clue as to what to do about it. The crowd huddled close in front of our band expecting . . . something; we’d been bragging all week. Their faces told the story . . . “What the fu . . . ?” Then the Chevelles came on and smoked. They were professionals. They played real music, as boring and corny as it was. They knew how to control their instruments and perform before a crowd. We stood there watching, newly humbled, with a few die-hard pals telling us we “weren’t so bad.”

We went back to the drawing board, except this time, I’d end up there alone. I was informed shortly after our gig by my pal, the guy I’d brought into the band, that I’d been voted out. My guitar was “too cheap” and wouldn’t stay in tune, and he unnecessarily added that he’d seen the same “piece of junk” in New York City for thirty dollars. Ouch . . . that hurt. I told my mom that day as I walked her home from work that I’d been kicked out of the band but I didn’t have the heart to tell her why. She’d anted up everything she had for that “piece of junk” and I was going to make it work.

In My Room

That night I went home, pulled out the second Rolling Stones album, put it on and taught myself Keith Richards’s simple but great guitar solo to “It’s All Over Now.” It took me all night but by midnight I had a reasonable facsimile of it down. Fuck ’em, I was going to play lead guitar. For the next several months (years!) I woodshedded, spending every available hour cradling my Kent, twisting and torturing the strings ’til they broke or until I fell back on my bed asleep with it in my arms. Weekends I spent at the local CYO, YMCA or high school dances. Dancing was over; I was silent, inscrutable, arms folded, standing in front of the lead guitarist of whatever band was playing, watching every move his fingers made. After the dance, when the other kids were hanging out, heading for pizza at Federici’s or trying to make it with the girls, I rushed home to my room and there ’til early in the morning, my guitar unplugged so as not to disturb the house, I tried to remember and play everything I’d seen.

Before long I began to feel the empowerment the instrument and my work were bringing me. I had a secret . . . there was something I could do, something I might be good at. I fell asleep at night with dreams of rock ’n’ roll glory in my head. Here’s how one would go: The Stones have a gig at Asbury Park’s Convention Hall but Mick Jagger gets sick. It’s a show they’ve got to make, they need a replacement, but who can replace Mick? Suddenly, a young hero rises, a local kid, right out of the audience. He can “front”: he’s got the voice, the look, the moves, no acne, and he plays a hell of a guitar. The band clicks. Keith is smiling and suddenly, the Stones aren’t in such a rush to get Mick out of his sickbed. How does it end? Always the same . . . the crowd goes wild.