Born to Run (2016)
ONCE THERE WAS A LITTLE STEVEN
When you weren’t doing your own gigs, you were checking out the competition. After the British invasion, teen shows exploded onto prime-time television. Shindig! featured the Shindogs, with the great James Burton on guitar; Hullabaloo brought your favorite British and American groups into your life on a weekly basis. At home the battle for control of the television set was in full throttle. The fight became ugly and brutish. My father, stretched out on the couch in his white tee and work pants, howled when I switched the channel from his favorite western to see if my latest musical heroes were hitting the stage at the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Hullabaloo started a franchise of clubs around the nation, taking over any vacant supermarket or warehouse, fitting it out with never-before-seen black lights (a lighting effect that made anything white, including your teeth, glow phosphorescent), a few big posters and lots of dancing room. They booked the best local bands along with the occasional national act coming through town on tour. In Freehold, in a newly abandoned supermarket, I witnessed the majesty of Britain’s Screaming Lord Sutch.
The first Hullabaloo Club we went to was in Asbury Park. I walked in one night with my pal Mike Patterson, and onstage were Sonny and the Starfires, featuring at the drums a pre–“Mad Dog” Vincent Lopez. All Chuck Berry and rockabilly blues, Sonny, a good-looking guy with greased blond hair and black Ray-Ban sunglasses, really knew what he was doing. (He still plays in the area today, as cool as ever.) The next Hullabaloo Club we hit was in Middletown. When I walked in I saw a guy onstage wearing a gargantuan polka-dot tie that stretched from his Adam’s apple to the floor. He was the lead singer in a band called the Shadows and they were cruising their way through a version of the Turtles’ “Happy Together.” Whoever he was, he was funny, and they had a very tight band. They’d picked the records they covered clean; their arrangements and their harmonies were authentically precise.
At the Hullabaloo Club you played fifty-five minutes on and five minutes off, all night long. If there was a fight, you had to go back on immediately and play to distract the crowd in order to keep a full-blown brawl from breaking out. During the Shadows’ five-minute break I was introduced to their front man, Steve Van Zandt. The Castiles by now had a significant reputation, so he knew who I was; we talked a little shop, we hit it off and he went back on for his next set. So began one of the longest and greatest friendships of my life.
Over the next years we would visit each other’s gigs often. I caught him one summer night in our local battle of the bands at the Arthur Pryor Band Shell on the boardwalk in Asbury Park as the Shadows ran through their Paul Revere and the Raiders routine, playing “Kicks,” outfitted in white chinos, white tuxedo shirts and black vests. They captured first place. We formed a mutual admiration society of two. I’d finally met someone who felt about music the way I did, needed it the way I did, respected its power in a way that was a notch above the attitudes of the other musicians I’d come in contact with, somebody I understood and I felt understood me. With Steve and me, from the beginning, it was heart to heart and soul to soul. It was all impassioned, endless arguments over the minutiae of the groups we loved. The deep delving into the smallest details of guitar sounds, style, image; the beautiful obsession of sharing, with someone who was as single-minded and crazy as you were, a passion you simply could not get enough of—these were things you could not fully explain to outsiders . . . because as the Lovin’ Spoonful so perfectly put it, “It’s like trying to tell a stranger ’bout rock and roll” . . . do you believe in magic?
Steve and I believed big-time and together we created a world of our own, all rock ’n’ roll all the time. Steve lived in Middletown, a long hike from Freehold for the wheelless. When Steve formed his new group the Source, I’d visit his gigs at Le Teendezvous. Steve was an early country-rock acolyte, mastering the Byrds’ and the Youngbloods’ repertoire. When he eventually moved to playing lead guitar he got real good real fast. The Castiles by this time had added an organist, Bobby Alfano, and moved into the psychedelic blues territory of 1967. Steve showed up at many of our gigs and our friendship grew.
Café Wha?, Greenwich Village
The Castiles had cut a single in a small studio in Bricktown, New Jersey: “That’s What You Get for Loving Me” backed by “Baby I,” our two self-penned originals. We walked out of the studio that afternoon with a two-track tape and some acetates (little 45-RPM-looking records that were good for only a few clean plays). We already knew we’d hit a wall locally. There was just no place left to go, with either our record or our “career.” We were now the big dogs in town. One Saturday afternoon we sat around Tex’s and decided that to be discovered we’d have to get out of Jersey. Since Frank Sinatra, no one of import had known the Garden State existed or had come far enough south down the parkway to realize there were people there, much less rock ’n’ roll being made. You could play for ten zillion years, wailing your genius into the void, and no one beyond the locals would ever know.
New York City . . . that’s where bands found fame and fortune. We had to break in there. Tex made a few calls and somehow got us booked into Café Wha? in Greenwich Village for a Saturday matinee audition. This was major. Few of us had ever been out of New Jersey, and the Village in ’68 was something we’d never seen. We set up on the cramped basement stage at the Wha?, faced out into the pewlike rows of black tables filled with Long Island teenyboppers sucking on overpriced, strangely named alcohol-less beverages and cut loose. We got the gig. We didn’t get paid. They simply agreed to let you play, get your foot into the “big time” of New York and hope somebody stumbled in and decided you were the next big thing.
That didn’t happen. Our experience in the Village, however, was critical. None of the bands we saw were well-known but almost all of them were better than we were. There was Circus Maximus, with the young Jerry Jeff Walker singing and playing guitar. There was the Source (New York City version) with future New York congressman John Hall of the band Orleans on vocals and guitarist Teddy Speleos playing Jeff Beck as good as Beck himself. Teddy was an outstanding whiz. Steve and I made the bus trip on many afternoons just to sit there slack-jawed at his sound, technique and nonchalance. He was just a teenager like us but became a huge hero to Steve and me. We were never going to get within fifty feet of Jeff Beck, but this kid, there he was, inches away from our faces, and like the monkeys staring at the monolith in 2001, we sat there primitively hypnotized by style, substance and flash we could not comprehend. Steve and I rushed home to our guitars, hoping to catch some of the richness of distortion, the molasses thickness of tone Teddy was squeezing out of his Telecaster. Unfortunately we’d end up with a howling, screaming, murdering chain-saw massacre of sound squealing up out of the basement from our Teles. How did he do it? He KNEW how, THAT’S how!
The bus trips became a regular part of our weekends. The arguments on the way up about who was better, Led Zeppelin or the Jeff Beck Group; the immersion in Village life, with the hippies, the gays, the drug dealers, Washington Square Park—we basked in the freedom of it all and it became our true home away from home.
Just a brief year or two after Jimi Hendrix played the Wha?, the Castiles played regularly on Saturday and Sunday next door to the Fugs on MacDougal Street. The Mothers of Invention were around the corner at the Warwick Theater. Steve and I caught Neil Young promoting his first solo album, his signature black Gibson plugged into a tiny Fender amp, blowing out the walls of the Bitter End. Nobody paid us much attention with the exception of a small group of bridge-and-tunnel teenybopper girls who latched on to our band and showed up regularly. This was the big world, the free world; in Greenwich Village in 1968, I could walk with my freak flag held high and nobody was going to bust me. It was a world I could call my own, a little piece of my future beckoning.
I had a friend, a very good New York City guitarist, who was sidelining as a drug dealer. I’d occasionally spend the night in his hotel room with pills of all colors spread out over the night table like spilled Skittles . . . no interest. Back in Jersey drugs were just beginning to become a part of high school life; though I did none myself (too scared), I lived next door to, and was friends with, one of the town’s first radical drug experimenters. I was once called into the principal’s office and asked a lot of drug-related questions about which I truly knew nothing. Given the times and my appearance, no one believed a word I said. Who cared?
As graduation time drew near, the principal of Freehold High, a basically good guy with whom I had a pretty decent détente for most of my high school years, took it upon himself to suggest at a graduation meeting that to let me attend the ceremony looking like I did would be a discredit and disgrace to the class. He subtly hinted that perhaps someone should do something about it. That was it for me. I would not be the subject/victim of meatheaded vigilante retribution. On my Freehold Regional High School graduation day, I woke up at dawn. That morning, while the house was asleep, I got dressed, went down to the bus terminal and boarded the six a.m. Lincoln Transit Commuter straight to New York City. I disembarked at the Port Authority, grabbed the subway to Eighth Street and walked up the stairs into the early-June sunlight of Greenwich Village feeling free as a bird. My world. I was done. Let them have their little party.
I spent my graduation day wandering around the Village, eating pizza, hanging in Washington Square Park, stopping in at the Wha? and meeting a new girlfriend. My folks finally caught up with me at the Wha? and via phone told me everything would be all right if I would just come home. I caught a bus, bringing my new tagalong gal pal with me. We arrived in the early evening, just hours after the ceremony. My father met me at our front door, the house filled with relatives attending my family graduation festivities, and after he took one look at my gal friend, straight back to the bus depot we went. Once my dad and I were back at home, he ordered me to my room and unscrewed and confiscated my lightbulbs so I’d have to sit in the dark, meditating on what I’d done. I was visited shortly by my aunt Dora, who tried to sweet-talk some sense into me. At that moment, I just didn’t care. I’d had it with the school, the family and the whole ten-cent dog and pony show that was fucked-up Freehold, New Jersey. A week later, with summer descending, I walked into the school administration’s office and picked up my diploma.
Summer of Drugs
Two horrible events occurred that summer. The first was a massive heartbreak when my trusty girlfriend dumped me for screwing around with an old ex of mine. Struck with an immediate case of buyer’s remorse, I spent the rest of my summer pursuing her through the beach towns of Central Jersey. Filled with angst, I cruised the teen clubs with my prep school road buddies, “Sunshine” Kruger, “Bird” and Jay. We traveled in the “Batmobile,” an old black Caddy that belonged to one of the clan. Sunshine was a member of the Pershing Rifles, a corps of semimilitary teens who could do things with a rifle, bayonet attached, that would curl your pubic hairs. They twirled them like batons, and I once watched Sunshine slice his calf performing one of his maneuvers in Bermuda shorts.
These were my boys and that summer they saved my life. We’d cruise the Jersey Shore, top down, soothing my selfishly broken heart ’til they dumped me off in the wee wee hours back in Freehold. My house would be completely locked down, so I’d climb up the latticework by the kitchen onto the side roof, pushing in the fan that was in my bedroom window, to be greeted by my dad in his boxers, Irish skin white as a polar bear’s in the dawn, wielding a plunger, ready to beat the hell out of the early-morning cat burglar come to steal his riches. I’d tape the shades down in my room, sleep through the day, and come night, continue my po-faced vigil.
This all culminated with my catching up to my girl one early-fall night as she returned from her summer at the beach. I professed undying love, told her my dream that we would someday visit Disneyland together, and she let me down as easily as she could, but I knew I was screwed. On the first day I was due to attend community college, I pulled another one of my vanishing acts and headed to the Village, spending the afternoon on a bench in Washington Square Park. A fall breeze gently blew over me and it was done. I returned home, reported one day late for my opening semester at Ocean County College and left my high school days and love-struck blues behind me.
Also that summer, the first drug bust in the history of Freehold, New Jersey, occurred. I was standing on the street next to my phone booth outside the corner newsstand. This was the booth I’d spent countless high school hours in, through snow, sleet, rain and sweltering heat. Each night you could find me ensconced there, romancing my current love interest. My father refused to allow a phone in our home. He said, “No phone, no phone bill. No phone and they can’t call you for extra duty if somebody else is a no-show at the job.” Once planted at the kitchen table, my dad truly did not want the furious flights of his imagination, fueled by Mr. Schaefer, disturbed.
On this night, a sticks and bones local goofball—let’s call him Eddie—suddenly came running. Eddie was an early, rabid drug taker. He was a little skinny kid but heavy into the hallucinogens. “I just saw Mrs. Bots in the back of a police car with Baby Bots,” he said. Baby Bots was her and Vinnie’s child.
“Get ouuuuuuutttttaaaaaa heeeerrrre,” I told Eddie. “You’re hallucinating. Nobody gets arrested with their baby!” That night, the Freehold Police Department swept up more than half the Castiles in the town’s first drug crackdown. They were all taken, right outta Mama’s and Papa’s arms in the middle of the night. It was a town scandal, trouble all around and the finale of the Castiles’ great three-year run. Our band was fraying anyway. George and I had begun to have some tension between us and the bust gave us all a final out. My epic elementary school of rock was closed forever. The group I’d taken my first baby steps with and strutted my way to small-town guitar-slinging glory with was over. There would be no encore.