Born to Run (2016)
THE UPSTAGE CLUB
Tom Potter was a fifty-year-old salt-and-pepper-haired, big-gutted, pirate-belt-wearing, sexually preoccupied, goateed boho who opened and ran the strangest music club I’d ever seen. His wife, Margaret, was a pixie-cut-wearing, sexually ambiguous, guitar-playing beautician and bandleader for Margaret and the Distractions. She had a very young, boyish appearance and I didn’t initially make Margaret out for a gal until I saw the little round tit popping out from her T-shirt and resting upon the upper body of her Telecaster guitar as she wailed Tommy James’s “Mony Mony” in the upstairs room of the Upstage Club. A more fabulously incongruous husband-and-wife team I have yet to come upon.
Dusk ’til dawn, eight p.m. to five a.m.: those were the operating hours of the Upstage Club on Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park. Tom closed the joint for one hour between twelve and one a.m. to sweep out the refuse and get fired up for the night shift. With no booze and theoretically no drugs, the place was a unique all-night haven for Shore street life through the late sixties. The two floors of the club consisted of an upstairs jam floor and downstairs coffeehouse, all dementedly decorated by Tom himself. The interior scheme was mainly a lot of glow-in-the-dark paint and black light, and featured a papier-mâché Day-Glo mermaid who swung swimming from the ceiling. Tom, a self-fashioned beatnik artist, was dictator, top banana and big dog there and he let his impulses run wild. He was a loud, yelling, throw-your-ass-down-the-stairs-and-out-the-front-door, very funny guy if he liked you. If he did not, he was unpleasant to be around.
Asbury Park was not my turf, though I’d visited there throughout the fifties with my parents on holiday weekends. By the late sixties, it had faded from its onetime Victorian splendor into a deteriorating blue-collar resort. The upside of Asbury’s decline was it had become a bit of an open city. Gay bars sat next to all-night juke joints, and with the race riots of the near future yet to come, there was a little bit of anything goes. The Castiles had never played there. Ocean Avenue was all bars and beach joints for the over-twenty-one summer drinking set; phony IDs were sold at a premium, and the whole layout felt like a working-class, fading, faux Fort Lauderdale.
When I walked into Upstage, I walked in cold. No one had ever laid eyes on me or seen me play. I’d heard you could jam there. Along with the strange hours, Tom Potter’s stroke of genius was that at the end of a long rectangular box of a room, two flights above a shoe store, he had built a small stage. Behind that stage, the wall from one side of the room to the other was honeycombed with ten-inch, twelve-inch and fifteen-inch speakers. An unforgiving, solid and real “wall of sound.” The amplifier heads were built into a small cabinet at your feet, so all you had to do was bring your guitar, reach down and plug in. No other equipment was necessary. This innovation and the club’s unusual opening and closing times made it a mecca for musicians on the Shore scene. Every band that came into the area to play the Jersey Top 40 clubs ended up at the Upstage playing the music they really loved ’til dawn. In summer at three a.m. there was a line outside the door waiting to get in. It was an incredible clearinghouse for musicians.
The first weekend I was there I saw Dan Federici and Vini Lopez in a group fronted by guitarist Bill Chinnock, the Downtown Tangiers Rock and Roll, Rhythm and Blues Band. The place was a steaming sauna of summer bodies and I knew I’d found my new hang. A few weeks later I returned with my guitar (cue the theme music from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). I waited. The club was not yet full. Someone told me you had to book a jam “slot” with Tom Potter. It was like booking a table at the pool hall. They’d write your name on a list and say from two to two thirty a.m., you had your shot if you could find musicians to sit in with you. My moment arrived and I walked to the stage, the drummer and bass player agreeing to stay on duty for my half hour. I plugged into Tom’s mighty wall, stood back and kicked into “Rock Me Baby,” cutting loose with everything I had. I fried the paint off the place with all the guitar pyrotechnics and wizardry my eighteen-year-old fingers could muster. I’d had a lot of playing experience by now, but in Asbury I was the Man with No Name, a stranger who was in the process of burning your club down. I watched people sit up, move closer and begin to pay serious attention. I saw two guys pull chairs onto the middle of the dance floor and sit themselves down in them, arms folded across their chest, as if to say, “Bring it on,” and I brought it. The insane wall of speakers was vibrating so hard I thought the whole place might just cave onto the shoe-store sales floor below. It all held for thirty scorching minutes of guitar Armageddon, then I walked off.
I made some new friends that night. The two guys on the chairs were Garry Tallent and Southside Johnny; downstairs in Tom Potter’s office, I had my first conversation with a freckle-faced Danny Federici. He introduced me to his wife, Flo, also freckle-faced and wearing a blond bouffant wig. Danny hailed from Flemington, New Jersey, and was the same bemused, nonchalant character I would stand next to on his deathbed many adventures and forty years later. I was a hit. There were many very good guitar players in Asbury Park—Billy Ryan was a real blues master; Ricky Disarno had Clapton down. They had great tones and technique but the stagecraft, the singing and the front man skills I’d built up in my apprenticeship with the Castiles moved me ahead of the pack. I would address you, excite you and play guitar like a demon, demanding that you respond.
I shortly ran into Vincent Lopez in the coffee shop on the first floor; head shaved near bald, fresh out of jail, he felt the need to explain his appearance to me (the jail) and then asked if I was interested in joining a version of his group, Speed Limit 25. I was a free agent at the time, and Speed Limit had an Asbury Park rep and was making money. I needed some of that. I liked the Asbury scene and so I said, “Sure, let’s see how it goes.” A few rehearsals with some of the other Speed Limit members didn’t quite click so Vini and I decided to put together something ourselves. Vini knew Danny from Downtown Tangiers, so we all gathered with bass player Little Vinnie Roslin from the Motifs in a cottage on Bay Avenue in Highlands, New Jersey, and started working. This was the band that would initially call itself Child, then morph into Steel Mill, then the Bruce Springsteen Band, and eventually become the core of the original E Street Band.
The accidental presence of a club like the Upstage in Asbury Park was a unique and invaluable resource for the local music scene. I brought Steve Van Zandt there. He wowed them too. Steve and I were the best lead guitarists and front men in the area, and our presence in the club led to the gestation and formation of many bands that became the center of the Asbury Park music scene. With Big Bad Bobby Williams, a three-hundred-pound earthquake of a drummer, and Southside Johnny, Steve started the Sundance Blues Band. Steve and Johnny were deep into the blues and created a powerful unit that played throughout the Shore. Southside Johnny was from Ocean Grove, the Methodist camp town next to Asbury Park. He was our local king of the blues, ergo his sobriquet “Southside.” He was a softhearted, crabby closet intellectual, very soulful and slightly unhinged, but he knew everything about the blues and soul artists, their careers and their records. He came from a home with a serious record collection and had immersed himself in the bible of R & B and soul music. We all met down at the club.
At home, my father finally decided he’d had enough. The town and his illness had beaten him. He decided he was going to go to California to start a new life. He wanted my mother and all of us to come along but said he’d go alone if he had to. Freehold, New Jersey, would not have Doug Springsteen to kick around anymore. My sister Virginia decided to stay in Lakewood with her new family. I decided to stay in Freehold, where I could make a small living on my already growing reputation as bar band king.
Six months later, in 1969, at nineteen, I stood in our driveway, waving as my parents and little sister Pam pulled away. They had all of their belongings packed on top of their 1960s Rambler. They took $3,000 with them, all the money they had. They slept a night in a motel and two nights in the car and drove three thousand miles, East Coast Okies headed for my father’s promised land. With the exception of my dad in the war, none of us had lived outside of Central New Jersey. Our only source of information about the West Coast was a hippie girlfriend of mine who told my parents to go to Sausalito, the artsy tourist trap near San Francisco. When they got there, they realized it was not for them. My mother claimed they pulled into a gas station and asked the attendant, “Where do people like us live?” He answered, “You live on the peninsula,” and for the next thirty years, that’s what they did. In a little apartment in San Mateo, they tried for a new beginning.
When my father announced his plans to leave for California, my sister Virginia was seventeen, with a new child, couldn’t make toast and had a new rough-and-tumble husband. I was living at home on the twenty bucks a week I made from playing. If we chose to stay, we would have to fend for ourselves. It is her greatest regret and the single thing in life she still feels guiltiest about. But off they went with my little sister in tow. My mom and pops were bound by an unknowable thread. They’d made their deal a long time ago; she had her man who wouldn’t leave and he had his gal who couldn’t leave. Those were the rules and they superseded all others, even motherhood. They were two for the road. They would never part. This was how it began and this was how it would end. Period. My father was able to draw from my mom, a saving and selfless mother, her own ambivalence about family. In this uncharitable terrain, strange bedfellows are regularly made. They wanted us with them. They asked us to go. But they could not stay.
So we all made do. My sister vanished into “Cowtown”—the South Jersey hinterlands—and I pretended none of it really mattered. You were on your own—now and forever. This sealed it. Plus, a part of me was truly glad for them, for my dad. Get out, Pops! Out of this fucking dump. This place that’s so often been no good to any of us. Run if you need to. How much worse off for you can it be? Whatever their motives, sane or insane, runnin’ or searchin’, it took guts and a last-chance need for a belief in tomorrow. This was just something I could not begrudge my old man. I wanted it for him. Whatever had to be left behind had to be left behind. Even if it was his children, even if it was us! My sister Virginia, in more dire straits with the baby coming at the time, took it harder, a lot harder. Understandably so. In the end, whatever hard feelings I had I just tucked away, and in truth, all I remember is mainly feeling excited to be left on my own. By nineteen, I was gone already. Into that other world. And in that other world, well . . . there were no parents, there was no home, there were just dreams and music, where the clock stuck and was set permanently at “quarter to three.” Into the diaspora rode the Freehold, New Jersey, Springsteens, and everything that went with ’em. We were no more.
• • •
Vini, Danny and I took over the rent in my house on South Street. My first family moved out and my second family moved in. About a week later, we were joined by a very large and lovely woman who went by the name of Fat Pat. She had fallen on hard times, needed a place to stay “for a little while” and became an adjunct of Danny’s family. Danny and Flo now had a young son, Jason, on his way. Fat Pat was soon to become nurse and second mom to the first E Street baby. None of us were yet out of our teens. Add a hell-raising, house-trashing, freely shitting mutt named Bingo to the mix and it didn’t take long to reach meltdown.
My family home of seven years was instantly transformed into a hippie frat house. My father’s sacred kitchen sanctuary was now a hotbed of group meetings, dirty dishes piled to architecturally impossible heights, with half-empty cereal boxes and dishevelment the order of the day. The room where my beloved grandmother had died was turned into the “radio room.” Danny, a gadget freak, was addicted to the wonders of CB—citizens band—radio. To the uninitiated this was a system mostly used by long-distance truckers to communicate with one another about the location of “Smoky” (the highway patrol), observe “pregnant roller skates” (VW Bugs) and give a big “10-4” (affirmative) to whoever was in broadcasting range. There were large home units so you could communicate with other nerdily inclined lonesome joes in a wider arc around your area. Danny and Mad Dog would spend hours in the radio room conversing with the mostly rural redneck characters who favored CB communication. These innocents were unaware they were speaking to a house of raving freaks until invisible friendships were made, blind dates arranged, invitations extended, and soon, knocking at our door was the CB-cult population of Monmouth County. They were stunned to walk in and find they had become chummy with a house full of longhairs, leading to bizarre and hilariously uncomfortable evenings of cross-cultural outreach in my mom and pop’s old living room (in the end, the bond of CB was usually stronger than cultural estrangement).
To do CB right you needed a big antenna, preferably placed somewhere very high. Vini and Danny’s hunger to rope in an even broader swath of the strange and uninitiated led them to scale the roof of my South Street home, kicking out not-to-be-replaced windows along the way, drawing a crowd as they attempted to attach something to our roof that looked like we were trying to communicate with alien life-forms beyond the rings of Saturn. The signal roared, and weirdos came at all hours of the day and night to our door.
During this time Vini’s “Mad Dog” persona was in full swing, his temper flaring. He sent a quart of milk exploding off the refrigerator door in an argument with Danny—over what I don’t know; broadcasting rights? Airtime? Next a brawl in our South Street driveway between Vini and Shelly, a short-lived tenant, had me rushing into the street to break up the fight in front of my longtime neighbors. Finally, everyone in the neighborhood had had enough and it led to a knock on the door, the landlord explaining he was closing the house for “renovations” and we would have to leave. After I’d spent seven years there with my folks, we lasted exactly one month.
Late one night we packed all our belongings into our manager Carl “Tinker” West’s forties flatbed truck, and we threw the living room couch on top. I climbed onto it and we slowly inched our way out of the driveway, our sterling future impeded only by the local police, who explained there was a local ordinance against moving after dark. We shrugged our shoulders and they watched us slip out of town, probably just glad to see us go. It was a beautiful, balmy night and as I lay back on the old couch, the trees and scrolling stars above me, I was seized by a wonderful feeling. I was slipping over the streets of my childhood, no longer a painful player in my or my town’s history but a passing and impassive observer. I was struck by the sweet night smell of honeysuckle and remembered the treasure of honeysuckle bushes that lay behind the convent. My gang and I would gather there on dead summer afternoons to suck out the small flowers’ sweet juices. I felt filled with the freedom of being young and leaving something, of my new detachment from a place I loved and hated and where I’d found so much comfort and pain. As Tinker’s truck glided over streets that still concealed hard mystery upon mystery, I felt a lightness, a momentary untethering from the past. A spark of my future self came up burning brightly inside me. This . . . all of this—my town, my family’s legacy—for now was done. I was nineteen; my parents, unreachable, were thousands of miles away, with my beloved little sister. My beautiful older sister, Virginia, had vanished south, down Route 9, into an adult life I would have little understanding of or contact with for a long time.
I would come back and visit these streets many, many times, rolling through them on sunny fall afternoons, on winter nights and in the deserted after-hours of summer evenings, out for a drive in my car. I would roll down Main Street after midnight watching, waiting, for something to change. I would stare into the warmly lit rooms of the homes I passed, wondering which one was mine. Did I have one? I’d drive on past the firehouse, the empty courthouse square; past my mom’s now-dark office building; past the abandoned rug mill, down Institute Street to the Nescafé plant and baseball field; past my copper beech tree, still rooted and towering in front of the emptiness that was once my grandparents’ house; past the memorial of white crosses for our fallen war heroes at the town’s end; past my dead at the St. Rose of Lima Cemetery—my grandmother, grandfather and aunt Virginia—then out onto the pitch-black rural highways of Monmouth County. I would visit there even more often in my dreams, stepping up onto the porch of my grandmother’s house, walking into the front hall, the living room, where on some evenings she and my old family would wait, while on others, emptiness, hollow rooms, probing, puzzling, trying to ferret out what had happened and what were its consequences for my current life. I would return and return, in dreams and out, waiting for a new ending to a book that had been written a long time ago. I would drive as if the miles themselves could repair the damage done, write a different story, force these streets to give up their heavily guarded secrets. They couldn’t. Only I could do that, and I was a long ways from being ready. I would spend my life on the road logging hundreds of thousands of miles and my story was always the same . . . man comes to town, detonates; man leaves town and drives off into the evening; fade to black. Just the way I like it.
From my perch on the couch atop the truck I watched our wheels cross the town line, turn left on Highway 33, pick up some speed and head for the ocean breezes and new freedoms of the Shore. With the warm night whistling by me, I felt wonderfully and perilously adrift, giddy with exultation. This town, my town, would never leave me, and I could never completely leave it, but I would never live in Freehold again.