Born to Run (2016)

BOOK ONE

GROWIN’ UP

SEVENTEEN

TINKER (SURFIN’ SAFARI)

Carl Virgil “Tinker” West hailed from Southern California, studied to be an engineer and ended up a surf dog working at Challenger Western Surfboards. He came east in the early sixties, where in a squat brick building amid a sandy and deserted industrial park, he opened up Challenger Eastern Surfboards. He was called “Tinker” because there was nothing he couldn’t fix. Tinker could redesign anything at all, patch it up, jury-rig or jimmy it back into working order. He could also catch it, skin it and eat it. When Black Friday comes and the Apocalypse rolls back the clock to year zero, you’ll want and need only Tinker at your side. I watched him beautifully restore cars and boats from the ground up, build an entire heating system in his garage studio using just an oil barrel and ductwork, and design and build a recording studio and a sound system that kept us on the road for many years. Once under the hood he could make anything run, anywhere, all the while turning out some of the sweetest long boards on the Jersey Shore. A misanthropic genius, Tinker loved and cherished work. It was people he couldn’t stand. If you weren’t working, he had no use for you. While he wore a ponytail, came from the Golden State and smoked the occasional joint, Tinker’s tolerance for the hippie, “laid-back” ethos was near zero. Ten years older and in twice as good shape as anyone in the band, he rode herd on the surfboard factory like the big kahuna he was. If you walked in and had personal business that took more than thirty seconds, he shoved a broom into your hand, said, “Make yourself useful,” and ordered you to sweep the floor. He wasn’t joking. You started sweeping or you left.

Tinker surfed only the biggest days of September and October, hurricane surf, on an original old balsa-wood surfboard that weighed a ton. He’d walk out to the end of the jetty, huge waves crashing all around him; throw in the board at the end of the rocks; dive in after it; and take off on the biggest, darkest thing rolling up out of the East Coast leviathan depths. We’d all be on the beach watching, shaking our heads . . . Tinker. He’d have us preparing for the revolution, shooting bows and arrows, packing and loading cap-and-ball pistols, a vicious streak of fire and light exploding from their barrels as we shot them into the dark of our little teenage wasteland. “Springsteen,” he’d say—that’s all he ever called me—“Springsteen, you got the goods and you don’t fuck around like all these other assholes.” I had the goods and nope, I didn’t fuck around, no drugs, no booze, girls . . . yeah, but not if they got in the way of “the music,” fuck with that and you’re out of my life. There would be no wasted days and wasted nights for me. I’d seen that and I wanted no part of it. Tinker and I would get along just fine.

I met Tinker at the Upstage Club. He corralled me after a set, told me he thought I could really play and mentioned he had some connections with the Quicksilver Messenger Service organization in San Francisco. He knew James Cotton, the great bluesman, and said he thought Janis Joplin was looking for a guitarist and I might be a contender for her new band. All of the above was true. He had a spare room in the factory that we could practice in and if there was anything he could do, I should come up and see him. Here was a guy with a business, a few connections, a financial base, a forceful personality, and he was interested in me. I was always in the market for a surrogate and appreciative daddy, so I latched onto Tink. Tinker loved music and knew talent when he saw it. It was the only thing he made allowances for: ability.

Upon leaving Freehold, we initially took up residence a few blocks off the ocean in Bradley Beach. I had an idyllic surf summer and fall, and the first E Street baby, Jason Federici, arrived. We were still teenagers ourselves; he was a child in the care of children. We gathered around him and treated him like the little piece of magic he was. Steel Mill took up artistic residence in the surfboard factory using an extra concrete room Tinker had off the rear of the place as a rehearsal hall. In Bradley, unfortunately, it was always a near-death experience when it came to paying rent. Mad Dog and I would soon make the surfboard factory our primary address (no rent!). We moved in. Vini slept on a mattress in the bathroom, his head inches from the rumbling toilet. I slept in the master suite, a room ten feet away, my mattress in one corner, Tinker’s in another that contained a refrigerator and a television set. Over the next several years I would suck in enough fiberglass and resin fumes to deaden the brain cells of a hundred men. Quarters were tight and Tinker and I were forced to romance our ladies in rather close environs. Privacy was at a minimum. Sex was quick and not that pretty at the surfboard factory, performed on concrete floors; up against the brick exterior of the building; in a room a short distance from other sweating, grabby lovers; or—last hope—in the backseat of an abandoned car out in the dusty swales of the industrial park. You could not be too picky. We managed.

Vini Lopez learned to work as a shaper, tapering the fine lines of Tinker’s new short boards so they’d skim like lightning through the murky Jersey surf. He’d stand there, covered head to toe in fiberglass dust; take off his surgical mask; and head to the back room for band practice. We called ourselves Child, and we played the bars and nightclubs of the late-sixties Shore. We played original music with some covers, and the simple fact that we were so good was all that kept us working. The Shore, north to south, was still the fiefdom of Top 40 cover bands. You could get arrested unless you played the hits. We played a few but compromised very little. Our ability to excite and entertain, and having our craft down cold, kept us alive.

I was living the life of an aspiring musician. A circumstantial bohemian—and as I’ve mentioned, I didn’t do any drugs or drink. One of my ex-roommates, a fellow guitarist, would end it all with a gunshot to the head after a short life of ingesting too many chemicals and ending up a wasted talent on the skids. I’d seen people mentally ruined, gone and not coming back. I was barely holding on to myself as it was. I couldn’t imagine introducing unknown agents into my system. I needed control and those ever-elusive boundaries. I was afraid of myself, what I might do or what might happen to me. I’d already experienced enough personal chaos to not go in search of the unknown. Over all my years in bars an out-of-line drunk in my face was the only thing that could get me fighting mad. I’d seen my dad and that was enough. I wasn’t looking for outside stimulants to help me lose or find anything. Music was going to get me as high as I needed to go.

I had friends who were real drug-experimenting radicals and then I had my construction-worker brother-in-law, who, with the exception of bashing a few longhairs like myself, had no “sixties” experience whatsoever. He remained his whole life a man of the fifties (with greatly increased tolerance, however). I was a faux hippie (free love was all right), but the counterculture stood by definition in opposition to the conservative blue-collar experience I’d had. I felt caught between two camps and I didn’t really fit in either, or maybe I just fit in both.

Last of the Bar Bands

The Pandemonium Club, the Shore’s newest nightclub, had opened at Sunset Avenue and Route 35. That put it right at the bottom of the hill from the surfboard factory. We could walk there. You played on a small stage right behind the bar, with a small alley of booze bottles, ice, beer and bartenders all that separated you from the patrons sitting at the bar. The bartender’s ass (a great one made the night slip on by), the bar, the stool huggers, those standing gathered around the bar, some tables and the dance floor were all spread out in a 180-degree panorama around you.

The Pandemonium did not have to work very hard to live up to its name. It drew an eclectic and often incompatible clientele. Truckers rolling home up Route 35, kids from Monmouth College, summer “bennies” there for the sand and surf of the Shore, hippies who’d come to hear the music and barflies of all shapes and sizes gravitated to the Pandemonium’s currentness and pseudo-ritzy décor. Many of these patrons were culturally at odds. You could go to the Pandemonium to listen to music, be congratulated on a recent set and get hassled for the length of your hair by some long-haul trucker, preppy football player or polyester-laden Mafia wannabe out of Long Branch. It was usually cool . . . but not always.

When you play a bar inches behind the bartender you witness the unfolding of human events from a unique perspective. The formula was always familiar; the timing was all that changed.

Woman + booze + man + booze + second man + booze = brawl.

I would bemusedly watch this play out night after night until chairs were thrown, punches were landed, blood was spilled, female faux shock was registered and bouncers swarmed. You could read it like a gathering storm. This was how some gals got their kicks. Sometimes you could warn the bouncers and they would cool it off before the first punch was thrown. But it often hit with the suddenness of a summer squall and was over just as quick. Cut to the last scene: bouncers breathing heavily, their sweaty shirts torn asunder; random small bloodstains; a gawking crowd gathering in the floodlit parking lot; the celebratory red lights of local law enforcement turning faces muted red; the cops hauling the disheveled revelers away. Everybody goes home.

One Giant Leap for Mankind

July 20, 1969, the night man first walked on the moon, was our first night of a weeklong booking we had at the new club. This was a gold mine for us and we needed to do well. If we could make a steady booking out of the Pandemonium, some of the living hand-to-mouth would be taken out of our lives. We could concentrate on writing, rehearsing and maybe even recording a few of our own tunes. The Pandemonium was managed by “Baldy Hushpuppies.” He was so named because he was a hopelessly middle-aged swinger type who was bald and wore Hush Puppies. On this particular evening, Baldy Hushpuppies was out of town and Son of Baldy Hushpuppies, his kid, was running the joint. It just so happened the band was scheduled to start a set exactly as the first manned moon landing was occurring, 10:56. Half the small crowd of thirty or so wanted us to start playing and half wanted us to solemnly observe this epochal moment in human history. We’d start and some would run to the bar shushing us as the landing grew near; we’d stop and some would complain that the band wasn’t playing.

Ultimately we decided, “Fuck the moon landing, that’s just a trick of ‘The Man’; fuck you, Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins, let’s rock.” Myself, Mad Dog Lopez and Danny were in favor of boogying. The holdout was bass player Little Vinnie Roslin, a bit of a sensitive techie, a man of science, who said we were full-of-shit cretins ignoring history and he would have no part of it. He put his bass down and walked offstage. He was right, but the line was drawn. A small black-and-white television in the corner of the bar was all they had broadcasting the event. It was surrounded by a small group of pro–moon landing clientele, glued to the fuzzy images being sent across two hundred and forty thousand miles of space. The fuck-the-moon-landers were all huddled over their stew at the bar near us.

Finally Mad Dog had had it. He shouted into his microphone, “If somebody doesn’t turn that fucking TV off, I’m coming over and putting my foot through it.” Upon hearing Vini’s throw-down, Son of Baldy Hushpuppies came barreling around the bar and explained to Vini that it was his TV and Vini had better shut the fuck up or we’d all be out on our asses. Mad Dog Lopez did not, and does not, cotton to such talk. Attired typically and eccentrically in a Chinese robe and nothing else that evening, Vini managed to get in a minor scuffle with SOBH. We were fired on the spot. Six nights of a good-paying, close-to-home bar gig vanished into thin air up Vini’s Chinese robe. We walked back up the hill, pissed, everybody giving Vini the silent treatment for blowing the gig. We would not be much longer for the Shore bar circuit anyway. The concert business awaited.