Born to Run (2016)
We arrived in Richmond exhausted but glad to be back in familiar territory. We played, they paid us. How sweet it is. We trucked back into Jersey as the conquering heroes and for proof we had . . . our . . . our . . . REVIEW! We had been recognized by a big-time newspaper music critic as Jersey badasses gone to teach those West Coast sissy boys something about THE ROCK! If you didn’t believe us, you could read all about it in the Asbury Park Press. They covered our return like it was Odysseus’s return to Ithaca. We’d put Jersey, the butt of so many hack comedians’ one-liners, for a brief moment on the rock ’n’ roll map. More would follow, but for now we played a celebratory homecoming show and I stashed away some cash in my bank, a sock in the top drawer of my dresser at the surfboard factory. Then I sat down to reconfigure the band.
On our West Coast safari a seam had opened up between Little Vinnie and the rest of the band. It happens. Only the luckiest bands don’t grow apart. There was some disagreement over rehearsal time and effort put in. Everyone moves differently, and no two musicians’ commitment is exactly the same. You can fall out of the arc of a group without even noticing it. Vinnie was a good guy, a charismatic bass player and one of my original rock ’n’ roll heroes in the Motifs. He hailed from the same greaser neck of the woods I did and had been through the cauldron of our California trip. It wasn’t going to be easy letting him go. So I chickened out and let Mad Dog do it. The Dog, being a good deal less sentimental than myself, probably handled it with his usual no-bullshit aplomb. I imagine he just spit it out, made Vinnie feel glad he hadn’t been assaulted and went on his way.
It was time to call on my old paisan Steve Van Zandt. Despite our friendship we were both front men and lead guitarists, so we’d never played in the same band together. Steel Mill had built up a substantial enough name that I thought Steve might consider helping me out playing bass for a while. We drove together up north to a music shop, where Steve bought himself a clear Ampeg see-through bass and an amplifier. We headed straight back to the factory, where we immediately began rehearsal, breaking Steve in on our original material. We timed it perfectly to have Steve setting up his equipment just as Little Vinnie came by to pick up his. Nice. Steve stepped into the next room, Vinnie gave us hell, we took it and picked up rehearsal where we’d left off. With Steve on the bass, his playing and our long friendship kicked some new spirit into the band.
Rock ’n’ Roll Riot
We went back to our old circuit, running A to B, Jersey to Richmond, then back again. In the late sixties and early seventies it seemed to be just a part of the cultural lay of the land that you were going to have some police trouble. If you played a few minutes over time, they sent out the local coppers to stop the heathen racket. It became almost routine. The police would gather behind the stage, a debate of sorts would take place between the principals and usually some compromise would be reached. Most of the cops were just interested in getting the concert over, the kids home and themselves back to the doughnut shop, but sometimes you’d run into hard-asses. When Steel Mill played, in conjunction with our audience, we owned the room. We owned it by possession. We didn’t have an attitude about it and generally wanted to be cooperative but in those days, culturally opposing forces attracted one another.
At the end of an evening of great fun in the University of Richmond’s gym I noticed a heated discussion taking place in the small room containing the gym’s power switches. The power room lay only a few feet behind the drum riser. I watched the argument escalate until I saw Billy, our road man, and a local police officer square off against each other in an Abbot and Costello–like wrestling match, each trying to keep the other away from the power switches. The power went on. It went off. It went on. It went off. Vini Lopez, never one to take the interruption of our endeavors sitting down, hopped off his drum kit and joined the melee. The blue-uniformed invaders were literally beaten back and the show continued on with great “fuck the man” drama. Shortly after the show, as we packed our equipment into Tinker’s truck we noticed we couldn’t find Vini. We searched the hall and the streets around the building and waited for him to show. Nothing. Then a student told us that ten minutes before, he’d seen the police quietly slip up and take a cursing young man away in handcuffs. Vini was transported straight to the county jail, not to be seen again for a tumultuous month.
Without access to enough bail money, we’d have to do what we did best and play a “Free Mad Dog” concert. It was booked at the Clearwater Swim Club in Middletown, New Jersey. Several thousand showed; we’d imported a drummer from Richmond, rehearsed him thoroughly and were ready to gig. The night began uneventfully, but trouble started when the Middletown police sent a plainclothes narcotics officer to stroll through the crowd and bust those smoking nature’s weed. The crowd, sensing strength in numbers, did not stand for this and threw the narc, clothes and all, into the swimming pool at the center of the complex. Tempers began to rise and the situation escalated when the police chief of Middletown sent over a bus full of officers in their newly acquired SWAT gear to make sure this thing got shut down on the button. We’d always play a little longer than usual and in this case it was perceived as provocative criminal intent. The power was cut (déjà vu all over again). Tink, living up to his name, found a bypass to restore electricity to the stage. The crowd cheered. That did it. The cops stormed the place with billy clubs flailing; some of the police came up the front side of the stage and challenged the band members. A little skinny officer was poking at me in the gut and yelling, “C’mon, motherfucker, c’mon.” I turned to notice Danny lifting the very expensive Marshall amplifier head off his large stack of cabinets. I saw some officers approaching the stage from the rear, then I saw Danny’s speaker stacks “accidentally” go tumbling over upon them. (This would feel roughly equivalent to a box of eight bowling balls rumbling over on your ass.) Some got trapped underneath, crawled out howling and took off. Another officer leapt onstage, immediately grabbed Danny’s arm and tried to place him under arrest. Flo, Danny’s Jersey-girl-to-the-bone wife, leapt onstage and grabbed her man’s other arm. A Keystone Kops tug-of-war ensued, with Danny playing the part of the rope between his wife and the officer as he resisted arrest. A big kid I’d seen at a few shows climbed on the stage, approached the officer to within inches of his face and let loose with the popular invective of the day: “Pig, pig, pig, pig,” etc. . . . The officer flipped, let Danny go and leapt off the stage, chasing this kid into the crowd. “Phantom Dan” slipped away into the night.
For a week the local papers were filled with “ROCK ’N’ ROLL MELEE!” headlines. Guns and knives were reportedly found under the stage (not true); a police chief was allegedly assaulted with an amplifier (true). The ACLU came down, investigating “police brutality,” and everybody was happy. We all hid out, but then a permanent warrant for Danny’s arrest was issued for assaulting a police officer. We now had no drummer and no organ player. With the money we made from the catastrophic Middletown swim club fiasco we were able to bail Vini out of jail in Virginia. Now, what were we going to do about Danny? He did not want to surrender. It was understandable; police treatment for longhairs in sixties New Jersey could be rather intemperate. We’d all heard of a dark hole in the Freehold jail where you would reside naked as an ape until you agreed to let the jail barber give you the standard con’s haircut. No, compassionate treatment was not a sure thing, so Danny stayed on the run. Problem: we needed to play and we were booked for a big show at Monmouth College in the upcoming weeks. As the date closed in we tried several replacement organists, none quite up to snuff. Finally, the Phantom said he would chance playing. Once we were onstage, we figured, the police wouldn’t dare arrest him in front of three thousand screaming hippies. That became our plan.
The night arrived and all we had to do was get Danny in and out of the gym without the cops all over us. We set up; the crowd entered; Danny was hidden in the backseat of a friend’s car in the gym parking lot waiting for the high sign. At five minutes before our eight o’clock start time, I slipped out the back door, tapped on Danny’s rear window and uttered the password, “Showtime.” All I heard was “I’m not coming.” Huh . . . ? “I’m not coming. There are cops all over the place. I’ve seen them on the roof.” I stood up, looked around; all I heard was the chirping of the crickets in the nearby trees. I scanned the roof. Nothing. I searched the parking lot. Nothing. Then Danny rolled down his window and the smell of something pungent and sweet wafted into the night air. Danny had smoked himself into a mild state of paranoia. I explained to him in clear language that he would be leaving the vehicle. His safety would be in my hands, and he would be fine. Following the usual Phantom complaining, begging, cajoling and my stepping into the tiring shoes of the voice of reason, he got out of the car and, unimpeded, we entered the building.
The minute we were in the door, Danny’s friend “Party Petey,” another local organ grinder, greeted him with a boisterous shout-out: “Daaaannnnyyyy!” He was coldcocked seconds later by Mad Dog Lopez, and we had to step over Party Petey to get to the stage. We blasted into “The Judge Song,” and the concert was rollickingly under way. We danced in our shoes, congratulating ourselves on our brilliance at putting one over on the local PD. Nobody but nobody would bust Danny in front of this crowd. At the end of the evening in a gesture of hippie solidarity I pulled the “brothers and sisters” out of the audience until the stage was an undulating mass of glazed eyes and tie-dye. Danny slipped away from his organ, off the front lip of the stage and out the front door, still free. Power to the people! But at what a fucking exhausting cost. We couldn’t continue on like this, so we convinced Danny to turn himself in the following week. We bailed him out, and there was a small trial, my memory being everything ended up a wash. That was it. I’d had enough. Outlaw days over.
Steel Mill with Steve and me continued to be great fun. Besides the enjoyment of having my pal by my side, Steve had an aggressive, bold style as a bassist, and he added some nice vocal harmonies. I’d always doubted myself as a singer. I felt I didn’t have enough true tone and range. I didn’t give myself credit for being able to immerse myself in what I was singing. Joe Strummer, Mick Jagger and many of the great rock ’n’ roll and punk front men did not possess great voices but their blood-and-guts conviction, their ownership of their songs, made up for it and lent them deep personal style. Still, I thought we could improve our band in the area of our lead vocals and I was willing to step back as full-time singer to do so. There was a fellow named Robbin Thompson in a great group out of Richmond called Mercy Flight. I thought he had one of the best undiscovered rock voices I’d ever heard. He was a cross between John Fogerty and Rod Stewart and fronted his band with a lot of power and style. Raiding another group for their best guy, particularly a group you know, is not a very neighborly thing to do. I didn’t lose too much sleep over it. I wanted the best group I could imagine. I told the rest of the band my idea; they didn’t think it was necessary, but they deferred.
Robbin Thompson came north and for a while we were the Sam and Dave of hard rock. It was a good band. Probably not as good as our original four. Robbin was a great vocalist, but there was something in the tightness of the smaller unit and the ownership of my material that ultimately made us better suited to have me singly fronting the band. It was another lesson learned and one I would revisit again thirty years later with the E Street Band.
I had stylistically outgrown Steel Mill’s heavy rock, roots ’n’ boogie. I was listening to Van Morrison, and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and was interested in returning to my soul roots. I talked to Mad Dog and Steve about moving forward with me into something completely different, a ten-piece horns-and-singers-augmented rock and soul band, playing nothing but new original material.
I’d recently been to Upstage and heard a young black keyboardist who floored me. He was sixteen years old and one of the greatest musicians I’d ever heard in Asbury Park. Davey Sancious had pure musical genius and incredible stage presence. He was a star in the making and I wanted him in my band. David had the courage to cross the tracks and enter the primarily white rock world of the Upstage Club in search of musical adventure. In turn he was a completely new presence on the scene and stirred enormous excitement. There was some drifting back and forth across the color line in Asbury in those days, but not a lot. Garry Tallent played with Little Melvin and the Invaders, an all-black soul band with a young Clarence Clemons on sax, in the black clubs surrounding Asbury. I’d wander over to the Orchid Lounge on Springwood Avenue when they brought in my favorite soul acts. As a white man at the Orchid, you were an oddity but never hassled. We’d all shop at Fisch’s clothing store, the premier superfly outlet in the black community. The riots changed all that. They made the two communities more suspicious of each other, burned Fisch’s down to the ground and made a trip to Springwood a lot less welcoming, but they also seemed to throw the more musically adventurous into each other’s arms. Davey joined my new Bruce Springsteen Band and I left my days of long-haired, guitar-slinging glory behind.