Born to Run (2016)
At the factory life went on. Mad Dog and I had learned to surf from the kids who came in to have their boards worked on and for a while, we got seriously into it. This led to a lot of sleeping on the beach underneath the pilings at North End Beach in Long Branch. Mad John’s Surf Shop was on the pier above us and if it rained you’d find us jammed and crumpled like sardines in our sleeping bags with the other homeless surfers squeezed in amongst the surfboards inside the shop. Come morning we’d stumble out into the mushy Jersey surf for a day of water and waves. We surfed from dawn ’til dusk and I had a couple of the nicest summers of my life. It was all music, girls and waves, just like the song said. I had a secondhand Challenger Eastern long board I really learned how to ride. I loved that board and had the most fun I’ve ever had in the ocean on it. When the short board revolution hit, I felt pressured to pick up a six-foot rocket ship. Tinker built ’em because it was what the young surfers wanted, but he was stone-cold old-school and never liked ’em. When I first caught a wave on mine, it was so surprisingly fast and maneuverable, it came shooting right out from underneath my feet. Whoa, Silver. I broke my front tooth on it as a landlocked and stunned Steve Van Zandt watched from the shore at Bradley. I walked up on the beach, looked at Steve and said, “Something don’t feel right, there’s too much air.” Stevie, his eyes as big as dinner plates, said, “Your tooth is broken, your front one.” For the first time in my life, I visited a dentist (previously, it’d been my old man with one end of a string tied to the doorknob and the other to my loosening tooth). He capped my tooth and straightened my other front one, readying me for the big time.
Later that fall, I nearly drowned in hurricane surf I should never have been out in. Mad Dog and I had sat on the beach all morning debating whether to go out or not. Finally around noon some cowboy bopped along and talked us into going out with him. We were having a blast; then an outside set rose on the horizon. I paddled like a windmill, immediately rediscovering my faith in Catholicism as I prayed like never before: “Lord, please let me slip over the peak of this monster.” No dice. I got pounded, thrown toward the rock jetty and dumped on by two more outside crushers; my surfboard was instantly stripped from my hands in the pre-surfboard-leash 1970s. My poor swimming barely saved me as I crawled up onto the sand, like the first creature slipping out of the pre-Jurassic soup, bruised and hurting. I lay there for a long time, breathing in gulps, my heart pounding, thanking the God I did not believe in. Aloha, Hawaii. There would be no fifteen-foot pipeline for me.
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We held auditions for singers for the Bruce Springsteen Band, my new calling card, at the factory. Brave young women answered our ad in the Asbury Park Press, driving up into the dark industrial wilderness toward what must have looked like a rapist’s paradise just to test their talents. We had Vegas-style songbirds; opera singers; horrible, hilarious pre-karaoke wannabes who tested our good manners and self-control. I even spoke on the phone to a high school-age Patti Scialfa, dispensing the fatherly advice that this was a traveling gig and it’d be best for a young lady to stay in school. Finally a couple of good black gospel singers from the west side of Asbury, Delores Holmes and Barbara Dinkins, wandered in and perfectly fit the bill. The horns were even harder to find. “Jazzbos” ruled and it was simply tough finding guys willing to play rudimentary R & B parts for no cash. We did it and it was a good band.
I wrote “You Mean So Much to Me Baby,” later covered by Southside Johnny and Ronnie Spector on Southside’s first album. We played maybe a dozen shows and I found it was impossible to keep a band of that size financially together at our stage of the game. I learned early that people pay for the franchise name. Steel Mill was no longer and neither was my drawing power. The Bruce Springsteen Band, even billed as “formerly Steel Mill,” did not attract the same life-sustaining numbers my old band did. I’d declared democracy and band names dead after Steel Mill. I was leading the band, playing, singing and writing everything we did. If I was going to carry the workload and responsibility, I might as well assume the power. I didn’t want to get into any more decision-making squabbles or have any confusion about who set the creative direction of my music. I wanted the freedom to follow my “muse” without unnecessary argument. From now on, the buck would stop here, if I could make one.
I look back on this as being one of the smartest decisions of my young life. I’ve always believed the E Street Band’s continued existence—and it’s now been forty-plus years since its inception—is partially due to the fact that there was little to no role confusion amongst its members. Everyone knew their job, their boundaries, their blessings and limitations. My bandmates were not always happy with the decisions I made and may have been angered by some of them, but nobody debated my right to make them. Clarity ruled and allowed us to forge a bond based on the principle that we worked together, but it was my band. I crafted a benevolent dictatorship; creative input was welcomed within the structure I prepared but it was my name on the dotted line and on the records. Later, when trouble came knocking, it came my way. So the last word was going to be mine from here on in. Even then, problems arose, but we had in place a reasonably well-defined system to contextualize and deal with them.
The first hit I took for this decision was the loss of most of the audience that was drawn to Steel Mill’s heavy power, and the steady money that came with it. Then the Bruce Springsteen Band dwindled from nine to seven when we lost our horn section. We did some work in the South based on our Steel Mill rep and found there were some places, even in 1971, that didn’t want us to bring along our black singers. They claimed they didn’t want “that sound” and were simply requesting something more like my old band’s rock steady. During a Richmond stint, I received a phone call from one of the girls, who’d brought along a troublesome boyfriend. I went to their motel and when she opened the door I found they’d argued and he’d hit her so hard her face was opened to the white bone; the boyfriend was gone. We played that night as a five-piece, limped back home to Jersey, lost our singers and all of our road work.
Around this time, Tinker’s misanthropic tendencies had gotten the better of most of the group. Merry insults and abuse were a natural part of Tinker’s day. He aimed them at virtually everyone, with the exception of me. The resentments built up, along with quarrels over some of Tinker’s managerial decisions. That, and a natural burnout of the relationship, brought an end to Carl West’s tenure as manager. Tinker had done a lot for me and he would soon do more. We had a real friendship, and neither Tink nor I had many of those. The Challenger Eastern surfboard factory in Wanamassa was now no more and we had a new clubhouse in a garage in Highlands. Highlands was then a risk-your-ass, redneck fishing town in the lowlands of Central Jersey where the lobsters meet the land. We’d built the interior of this dilapidated space ourselves, banging the nails, raising the walls and insulating our recording studio. The whole thing was a classic off-the-grid, below-the-radar Carl West production. We were ghosts in the machine, a bunch of non-tax-paying, under-the-table-living townies, completely divorced from the straight world.
I went by the garage one fall day to deliver the news. Tinker was out front underneath his truck, his legs hanging out into the street, working on the engine. “Tink …” I hear the cool clink of tools being picked up and set down on the pavement but all I can see is his body from the waist down.
“The guys have decided it’s time to go our own way, handle ourselves for a while and see how it goes …”
“Whatever you want …” Silence. Tools being shifted on the concrete … more silence. I walked away.
The new sound I was pursuing, an amalgam of good songwriting mixed with a soul-and-R & B-influenced rock music, would eventually be the basis for the sound of my first two records, Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. There would be no more guitar histrionics. I now valued ensemble playing at the service of the song. I soon found out that though this was more personally and musically satisfying, in the Garden State, it was simply not as financially fruitful a soil as pounding hard rock, and surviving got harder. I became very dependent upon Tom Potter’s $20 a night for jamming at Upstage on the weekends. I could live on thirty or forty bucks a week with no problem. Then Tom decided to close the Upstage Club and head to Florida. I moved into Tom and Margaret’s apartment. They’d separated along the way and Tom was now living there alone. It was sad. The place was a freak show specifically built for two, two lovely but very strange people. It had a bizarre hard black-and-red color scheme, thousands of bottle caps glued to the kitchen ceiling, constructions of soda cans and bottles everywhere you looked, a refrigerator completely covered in Playboy’s Playmate of the Month centerfolds—every piece of junk was used to create something you’d never seen before in Tom’s boho-on-acid design style. The whole effect looked like the backseat of Tom Waits’s Cadillac. Looking back on it, it was a true piece of outsider art. Living in it was something else, but that’s what I and two buddies did.
Tom Potter, crazy, bragging, barrelhouse, fuck-the-world, pirate Tom, was heartbroken. Margaret was gone, her strange attractions with her, and she wasn’t coming back. The old hell-raiser’s spirit had been beaten out of him. He was quiet, reflective. He’d break into tears and was a sad shadow of the guy who’d ringmastered the Saturday night circus of probably the wildest teen club in the nation. The “shortest miniskirt” contests would be no more. The crawling out of the club at dawn to wander to the boardwalk and crash on the beach was over. Black Tiny, White Tiny, Big Bad Bobby Williams, Southside, Garry, Steve and me, Big Danny, Little Danny, Party Petey, the outlaw motorcycle drifters, the stray teenyboppers, the late-night strippers and the hundreds of Shore musicians who flocked to the place like it was Mecca in summer would have to find a new home. The Upstage, the place I’d formed my most powerful musical friendships, the real birthplace of the E Street Band, was finished.
On the morning Tom left for Florida, we gathered out in front of the club, gave him our thanks for being there when we needed him and for the fabulous mess he’d created. After a few handshakes and hugs, he climbed into his junker and headed south, never to be seen again.