Born to Run (2016)
A first-floor drugstore, a second-floor fully equipped abandoned beauty salon complete with two rows of huge beehive hair dryers. This is where Tom and Margaret once worked their day jobs and I wrote the body of Greetings from Asbury Park. The third-floor living quarters had a big bay window that looked out upon the Nation of Islam’s storefront headquarters. Tom had a gigantic bed he’d set four feet up on stilts that commandeered 80 percent of the room. If it could’ve talked, Tom would’ve had to cut its tongue out. I had a back bedroom that led to a small kitchen and a funky roof garden. It was the coolest crib in town, where two friends and I chipped in sixty bucks each for a month’s rent. That sixty bucks was about to get a lot harder to come by.
Gigless, shut out of the Shore Top 40 scene by our playlist, our concert days over, we needed a new source of income. Steve and I had an idea. We’d canvass Asbury on a peak summer-season Saturday night from one end to the other. The club that was doing the lousiest business was where we’d make our pitch to play. We worked north to south and around midnight, we walked into a bar called the Student Prince. It had just been purchased by a bricklayer from Freehold. He was bartending, and with exactly Steve, myself and one other bereft patron haunting a stool down the far end of the bar, we figured this was it. Outside, Asbury was buzzing, but here we had found its black hole. Our pitch was simple. He doesn’t pay us a dime. We charge one dollar at the door, play what we want, take the door receipts and go home. He can’t lose.
We laid it out; he thought a minute, then said, “What are you gonna play?”
“Whatever we want …”
“Uh … I don’t know.”
The place was high-season empty. That is the loneliest feeling a bar owner can have on the Jersey Shore; it sits like a fist in your gut. And still the resistance to original music in our hometown was so great, he “didn’t know”?! He gave us the gig. We showed up the next Saturday, the final five of us, Mad Dog, Steve, Dave Sancious, Garry Tallent and myself. We charged our dollar. We played to fifteen people. Five fifty-minute sets, from nine to three a.m. We made fifteen dollars, three dollars apiece, and went home. With Steel Mill, we had made as much as $3,000 a night with no recording contract and $1 admissions. When that money was split, after expenses, band members went home with hundreds of dollars in their pockets. Do you know how long you could live on hundreds of dollars in 1971 or 1972 with no taxes, no dependents and no rent? A long, long, long time. Now I sent my men home with three dollars.
The following week, we did it again. We played to thirty music lovers and made $30. Six bucks a man. The next week, we played to eighty, then a hundred, then one twenty-five, then we started playing Fridays and Saturdays, then Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, drawing from one hundred to one hundred fifty people, the club maximum, at a shot. We were making a living. We’d found a small core of fans who gravitated to the only independent music in town. They kept us alive. It was a cool little scene. Friends started to show up and jam. Danny Federici and Flo came down and she busted him with a heavy beer mug for flirting with another girl. Another night a gun was discharged. No one was shot. The club was like a private house party held three times a week for the local street, a pretty hip group of people. The bricklayer was happy. The band was happy. The people were happy.
The Student Prince is where the cultural event of my generation would find me on the weekend of August 15 to 17, 1969, as five hundred thousand people descended on White Lake in Bethel, New York, to flop on Max Yasgur’s farm and bring all that had been building to a head. For me, it was a weekend like any other, playing in this little club for a shot-and-beer audience of locals and friends. From where I stood the whole thing up north looked like too much of a hassle, too much traffic, too many drugs. Even though at the moment, in comparison, it didn’t look like much, I was on my own adventure.
Big Man Walking
I was still interested in my rock and soul sound and still on the hunt for a good sax player. I had immersed myself in the records of Gary U.S. Bonds, King Curtis, Junior Walker, and Dion and I just loved the sound of a ripping rock ’n’ roll saxophone. One guy, Cosmo, showed up, jammed with us and was really good. He had a head full of frizzy red hair and a semipsychotic fuse rumored to be shorter than the Mad Dog himself’s. Two of those and we’d all have our mug shots on the Asbury Park post office wall.
Garry said he knew a guy named Clarence Clemons. He said he’d played with him in Little Melvin and the Invaders, the local soul band that worked the black clubs in and around Asbury Park. He said Clarence was magic. The problem was nobody could find him. Then by happenstance Clarence was playing the Wonder Bar at the north end of Asbury the same night we were at the Student Prince on the southern end of town. He’d heard about me by now and came with his horn to see what all the fuss was about.
It was a dark and stormy night. A nor’easter had blown in and swept the circuit clean. Ocean and Kingsley were a gusty, wet no-man’s-land with streetlights rattling in the wind. The town was deserted. We were onstage playing for a few hearty patrons who’d wandered in to warm up, grab a drink and hear some music. As the Big Man approached the front of the Prince, a mighty gale blew down Ocean Avenue, ripping the club door off its hinges and down the street. A good omen. I looked to the back of the room and saw a big black figure standing in the shadows. There he was. King Curtis, Junior Walker and all my rock ’n’ roll fantasies rolled into one. He approached the stage and asked if he could sit in. He stepped up onto the bandstand, took his place to my right and let loose with a tone that sounded like a force of nature pouring out of his horn. It was big, fat and raw, like nothing I’d ever heard before. My immediate response was that this … this was the sound I’d been looking for. More than that, there was something in the chemistry between the two of us, side by side, that felt like the future being written. The night, however, was just a teaser. C had a steady working gig and I didn’t have much to offer yet, so at the end of the evening, we talked, complimented each other and promised to stay in touch. I would meet Clarence again but first I had forty miles of bad road to run.
Some stability had been resumed. One hundred and fifty bucks a night and we all brought home $30 three nights a week. That was $90 a week, depending on the small fluctuations of the crowd. Easy enough to live on and even save a few dollars. During this time, I fell in obsession with a lovely surfer girl, a drug-taking, hell-raising wild child who played by nobody’s rules. She was a perfect antidote to the control freak in me and opened up my hunger for every blond perfect thing I never had. She was so alive, funny and broken, I couldn’t resist her. She stirred up my Catholic-school-bred messianic complex, then did the bone-and-heart-crushing dance over it that it deserved. She’d been around a little, California and back, knew a few grade-B-level rock stars, brought them down to “discover” my band, then slept with them. I got a handshake and a “you guys are great” T-shirt out of the deal. I stayed with her and her girlfriend in an apartment in Long Branch, New Jersey. While surfer girl played in the dark, the girlfriend let me know what was really going on, comforted my bruised ego, told me I deserved better and you know the rest. She had a small lovely child and I played Daddy for a little while. It was sweet but we were truly a couple of street kids with this beautiful little thing tagging along with us. The one thing I’d saved from my childhood, despite all my moving around, was my first rocking horse. It was made of wood, only about twenty-four inches high, painted a pale cream with light red spots, a playground Appaloosa, and I loved that thing. I gave it to her for her little girl.
Eventually the whole setup threw me for a loop, so in a perfect state of confusion, I decided I’d strike out west once more to try my luck someplace where nothing reminded me of anything. “Sandy, my boardwalk days are through.” My surfer girl disappeared and our girlfriend went traveling with the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, our paths occasionally crossing on the road. Years later I would occasionally run into mother and daughter at the Stone Pony together, both still beautiful. Before I left Jersey, however, one last significant thing would happen to me on the East Coast.
I was hanging out with a friend of mine, Louie Longo, alongside a trailer park in Highlands, New Jersey. Tinker was living in a small cottage across the street. We kept up our friendship and would see each other rather often. I’d visit him at the new factory we built on Main Street as he designed sound systems and befriended, enraged and insulted the neighbors. Here he lovingly restored his vintage cars and boats, subverted the government, hatched million-dollar schemes and generally went on tinkering. One day he pulled up to Louie’s as I sat on the front steps counting blades of grass. “I’m going to New York to see this record producer. You ought to ride with me and play a few songs. Wanna come?” For some reason, that afternoon I was hesitant. Maybe I was worn out from all the phony opportunities I’d run into. By now I’d had quite a few years of meeting folks who coulda/woulda/shoulda got us a foot in the music-biz door and none of it had panned out. But … I had recently begun to write some pretty good acoustic music and still felt I was the best undiscovered player I’d ever seen, so I hopped in Tinker’s station wagon and up the yellow brick road to the Emerald City we drove.
We pulled up to a building on Fifth Avenue and took an elevator up to Wes Farrell Music. It was after business hours when we stepped out into a darkened office building with a long aisle of writers’ cubicles. Standing in front of me was a thirtyish or so short black-haired man who greeted Tinker in a hard New York accent. Tink introduced me and I shook the hand of Mike Appel. We stepped into Mike’s office, a small box of a room with a piano, a tape recorder, a guitar and a couple of chairs. It was Brill Building austere, a small space where writers spent their time under contract to a music publisher trying to come up with tomorrow’s hits today. In Mike’s case that publisher was Wes Farrell, and Mike had had a hand in writing the Partridge Family smash “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted.” Mike spieled me on who he was and what he could do (publish, produce, manage), and I played him a few songs that were the precursors to the songs I’d write for Greetings from Asbury Park. Mike expressed some interest and I explained how I was leaving soon for California on my heartbreak ’71 tour. I might be back sometime in the future or never. He gave me his number and said if I came back to give him a call.