Born to Run (2016)

BOOK ONE

GROWIN’ UP

TWENTY-FIVE

LOSING MY RELIGION

I was twenty-two and I’d never had a drink—ever. I played in bars and had been around booze my whole life and never been tempted to even taste the stuff. My experience with my father’s drinking had been enough. The terrifying, all-engulfing presence he became when he drank convinced me to never go there. He lost who he was. The goodness and kindness in his heart, of which there was plenty, were erased in a flood of self-pitying rage and a ferocity that turned our home into a minefield of fear and anxiety. You never knew when he was going to go off. As a child, my nervousness became so great I began to blink uncontrollably, hundreds of times a minute. At school, I was called “Blinky.” I chewed all of the knuckles on both of my hands night and day into brown rock-hard calluses the size of marbles. Nope, drinking wasn’t for me. But now, as my first album drew to a close, I was nervous about my rock ’n’ roll dream finally coming to fruition. Did I make a good record? On a national level, would I cut it? Was I who I thought I was, who I wanted to be? I truly didn’t know, but I knew I was about to find out, and that thrilled and frightened me.

I guess it showed. Returning home from his construction job, Big Danny came up to me late one afternoon and said, “You don’t look so good. I know what you need, come with me.” That evening we drove to the Osprey, a bar in Manasquan, New Jersey, and we walked in. I’d stood outside this bar on countless afternoons listening to the bands inside, concentrating on the music and daydreaming over the brown-skinned college girls as they slipped through the club’s swinging doors. All through the summers of ’64, ’65, ’66 and ‘67 I’d hitchhiked the twenty miles from Freehold to Manasquan and back almost every day. I’d ridden with concerned moms, drunk drivers, truckers, street racers eager to show off what they had under the hood, traveling businessmen, and only one middle-aged salesman who was a little too interested in me. I’d hopped in with guys who had souped-up sound systems with echo chambers connected to their AM radios, “in-car” 45 record players set on springs under the dash near the shifter. Every sort of rube, redneck, responsible citizen and hell-raiser the Jersey Shore had to offer, I rode with ’em. I loved hitchhiking and meeting people. I miss it today.

As a teenager, underneath the sweltering sun I’d stood outside of the Osprey for hundreds of hours listening to the sounds pouring out from within, but I’d never been inside. Back then, I could make out shadows through the club’s screen doors. The silhouette of the band who’d set up in the middle of the bar, right inside the entrance. I could hear the beer glasses clinking, the crowd’s laughter, boisterous conversation and the high sizzle of the drummer’s cymbals cutting through it all and spilling onto the egg-frying mid-August streets of Manasquan. During their breaks, the hip-looking musicians would come out, have a smoke and speak casually to the young kid slouched all afternoon against a car at curbside. They were just bar musicians making their way, but I wanted what they had, entrance to that smoke-filled, beer-drenched, Coppertone-scented heaven that lay only a few forbidden feet beyond those swinging screen doors. Their break over, I’d watch them take those coveted steps back inside and rise again as silhouettes behind the bar, above the shouting crowd. As the first few notes of “What’d I Say” or some other frat band classic pealed out from within, I’d resume my sentry position. Class was in session.

So in through the swinging doors we swept and Big Danny bellied us up to the bar only feet from the sidewalk I’d endlessly tutored on. The featured act that night was the Shirelles, who’d had such great hits as “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” and “Baby It’s You,” but first . . . a small shot glass was slammed down onto the bar in front of me and filled with a golden liquid. Danny said, “Don’t sip it, don’t taste it, just swig it down in one quick gulp.” I did. No big deal. We did another. Slowly, something came over me; I was high for the first time. Another round and shortly I was having what felt like the finest evening of my young life. What had I been sweating and worrying about!? All was good, wonderful even. The angels of mescal were circling around and informing my being; all the rest was bullshit. The Shirelles hit the stage. They wore sequined gowns that looked like they were painted on and sounded great. I was singing along. I, the lone ranger, started talking to whoever the hell was around me and at some point during the evening, a miracle occurred. I smelled perfume and sidling up next to me was a very lovely and familiar-looking woman, raven haired, with olive skin. I recognized her as one of the star ex-cheerleaders of my old alma mater, Freehold Regional High School. A conversation started as I kept sucking down a steady flow of my new best friend, Jose Cuervo Gold.

The talk began lighthearted: “How have you been?” Then, as the night and booze set in and we shouted over the band, I heard there’d been a divorce, a separation from a high school sweetheart, tears, it was over. Though I truly couldn’t have cared less, I was listening like the secrets of the Dead Sea scrolls were being revealed to me. All I was hearing was her hair, her eyes, her lips, her T-shirt, then, with the dark spirits of tequila slowly working their way down below my belt, it was last call. The house lights were up. The bouncers were herding the crowd toward the door and suddenly I was saying good-bye to . . . Big Danny! I was in a car headed for Freehold, the scene of my childhood sins, and I was ready to add a few more. In the backseat was a pal of mine who’d hooked it up with my gal’s girlfriend. The two of us were headed for my hometown.

Somewhere along the highway, just west of a wreck of a theme park called Cowboy City, where you could ride little mules, get held up in a stagecoach and see gunfights of the old West reenacted on any Summer Jersey afternoon, a syrupy lover’s lament came on the radio, bringing tears from my cheerleader’s slate-blue eyes as she mentioned it was their song and asked if I too was moved. I made the mistake of saying, “Not so” . . . and my buddy and I found ourselves deposited roadside, on Route 33, at four a.m., caught in the emotional confusion of my suddenly self-reproaching high school crush.

We waved good-bye to the taillights and broke into hysterical booze-fueled laughter, rolling in the shoulder-side grass outside the chain-link fence of the Earle Naval Ammunition Depot. We stuck out our thumbs, and it still being the day when midnight drivers would pick up two staggering drunks by the side of the road in the wee hours, we scored a spirited ride with a kindred soul all the way back to Asbury Park. I scuttled in at dawn, having had what I believed to be the greatest night of my life. I believed it all the way to the next morning, when I woke up, head banging, muscles aching, dry mouthed and stupid with my first-ever hangover. Still, it was worth it. I’d shut down my loudmouthed, guilt-infested, self-doubting, flagellating inner voice for an evening. I found, unlike my father, I was generally a merry drinker simply prone to foolish behavior and occasional sexual misadventure, so from then on and for quite a while thereafter the mescal flowed . . . tequila.

Greetings was done. I’d gotten the first few dollars of some advance money, which I unfortunately had to use to bail Big Danny out of jail for some unremembered infraction. We went back to our apartment and I played my album for Danny, its first listener. Success! He liked it but he had just one question: “Where’s the guitar?” I was the fastest guitar player alive . . . in Monmouth County, and there was no guitar to be found on my record. No one locally had heard this new and very different material I’d been writing. I’d made the conscious decision to double down on my songwriting skills; I felt this was the most distinctive thing I had going. Here in town it would be a few albums before my small legion of fans would understand what I was doing, but I’d recorded a real album, one with a real record company, songs and an album cover. It was unheard of.

I Heard It on the Radio

Things were heating up. A film was sent to every Columbia Records branch in every major city of Clive Davis doing a solo reading of the lyrics to “Blinded by the Light” like it was Shakespeare. Even so, Greetings only sold about twenty-three thousand copies; that was a flop by record company standards but a smash by mine. Who were all those strangers buying my music?

I was standing on a street corner before a college gig in Connecticut as a car pulled up to a light and I heard “Spirit in the Night” blasting from the radio, your number one rock ’n’ roll dream come true! You never forget the first time you hear your song on the radio. Suddenly, I was a part of the mystery train of popular music that had had me in its spell since I’d been driven past the “buttons” of the radio tower in my grandpa’s sedan with the smoky sounds of doo-wop caressing my sleepy eyes. The radio had kept me alive and breathing throughout my teens. For my generation, music sounded best coming out of a tiny, tinny radio speaker. Later, when we recorded we had one of those speakers sitting on top of the studio console and we didn’t sign off on a mix until the music sounded like it was roaring out of it. Music on the radio is a shared fever dream, a collective hallucination, a secret amongst millions and a whisper in the whole country’s ear. When the music is great, a natural subversion of the controlled message broadcast daily by the powers that be, advertising agencies, mainstream media outlets, news organizations and the general mind-numbing, soul-freezing, life-denying keepers of the status quo takes place.

In the 1960s the first version of my country that struck me as truthful and unfiltered was the one I heard in songs by artists like Bob Dylan, the Kingsmen, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. “Like a Rolling Stone” gave me the faith that a true, unaltered, uncompromised vision could be broadcast to millions, changing minds, enlivening spirits, bringing red blood to the anemic American pop landscape and delivering a warning, a challenge that could become an essential part of the American conversation. This was music that could both stir the heart of your fellow countrymen and awaken the mind of a shy, lost fifteen-year-old in a small New Jersey town. “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Louie Louie” let me know that someone, somewhere, was speaking in tongues and that absurd ecstasy had been snuck into the Constitution’s First Amendment and was an American birthright. I heard it on the radio.

As I stood on that corner listening to “Spirit in the Night” through a stranger’s car window at a stoplight, I finally felt like a small piece of that glorious train. It was more than a thrill. It was all I wanted to do: find a way to honor those who’d inspired me, make my mark, have my say and hopefully inspire those who’d pick up the flag long after we were gone. Even as young men we took our fun seriously, and forty-three years later I still get the same thrill when I hear new music of mine for the first time coming across the airwaves.