Born to Run (2016)
Greetings from Asbury Park had been released on January 5, 1973, to many good reviews and a few ripping pans. We then hit the road. Our first official gig was a freebie at a Pennsylvania college opening for Cheech and Chong. Cheech and Chong were at their jokin’, dope-smokin’ peak and the school auditorium was jammed. Right out of the box we had a rocking little show. The Big Man was there. I strapped on my new guitar, a 1950s mutt with a Telecaster body and an Esquire neck I’d purchased at Phil Petillo’s Belmar guitar shop for one hundred and eighty-five dollars. With its wood body worn in like the piece of the cross it was, it became the guitar I’d play for the next forty years. It was the best deal of my life. For our live show we’d recast the songs from Greetings into rock and soul music and were having a pretty good time for twenty-five minutes or so, then I felt a tap on my back while I was playing the piano and a guy whispered in my ear to get off the stage. Somebody decided we were through. We left to a decent ovation and it was one down, one thousand and one to go.
Touring conditions were not the best. All five of us rode in Vini’s junker, and everyone but myself took turns driving. I still had no license and my style behind the wheel was considered inept and reckless endangerment by the band. We drove, we slept where we could—cheap motels, promoters’ houses, with girlfriends in a variety of cities—we drove, we played, we drove, we played, we drove, we played. We opened for Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sha Na Na, Brownsville Station, the Persuasions, Jackson Browne, the Chambers Brothers, the Eagles, Mountain, Black Oak Arkansas. We shared bills with NRBQ and Lou Reed and did a thirteen-day arena tour with brass-section hit makers Chicago. We were top billed, with Bob Marley and the Wailers opening (on their first US tour), in the tiny 150-seat Max’s Kansas City. On stages across America we were cheered, were occasionally booed, dodged Frisbees from the audience, received rave reviews and were trashed. Mike booked us at car shows and Sing Sing prison. It was all in a day’s work and as far as I was concerned, it was the life. There would be no nine-to-five world for me, just a long, often arduous but who’s-kidding-who free ride of a seven-day weekend.
Conditions were generally horrible, but compared to what?! The dumpiest motel on the road was a step up from my home digs. I was twenty-three and I was making a living playing music! Friend, there’s a reason they don’t call it “working,” it’s called PLAYING! I’ve left enough sweat on stages around the world to fill at least one of the seven seas; I’ve driven myself and my band to the limits and over the edge for more than forty years. We continue to do so but it’s still “playing.” It’s a life-giving, joyful, sweat-drenched, muscle-aching, voice-blowing, mind-clearing, exhausting, soul-invigorating, cathartic pleasure and privilege every night. You can sing about your misery, the world’s misery, your most devastating experiences, but there is something in the gathering of souls that blows the blues away. Something that lets some sun in, that keeps you breathing, that lifts you in a way that can’t be explained, only experienced. It’s something to live for, and it was my lifeline to the rest of humanity in the days when those connections were tough for me to make. Can it be hard? … Yeah. Is everyone built for it physically and psychologically? … No. Are there nights you don’t want to go on? … Yep. But on those nights, there will come a moment when something happens, the band takes flight, a face lights up in the audience, someone, with their eyes closed, singing along to the words, the music you’ve written, and suddenly you’re bound together by the feeling of the things that matter to you most. Or … there may be some great-looking women in the crowd—that always works too!
Show Me the Money
We made thirty-five dollars a week and had our rent and bills paid. That was the deal and it was the only way we could afford to stay on the road. There was an honor system. You stated what your expenses were and you got your money. Each man was different: some had alimony, child support payments, extenuating circumstances; some needed more than others. Everybody played by the rules … mostly.
After Steel Mill, I’d decided working with my pal Danny Federici, as lovely a guy as he could be, was just too life shortening. He needed too much caretaking. Everything around Danny was usually all fucked up. However, when it came time to form a touring band, Davey Sancious was unavailable, so I needed a keyboardist and Danny was the best I knew. He played beautifully and was a true folk musician, his style developed from being an accordion player as a child. His right hand had a lyricism, a fluency and spontaneity, I’ve never heard in another musician. He had the shortest highway between his fingers and his heart I’d ever heard. His left hand did virtually nothing; his self-conscious mind but not his musical intellect was put on hold. The notes came rushing forward, wonderfully chosen and perfectly placed with a freeness that seemed to flow effortlessly out of his soul. He was a real accompanist, humble, always at the service of the song, never overplaying, never stepping on another player’s toes, just finding the open space and filling it with the perfect flourish. If I needed to loosen up any piece we’d recorded, I sent Danny into the studio and just let him play. He never missed.
Unfortunately he was also a guy whose nature it was to game any system he came into contact with, so taking a shot with his own homies was as natural to Danny as all those beautiful notes that came floating freely out of his fingers. He was overstating his expenses and skimming off the top. By twenty-three, Danny and I’d already had a long and rocky history. In our previous lives together, we’d been through a shitstorm of trouble. What pissed me off the most was being constantly cast as the unwelcome voice of moderation and reason, the arbiter of professional limits and personal behavior … “Daddy.” In the end somebody had to set the boundaries, so I did, and then he crossed one. We were broke; he was stealing money from all of us. I drove directly to Dan’s apartment, confronted him in a rage, received the usual shrug of the Federici shoulders, put my foot through his expensive stereo speakers and left. I loved Danny but some version of this and worse would be a part of our friendship for the next forty years.
That Christmas we returned triumphant to my hometown of Freehold. What could be a better seasonal surprise than the return of a successful son coming home to his roots, the humility, the generosity, naaah … I haven’t forgotten you. We did a holiday show for the locals at a Russian social club called Rova Farms on the outskirts of town. It held about five hundred souls and the evening featured the only full-scale truly scary bar brawl of our club lives. All started out well for an hour or so. That we might be able to celebrate the festive spirit of the Christmas season, we’d recently learned the Crystals’ “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.” Just as we cracked into it the place exploded into multiple pockets of fistfighting. It may have been gang related, I don’t remember. I looked toward the bar and saw the bartender standing on top of the deck impolitely kicking at the faces of his patrons. There was a second-floor loft with an Old West banister running along it at the back of the joint and as I sang out my yuletide greetings, I saw a man lifted up and tossed over the banister to come crashing down onto the first floor. Richard Blackwell, playing congas that evening, leapt from the stage into the crowd in search of my boyhood pal, his brother David. The concert was raided by the police and brought to a halt. Amazingly no one was killed, though several left on stretchers. An ugly calm returned and we played another half hour or so. Then it was merry Christmas to all and to all a good night. Who said you can’t go home?