Born to Run (2016)

BOOK TWO

BORN TO RUN

FORTY-ONE

HITSVILLE

We had a hit. A real one. “Hungry Heart” went top ten, doubled our album sales and brought to our live shows . . . women. Thank you, Jesus! Up ’til now, I’d had a hard-core following of young men who made up a high percentage of our live audience, but “Hungry Heart” brought in the girls and proved Top 40 radio’s power to transform your audience. Even more than going coed, the River tour was most significant for our return to Europe after a five-year absence. We were nervous, with the bitter taste of previous battles still in our mouths, but Frank Barsalona, legendary head of Premier Talent, our touring agency, convinced us there was an audience waiting there if we would go over and win it.

First stop, Hamburg! That’s where the Beatles became made men, at the Star-Club! I ran into Pete Townshend a few days before we were to ship out and he added to my pre-tour jitters by telling me the Germans were the worst audience in the world. A few days later we landed in Germany and were lodged in a hotel just blocks away from a midcity carnival that looked straight off the boardwalk. I wandered over to calm myself and steady my legs on foreign soil and follow it up with an evening on the Reeperbahn, training grounds and classroom of the Fab Four. I think the Star-Club was still there, but this part of town was now mainly known as the center of the sex market in Hamburg. Our “virgin” eyes were once again treated to the wide-open sexual bartering taking place, all completely legal. I found myself wandering with my cohorts through an underground garage lit only by black light, where hundreds of women of all shapes, colors, nationalities and sizes stood, waiting to make a fool out of you. I observed patrons make brief “conversation,” strike a deal and be led to the rear, where small closetlike rooms were lined up side by side. I found the women provocative but intimidating and at the tender age of thirty (!) I couldn’t quite get myself to make believe it was all right. I returned to the hotel for some beer and bratwurst.

Showtime. We were booked in a small, rather antiseptic theater, the Congress Centrum. The audience filed in, we kicked it and as Pete foretold, they sat on their hands the entire first half of the show. As we ended our first set with “Badlands,” we must’ve fumbled upon the magic button, for the crowd rose en masse and rushed the stage. The rest of the show was pandemonium and we were greeted backstage by our German promoter, Fritz Rau, shouting, “What have you done to my Germans?” Europe, this time, would be different.

Next stop, Paris. In the early eighties, for fear of fan safety, we did not play “festival seating” (a standing-room-only, seatless dance floor). I thought they were dangerous. I had many European promoters try to explain to me that this was the way it’d always been done overseas. In Paris, we had them place wooden folding chairs on the auditorium floor. As we played our opening set to a full house, I watched as the French slowly lifted our chairs over their heads and passed them to the side of the venue, depositing them into two bonfire-building piles. By the time we reached the end of our set, the floor was “free space” and the crowd was roiling. Okay . . . vive la France! This was the reaction we received north in Norway and south in Spain. Our moment in Europe had come. Spain, only years after Franco’s death, was not the country it is today. Even in 1981, the room we played was surrounded by machine-gun-toting police. Outside, equipment from the back of our van disappeared up the street and laundry walked itself out of the hotel into the Barcelona night, never to be seen again. There seemed to be a languid, lovely chaos covering all of Spanish life. But the faces in the crowd were some of the most passionate and beautiful on the planet. We played to just a few thousand, but the hell they stirred shook the band and was unforgettable. We’d be back.

Most of the audiences we played to spoke English, at best, as a second language. It didn’t seem to matter. We played to crowd after crowd who let us know they felt about music the way we felt about it, with the same all-consuming, anticipatory rush you knew at sixteen unwrapping your favorite group’s latest LP, waiting, waiting a week for a three-minute television appearance or staying up all night, radio on, trolling the dial, trying to catch a single, static-filled play of your favorite record. Maybe it was because we hadn’t come across the Atlantic often, were exotic, and therefore inspired a different level of appreciation. All I know is playing for our fans overseas was, and continues to be, one of the greatest experiences of my life. It fully started in 1981, and it’s never stopped.

In Berlin, Steve and I ventured through Checkpoint Charlie for an afternoon in the east. Any print you had, newspapers, magazines, was confiscated by the East German border guards. It was a different society; you could feel the boot, the stasis in the streets, and you knew the oppression was real. It changed Steve permanently. After our European trip, the man who had preached that rock ’n’ roll and politics should never mix became an activist, his own music turning defiantly political. The power of the wall that split the world in two, its blunt, ugly, mesmerizing realness, couldn’t be underestimated. It was an offense to humanity; there was something pornographic about it, and once viewed, it held a scent you couldn’t quite get off of you. It truly disturbed some of the band and there was a communal sigh of relief when we moved on to the next town. But we didn’t forget; we’d be back in 1988 to play for a horizonless field of Eastern Bloc faces. They came, 160,000-plus strong, with home-stitched American flags, and stretched as far as the eye could see. It was one of the great shows of our lives, and a year later the wall fell.

Europe changed our band, filling us with new commitment and confidence. Even perennially cool Britain glowed with promise. Venturing onto an English stage for the first time since the great self-bamboozlement of ’75 was nerve-racking but satisfying. Steadied by two new albums, five years of personal battle and years of hard touring, we were not the naïve beach bums who’d stepped out of a British Airways 747 half a decade back. I knew I had a hell of a band and if we couldn’t do the job, show me the men who could. (I did go with Pete Townshend a few nights after our Brighton show to a London club, where a young band with their first album out was playing a powerful set; they had an unusual name, U2 . . . better keep a lookout over my shoulder.) Our 1981 European tour turned us into an international act, ready to take on all comers anywhere on the planet.

Back in the USA

Back home, driving through the Arizona desert, I pulled over outside of Phoenix to gas up. I stopped in a small drug store, and as I was browsing through a rack of paperback books, I came across Born on the Fourth of July, a memoir written by a Vietnam vet, Ron Kovic. The book was a heartbreaking testimony of the experience Ron had as a combat infantryman in Southeast Asia. A week or two later, as I bunked in at the Sunset Marquis, the small-world theory proved itself once again. I’d been seeing a young guy with shoulder-length hair in a wheelchair hanging poolside for a few days. One afternoon, he rolled up to me and said, “Hi, I’m Ron Kovic, I wrote a book called Born on the Fourth of July.” I answered, “I just read it; it floored me.” Ron talked to me about the many returned soldiers who were struggling with a wide variety of serious problems and he offered to take me to the vet center in Venice to meet some of the So Cal vets. I said, “Sure.”

A decade of silence greeted the end of the Vietnam War. Popular culture seemed at a loss as to how to contextualize and tell the hard stories of “the only war America had ever lost.” There had been very few films, records or books about Vietnam that had made any kind of national impact. All of this rolled through my head as we approached the vet center.

I’m pretty easy with people, but once at the center I didn’t know exactly how to respond or what to do. West Coast shadows of the neighborhood faces I’d grown up with stared back into my eyes. Some of the guys were homeless, had drug problems, were dealing with post-traumatic stress or life-changing physical injury. I thought about my friends who’d been killed in the war. I didn’t know what to say, so I just listened. I made small talk and answered questions about music and my own comparatively very privileged life. Driving back, Ron and I discussed what might be done to draw some attention to what these still-young men and women were going through.

The tour went on. Backstage in New Jersey I met another vet named Bobby Muller. He’d gone to Vietnam as a lieutenant, been shot and returned to the United States, wheelchair bound, and become active in the antiwar demonstrations alongside John Kerry and other returning veterans in Washington, DC. Due to generational differences and the nature of the war, many returning vets did not feel at home in their World War II– and Korean War–vet–populated local VFW. He felt the Vietnam vets should have their own service organization that would administer specifically to their own medical and political needs, an organization that might also serve as a conscience for the country, that we might never make the same mistakes or suffer the same consequences again. In 1978, he’d started the Vietnam Veterans of America but he said that most businessmen and politicians had turned their backs on the organization. To establish the VVA as a viable concern, they’d need publicity and financing. Those were two things I knew I could deliver.

The concert for the Vietnam Veterans of America was held at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena on August 20, 1981. The bandstand was flanked with risers holding vets from the local vet centers and the Los Angeles VA hospital, including some of the guys I met on my first trip to Venice with Ron Kovic. Ron, who’d set all of this in motion, was there. Bobby Muller gave a short speech from center stage on ending the silence surrounding Vietnam, then rousingly introduced the band. Fronted by Jersey draft dodger number one, we opened with Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and played hard and well. It was the beginning of lifelong friendships with Ron and Bobby and the start of putting some piece of what I did to pragmatic political use. I was never going to be Woody Guthrie—I liked the pink Cadillac too much—but there was work to be done.

The River Flows, It Flows to the Sea

Three weeks later we brought the tour to a close in Cincinnati. Satisfactorily altered by a potent drink mix of Clarence’s dubbed “Kahuna Punch,” we held one final bash at the hotel, and I awoke the next morning with a new friend and a pounding punch headache. We headed home.

A wide variety of influences and forces had shaped the River tour. First, our return to Europe and the political perspectives that awakened. Then, our work with the MUSE concerts and Vietnam veterans show proved a practical social use for our talents was waiting. Finally, a sense of history opened by reading Henry Steele Commager’s A Pocket History of the United States, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Joe Klein’s Woody Guthrie: A Life all provided me with a new view of myself as an actor in this moment in time. What happened here was, in some infinitesimally small way, my responsibility. This was my place, my moment, my opportunity for my voice, no matter how faint, to be heard. If I passed it by, I’d have to answer to those children I was beginning to imagine.

History was a subject that had bored me in middle and high school, but I devoured it now. It seemed to hold some of the essential pieces to the identity questions I was asking. How could I know who I was if I didn’t have a clue as to where I’d personally and collectively come from? What it does mean to be an American is all caught up in what did it mean to be one. Only some combination of those answers could lead you to what it might mean to be an American.

Woody

How serious was I about all this? I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t know. All I knew is I was pushed forward by a wide variety of personal and work motivations to address the issues that had begun to unfold on Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River.

I searched in new places. Country music, gospel music and the blues were all forms that gave voice to adult lives under stress and seeking transcendence, but I would have to go farther back than Hank Williams to find music that dealt with the social forces at work on those lives. Joe Klein’s biography of Woody Guthrie opened my eyes and ears to Dylan’s immediate predecessor at just the moment I was ready to hear the news. I was aware of Woody’s name, and of course, “This Land Is Your Land,” but as a pure student of hit radio, I was mostly unaware of the details of his life and his music. I immersed myself and found the subtle writing, raw honesty, humor and empathy that’s made his music eternal. In his stories of depression-era Okies and migrant workers, he revealed the folks trapped on the fringes of American life. His writing wasn’t soapbox rambling but finely wrought personal portraits of American lives, told with toughness, wit and common wisdom. In concert we began to cover “This Land Is Your Land” nightly and we worked to give voice to stories that in Reagan’s 1980s America rock ’n’ roll wasn’t often telling.

The turn in my writing in “Factory,” “Promised Land,” “The River” and “Point Blank,” and the direction of our shows, provided me a way of honoring my parents’ and my sisters’ lives, and of not losing complete contact with that part of myself. Even with the relatively modest success and financial security I’d graduated to, my life was now very different from the lives of those I’d chosen to write about. This worried me. Despite devoutly pursuing it, I viewed the world of success with great skepticism. I wondered, who were that world’s inhabitants and what did they have to do with me? I was practically the only one of them I knew! Regardless of being “born to run,” I didn’t want to change that part of my life. I remained, from some combination of provincial fear and/or devotion, a mere ten minutes from my hometown, secure on my turf. There would be no New York, London, Los Angeles or Paris for me for a long while. I’d stay home, where I felt like I belonged and told the stories I still felt were mine to tell.

The distractions and seductions of fame and success as I’d seen them displayed felt dangerous to me and looked like fool’s gold. The newspapers and rock rags were constantly filled with tales of good lives that had lost focus and were stumblingly lived, all to keep the gods (and the people!) entertained and laughing. I yearned for something more elegant, more graceful and seemingly simpler. Of course in the end, nobody gets away clean, and I’d eventually take my own enjoyment (and provide my share of laughs) in fame’s distractions and seductions, but not until I was sure I could handle them. Then they just become the good life, and if you’ve worked hard for them, they’re there at your pleasure. But for the time being my indulgences were modest, and I worked to make myself aware of fortune’s distorting powers and to temper its hold over me.

It wasn’t that hard. On the Irish side of my immediate family, saying no was in our DNA. No doctors, no cities, no strangers, no travel, “the world is out there and it’s a monster, waiting to eat you alive. You’ll see.” It’s yes that doesn’t come very easy to us. But I was also extremely protective of my music and what I’d begun to create. I valued it, seriously, almost to a fault, above most other things . . . maybe everything. Still, caution and sobriety have their blessings and their purposes, and for the time being, they had their moment. That wariness, that slight outsider’s perspective, would help me retain the vitality and currency of my own work and keep me in the trenches and close to my audience.

In my writing I was increasingly interested in the place where “This Land Is Your Land” and “The River” intersected, where the political and personal came together to spill clear water into the muddy river of history. By the end of the River tour, I thought perhaps mapping that territory, the distance between the American dream and American reality, might be my service, one I could provide that would accompany the entertainment and the good times I brought my fans. I hoped it might give roots and mission to our band.

Beyond this, I personally needed to know where my family—my grandparents, my mom, dad and sisters—fell in the arc of American experience and what that meant for me, the fortunate son.