Born to Run (2016)
In my family we had aunts who howled during family gatherings; cousins who left school in the sixth grade, went home and never left the house again; and men who pulled hair from their bodies and heads, leaving great gaping patches of baldness, all within our little half block. During thunderstorms, my grandmother would grab me by the hand and rush me past the church to my aunt Jane’s house. There, the gathering of women and their black magic would commence. Prayers were murmured as my aunt Jane threw holy water over all of us from a small bottle. With each flash of lightning, the quiet hysteria would ratchet up a notch, until it seemed like God himself was about to blast us off our little corner. Folktales were told of lightning fatalities. Someone made the mistake of telling me the safest place in a lightning storm was in a car because of the grounding of the rubber tires. After that, at the first sound of thunder, I caterwauled until my parents would take me in the car until the storm subsided. I then proceeded to write about cars for the rest of my life. As a child, all of this was simply mysterious, embarrassing and ordinary. It had to be. These were the people I loved.
We are the afflicted. A lot of trouble came in the blood of my people who hailed from the Emerald Isle. My great-great-grandmother Ann Garrity left Ireland at fourteen in 1852 with two sisters, aged twelve and ten. This was five years after the potato famine devastated much of Ireland, and she settled in Freehold. I don’t know where it started, but a serious strain of mental illness drifts through those of us who are here, seeming to randomly pick off a cousin, an aunt, a son, a grandma and, unfortunately, my dad.
I haven’t been completely fair to my father in my songs, treating him as an archetype of the neglecting, domineering parent. It was an East of Eden recasting of our relationship, a way of “universalizing” my childhood experience. Our story is much more complicated. Not in the details of what happened, but in the “why” of it all.
To a child, the bars of Freehold were citadels of mystery, filled with mean magic, uncertainty, and the possibility of violence. Stopped at a red light on Throckmorton Street one evening, my sister and I witnessed two men on the concrete outside of the local taproom beating each other toward what seemed certain death. Shirts were torn; men surrounded, shouting; one man held the other by his hair as he straddled his chest, delivering vicious blows to his face. Blood mixed deeply around the man’s mouth as he desperately defended himself, his back to the pavement. My mother said, “Don’t look.” The light changed and we drove on.
When you walked through barroom doors in my hometown, you entered the mystical realm of men. On the rare night my mother would call my father home, we would slowly drive through town until we drew to a stop outside of a single lit door. She’d point and say, “Go in and get your father.” Entering my father’s public sanctuary filled me with a thrill and fear. I’d been given license by my mom to do the unthinkable: interrupt my pop while he was in sacred space. I’d push open the door, dodging men who towered over me on their way out. I stood waist-high to them at best, so when I entered the barroom I felt like a Jack who’d climbed some dark beanstalk, ending up in a land of familiar but frightening giants. On the left, lining the wall, lay a row of booths filled with secret assignations, barroom lovers, and husband-and-wife tag-team drinkers. On the right were stools filled by a barricade of broad working-class backs, rolling-thunder murmuring, clinking glasses, unsettling adult laughter and very, very few women. I’d stand there, drinking in the dim smell of beer, booze, blues and aftershave; nothing in the outer world of home smelled remotely like it. Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon ruled, with the blue ribbon stamped on the bartender’s pouring spout as the golden elixir was slid expertly into tilted glasses that were then set with a hard knock on the wooden bar. There I stood, a small spirit reminder of what a lot of these men were spending a few moments trying to forget—work, responsibility, the family, the blessings and burdens of an adult life. Looking back, it was a mix of mostly average guys who simply needed to let off a little steam at the end of the week and a few others, moved by harder things, who didn’t know where to draw the line.
Finally, someone would notice a small interloper amongst them and bemusedly draw me over to my dad. My view from the floor was bar stool, black shoes, white socks, work trousers, haunches and powerful legs, work belt, then the face, slightly discolored and misshapen by alcohol, peering down through cigarette smoke as I uttered the immortal words “Mom wants you to come home.” There would be no introductions to friends, no pat on the head, no soft intonation of voice or tousle of the hair, just “Go outside, I’ll be right out.” I’d follow my bread crumb trail back out the barroom door into the cool evening air, into my town, which felt somehow so welcoming and hostile. Drifting to the curb, I’d hop into the backseat and inform my mother, “He’ll be right out.”
I was not my father’s favorite citizen. As a boy I figured it was just the way men were, distant, uncommunicative, busy within the currents of the grown-up world. As a child you don’t question your parents’ choices. You accept them. They are justified by the godlike status of parenthood. If you aren’t spoken to, you’re not worth the time. If you’re not greeted with love and affection, you haven’t earned it. If you’re ignored, you don’t exist. Control over your own behavior is the only card you have to play in the hope of modifying theirs. Maybe you have to be tougher, stronger, more athletic, smarter, in some way better . . . who knows? One evening my father was giving me a few boxing lessons in the living room. I was flattered, excited by his attention and eager to learn. Things were going well. And then he threw a few open-palmed punches to my face that landed just a little too hard. It stung; I wasn’t hurt, but a line had been crossed. I knew something was being communicated. We had slipped into the dark nether land beyond father and son. I sensed what was being said: I was an intruder, a stranger, a competitor in our home and a fearful disappointment. My heart broke and I crumpled. He walked away in disgust.
When my dad looked at me, he didn’t see what he needed to see. This was my crime. My best friend in the neighborhood was Bobby Duncan. He’d ride with his pop every Saturday night to Wall Stadium for the stock car races. At five o’clock sharp a halt would be called to whatever endeavor we were involved in and at six, right after dinner, he’d come bounding down the front steps of his home two doors down, shirt pressed, hair Brylcreemed, followed by his pop. Into the Ford and off they’d go to Wall Stadium . . . that tire-screeching, high-octane heaven where families bonded over local madmen in garage-built American steel either roaring round and round in insane circles or at field’s center smashing the hell out of one another in the weekly demolition derby. For the demo, all you needed was a football helmet, a seat belt and something you were willing to wreck to take your place amongst the chosen . . . Wall Stadium, that smoky, rubber-burning circle of love where families came together in common purpose and things were as God intended them. I stood exiled from my father’s love AND hot rod heaven!
Unfortunately, my dad’s desire to engage with me almost always came after the nightly religious ritual of the “sacred six-pack.” One beer after another in the pitch dark of our kitchen. It was always then that he wanted to see me and it was always the same. A few moments of feigned parental concern for my well-being followed by the real deal: the hostility and raw anger toward his son, the only other man in the house. It was a shame. He loved me but he couldn’t stand me. He felt we competed for my mother’s affections. We did. He also saw in me too much of his real self. My pop was built like a bull, always in work clothes; he was strong and physically formidable. Toward the end of his life, he fought back from death many times. Inside, however, beyond his rage, he harbored a gentleness, timidity, shyness and a dreamy insecurity. These were all the things I wore on the outside and the reflection of these qualities in his boy repelled him. It made him angry. It was “soft.” And he hated “soft.” Of course, he’d been brought up “soft.” A mama’s boy, just like me.
One evening at the kitchen table, late in life, when he was not well, he told me a story of being pulled out of a fight he was having in the school yard. My grandmother had walked over from our house and dragged him home. He recounted his humiliation and said, eyes welling . . . “I was winning . . . I was winning.” He still didn’t understand he could not be risked. He was the one remaining, living child. My grandmother, confused, could not realize her untempered love was destroying the men she was raising. I told him I understood, that we had been raised by the same woman in some of the most formative years of our lives and suffered many of the same humiliations. However, back in the days when our relationship was at its most tempestuous, these things remained mysteries and created a legacy of pain and misunderstanding.
In 1962, my youngest sister, Pam, was born. I was twelve. My mom was thirty-six. That was pretty late to be pregnant in those days. It was wonderful. My mother was a miracle. I loved the maternity clothes. My sister Virginia and I would sit in the living room in the final months of her pregnancy, our hands resting upon her stomach, waiting for our new little sister to kick. The whole house was caught up in the excitement of Pam’s birth and our family came together. With my mom in the hospital, my dad stepped up and took care of us, burning breakfast, helping us get dressed for school (sending me there in my mother’s blouse, to Virginia’s roaring laughter). The house lit up. Children bring with them grace, patience, transcendence, second chances, rebirth and a reawakening of the love that’s in your heart and present in your home. They are God giving you another shot. My teenage years with my father were still not great but there was always the light of my little sister Pam, living proof of the love in our family. I was enchanted with her. I was thankful for her. I changed her diapers, rocked her to sleep, ran to her side if she cried, held her in my arms and forged a bond that exists to this day.
My grandmother, now very ill, slept in the room adjoining mine. One night at the age of three, Pam left my parents’ room and for the only time in her young life climbed into my grandmother’s bed. She slept there all night, lying beside my grandmother as she died. In the morning, my mother checked on my grandma and she was still. When I came home from school that day, my world collapsed. Tears, grief, weren’t enough. I wanted death. I needed to join her. Even as a teenager, I could not imagine a world without her. It was a black hole, an Armageddon; nothing meant anything, life was drained. My existence went blank. The world was a fraud, a shadow of itself. The only thing that saved me was my little sis and my new interest in music.
Now things got strange. My father’s generally quiet desperation led to paranoid delusion. I had a teenage Russian friend he thought was a “spy.” We lived a block away from the Puerto Rican neighborhood. My father was sure my mother was having an affair. As I came in after school one day, he broke down in tears at the kitchen table. He told me he needed someone to talk to. He had no one. At forty-five he was friendless, and due to my pop’s insecurities, there was never another man in our home except me. He spilled his heart out to me. It shocked me, made me feel uncomfortable and strangely wonderful. He showed himself to me, mess that he was. It was one of the greatest days of my teenage life. He needed a “man” friend and I was the only game in town. I comforted him the best I could. I was only sixteen and we were both in way over our heads. I told him I was sure he was wrong and that my mother’s love and dedication to him was complete. It was, but he had lost his grip on reality and was inconsolable. Later that evening I told my mother and for the first time we had to confront the fact my father was truly ill.
Things were complicated by some strange occurrences around our home. One Saturday night someone shot a bullet through the window of our front door, leaving a perfect slug-size hole in the glass seconds after I’d just walked up to bed. The police were constantly pulling in and out of our driveway and my father said he had been involved with some labor trouble at work. These occurrences fed all of our paranoid fantasies and created an atmosphere of terrible unease throughout our household.
My sister Virginia became pregnant at seventeen, and no one realized it until she was six months along! In her senior year she dropped out of high school, was tutored at home and married her boyfriend and the father of her child, Mickey Shave. Mickey was an arrogant, leather-jacketed, bull-riding, fighting greaser from Lakewood and eventually all-around great guy. He traveled the competitive rodeo circuit from Jersey to Texas in the late sixties. (Unbeknownst to most, Jersey is home to the longest consecutively running rodeo in the United States, Cowtown, and once you hit the southern part of the state, there’s more cowboy there than one might think.) My steadfast sister moved south to Lakewood after trouble brought its consequences, had a beautiful son and began to live the working-class life of my parents.
Virginia, who had never boiled water, washed a dish or swept a floor, became the toughest. She had soul, intelligence, humor and beauty. In months, her life changed. She became a hard-core Irish workingwoman. Mickey worked in construction, suffered through the recession of the late seventies when building ceased in Central Jersey, lost his job and took work as a janitor at the local high school. My sister worked the floor at K-Mart. They raised two lovely young men and a beautiful daughter and now have a slew of grandkids. At that young age and on her own, she found the strength my mother and her sisters have always carried with them. She became a living incarnation of Jersey soul; I wrote “The River” in her and my brother-in-law’s honor.