Born to Run (2016)
She is a one-woman, red-haired revolution: flaming beauty, Queen of my heart, waitress, street busker, child of some privilege, hard-time Jersey girl, great songwriter, nineteen-year New Yorker, one of the loveliest voices I’ve ever heard, smart, tough and fragile. When I look at her, I see and feel my best self. Vivienne Patricia Scialfa grew up in Deal, New Jersey, sister of Michael and Sean, daughter of Coast Guard lieutenant commander Joe and great local beauty Pat Scialfa. A freckle-faced Raggedy Ann of a little girl, her smile beams, openly, expectantly, from childhood pictures. If we love those in whose company is reflected the best of us, that’s the light she shines on me. For a couple of loners and musicians, we’ve made it pretty far.
She grew up next door to New Jersey mob boss Anthony “Little Pussy” Russo. Mr. “Pussy” wanted a Sicilian next door, so he sold the adjacent beachfront house to Patti’s pop, Joe. Joe was not connected, but he was classic Sicilian stock. A crazy handsome man’s-man Italian mama’s boy spoiled by three sisters, Joe was a self-made multimillionaire via his local real estate speculations and as a proprietor of Scialfa TV, a talented, manic, brutally tough act for a dad and a wild card for a father-in-law. Patti’s mom, Pat, was hardworking Scots-Irish, a sixties dream of a showpiece, determined, tough and every bit Joe’s match. She worked side by side with Joe at the TV store, day in, day out, while a young Patti slipped down in between the Motorolas and the Zeniths, doing her homework. From Long Branch, Jersey’s Italian paradise by the sea, to Spring Lake’s Irish Riviera, Patti and I carried on the Irish-Italian mating ritual that seems to have swept our section of the central coast for the last century.
I first spoke to Patti when she was seventeen and I was twenty-one. She’d answered an ad I placed in the Asbury Park Press for background singers for my ten-piece rock ’n’ soul Bruce Springsteen Band. We spoke for a while on the phone. She was very young and I told her we were a traveling gig and she should stay in high school. We met for the first time in 1974. Enthralled by the girl groups of the sixties, I was entertaining the idea of a girl singer in the band. She answered an ad in the Village Voice and auditioned a cappella for Mike Appel in his midtown office. Mike, feet up on his desk, arms locked behind his head, would utter the command, “Sing!” A prospective E Streeter would then, completely unaccompanied, have to start belting out the Crystals’ “Da Doo Ron Ron.” If you passed muster, you were sent down to a little industrial park in Neptune, New Jersey, where you’d find the pre-Born to Run band, preparing for their breakout release. I was twenty-five, she was twenty-one, she sang some Ronnie Spector with the band, then we sat at the piano together and she played me one of her songs. She was lovely and very good but we ended up going with our regular lineup, not quite ready to break up the “lost boys” yet.
Ten years later, in 1984, one night as I hung out at the Stone Pony, a redheaded gal showed up and sat in with the Sunday night house band, singing the Exciters’ “Tell Him.” She was good, had something I hadn’t seen in the area before, and she’d mastered that sixties quality in her voice along with something else that was distinctly hers. At the time I was a pretty big fish in a small pond and where I walked, ripples occurred. We found ourselves standing in a buzzing crowd at the back bar as I introduced myself to her and the rest was a long, winding semi-courtship.
Patti told me I was always looking in “other fields” for companionship. I’d always had a lot of ideas about the who, what, when, where and why of my romantic choices that would prove in the long run irrelevant. When I opened up and stopped looking in those “other fields” … Patti was there before me. She’d eyed me up and waited ’til I was ready, then I was. It’s an unusual story of two people who’d circled around each other, cautiously and tangentially touching for eighteen years, before connecting.
We toured as bandmates through the Born in the USA tour. She had plenty of admirers and was a tough dance card if you tried to tame her New York independence. She lived alone and like a musician, like me. She was not domestic. She did not live to make you feel safe. I liked all of this. I’d tried the other and it hadn’t worked. I knew something very, very different and perhaps difficult was called for and Patti was it. We settled into domesticity, slowly and very carefully. Her psychological intuition was very high and I felt the risk of a formidable partner. When I started seeing Patti, she was deeply pleasurable, intelligent and exciting, but she scared me. I was putting my trust in her and despite her interest, I wasn’t so sure she really wanted it. Patti had a part of her that carried a charged sexuality; she could seduce and she could stir you to jealousy. There was a lot of emotional dueling, the occasional flying beauty product and plenty of arguing. We tested our ability to withstand each other’s insecurities, hard. It was good. We could fight, surprise, disappoint, raise up, bring down, withhold, surrender, hurt, heal, fight again, love, refit, then go at it one more time. We were both broken in a lot of ways but we hoped, with work, our broken pieces might fit together in a way that would create something workable, wonderful. They did. We created a life and a love fit for a couple of emotional outlaws. That similarity bound and binds us very close.
My wife is a private person, not known through whatever her “public persona” may be, and not nearly as fond of the limelight as I. Her talents have only been hinted at in her work. She has great elegance and dignity and we’ve built a lot together out of those broken pieces. We found once those pieces were set in place, they weighed in as hard stone, each piece pressuring and holding the pieces above and beneath it for twenty-five years (in a dog’s life and musical companionships, that’s somewhere around 175 years!). Two loners, we weren’t necessarily destined for the gold ring(s), but we stole them … and locked them away.
The night I fell in love with Patti’s voice at the Stone Pony, the first line she sang was “I know something about love …” She does.