Born to Run (2016)
GOING TO THE CHAPEL
Patti and I courted in Chelsea. Near her New York apartment there was a lovely little bench on the edge of a small park directly across from the Empire Diner. We’d meet there, spending spring days drinking beer from cans covered in a paper bag and talking. It became a very special place for us. One afternoon after a lunch at the Empire, on the way out, I grabbed a twig from a small bush by the side of the diner. I twisted it into a makeshift ring, and by the time she got to the bench I was down on one knee. I popped the question, was proud when Patti said yes, and we were on our way. My next step was to get a proper engagement ring.
My dad never showed off my mom. As a matter of fact, due to his paranoia, he practically hid her most of our lives. This had seeped into my bones. I was always a little embarrassed of love, of showing my need for something or someone, of showing my open heart, sometimes of simply being with a woman. My dad had sent a subtle message that a woman, a family, weakens you, makes you feel exposed and vulnerable. This was a horrible thing to live with. Patti changed much of that. By her intelligence and love she showed me that our family was a sign of strength, that we were formidable and could take on and enjoy much more of the world.
There was one thing I was sure of: it was going to be Patti and me for life, until the wheels came off. Now it was time to make it public. Jesus, we’d been together for three years, survived a burst of scandal, and already had a child and another one on the way. But I hated making anything public. Perhaps it was a result of being in the limelight for so long, or perhaps it was just the stubborn side of me wanting to keep Patti, our family and our love all to ourselves. By now I mistrusted those feelings and knew they weren’t healthy.
There are plenty of folks in great relationships without the marriage certificate, but we felt there was something meaningful and important in the declaration of our feelings, something that for us was essential. That’s why there is a statement of vows, a public promise, a blessing of your union, a celebration. When you do this in front of your friends, your family, your world, it’s a coming out of sorts, an announcement to everyone that this is how we’re going to officially roll from here on in, together, two for the road.
June 8, 1991. Patti’s and my wedding day dawned bright and sunny in Southern California. I spent the morning trying to fit my dad onto one of my choppers down in the courtyard while Patti was squeezing into her wedding dress in our bedroom. She’d neglected to tell the seamstress she was carrying a little three-months-along Jessie Springsteen grumbling in her belly, so there were a few alterations due. This was a big day. I’d let Patti know me like I’d never done with anyone else. This frightened me. I believed a lot of me wasn’t so nice to know. My self-centeredness, my narcissism, my isolation. Still, Patti tended to be a loner herself and this gave her a pretty good heads-up on how to handle me, but would she still love me if she really knew me? She was strong and had proven she could stand against my less-than-constructive behavior. She was confident in us and that gave me confidence that we would be all right. Patti had changed my life in a way that no one else ever had. She inspired me to be a better man, turned the dial way down on my running while still leaving me room to move. She gave me my motorcycle-canyon-running Sundays when I needed them and always honored who I was. She took care of me perhaps more than I deserved.
We decided to be married on our own property in a beautiful little grotto over by our studio house. You walked through a natural growth of eucalyptus until you came to a gray slate courtyard that held at its head a beautiful gray stone fireplace. Here, garlanded in flowers, we’d say our vows. We’d invited about ninety-five people, mostly friends and immediate family. The band brought their acoustic instruments—Soozie her fiddle, Danny his accordion, a few guitars, and we learned a piece of music I’d written specifically for this day. Evan James was done up in a white suit, looking very handsome and calling “Dada, Dada” during the ceremony from his front-row seat next to his grandmas, Pat and Adele.
My buddies the Delia brothers were in attendance along with my great friends Jon, Steve and many of the important people who work for us. We were still somewhat tabloid news fodder and our security caught one reporter trying to sneak in with a catering truck. The LAPD who worked security at our home had promised that when the moment came they’d send up a chopper and give us one shot to chase intruders out of the sky above our property, insuring our privacy. Such were the conditions for our wedding in the nineties.
It was a great day. All the band, family and visitors at the house made the warm afternoon roll slowly and sweetly with so many familiar faces around. I was a little nervous; when you’ve blown a marriage you can be a little gun shy, but it was a day of encouragement and support from our closest friends, and it added to the certainty Patti and I felt about our love. Come late afternoon, the LAPD kept their promise, and beneath clear skies we gathered in a small procession, instruments playing to accompany us over to the courtyard for our ceremony. There, a Unitarian minister we’d been introduced to by friends did a lovely job with the service. I had a chance to tell our guests about my love for Patti and then we adjourned for an easy dinner by candlelight and a night of partying. Patti’s dad, Joe, always the joker and the apple in a crate of oranges, noted the fence around our property and asked me how I was going to get away. I explained to him that I’d been there and that with his daughter I was finally where I wanted to be.
We honeymooned fifties-style in a little log cabin Abe Lincoln himself could have been born in, in Yosemite Park. It was fun, but we also suffered a week of simultaneous and funny anxiety attacks when we looked at each other as husband and wife. Somewhere inside we were still two loners trying something new. We traveled, staying in little roadside motels, listening to our favorite music, as I drank Jack Daniel’s and we played 500 Rummy on the motel lawns as the sun set on the desert across the highway. We did miss our Evan, so five days later we pulled back into our LA digs just as an anonymous sky writer etched a huge heart in the flat blue sky over our home. What timing! We found Evan on a blanket in the grass inside a small courtyard, playing with his grandma Pat. We spent the rest of the afternoon there with our family. At one point I leaned over and, with Evan between us, I kissed Patti. From here on in I wouldn’t be alone.
On December 30, 1991, Jessica Rae Springsteen was born. A red-faced, coal-black-haired baby girl, she popped out with her furrowed brow and fretting hands belying the beautiful young woman and self-confident athlete she’d become. Stubborn to the bone, then and now, while still in her high chair, she would scream and fume if you unbuckled her little safety belt for her. She couldn’t speak! But still, she would sit there, her complexion turning Bazooka-bubblegum pink as her stubby little digits, pulling and tugging, struggled with the buckle and she exerted her tiny, mighty little will to DO IT HERSELF! … And she usually would. That’s never changed.
Patti and I are sitting in our Rumson living room directly beneath Jessica’s bedroom. We hear a thud. I go up and see she’s climbed the wooden bars of her crib and thrown herself out. I place her back in and return downstairs. Five minutes later, thud. I climb the stairs, I place her back in. Five minutes … thud … I watch as she toddles herself to a single bed on the far side of the room and, struggling, climbs in. The crib is done, for good. That’s the way she rolls.
When Jess is four years old, Patti and I, searching for some land, visit a local farm on Middletown’s Navesink River Road. A horse is quietly grazing in its small meadow. Jess asks, “Can I go see?” With the owner’s acquiescence, we climb over the fence and walk through calf-high grass, and as we reach the horse, Jess closes her eyes and places her tiny palms flat upon its flanks. She stands there in meditation, offering up … a wish? A prayer? Then, “Can I get on?” … a nod from the owner … okay. I lift her and set her on bareback. She sits quietly, then, after twenty years of five-thirty a.m. mornings, countless barns, hundreds of hooves picked and manes and coats brushed, and thousands of miles traveled throughout the Northeast and Europe, she is an excellent and lifelong horsewoman, an internationally recognized equestrian, defying gravity, taking fifteen-hundred-pound animals five feet into the air … a natural. She has no memory of never having ridden.
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Patti and I drive Jess one Saturday morning when she is five years old to the Meadowlands, scene of many E Street triumphs. There is a horse show, her first. I tell her, “Jess, when we get there, if you don’t want to do this …” We arrive; she slips quickly into her riding gear, then walks, a small elegant figure, down the concrete ramp leading to the arena’s underbelly, where, over the years, we’ve unloaded tons of rock ’n’ roll gear on many a victorious night. In the staging area, she’s lifted onto her pony; the lights in the complex are on full. The floor, usually the province of screaming fans, is covered in eight-inch-deep dirt footing, front to back. Dad moves close and says, “Now, Jess …” I receive no acknowledgment whatsoever and I witness for the first time the game face she wears to this day. Patti and I move into the stands and the name Springsteen, Jessica Springsteen, echoes around the cavernous spaces of our hometown stomping grounds. Patti and I sit, arm in arm, dumbstruck. Jess competes in the very beginning of the equestrian competition, the day’s lead-line class. She captures a green ribbon and places sixth. The ride home is quiet as she sits in her riding gear, mysteriously humming. We tell her how well she did, how proud we are. She says nothing. Then, from the musical quiet in the backseat come two questions: “What was the name of the girl who won?” and “What did she do to win?”
New Band/New Day
Six months earlier, from our LA auditions, I’d put together an excellent touring band filled with great musicians from a variety of backgrounds. The auditions were a lot of fun and I got a chance to play with the best the city had to offer. Great drummers, bass players and singers filed in, one after another. Afternoons of music stretched on and on and I really learned a lot about what an individual player can and cannot bring. With drummers I found a fascinating rule of law. There were those who could groove and keep time like you wouldn’t believe but when asked to open up in a rock vein, à la Keith Moon (or Max Weinberg), they subtly dropped the ball. Then you had guys who could really rock and hit hard but were slightly time challenged. I found it fascinating that more of these, the very best guys, couldn’t cover both territories, but modern records at the time had moved away from drum fills; click tracks (electronic timekeepers) were in vogue in recording, so most of these players were probably rarely asked for unassisted Al Jackson time threaded with a Hal Blaine-like perfect storm of record-ending drum thunder. Finally, Zach Alford, a young kid with both hard rock and funk experience, came in and perfectly fit the bill.
The rest of the group consisted of Shane Fontayne on guitar; Tommy Sims on bass; Crystal Taliefero on guitar, vocals and percussion; and Bobby King, Carol Dennis, Cleopatra Kennedy, Gia Ciambotti and Angel Rogers on background vocals. Nice folks, excellent musicians and great singers all.
We hit the road on June 15, 1992. I enjoyed touring with them and benefiting from their musical experience. We’d sit on the bus and pass the beatbox around, and everyone would take a turn playing their favorite music. Tommy Sims was all Ohio Players, Parliament Funkadelic and seventies funk, music I wasn’t that familiar with; he also brought deep knowledge of the slick Philly soul epitomized by the Chi-Lites, the Delfonics and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, heirs to the Motown hit machine. Tommy gave me a new appreciation for those records.
Cleopatra Kennedy and Carol Dennis would bring the high gospel. Bobby King was straight, hard soul music. He was a stocky, gospel-trained weight lifter and we spent a good deal of time in a variety of hole-in-the-wall gyms together. He was also one of the funniest people I’ve ever met, a great raconteur, a street philosopher, with a lot of life experience to back it up. We became great friends, still speak on the phone regularly, and I’ve tried many times to persuade him to come back to tour and sing with me. Sometime after the Human Touch tour, Bobby quit singing secular music, recommitted himself to his Lord, his street mission and his family. He works in construction and still lives down in Louisiana, visiting prisons while bringing gospel music and God’s word to those in need. God bless you, Bobby.
It was a lot of good shows, good company and good times. I felt momentarily free of the baggage I’d collected with my good friends on E Street. Then one day, while playing in Germany to a crowd of sixty thousand, I wandered off to the far side of the stage’s runway. The sound of my new band, projected by tons of stage-front sound equipment, drifted far off into the late afternoon, and the setting sun was turning everything and everyone in the large crowd golden, but there on a green hill, high at the edge of the amphitheater, stood a lone fan, holding aloft a sign that simply read, “E Street.” He was a true-blue loyalist. I waved and smiled. There would be other times and places.