Born to Run (2016)
After two consecutive tours with the reconstituted E Street Band, I wanted to return to the music I had written during the Tom Joad tour. I went back; chose the best of it; wrote a new song, “Devils and Dust”; and Brendan O’Brien helped me finish the record I’d started in my farmhouse at Joad’s end. Brendan wanted to cut the songs from scratch, but I’d grown very fond of my home-recorded versions and decided to stick with those. We added some small embellishments, some subtle strings and horns; Brendan mixed; and there we were. I followed it with a solo tour of acoustic shows and came back home.
I’d always wanted some land near my home town. A piece came up that I’d biked past since my thirties. I’d looked down its beautiful lane and often thought . . . some day. The woman who owned it was an artist and she lived there until she died. It came up for sale. Patti and I looked at it for a long time and then we bought it.
Since we’d gotten together, Patti always told me she loved horses. The last time I’d been on a horse, I’d had on a Cub Scout uniform, but something’s got to roam these pastures. A few weeks after we’d closed, a trailer arrived at our newly acquired ponderosa with horses from the Saratoga race track. We were told by the kindly gentleman doing the selling they were all of fine stock and could be ridden by an inebriated chimpanzee. Okay. With no riding experience, I climbed on. I’d seen a million Westerns, how hard could it be?
I was then pulled all over our farm by one son of Secretariat after another until I found one who “sort of” listened to my unskilled commands. Over the next several months we put together a stable of animals ranging from the very rideable to some only for the suicide prone.
LESSON 1: Never get on a horse named “Lightning,” “Thunder,” “Widow Maker,” “Undertaker,” “Acid Trip,” “Hurricane” or “Sudden Death.”
LESSON 2: Take a few lessons.
We hired an instructor who put me through my paces on one of our nags, but no good came of it. My back was killing me, and I had no idea of where the half ton under me might go next. Then a miracle occurred. Patti found a dusty old palomino. As I sat astride him, I felt at home. He had a beautiful light gait, smooth as a Cadillac, and was extremely quiet, old and confident. He was unruffled by the clumsy reining of the neophyte on his back. “I dub thee ‘Cadillac Jack.’ ”
This horse taught me how to ride until I had him full gallop, belly flat to the ground, breezing him at speeds they make over at Monmouth Park. In the woods, the deer and small creatures did not startle him, the wind did not unnerve him nor the dark cause him to quicken his pace home. Once I sat in the saddle as he sank up to his haunches in the mud of a shallow creek after a hard rain. I ended up astride him, still in the saddle but with both feet planted firmly on the ground. I calmly stepped off, he slowly worked his way out and we carried on.
During our early years at the farm I was thrown from horseback many times. I’d brush myself off and hop back on, but still I’m glad this occurred during my forties, when my durability remained at an all-time high. I was thrown from all sides and then would gaily reunite with my steed, if lucky, a few feet away. If not, back at the barn. Many of our equine companions earned their names. A beautiful Black Beauty–like gelding unfortunately became known as “He Who Is Afraid of Small Things.” If any rabbit, gopher, fox or squirrel darted into his path, it was Hi-Yo Silver, Away! as I ate pods of dust, dirt and grass from flat on my back. In my late thirties, I had a short tenure in a local judo dojo where I became rather adept at being thrown. During those two years I spent a reasonable amount of time weightless and shoulder-high, tracking through space until I came to a thudding halt upon the mat. Oh how this came in handy when I cowboy’d up. We had another horse, a great, well-trained, parade horse and show animal named “Cal.” He also was named “He Who Does Not Like Things Upside His Head.” He was the greatest horse I’ve ever owned and the equestrian love of my life but . . . he had one tick. As a colt, someone must have struck him hard on the side of his face because any object in the area of his eyes would send him to the hills. I learned after a few forgetful occasions to honor his request.
One afternoon, at one of our fall fiestas attended by about a hundred of our relatives and friends, we’d hired a twenty-piece mariachi band from New York City. The singer requested to have his picture taken on “a fiery steed,” so we brought out Cal, my best. The singer climbed aboard but had left his sombrero on the ground. He called for a bandmate to hand it to him just as I was about to warn that it wasn’t a good idea. Too late. Just as he grabbed his sombrero near Cal’s face, my finest started to spin in the opposite direction of the hat. This caused our singer to windmill wildly in search of balance, bringing the sombrero again and again to Cal’s eye level. This of course caused him to spin and spin. Cal, with his rear hooves remaining steady, did a hard series of 360-degree pirouettes while my amigo, his eyes rolled back in his head, was launched, NASA-like, into the dirt. The great man landed in a cloud of dust at the feet of his compañeros, who exploded in uproarious laughter. He calmly got up, dusted himself off and moved toward the dining tables, where the whole group burst into “Guadalajara! Guadalajara!” followed by an all-hands-on-deck “Macarena.”
We’d often hold small rodeos with pro bronc riders, barrel races and team penning that we all joined in on. Team penning is pretty basic. The tequila gets lined up in shot glasses along the fence. The cows are numbered. You draw a number and you and a partner cut that cow out of the herd and drive him toward a small pen. The team that performs this task the fastest wins. The others drink up. In short time, hilarity rules.
Most of our rodeo events were hosted by Juan Marrufo Sanchez. Juan hailed from Mexico, where he’d been awarded All-Around Mexican Cowboy in 1994. He ended up marrying a Jersey girl on vacation in Mexico and now incongruously resided in an apartment in Brick, New Jersey. As a new Hispanic immigrant whose heavily accented English left him at a disadvantage, he’d ended up working at local farms, mucking stalls and taking care of horses—his great skill as a horseman undiscovered. One day I asked my assistant Terry Magovern to do some research on a section of Mexico I was writing about for my song “Reno.” Terry answered, “Hey, there’s a Mexican cowboy living upstairs in an apartment in Brick. Maybe you should speak to him.” A few weeks later, Juan showed up at our farm and stayed. He gave me a few books on the topics I was interested in and we talked a while. But most of that first afternoon was taken up in a display of horsemanship Charro-style. Juan was also a master of the lariat, and beneath his tutoring my cousin Ricky and I became pretty good at some basic rope tricks.
One evening as we herded the cows back into the trailer, one cut loose. My bull-riding brother-in-law, Mickey, literally grabbed the bull by the horns, though it became quickly apparent that that’s not as easy as it sounds. Small cows are strong and will easily lift you up off your feet with one good swipe of their heads. Our cow broke loose, heading at speed toward the western edge of our property and Route 34. It was a summer weekend. Route 34 was packed with Mom, Pop, little Billy, Sally, Sue and Grandma, heading home from the beach in their SUVs. Juan in the meantime had disappeared into the barn and came galloping out, with lariat in hand, on “Ranger,” his trick horse.
We were off. I hopped on an ATV. Along with Juan’s father and Max Weinberg’s eight-year-old son, Jay, we pursued our fleeing bovine as he headed for a stand of trees. This was the last obstacle separating our property from an open field and two packed weekend lanes of unsuspecting suburban drivers. I had visions of a full-on disaster and headlines reading: “Bennie’s Bronco Bashed By Boss’s Bull!” Fifty feet from the tree line I watched Juan and Ranger make their move. Juan’s right arm raised, lariat at the ready, Ranger suddenly shifted gears and a thin line of rope arced through the air and . . . wham! Right on the money. The rope landed perfectly, unimaginably, right over the cow’s horns as Juan wrapped the opposite end around his saddle horn and our prey was stopped in his tracks. Juan’s dad slid off the rear of our ATV and lightly tossed another rope around the horns and then I triangulated with another. It took the three of us, soaked in sun and sweat, to move this strong little cow back to its trailer. Jay Weinberg had the last word as he looked at Juan and said, “Wow. A real cowboy.”