Born to Run (2016)

BOOK ONE

GROWIN’ UP

EIGHT

RADIO DAYS

My mom loved music, Top 40 music; the radio was always on in the car and in the kitchen in the morning. From Elvis on out, my sister and I shuffled out of bed and downstairs to be greeted by the hit records of the day pouring out of the tiny radio that sat on the top of our refrigerator. Slowly, certain songs caught my attention. At first it was the novelty records—the Olympics, “Western Movies”; the Coasters, “Along Came Jones”—the great narrative clowning records where the groups let loose with rock ’n’ roll comedy and sounded like they were just having fun. I wore out the jukebox at our local luncheonette pumping it full of my mom’s dimes to hear Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater” over and over again (“Mr. Purple People Eater, what’s your line? . . . Eatin’ purple people and it sure is fine”). I stayed up all one summer night with my tiny Japanese transistor radio tucked under my pillow counting the times they played Lonnie Donegan’s “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor (On the Bedpost Overnight)?”

Records that ultimately held my interest were the ones where the singers sounded simultaneously happy and sad. The Drifters, “This Magic Moment,” “Saturday Night at the Movies,” “Up on the Roof”—records that summoned the joy and heartbreak of everyday life. This music was filled with deep longing, a casually transcendent spirit, mature resignation and . . . hope . . . hope for that girl, that moment, that place, that night when everything changes, life reveals itself to you, and you, in turn, are revealed. Records that longed for some honest place, some place of one’s own . . . the movies, downtown, uptown, up on the roof, under the boardwalk, out of the sun, out of sight, somewhere above or below the harsh glare of the adult world. The adult world, that place of dishonesty, deceit, unkindness, where people slaved, were hurt, compromised, beaten, defeated, where they died—thank you, Lord, but for now, I’ll take a pass. I’ll take the pop world. A world of romance, metaphor; yes, there is tragedy (“Teen Angel”!), but there is also immortality, eternal youth, a seven-day weekend and no adults (“It’s Saturday night and I just got paid. I’m a fool about my money, don’t try to save”). It’s a paradise of teenage sex where school . . . is permanently out. There, even that great tragedian Roy Orbison, a man who had to sing his way out of an apocalypse waiting around every corner, had his “pretty woman” and a home on “Blue Bayou.”

Through my mother’s spirit, love and affection, she imparted to me an enthusiasm for life’s complexities, an insistence on joy and good times, and the perseverance to see the hard times through. Has there ever been a more comforting, sadder song than Sam Cooke’s “Good Times”? It’s a vocal performance steeped in weary self-knowledge and the ways of the world . . . “Get in the groove and let the good times roll . . . we gonna stay here ’til we soothe our soul . . . if it takes all night long . . .” Slowly the musical sounds of the late fifties and early sixties drew down into my bones.

In those days if you were broke the only family entertainment you had was a “drive.” Gas was cheap, thirty cents a gallon, so nightly my grandparents, mother, sister and I cruised the streets to the outer edges of town. It was our treat and ritual. On warm nights, with the windows in our big sedan wide open, first we’d roll down Main Street, then on out to the southwest end of town to the edge of Highway 33, where we’d make our scheduled stop at the Jersey Freeze ice-cream stand. We’d bounce out of the car and up to the sliding window, where you had your choice of two flavors . . . count ’em . . . two . . . vanilla and chocolate. I didn’t like either but I loved those wafer cones. The guy behind the counter who owned the place would save me the broken ones and sell them to us for five cents or slip me one for free. My sister and I would sit on the hood of the car in silent ecstasy with the Jersey humidity smothering all sound but for the night crickets humming in the nearby woods. The yellow outdoor lighting would act like a neon flame for hundreds of flitting, circling summer bugs. We’d watch as they buzzed the exterior of the whitewashed ice-cream stand, then we were off and away as the huge plaster Jersey Freeze ice-cream cone, perched precariously on top of the little cinder-block building, slowly disappeared in our rear window. We’d ride the back roads to the north end of town, where scratching the sky in the fields bordering the Monmouth Memorial Home was the town radio tower. It had three bright red lights rising along its gray steel structure. As our radio glowed with the otherworldly sound of late-fifties doo-wop, my mother would explain to me that there in the high grass stood a tall dark giant, invisible against the black night sky. The ascending lights were merely the shining red “buttons” on his jacket. We would always end our journey with a ride past the “buttons.” As my eyes grew heavy and we turned toward home, I’d swear I could see the outline of the giant’s dark figure.

’Fifty-Nine, ’60, ’61, ’62, ’63 . . . the beautiful sounds of American popular music. The calm before the storm of the Kennedy assassination, a quiet America, of lost lovers’ laments wafting along the airwaves. On the weekend, sometimes the “ride” would take us all the way to the shore, to the amusements and carnival of Asbury Park or the quieter beaches of Manasquan. We’d park facing the waters of the inlet. Besides the kitchen table, the Manasquan Inlet was my dad’s favorite spot in the world. He would sit for hours alone in the car watching the boats come in from the sea. My sister and I would eat hot dogs at Carlson’s Corner, changing into our pajamas with a towel wrapped around us on the beach as my mother stood guard. On the way home we’d stop for a double feature at the Shore Drive-In, falling asleep in the backseat, to be carried to our beds by my dad once back in Freehold. As we grew older, we’d step rock by rock out along the dark Manasquan jetty, which jutted east, disappearing into the night sea. There at jetty’s end we’d stare out into the pitch-black nothing of the Atlantic, with only the distant sparkling lights of night-charter fishing boats revealing the horizon line. We’d listen to the ocean waves crashing rhythmically on the shore far behind us, the sea lapping against the rocks onto our bare and sandy feet. You could hear a Morse code, a message moving in over that great black expanse of water . . . with the stars burning the night sky bright above us, you could feel it . . . something British this way comes.