Born to Run (2016)
THE SECOND COMING
From over the sea, the gods returned, just in time. Rough days at home. My face exploding with acne, that old bastard and now national hero of mine, Ed Sullivan, was doing it for me one more time. Let the battle begin. “Ladies and gentlemen, from England … the Beatles!!” Ed said the words “the Beatles” better than anybody else in the world. He’d wind up on the “the,” quickly punch and emphasize the “Beat,” and then he was outta there on the “les.” All rushing by me while jolting my system with ten thousand watts of high-voltage anticipation. I sat there, heart pounding, waiting for the first real look at my new saviors, waiting to hear the first redemptive notes come peeling off the Rickenbacker, Hofner and Gibson guitars in their hands. The Beatles … The Beatles … The Beatles … The Beatles … The Beatles … The Beatles … an “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” mantra and simultaneously the worst and most glorious band name in all of rock ’n’ roll history. In 1964, there were no more magical words in the English language (well … maybe “Yes, you can touch me there”).
The Beatles. I first laid ears on them while driving with my mom up South Street, the radio burning brighter before my eyes as it strained to contain the sound, the harmonies of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Why did it sound so different? Why was it so good? Why was I this excited? My mom dropped me off at home but I ran straight to the bowling alley on Main Street, where I always spent my first after-school hours hunched over the pool tables sipping a Coke and eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. I slammed myself into the phone booth and called my girlfriend, Jan Seamen. “Have you heard the Beatles?”
“Yeah, they’re cool …”
My next stop was Newbury’s, the five-and-ten-cent store in the center of town. In the front door and an immediate right brought you to the tiny corner record section (there were no record stores in those days in our neck of the woods). There were just a few racks of singles for forty-nine cents a pop. There were no real albums for me, just a few Mantovani records or middle-of-the-road vocal artists, maybe a little jazz on the bottom shelf. They were never looked at. They were for “adults.” The teenage world was a world of pure 45s. A small circular piece of wax with a half-dollar hole in the center you had to fill with a plastic adapter. Your record player at home still had three speeds, 78, 45 and 33 RPM. Hence, 45s. The first thing I found was something called The Beatles with Tony Sheridan and Guests. It was a rip-off. The Beatles backing some singer I’d never heard of doing “My Bonnie.” I bought it. And listened to it. It wasn’t great but it was as close as I could get.
I went back on a daily basis until I saw IT. The album cover, the greatest album cover of all time (tied with Highway 61 Revisited). All it said was Meet the Beatles. That was exactly what I wanted to do. Those four half-shadowed faces, rock ’n’ roll’s Mount Rushmore, and … THE HAIR … THE HAIR. What did it mean? It was a surprise, a shock. You couldn’t see them on the radio. It is almost impossible to explain today the effect of … THE HAIR. The ass whippings, insults, risks, rejections and outsider status you would have to accept to wear it. In recent years, only the punk revolution of the seventies would allow small-town kids the ability to physically declare their “otherness,” their rebellion. In 1964, Freehold was redneck ugly and there was no shortage of guys who were willing to make their rejection of your fashion choices a physical affair. I ignored the insults, avoided the physical confrontations as best I could and did what I had to do. Our tribe was small, maybe two or three in all of my high school, but it would grow to be significant and mighty, then meaningless … but not for a while … and in the meantime each sunrise held the possibility of a showdown. At home all it meant was more fuel for the unpleasant fire burning between my dad and me. His first response was laughter. It was funny. Then, not so funny. Then, he got angry. Then, finally, he popped his burning question: “Bruce, are you queer?” He wasn’t kidding. He’d have to get over it. But first, it would get a lot nastier.
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At school I made my way. I only got in one real scrap on my walk home from high school. I’d had enough with the jokes and squared off against a kid I was sure I could beat in the driveway of a neighborhood home. We were soon surrounded by a small circle of sensation seekers. Before we started, in the spirit of full disclosure, he told me he knew karate. I thought to myself, “Bullshit. Who knows karate in 1966 New Jersey? … NO-FUCKING-BODY!” I threw a few haymakers and he caught me with a perfect karate chop to the Adam’s apple … aaarrrrrgh. I spit up. I couldn’t speak. It was over. Another great victory. We walked the rest of the way home together.
That summer, time moved slowly. Every Wednesday night I sat up in my room charting the weekly top twenty and if the Beatles were not firmly ensconced each week as lords of all radio, it would drive me nuts. When “Hello Dolly” grabbed the top spot on the charts week after week, I was beside myself. Nothing against “Satchmo,” one of the greatest musicians who ever lived, but I was fourteen and on a different planet. I lived for every Beatles record release. I searched the newsstands for every magazine with a photo I hadn’t seen and I dreamed … dreamed … dreamed … that it was me. My curly Italian hair miraculously gone straight, my face clear of acne and my body squeezed into one of those shiny silver Nehru suits. I’m standing tall in a pair of Cuban-heeled Beatle boots. It didn’t take me long to figure it out: I didn’t want to meet the Beatles. I wanted to BE the Beatles.
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After my father refused to pay a rent hike, we moved to 68 South Street and had … hot water! But to get it, we moved next to a Sinclair gas station, into another half house. In the half we didn’t occupy lived a Jewish family. My mom and dad, no racists or anti-Semites, still felt the need to caution my sister and me that these were folks who … DID NOT BELIEVE IN JESUS! Any theological issues were immediately forgotten when I saw two gorgeous daughters, my new next-door neighbors, who carried with them a fabulous voluptuousness, full mouths, smooth dark skin and weighted breasts—oy! I immediately began imagining warm nights on the front porch, their tan legs pouring out of summer shorts, as we debated the Jesus question. Personally, I would’ve quickly thrown over our savior of two thousand years for one kiss, one run of an index finger over the coffee-colored ankle of either of my new neighbors. Unfortunately, I was shy and they were chaste, still solidly under Yahweh’s and Mom and Pop’s sway. One evening when I did bring up the Jesus thing, it was like I’d said “fuck.” Sweet palms were quickly raised to rose lips, followed by red-faced girl giggling. There would be many restless teenage nights at 68 South Street.
We had black friends, though only rarely did we enter each other’s homes. There was a détente in the streets. The white and black adults were cordial but distant. The children played together. There was a lot of easy racism amongst the kids. Insults were exchanged. Arguments were either brushed off, settled by an apology or resolved by a quick beating, depending upon the severity of the offense and mood of the afternoon; then the games would continue. I ran into racist kids, kids who learned it at home a few houses down from mine, but I never ran into kids who wouldn’t play with black kids until I bumped into the middle and upper-middle class. On the bottom, we were all lumped in together because of physical proximity and the need for another guy to play the outfield. Fifties racism was so presumed and casual that if a black friend was excluded from a game one afternoon at our “better” friend’s house, so be it. Nobody took up the flag. A day later the usual gang, black and white, would all be playing together again and it would be forgotten … by us.
I was pals with the Blackwell brothers, Richard and David. David, a lanky, thin black kid, was my age and we hung out quite a bit. We rode bikes, played ball and spent a good amount of time together. We fought to see who was toughest. He’d clock me on the kisser with a couple of good rights and it was over; then we’d go back to playing. His brother Richard was a little older, tall and one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. He’d developed his own walk. It was a piece of art: a step forward with one leg and then a slow drag pulling up the other, a slight bend at the hip, the other arm bent at the elbow, wrist cocked as if smoking a cigarette in a holder; never in a hurry, he’d stride through the streets of Freehold like a jazz musician, his face expressionless and his eyes near half-mast. He spoke long and slow. He’d grace us with a few moments of his time and we’d leave like we’d been blessed by the pope of cool.
Racial tensions at Freehold High exploded into violence. If you entered the wrong restroom, it was lights-out and a beating. I entered the first-floor restroom one afternoon, walked up to the latrine next to a black friend. I went to speak. He just looked at the wall and said, “I can’t talk to you right now.” I was white and he was black; the lines had been drawn, even amongst neighborhood friends. There would be no communication until it was over, and it wouldn’t be over for quite a while. The town erupted in rioting. There were harsh words spoken between two cars at a South Street light and a gun was fired into a car full of black kids. At my corner sub shop there was a demonstration after an elderly black man had been thrown out and had fallen and been injured. I stood on my porch watching just two houses down as the proprietor rushed into a black crowd wielding a meat cleaver. It was taken from him and it was amazing no one was killed. Someone was chased up onto the porch of the house next to mine and pushed through the front window. The times they were a-changing … the hard way.