Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Being at Peace

It was the fall of 1980, my first semester in college.  There were 4 or 5 of us crowded into a friend’s dorm room (I don’t even remember whose room it was, but I do remember we were in Harrington E, 3rd floor), and we were listening to Philly’s rock station WMMR countdown of the Top 500 Rock Songs of All-Time.  We were playing the radio way too loud, having fun predicting the final top 5, and arguing about the merits our selections.  If you have ever listened to a Top 500 countdown, and who hasn’t, the final songs are fairly predictable.  It’s the order that sometimes changes. 
Stairway to Heaven was the popular bet.  Anything by the Beatles was a logical guess (Twist and Shout or Yesterday?).  The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again and The Rolling Stones’ Satisfaction were locks to make the cut.  The songs spun off the DJ’s turntable, one by one.  A Day in the Life went by.  The Who and Stones represented.  Song Number 2 in the top 500 list was revealed - Stairway to Heaven.  Wait a minute, what could possibly be left?  What classic track had we missed?  Did anyone hear an Elvis song yet?  Then the chords blasted out of the multiplex stereo:

It was Hungry Heart by Bruce Springsteen.  “Got a wife and kids in Baltimore, jack.”  We freaked out as only angst-ridden college boys can do.  We jumped up and down on the beds and screamed out the secure tilt-in windows, “ARRGGHHH!!!  Philadelphia sucks!  Springsteen sucks!  Not possible!  Not possible!  You idiots!!!”  And then we got mad.  We quickly turned the lyrics of Hungry Heart into Smelly Fart (“You spread your cheeks and it breaks apart, everybody’s got a sme-sme-smellyyyy fart.”).  Hey, we were young.
Hungry Heart was a new song by Springsteen that year, and we viewed its’ selection as the Greatest Rock Song of All Time as an insult to rock musicians, and the ultimate triumph of homer-ism over accomplishment.  The cult of local celebrity brainwashed away common sense.  Hungry Heart wasn’t even Bruce’s best song.  In fact, we believed that it was his worst song.  Yet Philadelphia music fans voted that ridiculous ditty as their top choice, over the entire Pink Floyd catalog, over the master works of the Beatles, over all the AC/DC stadium anthems.  We were disgusted.  At that moment, I hated Bruce Springsteen.

My hate, and I recognize that is a strong word, was misplaced, and I have always known that deep down.  My relationship with Bruce was complicated.  Intellectually, I did not hate Springsteen.  I owned several albums.  Thunder Road has, from time to time, been my favorite song.  I danced to Rosalita at many a party and knew all the words.  In fact, it was gospel in New Jersey that you didn’t really have a party until you played Rosalita.  I loved the music, mostly.  What I really hated was the hype.

I liked Springsteen.  What I hated was people thinking that I worshipped Springsteen.  Where I am from, Bruce Worship was a sort of litmus test, much like the AIDS ribbon immortalized in a classic Seinfeld episode (“You must wear the ribbon.  Everyone is wearing the ribbon.”).  If you didn’t genuflect whenever the Boss was mentioned or heard on the radio, it was sacrilege against the Jersey Shore gods.
You see, I lived in Springsteen’s home town of Freehold, NJ, so there was an assumption on everyone’s part that because of my physical home address, I must be a religious fanatic for the Boss.  My house backed up to Highway 9 (Born to Run:  “Sprung from cages on Highway 9…”).  More than anything, I guess I rebelled against being labeled, against being a lemming, against being predictable.  I was a fan of New Wave, and Springsteen represented the Establishment.  I had to be against him.  Give me some Ramones and The Clash, and you can have your corporate lackey, Bruce Springsteen.  Voting Hungry Heart Number One was the last straw.

That song sucked.

I recognize now that there was a tinge of jealousy in my position.  I wasn’t a native Freehold boy.  My family moved there when I was 16.  Everyone around me had their Springsteen encounter stories, and I had nothing.  All my friends it seemed had stumbled into a Springsteen surprise set at The Stone Pony.  My brother saw him at the Stone Balloon in Delaware in 1973 (or so).  I would always show up where he had just left.  (“Hey, Bruce was just here.  You missed him by 5 minutes.”).  I was starting to think he was a superhero, and that I would never meet up with him on the streets, or if I did, I wouldn’t recognize him without his guitar.

I did see him from a distance a few times.  I was there when he recorded the Devil With the Blue Dress medley at the No Nukes concerts in MSG (1979, thank you very much), and I did catch him at the Spectrum during the Born in the USA tour.  We did drive up his driveway once at his Colts Neck house, and quickly slammed into reverse when we heard dogs barking as we approached.  That is not the same as seeing him play at a local watering hole, or bumping into him at a bar mitvah at the American Hotel.  When I told people I was from Freehold, but never met Bruce, you could see the disappointment in their eyes, and consequently, the shame in mine.  I had let them down.

All these memories and feelings came rushing back when I heard the news that Clarence Clemons passed away this weekend.  I did meet Clarence once, in a little bar in Rumson, NJ.  He was a real celebrity to me, not a superhero illusion.  He was awfully likable, even while he flirted with my girlfriend.  His death made me think about his haunting sax solo in Jungleland, the times jumping up and down and damaging the floors in Paper Mill apartments to Rosalita playing at volume setting 11, but also the emasculating sound of him playing the tambourine or maracas or whatever it was in many a song.  He was the Big Man, and yet sometimes he had to stand there and pretend he was part of the song if the sax wasn’t required. 

Like a river that don’t know where it’s flowin’
I took a wrong turn and I just kept goin’

I flipped through my guitar song book yesterday, a gift from my friend Tim a few years back.  Sure enough, the chords and lyrics to Hungry Heart were in there.  I had passed over this song many times in the book.  On this day, for the first time, it looked interesting and easy to play:

C  Am7  Dm7  G7sus

I can play Hungry Heart, and so I did.  It sounded pretty good, too. 

I have always been at peace with my central Jersey roots.  Now I have made my peace with this Bruce and this song.  Now rest in peace, Big Man.  You will be missed.  Thanks for the soundtrack.

(For the record, not much of a Bon Jovi fan, and I have never bumped into him at the shore)

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