cookman avenue, sunday afternoon
Springsteen in a club. A club show, in Asbury Park. 500 people, maybe, at a place called “Harry’s Roadhouse”. It boggles the mind.
I was about 4 years too young to have experienced the Springsteen club era, 14 in 1978, hearing about it but just missing those days, I pulled a lot of fairly audacious stunts in my youth but there was no way a 14 year old was going to get into a club in New Jersey or anywhere else, at least not *this* 14 year old. But I would hear about it and I would hate missing it and I would dream about it and fantasize about it in endless detail. What else did I have to do? I was a kid, praying for the day I would finally be OLD ENOUGH.
I was able to sneak into NYC clubland at ages entirely too young to have been there, but I lived for the day I turned 16, had a license and access to a car, and could drive down the Garden State Parkway, get off at the Asbury exit, play pinball in the arcade (just like Bruce, I’d seen the pictures) and hold my breath as my fake ID got me into the Stone Pony for the first time. Of course he wasn’t there, but the idea that he had been there was almost enough.
And, as if it will surprise anyone, I grew up to be a regular, a rock club habitue, one of those people always at the front of the stage, purse tucked carefully behind the monitors, I would feel 100% at home in the world of tiny blackened rooms with no air, I met my best friends standing shoulder to shoulder in the crowd (or fighting for that precious front-of-stage space). Some places became a second home, I knew the vagaries of the sound and the lighting and the air conditioning (or lack thereof) like the people who played there or worked there.
So the significance of Sunday’s shows (early and late – I was at the 4:30, gave up the 8:30) in Asbury Park wasn’t, for me, just the size of the venue or the rarity of the occasion – Bruce’s smallest official show since the Bottom Line in 1975 – it was finally, being able to see Bruce in my world. Like anyone who came of age in Year Zero, post-punk-rock, end of the dinosaurs, arenas and stadiums are not places for music. I did not see Springsteen during the Born In The USA stadium run; I got in two arena shows down south, and that was it for me. I felt no remorse or loss or lack, that was not how I experienced my music. These days, we’re a lot less rigid, and my hip friends affectionately tolerate the fact that I will betray the cause for the likes of Bruce and the Stones or the Who and head to the large venues. But I don’t feel comfortable or at home there, the way I do at a club. I always feel out of place and like I don’t belong. But, part of the Springsteen experience, really, is the communion with 15,000 of your closest friends under one roof, the shared experience, the ritual of it.
At this point in my Springsteen fandom, I have now seen him up close, I have stood next to him, I have seen a small theater show, I have fondled his knees during “Mary’s Place” and stared at his ass from a distance of a few feet, and was introduced to him by another musician just recently, even. So Sunday’s experience wasn’t just – “I am three feet from Bruce” – it was, finally, Bruce in MY world. Bruce in the context I relate to the best, from the vantage point I have spent hundreds of nights experiencing – the edge of a stage in a rock club, televisions playing, bars working overtime, sweaty bodies packed together carefully, some dancing, some standing stone-faced, some singing, others just hanging out and having a good time. Because, after all, that is what a rock band in a bar is all about at the end of the day. (If I had been able to go to the second show – I had a ticket but had to give it up for a reason more important than even this – I would have loved to have been at the back bar for that show, drinking tequila and having a blast.)
Of course, it was about 50 flavors of wonderful, even the most jaded non-fan would readily admit that surely, it must have been. He looked like he got up, pulled on jeans and a shirt, and cruised on down to the bar to play. I heard a lot of songs I love, a couple of first-time-live-listens, loved making eye contact with Himself as he worked the stage, really looking at the audience as he did so. I loved noticing that his jeans were frayed at the hems, threads dragging on the ground, as though he was 22 years old. I loved watching him be unafraid to fuck up, screw up a solo or two, hand off one or two to the other musicians in the band, drink whiskey, make jokes about watching TV, and just be loose.
On the other hand, I do wish it had been even more loose, more whiskey, more audibiles, drag out the cover songs, play those tunes you know he knows in his sleep, that he made a living off playing when he was in those early bar bands down the Shore and was known as “The Guitar Slinger of Central New Jersey” (a title which he *absolutely* lived up to during the early show – I could have stood there and watched his fingers on the fretboard from that short distance for hours on end). Let go of the expectations completely, and just rock the fuck out and have fun.
But I think he is getting closer to that phase of his career, starting to let go of the control freak a little bit (although, even in this tiny bar, they made sure to have security guys patrolling the crowd and confiscating every camera and cell phone they could find). This show had no “Born To Run,” no “Thunder Road,” no “Promised Land,” nothing you would *expect* to hear — but then again, my expectation for this show stopped round about “Seaside Bar Song,” an outtake that never made it to a proper album (it’s on the Tracks box set):
“…Bo Diddley, Bo Diddley’s at the Seaside Bar
We’ll run barefoot in the sand, listen to his guitar
You say your mama’s gonna meet you when the morning comes
And your papa’s gonna beat you ’cause he knows you’re out on the run
I’m gonna live a life of love and tonight you’re the one
The highway is alive tonight so baby do not be frightened
There’s something about a pretty girl on a sweet summer night
That gets this boy excited
The radio man finally understands and plays you something you can move to
You lay back, cut loose your drive power
Your girl leans over and says, “Daddy, can you turn that radio up any louder?”
(That last one is one of my favorite lines, he delivers it in this rushed, breathless shout that absolutely captures that summertime-in-the-car-with-the-roof-down-and-the-radio-playing feeling. But then again, he’s Bruce fucking Springsteen, and if he don’t get that, who can?)
The best times, for me, was when he just let go, when he reverted back into the guy who worked the bars of the Shore scene, when he pulled out his soul singer voice and moves and turned “Talk To Me” (a song he wrote for Southside Johnny) into a Sam Cooke at the Harlem Square club call and response: “Are you ready?” By the end of the Rising tour, no one ever wanted to hear him ask that question again. Sunday afternoon, we were damn sure feeling it. “Spirit In The Night” was fluid and had the vibe of the album version, the one where the lyrics just roll off his tongue like quicksilver, slithering around your ears, just the slightest tinge of smouldering sex whispering around his voice. He’s not in his 20’s so Sunday wasn’t quite like that, but the performance was full of the same quality of honest emotion.
He’s a cheap drunk. One shot of whiskey had him doing hand rolls during “Talk To Me” and getting real chatty with the crowd, pogoing up and down at the end of songs and during guitar breaks. “It’s fun being in a club,” he murmured at one point.
I only got lucky once and caught Bruce playing at a club in the 80’s. (I also did run straight into him once, as he was walking into the Pony – he didn’t play that night, though). I don’t have the patience or the tolerance to go see a bunch of bands or musicians I don’t like or can’t stand just because Bruce *might* show up. So I’ve had the fantasy for years, this seeing Bruce in a club, but to me, my fantasy would only be worth a damn if I was there for whoever was on the bill, there rocking out because that was the band I went to see, and Bruce showed up out of the blue, and not because I studied the history of every band he ever played with and doggedly pursued their gigs at Shore-area clubs. Foolishly, I still believe that this will happen some day, but until then, at least I had part of the fantasy fulfilled, seeing his pick on the strings about a foot away from my face, raised up only about a foot above the floor, and not 10 feet above my head. He was in my world for about two hours on Sunday, and I’ll never fucking forget it.
[Those looking for a proper review should check the next issue of Backstreets which will, actually, be out soon.]
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