From Asbury Park To The Promised Land: Visiting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Part II
Before I start going through the exhibit and telling you what there is to see, I will just cut to the chase and tell you that if you are a big Bruce Springsteen fan, seeing this exhibit is imperative. It’s imperative because this exhibit is being done now, at the height of his career, WITH HIS FULL AND COMPLETE COOPERATION. There wasn’t much the Hall of Fame asked for that they didn’t get. The access and scope is unprecedented. So while you plan your trip to Cleveland, I’ll get on with the rest of it.
The exhibit is arranged chronologically. It leads you in gently, it’s all about telling the story and giving context. It begins with the Castiles, and Bruce’s early history. Remember those photos in the Kennedy Center tribute, the ones you had never seen before? Well, when HOF VP Jim Henke went out to interview Bruce for the exhibit, as he was leaving, Bruce handed him a CD. What was on it? Those photographs, now printed out and in a case where you can sit and stare at them for a good 20 minutes.
On the left is a surfboard, one of Bruce’s old surfboards, back when they lived in the surfboard factory. Pieces of Asbury are here, too, like a brass ring from the carousel at the Palace. There’s an address book with Clarence’s phone number in it, and on the opposite page are lyrics. “Senorita Spanish rose, close her eyes and blows her nose, love is just a fire hose.” (I swear I am not making this up.)
You will find yourself reciting the history in your head as you walk through the exhibit, as you see the things you have only seen in books before (like the Castiles’ first business card). Marion Vineyard’s legendary photo album is there, open to photos from a party celebrating Bruce and George Theiss’ 19th birthday. The haircut and the Elvis shades have got to be seen to be believed.
There is a section for Child and the Bruce Springsteen Band and Steel Mill, posters and fliers and photographs. My favorite is a poster for “Bruce Springsteen And His Band Of Elves,” appearing at a Rutgers University Christmas concert.
Then you come to the exhibit for the first record, and THE Columbia sessions tape box is there, and that’s when you start running into the pages and pages and pages and pages and pages and pages of handwritten lyrics. I am not lying when I tell you that I read every single word of every single page. It took us hours, and other people walking through the exhibit thought we were absolutely insane. If you don’t need to do that, it will take you a lot less time to go through the exhibit. And even if you don’t care, I would urge you to pick one or two songs, just a couple, and stand there and read them. Get to know the handwriting, the loopy T’s. He always used spiral notebooks and he always used blue ballpoint pen. I want to read the early versions, see what lines made it, see what he kept, what he reused later. In “Growin’ Up,” our jukebox graduate was a sweet shop graduate in the first version. Plus, random lyrics from “Blinded” show up in the middle.
It’s not like this was news to me and it’s obvious even on “Tracks” that he does this. He finds a line he likes and he’ll keep using it until it fits. But it’s different to just hear finished product than seeing the process that got him to the finished product.
Alongside the early records, up until Born To Run, he also had lists of album title concepts. These are well worth reading, because many of them are very, very, very bad. For Wild & Innocent, for example, he was also considering “Circle of Lions,” “Hungry & Hunted,” “From The Churches To The Jails”. For BTR, there were pages of alternate titles as well as a tracklist that captured the kind of feeling he wanted on each song –
There’s also a prose description of a cover concept: “Flash – a street in day, fantasy on a golf bench in back of Madam Marie’s with big moon over the ocean & clarence in background”. (If you remember, there used to be a minigolf park behind Madam Marie’s. If you don’t, now you know.)
There are cases filled with reviews and photographs and fliers, all carefully preserved in scrapbooks. Some of this is him but most of it is Adele, you will definitively prove it is Adele when you find a letter written to her from Robert Hilburn, apologizing for not sending a copy of his review to her sooner. There are tshirts and jackets and backstage passes. There is one of Clarence’s saxophones, THE saxophone, the one he used on “Jungleland”. One of Danny’s accordions is there.
The Wild & Innocent lyrics went from one extreme to the other. My notes say “Bruce killed a lot of women in early lyric versions”. Scenes that were more violent in the first draft got way, way toned down in, say, the final version of “incident”. There’s a line I noted “at night we stalk the jungle in heat with murder in our ears”. (Yeah, sometimes the lyrics themselves are very, very bad, too.)
There are women’s phone numbers written in the margins in just about every third page. I liked that. I wondered who they were.
The Born To Run jacket is there. It is smaller than you think it will be, it has shrunk, it was likely tortured to death before it ended up with whichever girlfriend finally kept it. I noted this in my blog for the Hall of Fame’s website, but it bears repeating: one minute I’m reading the lyrics about “silver star studs on my duds” and the next minute I’m standing in front of the jacket, THE JACKET, which has silver star studs on the shoulders. (Which, frankly, must have been a pain in the ass and I’m shocked they’re still there, because if you carry anything on your shoulders they are eventually going to get caught in a guitar strap.)
You head up to the second floor now, up a spiral staircase with the lyrics to “Thunder Road” running up the walls as you ascend. When you get to the top, there it is: the Esquire straight ahead of you, with a BITUSA poster right above it. You probably won’t even notice the poster, but it’s there to give context to everyone else who don’t really know or understand what that guitar is. You will want to spend some time with the Esquire up close, and your observations will be different than mine, you will see different things, pay attention to different things. The glue, the wear, the frets just plain worn away. It is good that it is there where we can all see it.
(I can also tell you that the rumored stories about Kevin escorting the guitar there are true. I can tell you that he refused to give the guitar to anyone except Jim Henke, and when he did, he said, “I can’t believe he’s giving you this.”)
Upstairs you have Darkness and The River and BITUSA and Tunnel lyrics to contend with. You also have more guitars and more artifacts. The exact outfit he wore on the BITUSA cover. No seriously, the exact outfit. And looking at the jeans up close, you realize that there was absolutely zero accident that he chose those jeans, and they weren’t the only ones he had, and the holes and the wear and the wash were all carefully considered, and frankly, if my ass was going to be memorialized on a record cover, I would do the exact same thing.
(I know. I spent too much time thinking about this stuff.)
The outfit he wore on the Human Touch cover, down to that — necklace. (I did not think that era was his best look.) I hope you like “Plugged” because it’s running in a loop up here, and you will be there at least long enough to hear it once, probably once and a half. (I heard it FIVE TIMES before I stopped counting). The ticket taker’s booth from Tunnel. The flannel shirt from The River cover. The Kennedy Center medal, some Grammys, his Oscar. I will not tell you everything that is there because there still need to be some surprises. Do go around the corner towards the elevator, because there you will find a handful of Bruce’s favorite signs from the last tour (apparently he has boxes and boxes of them), along with a photo of Terry in costume and behind the ticketbooth you just saw in the other room.
The lyrics upstairs are different and in some ways less interesting. The older drafts of the later albums are more complete, except for “Walk Like A Man” (please make sure you stop to read that one through, as the early draft was very revealing). The “Streets of Fire” early draft bears no resemblance to the finished product. The Darkness titles were very firmly set, there are no lists of grandiose concepts (or they might not be on exhibit, but I’d like to think that the curators wouldn’t let us down).
The biggest surprise for me was the original “Streets of Fire” draft. In the draft on exhibit, the setting is Vietnam: “With a M16 and face in the mud, there’s a soft rain falling in the jungle.” I could be wrong about this, but this would seem to be the first time he wrote about Vietnam directly, in the first person (Lost In the Flood written as an observer). So if you only pick one lyric to read in the whole place, make it this one.
And then there is the table. It’s the table Bruce has done 90% of his writing on. It’s wooden, old like a guitar. It’s going to absorb vibrations. It gets warm and cold – it wears, just like the Esquire. They have it in a huge plexiglass cube with artifacts on the table – lyrics, setlists, album sequencing (there’s a list with three alternate Darkness sequences). There’s an (overdue) electric bill for the Long Branch house, an insurance receipt for one of his cars. I could have sat next to that table for hours, and definitely did sit there for at least half an hour, going through my notes from the first floor of the exhibit, before I moved on. People that worked with Bruce, as they’ve walked through the exhibit, have seen the table and said, “Yep, that’s just what it usually looks like.” Bruce made a joke about all the songs that were in that table. (Which makes me say, GIVE IT BACK RIGHT NOW.)
Cars: there are two cars on display right now, the first car he ever bought, which is in the lobby and you can take pictures of it, and the car he bought with his Born to Run earnings, which you’ve seen in some of the Lynn Goldsmith pictures, in the regular exhibit hall downstairs. It’s not far from Elvis’ car. I like that.
I wish I had taken more notes. I wish I had broken it up into two days, because there is just so much to appreciate. I think about going back. I wonder what Bruce would have thought if he had seen us standing there, debating the choice of certain words or why some lines were left out (although I kind of understand why the main character in Hungry Heart didn’t go out for a magazine in the final version). I am sure he would have thought we were insane too, just like the daytrippers and Girl Scout leaders herding their charges through as we stood there with our noses pressed to the plexiglass. But, after all, that is why that stuff is there and is what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is for.
It’s worth checking out the web page for the exhibit on the RRHOF website as it’s got a Flickr slideshow. Of course, no photographs are permitted anywhere in the HOF except the lobby. But photographs wouldn’t do it justice anyway.
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