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November 28th, 2012 MATTHEW SINGER | Music Stories
 

Meeting the Old Boss

The many legends of Springsteen.

music_springsteen_3904RED, WHITE & BRUCE: Get Ryan Spellman’s Springsteen shirts at etsy.com/shop/bruceforpres. - IMAGE: Sarah Law

Every American—anyone “born in the U.S.A.,” if you will—has a connection to Bruce Springsteen. It doesn’t matter if you treasure his rusty-throated, denim-collared rock’n’roll anthems more than photos of your own children, or if you only think of him as that constipated-sounding old guy who makes your dockworker uncle tear up every time he comes on the radio: If you’ve ever worn blue jeans, enjoyed a beer after work or even just seen a Chevy commercial, then Bruce is your Boss, whether you like it or not. He is equal parts common man and mythological figure: You don’t have to dig too deep to uncover tales of Bruce crashing someone’s cousin’s wedding, or stopping in at a random bar after playing the local arena and sitting in with the house blues band. Springsteen made his career telling stories about the country’s downtrodden working class. Now, folks tell stories about him. Here are a few of them.


“I grew up in Middletown, New Jersey. My dad raised me on Bruce. Around the time I was a year old, there was a cover band called Cats on a Smooth Surface playing down in Asbury at the Stone Pony, about 20 minutes away. My dad had heard Bruce was a fan of theirs, so he told my mother, ‘I’ve got a feeling Bruce is going to show up tonight.’ She has a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old, so of course she’s not too stoked on that idea, but he went down there anyway. About 50 people were in the bar. Sure enough, Bruce walks in the door. My dad was like, ‘I’ve got to talk to him.’ He goes up and introduces himself and invites Bruce over for dinner. Bruce laughs, then says, ‘I’ll be back’ and jumps onstage. My dad sat there and watched Bruce, after bar time, play a bunch of cover songs for over an hour. Bruce never did come over for dinner, but dad says the invitation still stands.” — Ryan Spellman, Valentine’s doorman.

Here’s the full version of that story straight from Ryan’s dad, Bill Spellman:

Setting: A December day in 1987. We live in Middletown, NJ. It’s a Saturday and I see that “Cats on a Smooth Surface” are playing at the Stone Pony that night. I heard they were one of Bruce’s favorite bar bands and I had wanted to see them. So, I ask my wife if she minds if I take a ride to Asbury Park that night. Since we had two small boys, I knew the request might not go over too well.  Fortunately, when I said I would just go down and listen to the first set and then leave and that I would be home by 11, she said yes! Off I went.

It was a cold winter night and the crowd was light. I went to the bar in the main room and got a good spot to watch the show. There were probably 50 people there, and I did not know anyone so I was just standing by myself, enjoying the band. After about 45 minutes, the band finished the first set and took a break. I had just ordered a second beer so I had a dilemma. Leave the full beer on the bar and keep my promise to my wife that I would leave after the first set, guzzle it and then leave, or walk around for a few minutes and finish the beer. I chose the last option and began to walk around the Pony. It’s one of the best decisions I have ever made!

I was standing by the pool tables for a few minutes and then turned toward the main room to watch as the band was beginning to come back into the room. As I was looking towards them, it seemed that everyone in their group was looking back at me and smiling. Just then, I turned back towards the pool table and Bruce is about 10 feet away, walking towards me. As he approaches, I say, “Hey Bruce, How’s it going?” He slaps me on the shoulder and says “I’m great!” He continues by and goes over to the bar.

Imagine being a big Bruce fan and having this happen to you. I am alone so I have no one to talk to and this was before cell phones so I have no one to call. I just leaned against the bar and tried to stop my leg from shaking.  Within a few minutes, the band got back on stage and began their second set.  I did not want to act like a complete fool, so I stopped staring at Bruce after a few minutes. However, I did know where he was at all times. I completely forgot about the promise I made to my wife that night and got caught up in the moment.

During the set, I realized that Bruce was just like everybody else at the bar that night. Not really, but you know what I mean. He was leaning against the bar and enjoying the music. Having several minutes to collect my composure, I decided that I had to talk with him. If he walked out after an hour, I would have forever regretted the missed opportunity. It was too loud to talk so I had to pick my spot. It also gave me time to think of something to say. No one was bothering him so it wasn’t really too hard to approach him. I figured that I would wait until the set ended to get a couple of minutes of quiet and then make my move.  

The sets ends and I walk over to Bruce. He was standing with two girls. Here’s the exchange:

Me: Hi Bruce. My name’s Bill and I just want to say how much I like your music.
Bruce: Thanks Bill, I appreciate it.
Me: You know, we’re practically neighbors.
Bruce: Really?
Me: Yeah, I live in Middletown and you’re in Rumson.
Bruce: OK.
Me: You know, if your wife is out in California and you are looking for a place to have dinner, you are always welcome at our house. (He was married to Julianne Phillips at the time.)
Bruce: (Laughs) All right, thanks. Hey, I’ve got a joke for you guys.

He then told us a joke. I can’t remember it, but I am sure we all laughed. The band came back on stage and we stood together for a few minutes. I shook his hand again and said thanks and I went back to my spot at the bar.

After another song, the band called him up on stage. Seventy-five minutes and many great “oldies” later, the night ended. Bruce played the entire last set with the band and everyone had a blast. He had a few friends there and at one point dedicated a song saying, “To John and Nancy Mulherren, the handsomest couple in Rumson, NJ!” The crowd did swell as the night went on and there was a long line at the pay phone. Imagine seeing Bruce in this setting. It doesn’t get much better.

I pulled into my driveway about 2 am. As you might expect, my wife was not happy. I said, “Honey, I have the excuse to end all excuses. Tonight, I met Bruce!”  She forgave me.

To this day, I still remember the thrill of meeting Bruce. I’m sure he doesn’t remember me, and he has not come over for dinner. Not yet, anyway!  The invitation is still good!  — Bill Spellman.


“Me and [Oregonian music editor] Ryan White and Bryan Steelman, who owns Por Que No, we were on a road trip to follow the Boss, because we’re huge Springsteen fans. On his night off, in Vancouver, B.C., we were at a Foo Fighters show, and we ran into Bruce Springsteen, and just hung out all night and watched the show together. He was just walking around by himself, totally solo, totally incognito, had a little hat on. We talked a little bit about politics, we talked a little bit about how much he meant to us. What’s pertinent is, at the end of the night, after watching the whole show with us and talking to all three of us, he walked away, and we were like, ‘Man, that’s so fucking awesome! We can die now! We got to watch a rock’n’roll show with Bruce Springsteen!’ But then he turned around when he was about 20 yards away, he comes running back and goes, ‘I almost forgot to ask you guys: What do you want to hear tomorrow night?’ We all froze up, but Ryan White, who’s the biggest Springsteen geek of the three of us, blurts out this song—and I’m a big Springsteen fan, and I’ve never heard of the song—‘None but the Brave,’ a totally obscure request. And Bruce kind of gave all three of us this crazy eye and says, ‘Well, that’s a pretty tall order. OK, goodnight,’ and laughed, like, ‘I’m not gonna do that.’ 

“The next night, we’re at his show in Vancouver, B.C., in this big hockey stadium, and he stops about two hours in and says, ‘I was hanging out with these guys last night, and I made the mistake of asking them what they wanted to hear.’ And he had rehearsed the band. It was a song he had never played in his entire career. And he taught it to the band, and now it’s something they whip out every once in a while, but it was the first time it’d ever been played live. It was a really generous, gracious thing to do. None of us told him we were in the music business. Ryan didn’t tell him he was a writer for The Oregonian, I didn’t tell him I own a music venue. We weren’t pulling any of that. We were just fan-boys. And he did that, and that was awesome. He’s a hero. And we just walked on air after that.” — Jim Brunberg, owner of Mississippi Studios


“In college, several friends and I drove to Birmingham, Alabama, to see Bruce play—and, as I recall it, one of us drove down some five hours early to get at the front of the stage, whereupon he was gifted the Boss’s harmonica after a rousing ‘Thunder Road’ and refused to wash it, ever. It was a touching and disgusting gesture.” — Aaron Mesh, WW staffer


“Back in high school, my idea of the Boss consisted of tight denim jeans and weirdo drummer Max Weinberg. I used to check out and burn records from the public library (the piracy of old) and Springsteen’s Nebraska made it in the bunch one afternoon. After giving it several listens while staring the album cover’s bleak image of a dashboard in the foreground and open road beyond, I decided it might be in my best interest to go on more solo road trips. I made a habit of it, opting to drive to alone en route to a friend’s place we frequented in eastern Oregon. I’d always justify a stop at the diner at Biggs Junction, saying to myself, ‘It’s what the Boss would do.’” — Mark Stock, WW freelancer


“I tried to sell off my parents’ copy of the post-Born In The USA live box set here in town. I couldn’t get anyone to take it, and then brought to a little shop that had just opened. They didn’t want it but we talked about their shop and I browsed a bit, and then I realized they had set the thing on a stool behind the counter. So without drawing attention to it, I slunk out of the store and left them with it. I wanted to be rid of the thing that badly by that point.” — Robert Ham, WW contributor


“I was with R.E.M. on the Vote For Change Tour in 2004, with Bruce and the E Street Band closing the show every night. Bruce also got up and did ‘Man On The Moon’ with us a couple times, and I’ve got the framed live shot on my living room wall to prove it. Early afternoon before one of the shows I was the only person in our huge, ugly fluorescent hockey rink backstage room, and the Boss wandered in, apparently looking to hang out.  Since I was the only one there, we did. He sure is a nice fellow. Later on the chartered jet we were all taking from city to city, the subject of fast-food fried chicken came up and I was there to hear Bruce and Little Steven wax eloquent on the beauty of Kentucky Fried Chicken.  I don’t eat meat, but if I did, they assured me in the strongest words possible that KFC was indeed ‘the best.’ On the last night of the tour in D.C., I got to join everybody for the finale of ‘Born To Run’—I may have ‘only’ been playing percussion with the Big Man, but how cool is that? George W. Bush can’t take that away from me.” — Scott McCaughey of Young Fresh Fellows and the Minus 5 and “fifth member” of R.E.M.


“Every night at the ice cream shop I worked at in high school, the bearded, alcoholic floor manager—let’s call him Tony—would realize that, at the age of 32, he was still asking tourists if they preferred cones or cups and was not pursuing the blue-collar daydream of being a construction worker like his first generation Italian mother had dreamed for her son. This revelation would cause his frail frame to shake as he retreated to the walk-in refrigerator to pull whiskey shots and to ask himself, ‘How will I reclaim my tough, working class upbringing while in the confines of a sissy, overpriced ice cream shop?’ Every night, he came up with the same romantically boozy resolution: Emerging from the walk-in, the manager would storm out in front of the store and smoke one to three Winstons, glaring at anyone who vaguely thinking about entering the shop. He would come back in and sneer under his breath at the teeny-boppers still lingering with no where to go in small-town America. Then, there would be a brief, awkward period of silence when he would shut off whatever laid-back hip-hop we were listening to that night. And then Bruce Springsteen would come blaring out of the back as the manager, ran out into the front holding a broom and began to violently stack chairs and tables. He usually played ‘Born in the USA,’ as its keyboard chords produce the most shock in an unexpecting California tourist’s ear. Occasionally, drunk people would embrace Bruce’s overwhelming voice and go into the great American sing-along anyone who has ingested at least three Budweisers is required to do. This would force Tony to stack chairs more forcibly, lock almost all the doors, and switch the song to ‘Jungleland,’ which is much more evocative of credits rolling, calling closure to another great day of work in the American Heartland. This caused any remaining drunkards to hug, kiss and stumble out into the street laughing and remembering the good ol’ days, just like the Boss would. Tony would retreat into the back, throwing the mop and broom at me, and grumble about all his fuckin’ problems as if he was confiding in Bruce himself. Grabbing the iPod, Tony would slump out of the shop, taking Bruce as his wingman into the dark, dive-bar nightmares of blue-collar America.” — Drew Lenihan, WW intern 


“In 2001—in strip club years, almost 100 years ago—I walked into Union Jack’s on Burnside. They still had booths in the back in those days, and Bruce Springsteen was in one of them with a couple people. Dancer after dancer, almost all of them in the place, kept sidling up to try to give Bruce Springsteen a lap dance. I mean, what girl wouldn’t want to be able to say they gave the Boss an erection? But the Boss didn’t want a dance. He said no every single time. Eventually, he slipped out the back door to a waiting car. One of the dancers explained to me later that she’d been the only one who didn’t try to hit him up for a private session. ‘They all just wanted attention from him because he’s famous,” she told me. “Not me. I’m not like that. I’m not going to beg.’” — Matthew Korfhage, WW editor.


“I was on tour in the Northeast opening for Black Prairie last week, and an old friend was commenting on their set. With regard to Annalisa Tornfelt’s voice he said, ‘There are people who sing like angels and people who sing like ghosts… ghosts are much cooler.’ We love songs and bands for all the reasons we do, but only occasionally do I find myself haunted by a band. In 1980, a cassette of Bruce Springsteen’s Nebraska appeared in my father’s car. It was the first time I remember being truly haunted by music.  

Every morning I went to school by walking down a long, windy gravel driveway before being picked up by a carpool. Sometimes in the winter, it would still be dark and I’d run frightened, imagining snakes chasing me. When I got to the end of the driveway, the carpool would pick me up. In the lyrics to ‘My Father’s House,’ Bruce describes a dream where he’s running down a dirt road with the ‘devil snapping at his heels.’ Out went the snakes. Now it was the devil. Haunted.

The characters and scenes were much like the world around me—the tri-state area of New Jersey, Connecticut and New York that circles New York City. As a kid outside the city, I romanticized the place. The Thurman Munson-era Yankees, the Clash at Bonds, Taxi Driver, the vigilantism of Bernhard Goetz and the Guardian Angels—there was danger, art, rock, girls, everything I seemed to want. My father moved to the city sometime around then, so it became my stomping grounds. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the early ‘70s romantic epics of Springsteen were the lenses I saw it through: ‘Incident on 57th Street,’ ‘New York City Serenade,’ ‘Jungleland.’ I have spent more than a few notebook pages writing my own paeans to the Lower East Side. Even in it’s gentrified modern state, I still believe every romantic thing ever said about NYC to be true. 

I didn’t see Bruce and the E Street Band until I had been a working musician for years. I had been on a record with Springsteen, even—a 1998 Pete Seeger Tribute—but never seen the legendary marathon show. They came to Portland in 2000 and according to my friends, I haven’t been quite right since. Now I go whenever I can for the fist-pumping rock catharsis. but also to learn about how to do the job. Attention musicians: When it comes to the hard, gut-busting part of the job—the work of the rock show—he is the master. Better than anyone since James Brown, I’d contend. I’ve lived in the west most of my adult life and find that people out here don’t quite get him sometimes; I know far more left coast musicians who are Tom Petty and Neil Young acolytes. He’s one of the biggest rock stars ever and still a local act. At least all the ‘Born in the USA’ shit I used to get from punks has been erased by years of Bruce becoming a more outspoken icon of the left. 

Back to the ghosts. The E Street Band has lost two core members in Clarence Clemons and ‘Phantom’ Danny Federici. The Wrecking Ball tour invokes them, celebrates them, calls them down and invites you to bring your own ghosts down, too. There is a horn section that emphasizes the soul roots of the music and the band tears through hits and rave-ups. But depending on the night, a dark ballad appears and the hair on the back of your neck stands up. And that is much cooler than angels.” — Casey Neill, songwriter

 
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