This essay links trips in Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run, to rambles in Russell Banks’ Book of Jamaica, Michael Ventura’s Night Time, Losing Time, and Richard Meltzer’s The Night (Alone). It also takes in riffs in Meltzer’s reportage and recordings–including Springsteen’s (out of the archives though still under the radar) Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75–that soundtrack passages in Born to Run. But foundational things first: the book of Bruce comes out of Jack’s so this tour starts with…
“The greatest ride of my life.”
You know the one—Kerouac hitches on a flatbed truck (filled with tramps like “Slim” et al.) driven by a pair of Minnesota farm boys rolling straight to L.A. Kerouac can’t stick with them (since he’s gotta go to Denver before he heads for the Coast). But he’s on the truck long enough to find true West:
I felt something different in the air…I didn’t know what it was. In five minutes I did. It got dark quickly. We all had a shot, and suddenly I looked, and the verdant farmlands of the Platte began to disappear and in their stead, so far you couldn’t see in the end, appeared long flat wastelands of sand and sagebrush. I was astounded.
“What in the hell is this.” I cried out to Slim.
“This is the beginning of the rangelands, boy. Hand me another drink.”
There’s always magic in that night for your guide (though, as a Massachusetts guy, I also twig to the New England road trips in Kerouac’s first novel, The Town and the City).
On the Road is one template for Springsteen’s memoir. But The Town and City‘s local lore belongs in this circuit too. Like Kerouac in T. and C., Springsteen locks on his immigrant family—mapping their ups and downs as well as their straight and bent sides. Springsteen’s fam wasn’t happy, but they managed to hang tight until Springsteen got through high school (and found his vocation). His depressive dad broke out of New Jersey then, trying on a new life in California with his wife and youngest daughter. Springsteen’s older sister got wed and gone to the other end of Jersey, leaving the nineteen year old on his own in his parents’ old place, where he lasted only a month after his buds turned it into a crash pad (and everyone got turned out by the landlord). Born to Run’s first of many exalting night-trips comes when Springsteen and his band-mates moved out after dark. Once they’d packed their stuff into their manager Carl “Tinker” West’s forties flatbed truck (shades of the one driven by those Minnesota twins who gave Kerouac his lift), Springsteen ended up in the back lying on his living room couch, enjoying a balmy night-ride with “trees and scrolling stars above me…”
I was slipping over the streets of my childhood, no longer a painful player in my or my town’s history but a passing and impassive observer. I was struck by the sweet night smell of honeysuckle… My gang and I would gather on dead summer afternoons to suck out the small flowers’ sweet juices. I felt filled with the freedom of being young and leaving something…A spark of my future self came up burning brightly inside me…
From my perch on the couch atop the truck I watched our wheels cross the town line, turn left on Highway 33, pick up speed and head for the ocean breezes and new freedoms of the Shore. With the warm night whistling by me, I felt wonderfully and perilously adrift, giddy with exultation. This town, my town, would never leave me, and I could never completely leave it, but I would never live in Freehold again.
Forty years down the road, still is still moving to Springsteen. But Born to Run tells how he’s searched out homey surrounds on the Eastern seaboard and way out West:
I felt a great elation at the wheel as we crossed the western desert at dawn, the deep blue and shadowed canyons, the pale yellow morning sky with all of its color drawn out, leaving just the black silhouetted mountains behind us. With the eastern sun rising at our backs, the deep reds and browns of the plains and hills came to life. Your palms turned salty white on the wheel from the aridity. Morning woke the Earth into muted color, then came the flat light of the midday sun, and everything stood revealed as pure horizon, lowering on two lanes, of blacktop and disappearing into…nothing—my favorite thing.
Springsteen found his sweet spot in the desert on his first trip to the Coast, which was one for the book. It went down in the late Sixties after the band Springsteen fronted, Steel Mill, got a gig in California. They had three days to get there from Jersey. No money for hotels and no camping gear so there’d be no stopping. The plan was to drive in rotating shifts around the clock. Springsteen himself wasn’t one of the designated drivers. It wasn’t just that he had no license. He’d been Mr. Hitchhike as a teenager and had no clue how to “safely operate a motor vehicle.” The bulk of his band jammed into one car and Springsteen rolled with his manager (and his dog) in that old truck. But Springsteen and Tinker got separated from the rest of the band (and all other drivers). So Springsteen had to take the wheel:
Here’s how we did it. Once we realized it was impossible for me to start from a dead stop. Tinker would get the transmission in first gear and get the truck rolling, and then we would switch seats in the tight cab, stepping on J.T. as she howled from the floorboards, and I would take over from second gear through fourth for as long as the highway held. We drove thousands of miles, the rest of the way, employing this method…It was not a restful ride for [Tinker]. I’d be driving through the desert night during his “sleep” break, weaving all over the highway, and I’d look over to see him with fear flooding his wide-open eyes. I couldn’t blame him. My driving sucked. We were lucky I didn’t kill us.
Their luck held when they reached Cali and Tinker chose to take the truck over a fearsome cliff-side road that led (finally) to the site of Steel Mill’s gig: Big Sur’s Esalen Institute. (An unobvious nexus for a band of grindstone rockers.) Springsteen’s tale of the tribal scene there (where it “all broke loose West Coast-style—…and as a straight-edge Jersey boy it was about all the fun I could take.”— should speak to anyone who started out in the Sixties. For the record, we’re probably lucky Springsteen never did drugs. It means he can recall what happened when he explored Esalen’s grounds before the party jumped off:
One afternoon I took a long walk deep into the forest. I stayed on the path so as not to get lost and began to follow the sound of a distant conga drum. About 10 minutes in, deep in a wooded clearing I came upon a tall thin black man dressed in a dashiki hunched over a conga drum entertaining the wildlife. He looked up and I found myself face-to-face with Richard Blackwell, my homie from Freehold, whom I’d grown up with. What are the odds! We had a “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” moment, couldn’t believe the two of us had ended up there thousands of miles from home at this exact place and time, decided it was destiny, and I asked if he wanted to sit in with Steel Mill for the rest of our West Coast stretch.
Blackwell helped Springsteen’s band find a new groove at Esalen where they “played and played” on New Year’s Eve for “tattooed earth mamas, old grizzled mountain men, nubile young hippie girls fueled by acid and ready to fuck.” Springsteen muses on the crowd that danced as bonfires burned—“ancient faces with eyes rolling back alongside well-off middle Americans trying to find a new light who’d come west and were paying big for what we’d have done for ‘em in New Jersey for two bucks.” When he recalls how Blackwell (and Tinker) created “an unending pulse with their conga drums,” I flashed on Springsteen’s “New York City Serenade”—not the kitsch piano intro but the conga (which I believe was played by Blackwell) which really sets off that boogaloo down Broadway.
Onward to another Black Atlantic island and another trip into a tribal mindset.
Johnny in J.A.
The narrator of Russell Banks’ Book of Jamaica is a white American writer who unmasks himself as he digs into the history of Jamaica’s Maroons—descendants of Ashanti warriors who freed themselves from Spanish slavers and later forced Brits to grant them autonomy in mountainous precincts of the island. Banks’ traveler (and alter-ego?) moves from the first person to the second—“you are becoming your own stranger”—as Jamaica gets under his skin. When he and a Rasta mentor happen on a vital community of Maroons whose dailiness is informed by an imagined Africa, that meeting leads to one more personal/political change. The narrator becomes “Johnny”—the name traditionally given to a trusted white man by Maroons. Awed by his new soulmates, Johnny agrees to drive them to a conclave with another clan of Maroons across the island. The Book of Jamaica peaks with that van ride. Its account of this jaunt across J.A. isn’t above magical realist flights of feeling. A couple years before E.T., Banks dared to wing it:
The Colonel starts to sing, a high, slightly off-key, chanting song that is quickly taken up by the others in the car. Aunt Celia’s voices comes in at the top, an ancient, keening sound that gives the chant a timeless quality as it rises and rolls on and over itself. Pie’s drum and Steve’s clattering bamboo come in under the song and start to drive it, and in a moment even Johnny’s tenor and the Rasta’s deep bass have caught up and joined them, and as the car sits there in the moonlight with its motor running, the choir of voices and drums lifts it off the ground and, as if on the hand of a god, carries it through the air. Hurriedly, Johnny slaps the rising car into gear, flicks on the headlights and now, as if steering a boat, spins the wheel and guides the vehicle above the yard…As they leave the settlement, the old Captain sticks his head out the window and blows furiously on the abeng, a long, clear, rising note that finally breaks and fades away, and they are gone.
Their journey, though, isn’t child’s play and it doesn’t end friendly. That Maroon summit is doomed to be ruined by a mean host whose comprador ways underscore a legacy of exploitation and beggary. Faced with this mimic man, Johnny’s Maroons can’t go high. When The Book of Jamaica turns into Murder She Wrote, Johnny’s not all in. He can’t identify entirely with imperatives of his comrades. But their journey remains undeniable. Nobody who takes it will regret the trip. (Unlike, say, Naipaul’s Guerrillas, Banks’ Book amounts to more than a Caribbean downer.)
There are vivifying stops all along the rootsy route. When Johnny’s crew pulled over for fish and peppers cooked on outside stoves, this reader was hungry for more. The juke in the bar next to the fish stands was smoking too, “with forty or fifty of the newest songs on it, the sign of critical and demanding and political neighborhood.” Johnny and the Rasta start to step to heavy beats, prepping for an elder Maroon who will light up the joint:
Gordo…after starting slowly has begun to dance faster and faster, in perfect time, with increasing grace and lightfootedness, a tiny old man who soon seems to have left the ground to dance a few inches above it, whirling like a dervish in the crowded room, forcing everyone to clear a space for him in the middle. His unbuttoned black suit coat flares out around him like a skirt as he spins and dips, leaps up and drops through his own circle to the bare ground, while the music pounds along behind, his only perfect partner. The women and children leave the fish stand and come to stand at the open front of the bar to watch the old man and everyone in the bar…stares happily at Gordo, for the brittle, nervous, tiny man with the chirping voice has become liquid and weightless, has turned his old body wholly into music.
Johnny Boy in London
Just watched a two hour concert of Bruce and the E Street Band from 1975, at Hammersmith Odeon…best versions of the early songs I’ve ever heard…Bruce had this rasta style hat, looked stoned, or sometimes like a wino, not sure a human being could be either and be as on it as he was, the others all looked great with hats, man, 1975.
That’s from an email my brother sent after seeing a rock documentary (released about ten years ago) on Springsteen’s first ever show outside the USA. I’ve only seen a few clips from the doc (which suggest it was shot “nice and dark and unpolished” per my brother) but the double live London ’75 CD of the show proves the band was amped. Springsteen once worried they’d charged through this gig too quickly, but he’s since caught up, realizing the band’s rush through his early catalog is a rush. There’d come a time, in the wake of punky-reggae parties and disco apotheosis, when the E Street Band could sound leaden—stadium rock with no roll. But not too many bands blazed hotter than them on, say, the Odeon “She’s the One”. The whole group is mad tight throughout the show, but I was struck, in particular, by pianist Roy Bittan’s chops and Clarence Clemons’ untamed sax. More on the Big Man anon.
Springsteen returns to the Hammersmith Odeon show in Born to Run. He’d already written up the legend in liner notes for the live album (which came out in 2006). In his book he zeroes in on his own anxieties about hype around the show. The theater was papered with flyers announcing: “Finally, London is Ready for Bruce Springsteen,” which got it twisted: “My business is SHOW business and that is the business of SHOWING, not TELLING.” Springsteen raced around the theater ripping down the signs and ripping his manager who’d made him out to be a “little Madison Avenue mind fascist.” Springsteen recalls he was still caught up in his angst at the Machine during the show, though he doubts anyone could’ve picked up on the fact he was a mess that night. There’s another detail in Born to Run that adds scope to a swatch of Springsteen’s performance. Just before the UK trip, Springsteen was in L.A. where he met Martin Scorsese who screened Mean Streets for him. The movie, which originally came out in ’73, was right up Springsteen’s alley. (And the soundtrack, with “Be My Baby,” the Stones’ early, Spectorish “Tell Me” etc., must have seemed extra-prescient since Springsteen had aimed to update Spector’s wall of sound on the album that had just made the young Boss famous.) Maybe I’m projecting, but I’m pretty sure Springsteen copped the persona/accent of Mean Streets’ Johnny Boy/Robert DeNiro when he rapped to Brits during the London 75 “E Street Shuffle”—“How’s it goin’ over here in England and stuff…all right?…This is my first time…I never been here before.” As Springsteen evokes block life, macho men “wearing snakeskin suits packed with East Coast muscle,” and a man-child having a party all by himself, it feels like he’s just around the corner from roofs where Johnny Boy shot off Roman candles in Mean Streets. Not that the traffic wasn’t going both ways. DeNiro would later tell Clarence Clemons he lifted his “Are you talking to me?” riff in Taxi Driver from Springsteen’s stage patter. (“BRUUUUUCE!”—“Are you talking to me?”)
Clemons himself got a role in Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977) (playing DeNiro’s sidekick) though his pop moment didn’t last. I don’t remember exactly when Clemons’ sax began to sound hackneyed. (Didn’t help that the new Dylan inspired the original to add a honker to his band around the time of Street Legal when Dylan’s music wasn’t thrilling.) Still, I grasp now (all over again–thanks to that London 75 cd!) why Springsteen had to compete with his soul brother for claps when I saw him in a college gym in ‘75. Clemons was close to being the star of that gig.
Springsteen re-ups in his book on the tribute to the late Clemons he first published as liner notes for his Wrecking Ball CD. (In those notes, though, his tribute to the Big Man was all in caps.) Springsteen doubles down on the promise implicit in the spectacle of interracial amity he was graced to bring to the stage with Clemons:
It was a story where the Scooter and the Big Man not only busted the city in half, but we kicked ass and remade the city. Shaping it into the kind of place where our friendship would not be such an anomaly.
But Springsteen also acknowledges (again) his friendship with Clemons was deeper than any story he’s told on his records. While Springsteen is proud of “American Skin,” the protest song he recorded in the aftermath of the police shooting of African immigrant Amadou Diallo, he knows his rock ‘n’ roll art life may end up being defined in part by his distance from “the black community I always wished I’d served better.”
Hints of regret are in the mix when Springsteen describes in Born to Run how he and his band got a chance to serve up their music in the Motherland. But that show ended up being a hoot:
In the former French colony of Cote d’Ivoire, I was greeted, for the first and only time since the 1966 Tri-Soul Revue at the Matawan-Keyport Roller-Drome, by an audience, a stadium audience, of completely black faces! I finally knew how Clarence felt. We were one black man and seven white folk from New Jersey. Was this gonna work? Was the wooden-legged, four-four beat of Jersey Shore punk ‘n’ soul going to communicate to an audience used to the swaying and supple rhythms of Afrobeat?…We went for the nuclear option, kicking straight into “Born in the USA.” Time…crept to a standstill…then…BOOM! The place exploded into a frenzy, the crowd moving en masse as if they’d been wired together and had suddenly decided this was ok! It was the most joyful mutual celebration of discovery I’ve ever experienced.
Springsteen isn’t beamish about race matters in Born to Run. A few pages after his ivory-and-ebony epiphany, he offers his eyewitness account of the 1992 L.A. riots, which were sparked by acquittals of four white cops charged with brutally beating a black man, Rodney King (even though their notorious assault on him had been caught on camera). Springsteen had been living in L.A. with his wife and young kids and rehearsing with his new band in an East Hollywood studio when he found himself “close to the center of the disturbance…”
I hopped in my Ford Explorer and headed west. Sunset Boulevard was jammed, with “panic in year zero” dread coursing through the veins of fleeing motorists… I’d ridden many of L.A.’s back roads, so I literally headed for the hills, threading my way along the curves of Mulholland Drive. I stopped for a moment near the Hollywood Bowl, where my windshield was filled with city-wide fury. It was a fiery, smoking panorama from a bad Hollywood disaster picture. Large smoldering black clouds rose from fires all across the L.A. grid to mix with chiseled azure skies like billowing ink on blue tile. I moved on to Benedict Canyon where I picked up Patti and the kids.
Unlike the Watts riots of 1965, the fire this time looked like it might spread out beyond the ghetto of those afflicted. Fear, and plenty of it, was in the air. The lapping waves of California’s surf paradise, the well-entrenched, well-paid-for silence of Trancas, Malibu and Broad Beach, was broken by the thukka-thukka-thukka motors of the National Guard helicopters running low above the sea…
End of Part 1. Part 2 here.)
1 “New York City Serenade” (“Listen to your junk man”) citifies Van Morrison’s “Listen to the Lion.”
2 While Guerrillas isn’t a keeper, Naipaul’s novel jumps off from what might be his most indelible work of non-fiction, “Michael X and the Black Power Killings in Trinidad.”