The Boss and Me: Another Springsteen Story
Because most of us newspaper writers are of a certain age, we all remember either his mid-'70s heyday or his mid-'80s resurgence (seemed like every other dorm room my freshman year at Indiana University had the Born in the USA album cover tacked to their beer-stained walls).
But my former compatriots in Floridian forgot to ask me. You see, before I came to the Times, I was pop music critic for Springsteen's hometown newspaper, the Asbury Park Press. In that time, I scored the first exclusive interviews with Springsteen the paper had published in 20 years. And the story of how I landed that interview makes a pretty good yarn by itself.
Bruce had a longtime grudge with the Asbury Park paper, partially because the guy who was managing editor in the '70s hated rock 'n' roll and refused to put him on the cover of the paper -- even after he appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek on the same month. The Press also did dumb newspaper stuff like publish the address of his neighbor -- telling readers Springsteen lived next door -- thereby ensuring swarms of fans would show up on his doorstep.
When I took over as music critic in 1993, however, I had an in. Crystal Taliafero, the woman who took Clarence Clemons place in the band Springsteen assembled after dissolving the E Street Band in the early '90s, was a friend and former bandmate. So when I saw Bruce for the first time backstage at a Southside Johnny concert near the Asbury boardwalk, I made a little small talk about Crystal and a show I saw of theirs in Pittsburgh before leaving him alone -- to his visible relief.
Months later, he was sitting in with Dion at a hole-in-the-wall club in nearby Long Branch N.J., and the "Bruce Kooks" -- as we used to call rabid fans -- had already run out to pay phones to get their friends to come down. Turns out, I was friends with the drummer and bass player in Dion's band, who I knew from my time playing with blues bands in Pittsburgh. So when the gig was over, I hung out with my boys trading stories and Bruce walked by, saying, "Hi Eric.''
Cool. The Boss knew my name.
So more months pass. And those guys who were playing with Dion wound up in the studio with Bruce as part of Pittsburgh singer/songwriter Joe Grushecky's backing band, The Houserockers. Springsteen had always liked his work and decided to produce a record for him. When it was done, they held five record release concerts across the east coast, starting with a gig in nearby Sea Bright N.J. That day, I hung out with the band and watched sound check with no idea of what was coming.
Former E Street guitarist "Miami" Steve Van Zant stopped by to sit in, as did former drummer Max Weinberg. Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins were there, trying to persuade Springsteen to write some music for the film that would be "Dead Man Walking." (I still remember how Robbins leaned away from me, when I tapped his shoulder to ask him a question during the raucous concert). Eventually 20,000 people came to a club built to hold 2,000, shutting down the only major road in or out of the town and trapping me inside the building with no way to file a story.
Since I had missed deadline, I hung out awhile after the show was over, and my friend, Houserockers drummer Joffo Simmons, came out and excitedly said, "Bruce wants to talk to you, man!" So, he ushers me into the cramped backstage area, past a skeptical Robbins and Sarandon, through Van Zandt and Weinberg (who I had written about a while ago) and to The Man himself.
The only place we could talk was the bathroom, so I let him have the seat of honor (I believe my words were, "You're the king, so why don't you take the throne?") and we talked about why he was helping Joe, where he was in his career and why it was so important for rock's middle-age artists to stick together.
"Joe is a grown man making grown-up rock 'n' roll -- so if it pushes you to the margins in the industry, what can you do?" said Springsteen, who also seemed to be talking about himself -- perhaps seeing Grushecky's struggle as the way things might have been in a luckless universe. "You get guys who are Joe's and my age (he was 45 then), and it gets a lot tougher in this business. I've been in this business for a while -- and I'm not sure what the (industry) bases its decisions on."
I tell this story all the time during journalism classes to show the power of persistence and respect for sources. Springsteen and I talked a couple more times after that and then I left for the music critic's job in St. Petersburg.
But I never forgot how cool it was to have a superstar rocker call me by my first name like a friend.