Sunday, August 11, 2019

A Baptism in Springsteen's Church of Rock & Roll

I'D HEARD ABOUT EVENTS LIKE THIS, the fanaticism, the ecstasy, the rapture and delirium brought on by four hours of pure joy. Yet I still wasn't ready for what I witnessed that night.

Bruce Springsteen, The Boss, live on stage at the Brendan Byrne Arena in East Rutherford, New Jersey. He was midway through a 10-night stand somewhere in the swamps of Jersey, in the middle of the epic Born in the USA Tour, at the peak of his career.

The official tour program.
And then, right in front of everybody, the biggest star in rock and roll -- still a bachelor at age 34 -- danced with his mother.

Just like that.

It was August 12, 1984 and I was seeing Springsteen live for the very first time. Me, Richie, Wayne and Big Ed had driven across New York City from Long Island to the arena New Jersey's favorite son christened with a concert on its opening night just three years before.

Big Ed remembers: Rich Fields was also a big Springsteen fan. He and I became close one winter when he missed a semester at school recovering from a tumor. Born in the USA was out and a huge success on radio and this new thing called MTV. I had just gotten home from a Mets game, crawled into bed, and then my phone rang at around midnight.

It was Rich, with the news that Springsteen tickets were going on sale in the morning. He suggested I pick him up and we go camp out in front of the ticket store. This was before Ticketmaster and the Internet. We got there, and there were only 25 to 30 people in front of us. I thought that was great, but the process was also excruciatingly slow. I could write a whole article about just the ticket experience. We bonded with lot of people, I even went on a lunch date with a hot blonde from North Woodmere with a Datsun 280ZX, whom I never saw again. Finally around 4 p.m., Rich and I had the tickets.

Eddie and Rich slept outside our local Ticketron outlet. There, for $16 a piece they nabbed four seats in the front row of section 211, the upper level near what would be center ice.
Four hours of jubilation for $16.

The stage was to our left. Though we had seats, I don't recall sitting very much. I do recall the entire tier bouncing to the beat, not just the people, mind you, but the stands themselves.

The dance song was, of course, Dancing in the Dark, a smash hit by a guy who wasn't about dance songs. But this was a new Bruce -- Megastar Bruce, MTV star Bruce -- and he could get away with doing pretty much whatever the hell he damned wanted to do.

"That's my mom!" he shouted.

Big Ed: It was more than a decade before Friends premiered on TV, but half the male Springsteen fans were already in love with Courteney Cox, Bruce's dance partner in the DitD video. Well, I was expecting there to be some hot chick that would come up on stage and dance with Bruce. Instead he pulled his mother Adele on stage for that song.

In June Springsteen released Born in the USA, his seventh LP. Though the name evoked his breakthrough album Born to Run, issued nine years earlier, this was no sequel. The nation had changed and so had The Boss.

The Interval

Between those recordings, Springsteen had an all-out legal war with his original manager that kept him out of the studio and on the road for more than a year. He'd written a surfeit of songs out of which emerged Darkness on the Edge of Town, a searing blue collar crie-de-coeur.

This was a bitter album for post-Watergate, post-Vietnam America, a time of double-digit inflation, gasoline shortages and the national malaise President Jimmy Carter later labeled "a crisis of confidence."

Two years later, Bruce and the E Street Band released The River, a two-disc mix of rock-and-roll rowdiness and melancholy story songs about accidental pregnancy, metaphorical adultery and despair. Among those 20 tracks was a song about a man who'd walked out on his wife and kids, set to a party beat.

Clocking in at a radio-friendly 3:19, the song -- Hungry Heart -- spent 18 weeks on Billboard Hot 100. Topping out at number five, it was Springsteen's first bona fide radio hit. The River LP went to number one on the Billboard 200. [Ridiculously, improbably, 14-year-old me had been offered a ticket to a River tour concert and turned it down, a mistake I'd not make again.]

The original vinyl release.
Most artists would have looked at that hard won success and ordered up more of the same. Bruce Springsteen isn't most artists. What carried over into the next album wasn't the hootenanny of Hungry HeartSherry Darling or Cadillac Ranch, but the loneliness of Stolen CarDrive All Night and the album closer, Wreck on the Highway.

Titled Nebraska, Bruce's 1982 release was bleak, stark and spare, a collection of vinyl-pressed demo tapes featuring The Boss alone on acoustic guitar and harmonica.

The title track was based on the 1958 midwestern killing spree of 19-year-old Charlie Starkweather, accompanied by his 14-year-old girlfriend, Caril Fugate. Her parents were his first victims.

What to expect after that?

The Boss Goes Boom

The answer came in the stadium scale heartland rock of Born in the USA, an LP containing a dozen songs. Seven of them reached the Top 10, including Dancing...Glory DaysI'm on Fire and My Home Town.

Ronald Reagan was president, the national mood was different, and crowding into Springsteen's genre were rockers John Mellencamp and Bob Seger plus Canadian counterpart Bryan Adams.

The Boss's sound was now bigger and bolder, right from the opening title track.

If one ignores the lyrics, Born in the USA the song can easily be mistaken for a patriotic anthem. It's really an indictment of a nation indifferent to a generation of people it sent to fight an ultimately pointless foreign war. It was precursor to the more overtly political music Springsteen would make in the ensuing decades.

Glory Days -- Me and college friend Laura K.
circa 1985. I still have that shirt somewhere.
It opened his show on that August night, a four-hour marathon punctuated by The Boss's trademark stage stories and banter. There were three songs from Nebraska, though not the one about Starkweather, five from the double-album River, four from the first Born and eight from the new Born.

Among the most memorable: Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, the Hungry Heart sing-along and show closing covers Twist and Shout and Do You Love Me?

Big Ed: I am finally at a Springsteen concert and my first event at this new arena named after the former Governor of New Jersey in what Springsteen would refer to as The swamps of Jersey. My memories of the set list are fuzzy, partially because it was a lifetime ago and partially because I would go on to see Springsteen another 13 times over the years.

To me, it was the equivalent of a Jew's Birthright trip to the Holy Land or a Muslim's Hajj to Mecca. I never saw a more enthusiastic crowd in an arena as I did when the band played Born in the USA.

The four of us -- really the 20,000 of us -- danced and sang all night. I've no idea how Bruce and company did that night in and night out. I was exhausted well before he introduced his bandmates during the rousing Rosalita (Come Out Tonight). Little did we know (and who knows if he did) that the newly-added Patti Scialfa would one day be his wife.

Big Ed: It was also our first sighting of Nils Lofgren, who'd replaced Miami Steve Van Zandt. He'd appeared on the Born in the USA album, then left to reinvent himself as Little Steven, fronting a band called The Disciples of Soul. Later he'd return to the E Street Band before reinventing himself again as Silvo on HBO's The Sopranos.

Thirty-five years and a couple of dozen concerts later, some starring The Boss and some not, this first time seeing him live on that summer night remains the best time. It made me a believer in Bruce almighty and the power of his music.

Thanks to Eddie and Wayne for helping to reconstruct our memories. This entry is dedicated to our friend and fellow concert-goer Richard Fields, who died on Aug. 22 of last year. He was just 54.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Jim Bouton's Seattle Pilots: a Tale of Two Yearbooks

THE SEATTLE PILOTS published a yearbook in 1969. It's a handsome document with a navy blue cover wrapped around 40 glossy pages of standard fare biographies and statistics punctuated by color and black and white photos.

But that's not how most people came to know or why they remember Major League Baseball's one year wonders and why they'll never be forgotten.

The incendiary unofficial yearbook
The Pilots, an oddball collection of players and coaches stationed in a decrepit minor league ballpark, gained inadvertent immortality courtesy of Jim Bouton, a one-time New York Yankees phenom who lived through and chronicled the team's lone season in Ball Four the greatest baseball tell-all ever written.

Bouton died last month from a brain hemorrhage at the age of 80. He'd suffered from cerebral amyloid angiopathy, which causes blood vessels to burst. It also causes a dementia and long before it killed him, the disease -- and a 2012 stroke -- robbed Bouton of random words, facts and correlations.

That had to be a particular type of hell for a man best known by recent generations for what he said about baseball rather than what he did with one.

A young flamethrower, Bouton won 21 games for the 1963 American League champions. He won 18 the next year, plus two more in a World Series he, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Whitey Ford lost to the St. Louis Cardinals.

It was the end of an incredible 18-year run for the Bronx Bombers during which they won 15 pennants and 10 championships. It also capped a flicker of time when Bouton was among the game's best pitchers before arm trouble reduced him to a knuckle-baller barely hanging on to his career.

Despite sunshine and great promise...
(from the 1969 Seattle Pilots yearbook)
It was in that debilitated state that the former standout hurler for a legendary team came to be acquired by the American League expansion Pilots, who lasted just the 1969 season, before failing as a business and moving to Milwaukee.

An iconoclast who never missed a chance to clash with authority, Bouton chose that year to keep a diary. The resultant book, Ball Four, blew the lid off baseball's wholesome image, revealing that Mantle drank heavily, amphetamine use was rampant, players chased girls and spied on them whenever and wherever they could, owners were petty and management was often hidebound and stupid.

It was a literary yearbook and highlight film the likes of which had never been seen, a personal memoir and log book from a doomed voyage.

The less well-read official yearbook
With an ear for dialogue and an eye for human foibles, Bouton immortalized men like Gene Brabender, the Pilots' gentle giant of a pitcher. A 13-game winner, Brabender hailed from a place called Black Earth, Wisconsin, and once ended an argument with the author by telling him he was lucky it was just that. "Where I come from, we just talk for a little while. After that we start to hit," he said.

And men like pervy shortstop Ray Oyler, who sprung an erection on the team bus and offered to buy it from the driver, outfielder Steve Hovley, whose eccentricity earned him the nickname "Orbit," and pitcher Gary Bell, whose best advice for confronting any batter was simply "smoke 'em inside."

Bouton had a special affection for the Pilots' beleaguered skipper, Joe Schultz, whose favorite profanities were "shitfuck" and "fuckshit." His best advice for dealing with any situation was "pound that old Budweiser."

Bouton's ex-Yankee status gave his book gravitas and credibility. People had to take it seriously, whether they liked it or not, and many inside baseball's crumbling old order did not.

Pilots pitcher, author, idol smasher.
(from the 1969 Pilots' yearbook)
He was denounced as a Judas, a man who broke a raft of unwritten rules, an apostate unwelcome for decades at Old Timer's Day.

Ball Four also revealed something more about human nature, something that transcended baseball and applied more universally to anyone capable of independent thought but trapped in an organization ruled by group think and conventional wisdom.

Bouton was an outside-the-box thinker. Baseball wasn't ready for him, but late 1960s-early 1970s America was and remains so to this day. So Ball Four remains a testament to one man's struggles against the establishment. The New York Public library deemed it one of greatest books of the 20th Century.

Just as importantly though -- within the realm of baseball -- Ball Four was a testament to the Pilots' travails, a history of people and events that surely would have been forgotten but for Bouton's decision to make their year the year the faded former fireballer recorded for posterity.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive