Tag Archives: Rock and Roll

The Upstage Club, Asbury Park: An Interview with Author Carrie Potter Devening



FOR MUSIC’S SAKE: Asbury Park’s Upstage Club and Green Mermaid Cafe – The Untold Stories
by Carrie Potter Devening
255 pages
To order: http://www.authorhouse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000411026
Or: http://theupstageclub.blogspot.com/

A short time ago, I reviewed a new book (http://bit.ly/ovt5v5) by the daughter of club manager Tom Potter, about the people who created, performed at and frequented the famous Upstage Club in Asbury Park, New Jersey. While The Stone Pony is the bar that is most associated with the early days of Bruce Springsteen, Southside Johnny and dozens of other Jersey Shore bands, it was actually an after-hours club called The Upstage where most of these musicians met, made friends, jammed, formed bands and cut their musical teeth.

Now in Part Two, I talk to the author, Carrie Potter Devening, about creating the book, the many friends who helped her make it a reality and her vision for the future of The Upstage Club.

This Hard Land: When did you first become interested in the history of the Upstage Club?
Carrie: I’ve been interested my whole life, mainly because of my family history and my love for my Grandpa Tom (Tom Potter, manager of The Upstage Club) When I was in high school, I would often use artwork done by my grandfather to inspire me. He was a very artistic man. For example, I remember one assignment we were given was to do a black and white still drawing off a cardboard box full of my favorite things from my Grandpa. This included a book of poetry that my grandfather used to challenge me to memorize; the Spotlight Magazine article which featured Grandpa Tom; a set of his scissors and his license to be a hair stylist. I still cherish that cardboard box to this day.

Carrie: I knew the family history was very unique and that Tom Potter and his wife Margaret and The Upstage Club were very important to so many people who were part of the Sound Of Asbury Park (S.O.A.P) and desperately wanted the memory of the Upstage preserved. You could say that this book has been in my creative storage bin for many, many years.

This Hard Land: When did the idea of writing a book about it begin to take shape?
Carrie: I really didn’t think a book was feasible until my late Uncle Geofrey (Tom Potter’s oldest son), who passed away just a few weeks ago, came to Texas.

He had read Gary Wien’s book, “Beyond The Palace,” (http://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Palace-Gary-Wien/dp/1412003148) which goes into quite a bit of detail about The Upstage. He encouraged me to speak to Gary Wien. Gary gave me a really good indication of how folks who had been part of the Upstage scene still felt about the club.

I had kept, literally, hundreds of slides (Tom Potter collected slides of photographs), I had his old scrapbook, and basically two big old storage bins full of memorabilia, including the famous Green Mermaid painting. None of these photographs had ever been published or really seen by anyone, including some great shots of Bruce Springsteen, Little Steven, Southside Johnny and basically all of the musicians who jammed at the Upstage. It was a real “treasure chest” of pictures and artwork that was just sitting in storage. So I took stock of all I had and said to myself, “I think I have the beginnings of a really great book here.”

In December of 2003, I got on a plane and flew to New Jersey and Asbury Park for the first of what would be more than a dozen trips. I checked into a room at the Manchester Inn in Ocean Grove, which sadly no longer exists after it burned to the ground. But for the longest time that hotel was my home base away from home, each and every time I came to Asbury Park.

First thing I did was meet face-to-face with “Beyond The Palace” author Gary Wein, as well as a friend of my grandfather, David Mieres, who showed me around town. The next few days are kind of a blur as I met so many wonderful people who became instrumental in making this book happen. Beofre I left I had met with so many people including Vini “Maddog” Lopez and Ilene Chapman, who’s been for the longest time very involved in Asbury Park’s music scene. It was a fantastic introduction to the people and places of Asbury Park, New Jersey.


Dan and Eileen Chapman Inside The Upstage Club

Carrie: Coincidentally, and I swear I had no idea this was going on, Bruce was performing one of his Holiday Shows at the Convention Center in Asbury Park the very next night. Fortunately and with a little help from my friends, I was able to get into the show. And once I was inside I got it into my head that I had to make the most of my visit, including introducing myself to Bruce. So here I was, this young “whipper-snapper” from Texas with a shopping bag full of my Grandpa’s slides and completely full of myself. I was lucky enough to go backstage for a little white and said a quick hello to Southside Johnny, who was also performing at the Holiday Show. Of course, Southside was his usual self, cracking jokes and asking me more questions than I asked him. It was very funny.

But when it came to meeting Bruce, things got a little sketchy. Apparently he was struggling from a bad cold, but he still took time between the sound check and the show to meet me. He was very kind but a little shocked that such a small person from Texas had such a big idea. I think I kind of caught him off-guard, going on and on about my how I was Tom Potter’s granddaughter. And he told me that he wanted to meet with me some other time to talk about the project. I’m still hoping that we can meet someday soon so I can hand him a copy of the book.

But the show was great, and it gave me a chance to meet a ton of people, so that was awesome. After the show I hung around and was introduced to several key individuals. That was the night I met Vini “Maddog” Lopez who was very nice to me and he has become a true friend and solid supporter of this project.


Carrie and Vini “Maddog” Lopez

This Hard Land: What happened next?
Carrie: Well, when I got back to my hotel I was informed that some important people were coming to meet me who were interested in helping me with this book. This turned out to be Dan “The Tape Man” Eitner and his wife Nancy. I can honestly say that without their love and support, I don’t know what I would have done. Dan is one of the most generous, thoughtful individuals that I have ever met. Ever since that first time I met Dan, he has helped me tremendously.

Dan just knows so many people and he has always had so many great ideas. Even now he’s constantly sending me inspirational emails and text messages that keep me going. I like to call him my unofficial “marketing director.”


Dan and Nancy Eitner On The Boardwalk, Asbury Park, N.J.

Carrie: Really, when I think about it, I have been truly blessed by all of the wonderful and generous people who have taken an interest in this book. And I have to give a ton of credit to Joe Petillo and Tom Jones, who were both extremely helpful. Joe was actually an original member of Margaret Potter’s house band, The Distractions, at The Upstage. Tom Jones runs the Halo Group in Los Angelos and has an incredible media background.

When things were not looking very promising for the future of the building that The Upstage was in, Joe and Tom, as well as a number of original Upstage musicians decided to hold a “Last Jam” inside the Upstage, which I wrote about in detail in my book. In fact, Tom videotaped that jam for a documentary that he’s been working on about The Upstage. Both Joe Petillo and Tom Jones really gave me the strength to continue during the most difficult part of this journey.


Joe Petillo, Carrie and Tom Jones

This Hard Land: What was it like the first time you got a chance to climb those steep steps and walked into The Upstage?
Carrie: You know in the movies when people finally reach the summit and they hear a choir of angels singing? That’s what it was like. In fact there’s one Disney remake, titled “The Secret Garden,” and there’s this scene where a little boy is entering the garden. That’s exactly how it felt. In fact, I get a little misty-eyed every time I think of it.

But getting upstairs wasn’t all that easy. On my first trip, I just walked into the old Extreme shoe store with a few of my new friends. There was an older Asian man running the store and no matter what we said he simply refused to let me go upstairs. He kept saying it wasn’t up to code and that I could get hurt and that kind of thing. I told him about my grandfather, Tom Potter, who ran The Upstage and how I had come all the way from Texas to see it. I tried everything, but he said it was too much of a safety liability for him to take a chance.

Well, then I turned on the water works. I got very emotional and started crying, saying, “I’m not leaving this store until you let me go upstairs.” (laughs) Finally, he gave in and grabbed the keys and up the stairs we went up, the whole group of us. And that’s when I heard the choir of angels singing. I felt like I was finally getting to see what I had been dreaming about for so long.


Steep Steps leading To The Upstage Club

This Hard Land: What was it like up there?
Carrie: Well, there wasn’t much left, just a few tables. But what was really cool was that much of the original art was still there on the wall. The paint was peeling a bit, of course. And there was the huge metal wall where Grandpa Tom used to put all the speakers. But a lot of the original artwork was still intact. The funniest thing was that when I went into the bathrooms there was all kinds of original writing on the walls and somebody had put up “Steel Mill.” I thought that was very, very cool.

But really, it remains today much like it did forty years ago. All of the fixtures are intact. And we had a great time, posing with various people for photos and checking out the place. Every time I come back to Asbury Park, I make sure to stop by and visit the place to make sure it’s all okay. I really hope that the new owner preserves it as much as possible. It really deserves to be preserved in some way as a museum and as a place for young people to come together. That’s my dream.


Carrie with Writer and Rock Historian Robert Santelli Inside The Upstage

This Hard Land: That first trip must have been quite inspiring for you.
Carrie: Oh, for sure. As soon as I got back to Texas, I got right to work. I started the Upstage.net website and I began asking people to send me their memories of the place. One of my biggest challenges was transferring the images from my grandfather’s slides, along with other illustrations to computer images that could be used for the book.

But one day while everything was on hold, my old high school art teacher, Paul Wilkins, and I were talking and I told him about my project and he was very excited about it. He immediately offered to help me transfer the slides. Paul and his wife Beverly took an immediate interest in this book and I’ve spent whole weeks at their house working on the book.

I would work for hours and hours on his computer until my arms were so tired I could barely lift them. Paul taught me the basics of this software program and let me go wild with it. He provided the tech support and gave me the creative freedom. In many ways, Paul and Beverly and Dan and Nancy were for me, what Tom and Margaret were for the kids who played at The Upstage. I could never have done this book without the help of many, many good friends.


Robert Santelli, Carrie and The Legendary Carl “Tinker” West

This Hard Land: This book is, I think, a living and breathing testament to the kind of community that existed back in the 1960’s when The Upstage club was thriving and everyone sort of helped each other, lending guitars and amps. As for you, what are your plans? And what kind of vision do you have for the future of The Upstage?
Carrie: Well, I just had a new baby and as much as I’d love to dedicate all my time to mass marketing this book, I just don’t have the time. But I want so badly for this book to be a success, so buy a copy for yourself or somebody you love. It is a great gift and the holidays are coming up and I think anybody who is truly interested in the history of The Upstage would really learn a lot from this book.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to do what I can. I’m going to keep flying to Asbury Park to do a number of book selling events in Asbury Park in the next few months, I plan to stay involved in helping to lobby city officials so the new owner can get what he needs to use this historic building most effectively.

Most of all, I’d like to see the building continue to be preserved. And I’d love to see it used as a sort of living museum and a place where young people and up and coming musicians can come together. That’s was my grandfather’s dream and now it’s my dream too.

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For Music’s Sake – Asbury Park’s Upstage Club and Green Mermaid Cafe Scrapbook – The Untold Stories


by Carrie Potter Devening
255 pages
To order: http://www.authorhouse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000411026
Or: http://theupstageclub.blogspot.com/

Part One – A Review

“There once was a place and time that contributed to a generation in a most beautiful way. This place and the characters accomplished many things…In a bustling tourist town saturated with entertainment and intense nightlife, Asbury Park, like much of the East Coast, offered little to people under 21. When there was nowhere to go, the Green Mermaid Cafe and Upstage Club offered them a home.” – Carrie Potter Devening, Introduction

If you ask most rock and roll fans to name the club where Bruce Springsteen got his start in Asbury Park, chances are pretty good they’ll say it was The Stone Pony. But they’d be wrong.

Because it was actually inside another club, up the road from The Stone Pony in Asbury Park, where for three extraordinary years (1968-1971) Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt, Southside Johnny and many others made their musical mark and met most of the other musicians who would become part of the Sound of Asbury Park (or S.O.A.P) and in many cases band mates for life. Fifty-two steps straight up a steep, narrow stairway, on the third floor of the old Thom McCan shoe store in downtown Asbury Park sat The Upstage Club, where the greatest musicians from all over New Jersey would converge “after hours” from between 1 and 5 in the morning to jam and compete for a chance to play rock and roll. The stage sat at the far end of a long narrow room. The stage had its own amplifiers and behind that stage was a wall of speakers where loud, raucous music would emanate.

To those musicians, it was the highest honor to get a chance to jam, and they played their hearts out till the sun came up.

But in 1971, civil rights unrest and race riots hit across the nation in cities like Asbury Park. The unrest brought about the demise of most of the businesses in downtown Asbury. As if that wasn’t enough, Tom and Margaret Potter, the artistic, bohemian lovebirds who had created this haven for young people were splitting up. The beloved, mercurial, iron-fisted operator of The Upstage, Tom Potter, suddenly found himself alone in Asbury, facing retirement and suffering from increasing health problems. Seeing the writing on the walls of his once-great club, Tom Potter cashed in his chips and moved away from the cold, sea storms of the Northeast to the warm beaches of Florida.

For the next 40-plus years, the legendary Green Mermaid and Upstage Club remained locked up and abandoned. While biographies of Bruce Springsteen and other histories of the Asbury music scene gave The Upstage its due respect, each year the “glory days” of The Upstage began to fade more and more. Springsteen fans and local musicians would always pay homage to the old brick triple-deck structure, but the building remained closed and off limits.

But deep in the heart of Texas, Tom Potter’s granddaughter Carrie was growing up and learning about “Grandpa’s” legendary past and amazing accomplishments. In his final years, the old man moved in with Carrie’s family in Texas and he would tell her stories of his fascinating past. Finally, several years ago, armed with her grandfather’s stories as well as a huge collection of photographs documenting the history of The Green Mermaid and The Upstage, Carrie set out to document the history of those clubs. She went online and asked for stories from anybody who had ever set foot inside The Upstage. And she was flooded with more stories. Eventually, Carrie made the pilgrimage to Asbury Park, several times actually, and met a number of people who were more than happy to help her with her project. She got a chance to go inside the shell of that building several times. And she started putting on slide shows featuring her “grampa’s” photographs.

And all of a sudden, there was a whole lot of interest in The Upstage Club.

With some help from her new friends, Carrie Potter Devening has published a new history of The Green Mermaid and The Upstage Club that is as much a work of art as the club itself. It contains more than 1,000 photos from Tom Potter’s collection and text made up of the memories and recollections of those who went there. The stories are supplied by Upstage notables like Albee Tellone, Joe Petillo, Tinker West, Billy Ryan and many others. This illuminating coffee table book transports you back in time to the place where so many young musicians, artists and fans spent their long evening journeys into daylight.

Carrie begins her “scrapbook” by giving a brief history of her family, including newspaper clippings, portraits of relatives and stories of Tom’s wild years. Tom Potter was an eccentric artist whose main job for years was as a hair stylist (a career which ended after Tom developed allergies to hair products). The future manager at The Upstage also had quite a talent for art and photography (not to mention short story writing), and examples of all are included. Carrie finally introduces the reader to Tom’s partner-in-crime at The Upstage, the tomboyish, horse-ridin’ Margaret Romeo, who eventually would become Tom’s third wife and was, according to Carrie, “the first lady of Asbury Park’s music scene.”

Tom and Margaret’s love affair is described by Carrie as “fast, tumultuous, imaginative and non-stop.” Margaret was 20 years Tom’s junior, so despite “stiff opposition” from Margaret’s family, the two were married in 1961. They settled into a “swinging” apartment above their beauty shop on Cookman Avenue in Asbury Park, just two doors down from the Thom McCan store. It was apparently quite a pad, complete with a rooftop garden. (Years later, Bruce Springsteen would live in this very same apartment and wrote some of his first album there.)

Soon after they married, Margaret learned to play guitar; she would later be a fixture onstage at both the Green Mermaid and The Upstage. The reader is also treated throughout Carrie’s “scrapbook” to some tasty samplings of Tom’s funky photography and art, which were featured on the walls on The Upstage.

Tom and Margaret’s place on Cookman was the scene for many years of huge parties and jam sessions for Margaret’s band, The Distractions, and soon it became obvious that more room was needed, especially since Tom and Margaret wanted to have a place for the underage musicians to “kick out the jams.” So they rented the two floors above the Tom McCan store; two floors which would become home to the Green Mermaid and The Upstage. As Joe Petillo remembers in one of dozens of stories, “50 gallons of paint, a few dozen mannequins painted day-glow, several dozen backlights later, we were open for business.”

Petillo adds that Margaret Potter and The Distractions soon became the “premiere Jersey shore band,” as well as the house band at The Upstage. Petillo says Margaret’s band would start off the night with other musicians joining in as the evening progressed. As time wore on, the big difference was that the music on the second floor tended to be more mellow and the tunes played at The Upstage on the third floor more rockin’. There was always food served in both clubs. One full page is dedicated to a full menu, featuring Ham or Roast Beef sandwiches for $1, Pepsi for a quarter, and the big treat, a full half-gallon ice cream sundae, which was free if you could finish it.

However, the meat and potatoes of this scrapbook are the many stories and the colorful photos of young musicians at play: Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt (always hatless), both with hair to their shoulders, chests bare except for suspenders; a 15-year-old David Sancious; an equally fresh-faced Danny Federici; Garry Tallent; Vini “Maddog” Lopez; Upstage favorite Bobby Williams on drums; lefty guitarist Rick Desarno, Bill Chinnock – all legends around the Jersey Shore, even if you don’t recognize the names.

Perhaps the highlight of this long overdue history are the wonderful stories: like that of the “Spoon Girls” whose main purpose was to smack “hot guys” like Steve and Bruce on their backsides with spoons as they passed by (fun!); Tony “Boccigalupe” Amato’s own admission of having to hide under Tom Potter’s desk from his father because he was too young to be out so late, and most of all how each of these young, aspiring musicians would creatively try to gain the favor and respect of Tom and Margaret Potter. Through the stories, one can see how each musician tried to outdo or upstage the other and we see how much respect they all had for each other’s talents. Margaret Potter comes off as something like a “den mother,” while Tom Potter is portrayed as a somewhat-irascible, task-master with a real heart of gold. The greatest thrill, according to many, was to be invited into Tom’s office and offered a beer. If that didn’t happen, then you weren’t among his “favorites.”

And then there are the words that Bruce Springsteen wrote for the back of Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes first album, which Carrie included in this scrapbook, mainly because they describe The Upstage so eloquently. After listing a number of musician’s names, Springsteen writes:

“…they’re names that deserve to be spoken in reverence at least once…because they were each in their own way a living spirit of what, to me, rock and roll is all about. It was music as survival and they lived it down in their souls, night after night. These guys were their own heroes and they never forgot.”

Inevitably, there’s a chapter dedicated to stories and photos of the Asbury Park riots that brought chaos, destruction and fires to downtown Asbury Park. It was, after all, these riots and the civil rights unrest that changed the downtown area so dramatically and brought about the demise of Tom and Margaret’s dream.

Carrie wraps up her history lesson with details or her visits to Asbury Park, a “Last Jam Farewell” that took place inside the empty Upstage in 2006 and some thoughts about the future of that building.

This isn’t a slick book. Instead, in the spirit of the Upstage, it’s an artifact. “For Music’s Sake…” is, after all, a tribute by Carrie Potter Devening to her grandfather and what he accomplished. Its a must-have book for anyone who ever gave a damn about the Asbury Park music scene.

The book is just $50.00 and can be ordered directly, here: http://www.authorhouse.com/Bookstore/BookDetail.aspx?BookId=SKU-000411026

Note: In Part II, I’ll feature an interview with the author, Carrie Potter Devening.

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Filed under Celebrities, Music, Profiles

Lone Wolf

When I lived in Boston it was not at all unusual to bump into rock and roll legend Peter Wolf.

The former late night DJ and the longtime front man of the J. Geils Band lives in Boston and often walks its streets. Whether meandering down the famed, exclusive Newbury Street or perusing additions to his vast music collection in Boston’s few remaining used record stores, the man was, to put it simply, not hard to miss. Dressed always in his ubiquitous black, from head to toe, and never without a chapeau of some sort, the slight and perennially pale Peter Wolf pretty much kept to himself. Pity the poor soul who chanced to approach him. The result was inevitably a disappointingly brief conversation consisting of a few brief words. So people would most usually leave him alone. He may have been the wild man of Borneo on stage or a mad gabber jabber on alternative radio all those years ago (“Wolfa Goofa Mama Toffa” was his nickname), but out in public and away from the spotlight, Peter Wolf is a man of very few words.

It’s really no wonder. The man born Peter W. Blankfield seems tailor-made to keeping his thoughts to himself. His own musical cohorts and influences, Van Morrison and Bob Dylan, both make it a habit to speak in riddles and rhymes when they speak at all. The Chicago and Delta blues men who Wolf holds in the highest of esteem were men who spoke little and let the music do the talking.

Wolf’s history is a fascinating one. Once arrived in Boston in the 1960’s to attend art school, he was scooped up by recently acquired “progressive rock” radio station WBCN. Wolf said in a recent interview on NPR that he was offered half ownership in BCN for just $10,000. But Wolf, at the time was barely eking out an existence and says he barely had ten dollars. What Wolf did have was an incredible musical library, both LPs as well as an incredible variety of his beloved 45’s or singles. And so BCN, hoping to get their hands on all that music, offered him the overnight shift on the air. Wolf was on from Midnight until 7:00 a.m. and in addition to playing his own favorite mix of rock, blues and rhythm and blues, he also played requests. The program was a huge underground sensation and Wolf found a comfortable place behind the microphone where he discovered he had, well, the gift of gab.

But Wolf was not long for that vampire radio shift, which brings many men and women to their knees, and in 1966 Peter Wolf became part of a popular Boston-based band, The Hallucinations. A year later he went to see a performance by the J. Geils Band and quickly joined that group, becoming the hopscotching, fast on his feet, charismatic front man. That band lasted from 1967 to 1983. They played both blues standards and originals and they had a legendary live show, captured on three different live albums, all recorded in Detroit Rock City. Geils, as they were sometimes called, were soon one of the hottest rock bands in the country, playing to packed theaters, auditoriums and arenas from coast to coast and even garnering the coveted cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.

I had a chance to see Wolf at his most outrageous, two times and both in Syracuse, New York. The first time was at the cozy Landmark Theater, where Wolf and the rest of the J. Geils band nearly blew the roof off the place. At one point during the climax of the show, Wolf left the stage and danced and weaved his way up and down the aisles of the theater “high fiving” with his fervent fans. The second time I saw him, he looked like a different man in 1982 when the band was on top with huge hits like “Centerfold” and “Freeze-Frame.” Wolf had shed his long locks of hair and streamlined his stage show. But behind the scenes the band was, unknown to many, ready to implode because of “artistic differences” between Wolf and keyboard player and fellow songwriter, Seth Justman.

I worked at a rather large local college radio station I remember foolishly going backstage after the show. “Oh Jesus,” I remember thinking in the middle of the clumsy introductions, “what in God’s name am I doing here.” Wolf politely shook our hands staring blindly into the distance, barely even there. He seemed ten million miles away. And I felt bad for his discomfort.

With the band no longer a going concern, Wolf was left to retreat into the blackness of the Boston night, showing up here and there at bars and occasionally joining in to jam. I remember seeing him take the stage many nights in Boston with his pal Bruce Springsteen, but he never seemed comfortable in the guest spot, especially at larger gigs. He used to rule that city and now he seemed a drifter and a stranger in a strange land. Wolf eventually teamed up with some local musicians and made a series of solo records, none of which seemed to click until he finally found his way on 2002’s excellent solo album, “Sleepless.” It was ranked on Rolling Stone Magazines, “500 Greatest Albums Of All Time.” Meanwhile, with rumors all the time of a J. Geils reunion, Wolf stayed silent on that subject, instead seeming comfortable to perform with his own group of new musicians and living off royalties.

During the 1990’s and into the new Millennium, Wolf continues to be seen around town. I would often be surprised when I got to a show early, only to see Wolf already seated, by himself, and waiting for the show to begin. I began to feel bad for him. Was this a chosen land of exile or did it reveal some deep loneliness. Nobody knew but Wolf and he wasn’t talkin’.

One night I went to see Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard at the Orpheum Theater in Boston. I bought a ticket from some guy about ten minutes before the show and it was in the very last row of the theater. During the opening acts, I was scouting an empty seat closer to the stage and out of the corner of my eye I spied one next to the soundboard. I asked a very attractive young lady if the empty seat was taken, she said no and invited me to sit down. It wasn’t until after I had taken off my coat that I realized that I was two seats away from Peter Wolf and the attractive young woman was his date.

During intermission, I introduced myself to this woman and to Peter Wolf and he greeted me with a thin smile and handshake. I had just happened to have finished reading a book about rock and roll called “Mansion On The Hill,” in which he was quoted extensively. So I asked Wolf about his impressions of that book. Speaking softly he told me he thought it was “just okay.” Conversation over? Not quite. Wolf actually surprised me by asking me what I thought about it. I told him I believed the author was too critical of Springsteen’s manager Jon Landau, who Wolf knew from days long ago in Boston. Wolf responded saying he thought it was too critical of a lot of people, including his friend Bruce. Then he got up and went backstage alone, ostensibly to say hello to Dylan, leaving me to have the most pleasant conversation with his knockout beautiful date.

I stayed and watched Dylan’s entire set sitting next to Wolf, looking over occasionally to see a man deep into the music. I left the theater, with the nice buzz that comes after a great show. But I was also happy to see that Wolf was not alone on this particular night.

After all, one can’t remain a lone wolf forever.

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My Springsteen Epiphany…Down In Harvard Square

It was the summer of 1976 and I was sitting in the passenger’s seat of my sister Maureen’s Volvo in Harvard Square. (The serendipitous location of where my sister’s car was parked will become apparent as this story goes along.) I had traveled with my sister on a bit of a joy ride that summer day, as I had nothing better to do and because I always enjoyed visiting Harvard Square. She had to drop off some papers and it was my job to ride shotgun and sit in the car to try and avoid any chance of her getting a parking ticket. In return, I think she had promised me that we could visit the Harvard Co-op Store (also known as the Harvard Coop), one of the finest places to go to check out the latest musical releases on vinyl and cassette and also not a bad place to simply “people watch.”

This was the “old Harvard Square;” the quaint, friendly version, the one that still had plenty of independent establishments, cool bars, and even a few hippie-looking places where you might buy, say, some used clothes or even a few head shop items. This was long before corporate America, the ugly commercial chain store America marched into Harvard Square and transformed its look into an ugly consumer shopping and eating chain/mini-mall without much of the old 60’s funk and soul at all.

But on this day in 1976, Harvard Square still had funk and soul. (It’s questionable how much I actually possessed.) I was raised in a fairly traditional suburban environment. I respected my parents to the point where I didn’t imbibe anything smooth and fine (unless I happened to be in the company of my sisters when all bets were off.) I went to school every day, went to church every Sunday and hung out with a few friends in a nice little town called Weymouth where expectations were somewhat low among the families in my neighborhood. I mention this because it was on this very day that I fell in love with rock and roll, specifically the music being made by Bruce Springsteen, and suddenly I experienced an epiphany in which my expectations changed as dramatically as night and day.

And it was all because of the song, “Jungleland.” When my sister Maureen left me alone to go run the errand, I asked her to leave the car running. We had been listening to Springsteen, specifically his masterpiece album, “Born To Run,” which I was just getting to know. On this day, we were listening to it on my sister’s car stereo cassette system. (Remember when they called them “systems”.) And when Maureen got out of her car, I asked her to leave the keys so I could enjoy the air conditioning and get into more of the music. And just as she stepped out, the song “Jungleland” came on. And I turned that sucker way up loud.

So here I was sitting in a car in Harvard Square between Bow and Church Streets. Now I didn’t know this then, but it’s one of the most amazing examples of kismet of my lifetime. For it was two blocks away on Bow Street in 1974 where Bruce Springsteen had been introduced to writer/music producer/future manager Jon Landau, by Jon’s friend Dave Marsh. About 100 yards in the other direction was Church Street, the location of the Harvard Square Theater where Bruce Springsteen would play in 1974 and inspire Landau to write his famous review, writing that he had witnessed “Rock and Roll future” and its name was Bruce Springsteeen. Of course, all of that happened two years earlier. If my epiphany had happened the exact same year in that location….whoa; lookout! But this was 1976. Even still, what are the chances?

So “Jungleland” begins. The gentle symphonic strings and simple piano intro plays. And something must have switched on in my that part of the brain where endorphins are released, because suddenly my surroundings became irrelevant and fuzzy, but I was absolutely transfixed to the music.

And then the strings disappear and it’s just Roy Bittan’s piano that I’m hearing and about 40 seconds into the song there’s another brief swell of strings before Bruce Springsteen begins to tell/sing the story:

“Well the Rangers had a homecoming in Harlem late last night,
And the Magic Rat drove his slick machine, over the Jersey state line…”

I must have thought to myself, “now this is gonna be good.” Springsteen was singing with a slight beach rasp to his voice and a kind of desperate need to tell this tale. It felt like he really cared about these characters who were going to have this “experience,” and if he did then I should too.

“Barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain
The Rat pulls into town rolls up his pants, together they take a stab at romance and disappear down Flamingo Lane…”

What an introduction to a story. Yes, a story full of vivid details about some gang called “The Rangers,” along with a physical description (the Jersey state line, an anonymous town probably by the beach, some posing by “Magic Rat” in front of this “Barefoot Girl”) and then action, as the guy and his girl take off down this street called “Flamingo Lane.” If that was the script for a screenplay it would be optioned out in Hollywood in about 10 seconds flat.

And so begins the story and I sat, silently wishing that my sister might take awhile so I could hear this whole song by myself, totally transfixed and mesmerized. I was as into the music as I had ever been in my short life of just 15 years. An distant organ sound creeps into the picture, as more of the plot unfolds:

“Well the Maximum Lawman run down Flamingo chasing the Rat and the barefoot girl,
And the kids round here look just like shadows always quiet, holding hands…”

We now have more details of what’s about to come. It seems like the law is looking for the “Magic Rat,” but nobody is saying anything to the police. And then in a triumphant and epic voice, the likes of I’d never heard before, comes this:

“From the churches to the jails tonight all is silence in the world
As we take our stand down in Jungleland.”

In other words, suddenly there is only one story to be told, this story, and there’s gonna be some trouble of major proportions. We’re only a minute and a half into a nine and a half minute song, but the stage has been set and the performers introduced. Time to rock out and settle in for the story, as the entire band kicks in and jams with energy both raw and powerful.

As the “Jungleland” story unfolds with Springsteen’s best, most detailed and vivid writing, I begin to realize that even though this is the only story that matters, it’s also a story that gets played out all the time. At its essence, he’s telling a story about a bunch of townie losers who, at least for this one night, are going to be involved in something great. Something big, and powerful; something romantic and beautiful.

Bruce pauses and takes a break from the action out on the streets for a scorching guitar solo, before suddenly and out of nowhere “Jungleland” takes a 180-degree turn musically. Bruce sings:

“Lonely-hearted lovers struggle in dark corners
Desperate as the night moves on, just a look and a whisper, and they’re gone”

And he runs flat smack into the one of the most gorgeous, meticulously played saxaphone solos ever played. It is said that Bruce Springsteen taught this solo to his sideman and Sax player Clarence Clemons note by note. The music that Clarence plays tells a story of its own and it’s up to the listener now to fill in the blank spaces. By my calculations that sax solo goes on for 2 minutes and 15 seconds but it might as well be two years considering the impact it had, not just on my experience and future, but on that of hundreds of thousands of others. The Big Man says he constantly has people coming up to him saying that sax solo saved their lives. I know it changed mine.

When the lyrics start up again, Bruce Springsteen seems to be in a much different place. Gone is the rock and roll jubulation; in its place we get a much quieter, almost whispered storytelling. And you know that this story isn’t gonna end well. Se we get a slow piano dirge and:

“Beneath the city two hearts beat, soul engines running through a night so tender…”

The rest seems to be a story of the “Magic Rat” and “Barefoot Girl” as they make love, only to have the Rat gunned down by police. Onlookers are stunned and the strings and piano build, but Bruce tells us not even the poets have anything to write or say. Then the long piano roll with Bruce wailing and shouting out as if he might be heard in parking lots from one coast of America to the other.

“Jungleland” is, at it’s core, a tragic story, but it has these moments, long moments of happiness, exaltation and joy. And if rock and roll can really change and save your life, then it did that day as I listened. For I knew if life could be epic and celebrated and triumphant for these characters, then it could be for me too.

No I wasn’t stuck to live out my life, like so many of my friends seemed in the “quiet desperation” of a suburban town. I could follow my dream of becoming a writer, or later a broadcaster and that, perhaps, greatness could be achieved. That’s what this song convinced me off on that summer day in that long, long ago. Sitting in the passenger seat of my sisters Volvo listening to Bruce Springsteen in Harvard Square.

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