Sometime in the foggy, 1970s recesses of my brain, I recall sitting at the bar at the Hudibras Tavern on Nassau Street in Princeton (the space now occupied by the Triumph brew pub), taking a break from the rigors of my freelance writing career, and trying to figure out what I needed to do to complete some pressing assignment for People magazine that could be critical to my future as a star performer in the writing game and that certainly would be critical to my paying the phone or electric bill coming up in the next month.
As I was pondering these weighty thoughts I was distracted by the chatter of two hyperactive young women sitting a few barstools away. They were telling everyone within earshot about a rock concert they were attending later that evening at Princeton University’s Jadwin Gym. The performer was someone they had followed religiously from bar to bar on the Jersey Shore nightclub scene for the last year or two, and this was a breakout concert for him in front of what they imagined would be a sold out venue.
The guy they were following was named Bruce Springsteen. The date, I now know from a quick Internet search, was November 1, 1978.
I had heard about Springsteen but didn’t know anything about him. I asked the girls if they thought he was big enough yet to be a story in People magazine. The essence of their response: Was Jesus ready for the Vatican?
The proof was in the seeing and hearing. When they found out my connection to People magazine the girls announced that they had an extra ticket with them, which they had been planning to sell outside the gym. The ticket was mine — no charge, just put in a word for Bruce with the editors at People magazine.
I didn’t take up the girls’ offer — too much work to get done for the next day. But in less than a year I was playing a small role in a People magazine story on the singer. My freelance assignment in those pre-digital days: Obtain a copy of Springsteen’s Freehold High School yearbook so that People could show him then, as opposed to the rock star he had become.
Years later I did see Springsteen in concert and I began to see what the commotion was all about. The sound and fury of a Springsteen record are just a glimmer of what you get live and in person. Movies would not replace live drama, television wouldn’t replace movies, and eight-track tapes wouldn’t replace a live Springsteen concert.
Other than being vaguely aware of Springsteen I never did become a die-hard fan. But a few days ago a hefty hardcover book landed on my desk: “Bruce” was the title. It was written by Peter Ames Carlin, himself a former People magazine writer (but long after my time) who since has written a series of music star biographies — Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, Paul McCartney, and now this nearly 500-page biography of “The Boss.”
And so, in a perfect example of why Google and Wikipedia will never totally replace an old fashioned book, I settled up to the kitchen counter with the book nestled between three or four candles and gave myself a pleasant diversion from the rumblings of Hurricane Sandy outside.
While Springsteen’s body of lyrics may celebrate the common man and also fuel that man’s hopes for a better day, the reading of this biography suggests that Bruce himself was no commonplace Jersey shore lounge lizard. At various critical junctures in his life, he — even as a teenager and under-employed musician in his early 20s — stood out head and shoulders above his peers. In my Hurricane Sandy candlelight, I began to take notes of Bruce’s critical success factors:
Bruce was focused. A high school teacher recalls him sitting in a hallway working through his music (and skipping classes in the process). “He was very intense. Very focused. He wasn’t interested in the school band, orchestra, or anything else. He was interested in his music and himself.”
Bruce was also disciplined. In the late 1960s and early 1970s the cops in Freehold and vicinity equated the long hair and grungy wardrobe of rockers like Springsteen with drugs. Good guess except Springsteen was the exception, according to this biography, the guy who didn’t do drugs and hardly drank, either.
Years into his fame, when he ran into a few of his bandmates snorting cocaine, Springsteen threatened to fire them all. Thinking back now, I’ll bet that at the very moment I was enjoying the cocktail hour at the Hudibras, Springsteen was sober as a judge, preparing for the concert at Jadwin Gym.
Bruce had some common sense about business. In early 1970, when Bruce and the other members of a band called Steel Mill were playing gigs for as little as $5 per performer, the legendary rock impresario Bill Graham offered Springsteen a $1,000 advance in return for the publishing rights to Bruce’s songs. He turned it down. And within a few months, the band was pulling in $500 from a single show.
Bruce also knew that his real value was something other than monetary. At one point in the early ‘70s he decided to distance himself from the band. He recalls his thought process in the new biography: “Okay, there’s a lot of guitar players, a lot of pretty good bands out there, a lot of musicians, but not a lot of people with really their own voice and story, and I had always been working in parallel through writing and other things, on this voice. The solo voice. A guy, a story, some chords, some lyrics. And that was going to have to be enough.”
As he described his attraction to his first professional manager, Mike Appel: “He loved music. His heart was in it, and everything else. . . If business had to be a part of it, then it had to be a part of it. But it wasn’t a business. It was an idea and an opportunity, and Mike understood that part of it very, very well. And that was important to me.”
Bruce had a keen sense of introspection. “You cannot figure out who you are if you don’t understand where you came from, what were the forces that work on your life as a child, as a teenager, and as a young man. What part do you have to play? How do you empower yourself?”
On the Friday after Hurricane Sandy struck, the lights came on and I was back in business at home. I put down the Springsteen biography to view the NBC-produced fundraising telethon for the storm’s many victims. I wasn’t surprised to see Springsteen and his band there, providing the rousing grand finale to the moving event.
As the biography recounts, in September of 2001 Springsteen was horrified along with everyone else when he viewed the destruction of the World Trade Center. As the days passed Springsteen read the portraits of the victims that began to appear in the New York Times. He noted the people who had been described as Bruce Springsteen fans.
And then he did something that no celebrity ever has to do: He personally called families of the deceased fans to express his condolences.
Another success factor learned by Bruce at an early age: Have an answer when the call goes out: “What part do you have to play?”
Author Peter Ames Carlin will discuss his Bruce Springsteen biography Tuesday, November 13, at 7 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. Also appearing: Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, author of the 2010 book, “Bob Dylan in America.”