Five times we very nearly didn’t have a Bruce Springsteen
We took the highway till the road went black
We’d marked, Truth or Consequences on our map
A voice drifted up from the radio
And I thought of a voice from long ago
Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake
Springsteen’s star is so utterly ubiquitous in the firmament of American rock that it is hard to imagine what the last forty or so years would have looked like without him. Here are five incidents that almost led to that very sad outcome.*
That time the bullet came through the front door
Bruce was about fourteen when one evening he climbed the stairs to his room at 68 South Street, Freehold. Just a moment later, a bullet came through the glass of the front door and hit the stair bannister. It was a mere matter of timing that he was not claimed by the shot.
In his autobiography, Springsteen later revealed that his father had been caught up in some trouble at work involving the Labour Unions. The shot was probably meant as a warning but could so easily have had tragic consequences for the world at large.
That time the motorcycle didn’t make it through the intersection
A couple of years later – also on South Street, Bruce was riding his motorcycle home when a driver ran a stop sign at the intersection of South and Institute Streets and collected the young musician pitching him through the air. Bruce was out cold for half an hour and suffered significant damage to his leg but, fortunately, lived to tell the tale.
That time Tinker took the backroads over the mountain
On Bruce’s first trip to California with the band, he and their then manager, Tinker West, got separated from the rest of the band who, at that point, were all travelling in a separate car. Without cell phones or any plan on what to do should this occur the two were forced to drive on to their ultimate destination and hopefully meet up with the band there.
They had a gig (their only guaranteed paying gig in California) just a few days hence and so they had no choice but to drive as fast as Tinker’s truck would go. Unfortunately, at this time Springsteen couldn’t drive. This meant three days of nonstop driving with only one licensed driver on board. Obviously, that was not feasible so…
Bruce got a crash-course in highway driving (something that as it turned out the future Born to Run writer absolutely sucked at) As Springsteen himself admits, he almost got them killed on several occasions Inspiring terror in the usually unflappable West.
That wasn’t the worst of it, however. When they came upon a washed out section of the highway, there was nothing for it but to take a dirt backroad over the mountains. As it turned out, it was more dirt than road and the two were forced to endure an ordeal which Bruce later compared to the movie Wages of Fear. Somehow, Tink got them through but by rights, the Springsteen legend probably should have been stillborn in one of the deep gullies they almost slid into over that nightmare drive.
That time the ocean tried to steal our hero
Before Steel mill had morphed into the E Street Band, Bruce was living a fairly beach-bum like existence in Asbury Park. Around this time he took up surfing (not surprising since he was living rent free in Tinker Wests surfboard factory). The surf being what it is – most of the time – on the East Coast, that should have been a fairly safe way to spend his time.
Unfortunately, on one particularly wild day (he describes it as a hurricane surf in his book), Bruce foolishly decided to go in. Predictably enough, a massive wave dumped him almost upon the stone jetty then two or three more came along and did exactly the same thing. He managed to drag his half drowned and badly bruised body up onto the beach eventually but it was a close-run thing
I suspect his enthusiasm for surfing waned somewhat after that.
That other time Tinker took the mountain road
What is it with these California trips with Tinker West? Just before the vaunted record deal with Columbia, Bruce and Tink took another run out to California. This time, coming off a broken romance, Bruce was seriously considering moving out that way for good. That alone would have spelt the death of any future entity known as the E Street Band but it would have been a moot point had the trip ended in the disaster Tinker West seemed to be courting.
Again the weather conditions drove them over the mountains via backroads and this time the trouble that was threatening were avalanches. They weren’t even in a truck this time but rather Tinker’s beat up old station waggon with a stripper in the back (seriously, don’t ask).
Somehow, they made it through the blizzard without anyone dying and eventually Bruce realised California was not for him. Upon his return, he signed with Mike Appel’s management company and the Columbia deal was soon arranged.
Springsteen had arrived and America would never be quite the same place again. However, if just one of the above events had taken a more serious turn, a good many people’s lives would have ended up very, very differently.
*I could have included the time he was almost drafted into the Vietnam War, a conflict that had already claimed the lives of two of his fellow Freehold musician friends (including a member of his own first band). However, Bruce brilliantly side-stepped that fate so I decided not to include it.
I’ve taken as my main source in this article, Springsteen’s excellent autobiography ‘Born to Run’.