“This is Newark, New Jersey . . . This is Newark, New Jersey . . . Warning! Poisonous black smoke pouring in from Jersey marshes.” – Orson Welles Mercury theatre production of The War of the Worlds (1938)
We might have a competition on our hands here if we restrict ourselves solely to the shenanigans of lawmakers working in or around the state capital, Trenton. Lord Cornbury, New Jersey’s first Colonial governor, was famous for taking bribes and filling key posts with relatives. He also happened to enjoy dressing like a woman. One of Cornbury’s most recent successors, Jim McGreevey, appointed a former Israeli naval officer named Golan Cipel to oversee the state’s homeland security interests—not, it turned out, because he was qualified for the position (which foreign nationals aren’t actually allowed to fill), but because he and McGreevey were allegedly having sex. When Cipel (who denies the affair) threatened to sue McGreevey for sexual harassment, the married governor resigned and came out of the closet.
I was raised out of steel here in the swamps of Jersey….
And my machine, she’s a dud, out stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey…
“You were crunching on glass,” said Tony Kingslow, a 15-year-old who was part of the Teaneck group. “It was just a mess. Bottles everywhere, glass everywhere, you saw rags with blood on it. You couldn’t believe that happened.”
As they continued walking, Mulligan and his friends saw a burning, overturned car.
“There was a huge circle of people around it, throwing everything and anything in the fire,” he said. “We hung out until we were almost hit with some flying bottles.”
News reports alleged that concert-goers threw bottles at firefighters responding to the car fires.
“A heavy black fog hanging close to the earth . . . of extreme density, nature unknown. No sign of heat ray. Enemy now turns east, crossing Passaic River into the Jersey marshes.”
Way back in the misty beginnings of the blog, I wrote this piece based upon my notion that Springsteen is, in fact, the American Bowie. Hardly anyone read it then as I had about 10 followers and it was a pretty long piece. I reposted it last year and again – though my audience had grown considerably – very few people showed any real interest.
That might be because it isn’t a very interesting subject to most people or it may be that it just wasn’t that good of a piece. Whatever the case may be, I was asked recently (obviously by someone who had not read said piece) how it is that my two all time favourite musical artists are so very different from one another? That got me thinking all over again about the similarities I see at every turn between these two.
I’m guessing that part of the problem people may have with seeing the similarities is the quite opposite energies these two project. Bowie’s is much more feminine while Bruce exudes an undeniably muscular male energy.
And don’t get me wrong, I can certainly see that they are miles apart when it comes to the particular individual aesthetics they each embody. Springsteen has worked hard to project a very homespun, authentic, working man image. Whilst Bowie was always mercurial in his adoption of twitchy avant-guard and bleeding edge personas.
All of that, however, can be considered mostly surface gloss. These carefully constructed artifices were both artists’ ‘way in’ to their respective audiences. It was what they had to say having won those audiences that showed where their true similarities lay.
Both Springsteen and Bowie have had a lifelong fascination with the outsiders, the outliers, the alienated. Bowie chose to use metaphor to express that alienation, often presenting his character as an actual otherworldly being, a literal alien.
Ziggy the main character from the album The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars was the most obvious example of this. However, right to the end, the theme peppered his recordings. One of his outtake Tracks from his penultimate album The Next Day is a song called Born in a UFO. And the Blackstar album (and accompanying video) is also permeated with such metaphorical extraterrestrial imagery.
And so, yes, it’s fair to say that Bowie was ‘weirder’ than Springsteen. Ultimately, however, the two artists are dealing with different takes on a very similar idea. Both are asking the question; what is it like to live on the outside of a society that largely ignores or even denigrates its fringe dwellers?
Springsteen writes about aliens too but his come from a little closer to home, illegal aliens from across the border populate many of his songs. This is especially true of his solo albums The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils and Dust. Tracks like Across the Border and The Line deal very heavily with the issues of transplantation and the desperate need to find a better life that so many poor people feel.
In The Line, even Springsteen’s Border Patrol Officer lives in a state of emotional isolation.
Of course, Bruce was writing about alienated anti-heroes long before those solo albums. Darkness on the Edge of town is a lone loser album par excellence. And the operatic Born to Run is all about the dream of escaping from a town where you simply don’t fit in.
Since writing the original post, I keep turning up unexpected links between the two artists. The fact that long-time E Street pianist Roy Bittan played on such iconic Bowie tracks as Station to Station, TVC15, Ashes to Ashes, and Up the Hill Backwards still kind of blows my mind. And recently I discovered that drummer Zachary Alford, who played with Bowie during his ’95 tour with Nine Inch Nails and drummed on The Next Day album, was also the drummer in Springsteen’s ‘other’ band (the one we don’t mention in polite conversation because it wasn’t EStreet). Zach is a phenomenal drummer as should be apparent from these two clips.
For two musical giants who never actually collaborated (though Bowie, of course, did cover two of Bruce’s songs very early on in both their careers), the threads that bind them seem pretty numerous.
Since I wrote that original blog, this article has come out. It kind of treads the same ground but with a slightly different take.
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’.
On my hard to find (because I totally set it up wrong) About page, I wrote that this blog is basically a love letter. At its core, it is the story of my long-distance relationship with Jersey girl.
That relationship was meant to be the main focus of the blog, the narrative arc if you will. However, as time has gone by, other elements have slipped in. Having written about a bazillion poems (I know right, WTF), I’ve managed to bury the lead as it were. In short, I had to go and get all poetical and totally diluted the love story in the process.
Today I spent about four hours doing some much-needed housekeeping on here and now the narrative has been restored to its former prominence. I have created a number of sections under the category “Love letters” which will allow new readers and old alike easy access to the full story from the beginning to the present.
If you decide to read it all the way through, I hope you find it more engaging and less a self-indulgent plea for attention. More than one reader has told me that they found some of the subject matter useful in their own lives. If that’s so, then I feel it has been a worthwhile endeavor.
I would also like to point the reader towards the two new categories “On love” and “Kingdom of days” both of which feature material relevant to the main narrative. And for a different perspective, the category “Jersey girl” features a couple of her writings on the subject of – you guessed it – us.
I’m very much hoping, now Jersey no longer works for a certain book chain, that she can get her life back and find the time to contribute more often.