While Bruce Bruce Springsteen hung out, played, and lived in the town and on the beaches Asbury Park, New Jersey only short while, his legend is forever tied to this seaside town. His early work, from his days in the late 1960s fronting hard rock group Steel Mill all the way through his 1975 breakthrough Born to Run was rife with imagery of the beach bums and street folk of Asbury Park the same way Lou Reed (at roughly the same time), wrote about the junkies, pimps and cross-dressers of lower New York.
He shot album covers and promotional images here, and the town has used his stardom as a commodity ever since his fame became apparent. In fact, Bruce’s stardom is one of the only things they can be proud of in the last 30 years.
Race riots in the early 1970s, corruption, graft, and perennially piss poor urban planning has rendered much of Asbury Park a virtual ghost town. In the right light, some sections of town resemble those bombed-out villages you see on the nightly news footage of war-torn areas in far away lands.
But from July 24 to July 30 of this year, the boardwalk at Asbury Park was abuzz with activity once again. Fans gathered here by the thousands in an attempt to witness the rehearsals and brief VIP-only performances from Bruce and the E Street Band over the weekend, and to celebrate the release of The Rising, Bruce’s first album of all-new material in seven years.
On the morning of July 30, NBC’s top-rated Today Show would broadcast from the boardwalk, interview Springsteen and beam a live performance from Convention Hall to millions across the country as party of its coveted summer concert series. CNN and Access Hollywood were on hand as well.
By Tuesday night, there were thousands. The partied and drank all night at the Stone Pony just down the street, where Springsteen and other Jersey stars called home back in the day.
Vinny “Mad Dog” Lopez, Bruce’s first E Street Band drummer (he quit in 1975, just as things were getting interesting) singed autographs outside the Pony. Madame Marie, the famed fortuneteller Bruce sings of in “Sandy (4th of July, Asbury Park)”, made an appearance at a local bookstore, She is now 90. Her granddaughter runs her tiny boardwalk booth now, one of the few businesses left on the once lively strip.
Fans slept on the beach, in groups on the boardwalk, in their cars. Some swarmed around brokers who were taking names for an anticipated “ticket-drop” if his Bruceness decided to allow more fans into the taping, or even decided to play after the television crews headed up the parkway for Manhattan. Scores more just bummed around all through the hot night.
On Tuesday morning, the estimated 14,000 people who converged on Convention Hall in the pre-dawn darkness made the blindingly hot July 30 broadcast an event that the town will not soon forget.
When Bruce got onstage at 8:30 to perform an uplifting version of “The Rising”, the crowd outside Conventional Hall watching on oversized screens, erupted like they were inside the tiny auditorium. The E Street Band, including new member Suzie Tyrell on vocals and violin, played knowing the importance of the occasion (national television), and knowing that thousands more outside would not be allowed into the party.
Fans also got a spirited “Glory Days”, complete with adlibbed vocal asides from Bruce and guitarist Steve Van Zandt. It followed a forgettable version of another new track “Lonesome Day”, in which Bruce attempted to channel the bravery of lost firefighters and police officers killed on Sept. 11 into a gospel-like anthem. Like many of the tracks on The Rising, it is lyrically right on the mark, but suffers due to overproduction and being about a minute and a half too long.
“Into the Fire”, another of Springsteen’s post-Sept. 11 songs dealing with sudden loss and fear, closed the Today Show broadcast shortly after 9 a.m. Shortly afterwards, Bruce and the band walked out onto the balcony of Convention Hall and waved to the crowd, looking like a royal family greeting their subjects as many folks who were now sunburned and hung over slowly streamed back to their hotels and cars.
For some it may have seemed anti-climatic, after spending the previous 12 hours in a Bruce frenzy only getting a faint glimpse of their hero. But what was perhaps the only misstep of the whole marathon event was that Bruce perhaps missed an opportunity to bring more attention to his beleaguered town.
While Bruce had performed “My City of Ruins” on the live September 13 nationwide telethon, he had written it about Asbury Park and its current state of decay, and it would have made a large impact if played on this day.
While he did encourage music biz types at one rehearsal show over the weekend to patronize downtown businesses, little if any of that message made it onto the airwaves. Today Show camera angles were tighter than usual, carefully framing out collapsing buildings and boarded up shops.
It’s been nearly a year exactly since the September 11 tragedies. The nation at large is well into the healing process, and our national resilience has allowed us to move on more quickly than many of us thought possible. Bruce’s 15 new songs may accurately and sympathetically convey the loss, the memories, the anger, the conflict, but it would have been a much better help six, maybe eight months ago.
In the meantime, Asbury Park leaders and businesses are reeling from the attention, and hopeful that it may help push along the first real plans to revitalize downtown and the boardwalk in twenty years. It certainly needs it. The FBI as recently as January was executing search warrants in an attempt to weed out corruption and graft in the city government.
Bruce Springsteen is said to have saved rock and roll. Despite the fact at 52 he remains one of the most engaging performers in the history of the genre, it’s not his to save anymore. He can however, through his influence, help save Asbury Park.
While The Rising may in fact offer support, encouragement, catharsis for victims of September 11 and the nation, most pop music is woefully inadequate for such things. It takes time, love, support from family and community, ironically the very things Springsteen has been singing about since the mid-1970s. Considering that, the music he already has made may be all the support he needs to give.