If I had to choose one place which I absolutely could not miss on this trip, it would be Asbury Park, NJ. This will surprise many people; New Jersey is nationally derided as “the Toilet State” — a very unfair epithet, though “the Garden State” — its real nickname — is hardly much more inspiring.
No, it has been my dream to come here since I discovered Bruce Springsteen when I was just 15 years old. All of my love for this country is probably, at root, inspired by Bruce, so it was imperative that I came to visit the place where he was born and grew up.
I had always known Springsteen as the one who sang “Born in the USA”. Nice song, but whatever, thought I. Then, one day when I was 15, I just happened to put on a cd I found on my dad’s desk. It was “Tunnel of Love”, the album Bruce made after “USA”. It struck me, and my dad, who’d been an original fanatic, gave me the old LPs, and I have been annoying my friends with my musical taste ever since. Maybe it was the connection I felt to what Bruce said about small towns (like the town I grew up in): he spoke of the road being a way out of it; a route to redemption, or maybe it was his less-is-more ethos, but anyhow the Boss really caught my imagination. His first album was “Greetings from Asbu….”, take a look:
Now, when bruce was 15, he grew up in a little town called Freehold, NJ. Your typical US small town. Not much to do, not much to see, not much of anything; but growing up here was to inform his musical roots, and indeed, it was this working-class-town style that made his music so accessible to people. So I had to go and see his hometown: we even found the address of the house he grew up in from a fansite… there are some disturbed people out there.
So we got to Freehold, NJ,… went down the road looking for Randolph Street, number 89. We went up the numbers… “81, 83, 85, 87, 91. What?!” No 89.
There was, however, a parking lot built where 89 had once stood. I was quite upset. So we parked on the lot, just to say we’d been there, and then went on our way to Asbury Park. Got a picture of the road sign though.
When I got to my early 20s, I had learned how to play a bit of guitar and of course, Springsteen songs were the first ones I tried to learn. He has an acoustic album, Nebraska, which gave me loads of simple, but powerful tunes to learn. Then I started listening to artists in a similar vein to Bruce: Dylan, Tom Waits, and through these singer-songwriters I learned a lot about writing. So it’s thanks to the Boss that you are even reading this blog! (You may or may not be grateful to Bruce for this….)
When he was in his early 20s, Springsteen started playing at a couple of local music joints in Asbury Park: just a few miles from his hometown. This was where the music was most happening if you lived near the Jersey Shore, and there were two main places where people would play. One was The Stone Pony, and the other was The Wonder Bar. Both of these are iconic for anyone who is a big Springsteen fan: you can see them featured on some of his record sleeves, you hear stories about them… they were part of my own musical growing-up. And we found them right there on the shore, probably unchanged since Springsteen played there.
When we saw those lights appear over the horizon my soul must have shone equal to their brilliance. After the disappointment of the day we got to evening time and were rewarded with this view… it was all Heaven would allow us, and it was enough: it was maybe the happiest moment of my trip so far.