Features & Columns

Wrecking Call

American rock's senior statesman wants to hold the culprits accountable
bruce springsteen austin sxsw Bruce Springsteen's show in Austin last month was compelling, political and urgent.

Around the time that Bruce Springsteen's "Greetings From Asbury Park" concert posters appeared on telephone poles in my central New Jersey hometown, 21 miles from Springsteen's, a Philadelphia law firm began secretly buying up parts of downtown.

The daily Home News speculated that Arab oil money was behind the New Brunswick, N.J. land grab. Then, after a large arson fire on a prime retail corner, my favorite camera store fell to the wrecking ball. Blocks of historic buildings were boarded up and razed, and the poor, largely black population was displaced.

When the mystery buyer was revealed, everyone seemed relieved it was Band-Aid and baby shampoo manufacturer Johnson & Johnson'the pharmaceutical giant that subsequently erected a 16-story I.M. Pei-designed headquarters tower on a 20-acre campus where the old neighborhood of brick buildings once stood.

I remember, as a high school journalist, asking the company's public relations person why successive mayors of New Brunswick and the surrounding communities always had executive positions at J&J. "We encourage civic involvement among our employees," she explained. (A subsequent mayor, not a J&J employee, went to federal penitentiary for corruption.)

The daily now calls the transformation a model redevelopment that replaced what an unnamed resident the newspaper claimed to have spoken to called "a gritty wasteland, home to dive bars, greasy spoons and predators [where] you walked in pairs, if you walked at all.'

That's urban myth. For me, as an eighth grader, it wasn't like that at all. The shopkeepers hired me to paint signs and trusted me with their shop keys. I'd climb up their attics, through the boarded-up apartments and hop rooftops.

The African-American printer showed me how to ink a Heidelberg press, and the Irish barber always chatted with me even though there was little risk I'd ever get a haircut.

Down the street, Greasy Tony's, a late-night cheese-steak grill, advertised "No Charge for Extra Grease' and, during the Vietnam War, "Grease for Peace.'' When Tony Giorgianni died in Arizona, his 2008 obituary noted, 'He ultimately was forced to close for construction of a Rutgers dormitory and commercial building."

Born to Wreck

With new songs like "Wrecking Ball" and "Death to My Hometown," Bruce Springsteen has taken aim at the decline and corporate makeovers of American cities, as well as the financiers whose disinvestment in American manufacturing has fueled their demise.

He's kicked it up a notch, from romanticizing working-class American values to a frontal assault on the global financial system and its tolerance for community destruction and criminality.

"They destroyed our families' factories and they took our homes,' Springsteen sings in "Death to My Hometown.' When Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band come to San Jose's HP Pavilion on Tuesday, April 24, they'll play in a venue named by a computer manufacturer that moved its manufacturing to Asia, in a valley with initiatives underway to build expensive soccer, football and baseball stadia.

"Here where the blood is spilled, the arena's filled, and Giants play the game,' the title song in a testy, ambivalent epitaph to the demolished New Jersey Meadowlands stadium that was home turf for his concert marathons for more than three decades, as well as an icon of his home state's rebirth.

Bruce Springsteen SJSU Springsteen at Winterland in 1978.Photo by Dan Pulcrano

San Jose: Nor Cal's New Jersey

As the industrial, suburban neighbor to a charismatic, dense, touristed financial center to its north, the South Bay is a like the state that lives in New York's shadow. Santa Clara Valley natives whose image of New Jersey was formed by driving the Turnpike past the oil refineries south of Manhattan will bristle at that comparison, but they didn't get to spend summers catching crayfish in creeks, enjoying salt water taffy on the Jersey shore or floating down the Toms River on an inner tube. While New York City and San Francisco get all the attention, the real work and real lives take place a bridge, a tunnel or a freeway away. And I suspect that's why Springsteen developed a relationship with our area.

The April 24th date will be Springsteen's fourth performance at HP Pavilion, and he's played Shoreline at least half a dozen times, including Neil Young's first Bridge Benefit show in 1986 and a legendary one in 1995 with the Pretenders, Steve Tyler and Emmylou Harris, for whom Young had just written a song called "Wrecking Ball.' (The title is the only thing in common with the Springsteen version 17 years later. Excerpt from the Young/Harris version: "Meet me at the Wrecking Ball, I'll wear something pretty and white.')

His ties to our area are deeper, however, because every trip included a visit to Mom. His parents moved to Belmont, 26 miles north of San Jose, when he was 20, and Bruce rode motorcycles on Skyline Road and other peninsula back roads during his Bay Area swings.

It took Springsteen time to find his Bay Area groove, though. The E Street Band was booked to open for Paul Butterfield's Better Days at the San Jose Civic Auditorium on March 1, 1973, according to the wiki Brucebase.

A two-week West Coast swing collapsed after gigs in Bakersfield and Stockton because Butterfield, who'd indeed seen better days, couldn't muster enough ticket sales.

Three years later, Springsteen and the E Street Band played Santa Clara University's Toso Pavilion and, in 1978, San Jose's Center for Performing Arts, six months before the Winterland show that Springsteen watchers call one of his greatest ever. That was the first time I'd seen Springsteen perform live. And, yeah, it was pretty amazing to watch him climb the speaker stack, jump off and slide across the stage on his knees, perform a half hour version of "Jungleland,' then collapse on stage, get carried off on a stretcher and, in a well played theatrical play, jump off and finish the set.

The hype machine that Born to Run engendered ' and the hardest working concerts in the industry ' took their toll, and Springsteen became a reflective loner, pondering America's dark side with an acoustic guitar and a cassette recorder. He sang about serial killers and insights derived from his readings of Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. In September 1982, Springsteen released Nebraska, a critically celebrated commercial dud that remains one of his finest works.

Two months later, the E Street Band's late saxophonist, Clarence Clemons, played the Keystone Palo Alto with his band, the Red Bank Rockers. I overheard a guy in the bathroom saying Bruce was in the audience. Sure enough, the reclusive artist came out on the final encore and performed some classic rock covers and "Fire," a steamy song made famous by the Pointer Sisters. Then he stuck around and signed autographs. Legend has it he rode up on his chopper, offered to pay the cover and declined security to watch Clemons' show in the crowd.

The late '80s and early '90s are not considered Springsteen's best periods. He married and divorced a supermodel, fired his band and attempted a career at upbeat pop. Luckily, none of the above lasted.

Somehow, Springsteen managed to find his footing. In 1995, he released "The Ghost of Tom Joad," reflecting on John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" character from a book largely written in Los Gatos. It helped bring Springsteen back to his roots as a chronicler of the America's battered working class and give renewed meaning to his artistry.

The next year, San Jose State University awarded him the Steinbeck Award, and he played a solo concert at SJSU's Event Center. His mom, Adele, attended, along with Steinbeck's widow, Elaine, and Springsteen honored both by playing his off-color rarity, "Red Headed Woman," which goes something like this: "Well I don't know how many girls you've dated, but you ain't lived til you've had your tires rotated by a red headed woman."

At the reception afterwards, Springsteen, who dropped out after three semesters at Ocean County College in Toms River, N.J., seemed humbled by the academic recognition. He brought his mom along as if to say, hey look, I finally went back to college.

In his South by Southwest keynote remarks last month in Austin, Texas, Springsteen reinvented himself as a professorial musicologist and talked about the sociopolitical power of rock & roll. And sex. Which prompted an NPR language advisory, no surprise to those who were at the SJSU concert, when Springsteen also loosened up a bit. Hear the speech.

He drew heavily on his influences ' Elvis, Dylan, Orbison, James Brown, etc. ' then talked about himself a bit ' "an average guy with maybe an above-average talent.'

At a concert the same evening at SXSW, Springsteen brought out outsiders Jimmy Cliff, Alejandro Escovedo and Eric Burdon. Arcade Fire's Canadian lead singer jumped off the stage and joined the crowd during Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land.'

Springsteen's Silicon Valley appearance figures into an 18-city U.S. tour that includes industrial cities Albany, Newark, Buffalo and Detroit. He's sending a message that relates to the American dream and the dangers that await if capital triumphs, manufacturing is outsourced and a city's soul is shredded.

It's no accident that one of the hardest working valleys in the world is a regular stop on Springsteen's tours. Prosperity and wreckage cohabit so nicely here on E Street West.

It's still fat and easy up on bankers hill

Up on bankers hill the party's going strong

Send the robber barons straight to hell

The greedy thieves that came around

And ate the flesh of everything they've found

Whose crimes have gone unpunished now

Walk the streets as free men now