Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Greetings from Asbury Park

Being obsessed with Bruce Springsteen is a bloody weird thing at times. I've written zines about him, I've made comics about him, I've given talks on him, I've followed him and the E Street Band round the country, I've got his name tattooed on me, I've contributed a chapter to an upcoming book on Springsteen, and I've even met him twice now. I've mentioned in my zines and in talks before that fandom and diy culture don't always fit together and it always feels super weird to place a straight white millionaire cis dude on a pedestal in the way that I do. But sometimes I like to stop caring about that for a second and just indulge my obsessive fan behaviours.

A few weeks ago I went on an adventure to New York. Me and my partner had the best time eating vegan pizza and donuts and going to record shops, comic shops, seeing so much art and so many ace bridges, and pretending we were in a film every day. During our holidays we took a day trip out to New Jersey for a special Bruce Springsteen rock and roll tour.

The rock and roll tour of the Jersey shore is run by Stan Goldstein and Jean Mikle. They have painstakingly researched Bruce's connection to New Jersey, the places he lived, grew up, and played and they drive you round in their car dropping stories and trivia all over the place and letting you get out and see those places for yourself. The places that had a profound impact on his lyrics, his albums, his friendships, his sound. And if you are a Springsteen fan with a day in New Jersey it's probably the best thing you could ever do.

We took the train from Penn Station and headed out to Long Branch, NJ for the day. I was ill as fuck, couldn't breathe or swallow thanks to infected tonsils of doom, but despite the holiday lurgy I was so excited. We were met at Long Branch by Jean, and we hopped in her car with my bag of tissues and cough sweets (sorry Jean) and spent the next 4 hours geeking out.

I liked Jean. She made no assumptions as to what kind of fans we were, she didn't mind if we were diehards or casuals, she didn't mind  what our favourite albums were which was nice. My partner isn't the diehard that I am and I was worried it could be a boring 4 hours for him, but Jean was bloody brilliant. During the 4 hours she also put feelers out to figure out what our political leanings were before tearing into the rise of right wing fascism in America. Jean was ace, go hang out with Jean!

We started in Long Branch by visiting the house where Bruce wrote Born to Run.

Someone take the flag down and buy me this house please, ta.

I've read so many books about Bruce, so many biographies, so many accounts and versions of the venues he played in Jersey, the streets, the houses, the bars, the boardwalk. And then there's the stuff that I wasn't sure whether it was myth or whether it was real. Which is why I nearly broke down in weird tears in the front of Jean's car as she casually dropped into conversation that we were now driving down Kingsley ("Well I'm riding down Kingsley, figuring I'll get a drink") from the song Something in the Night and that we were about to pass the strip where drag races used to take place, which Bruce used as the setting for Racing in the Street

We drove through Long Branch, down to Asbury Park and saw legendary venues like the Stone Pony, The Wonder Bar, the ground where the Palace amusements used to be ('Beyond the palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard'), the Upstage bar, and even Madam Maries from the song Sandy.

'Did you hear the cops finally busted Madam Marie for telling fortunes better than they do' - Sandy

We passed the factory where Bruce's dad used to work and was maybe the setting for the song Factory, we passed his old school, the bar where he first met Clarence the big man Clemons, his childhood homes in Freehold, the famous Springsteen tree in Freehold, and of course 10th avenue and E Street.

It was kinda weird having such a strong reaction to streets, buildings, and venues in New Jersey having romanticised so many of these places in my head. I'm sure my partner didn't have strong feelings as we passed the Upstage bar, the streets of freehold, or the places and street names made famous in Springsteen lyrics, but it was something that's only ever been fictional in my head and it suddenly became dead real. As we drove round Freehold we smelled the coffee from the nescafe factory and just a couple of days later when the official Bruce Springsteen autobiography was released, Bruce would go on to describe in those first few pages sulking round the streets of Freehold and smelling that same coffee smell from the factory everywhere he went, and it was just a bit bonkers to me that I'd been following his ghost around NJ doing just that a few days earlier. It still didn't feel real. It was like going to the Harry Potter Studio tour and being amazed by all the things you've seen in the films but also understanding it's all still just fiction. 

The only weird bit of the tour was driving out to Colts Neck where Bruce currently lives, which then felt a bit too real. The road down to his house is a private road and is secured by a fucktonne of private land that you can't get through but we drove round the parameter and I suddenly felt like a weird stalker. There was a private road, 100s of acres of land, and a fence separating our car from Bruce if he was home, but it felt a bit weird to be driving so close to where he actually lives. I spent the next 20 minutes gawping out the window looking for a black land rover in case Bruce was in the area.

Jean dropped us off in Asbury Park after the tour  where we hung out at the Silverball pinball arcade and museum and walked along the boardwalk for a bit, and I had Sandy playing in my head the whole time. I don't think I've ever felt as ill and as feverish as I did that hot summers night stuck on the platform of Asbury Park train station swigging medicine, chomping lozenges, and coughing my lungs up in Springsteen's old stopming ground. Shout out to my loving partner who endured a 4 hour tour of Asbury Park and then the whole evening of me whinging that I thought I was dying until we could get back to our bed in New York. 

'This boardwalk life for me is through'

Just a few days later in New York, Bruce did a public appearance for his new autobiography and we managed to meet him. I got a hug and a handshake and a compliment on my hair. 10 seconds later and I couldn't even remember if I even looked him in the eye when I spoke to him, I just know that I had shaken his hand and mumbled an overly earnest 'thank you for everything.' If you've read my zine Me and Bruce #1 you'll know this isn't the first time I've met him, but it is the first time I got a photograph to document the occasion.

Immediately after meeting him, My Hometown played over the loudspeaker at Barnes and Noble and I had a little cry. Having just been to New Jersey it was then so weird to have started reading his autobiography that morning where he described all the places we visited, and then to meet him just a couple of hours later while a song about his hometown played in the background just blew my mind a little bit. I want to say that having been to see where he grew up and having met him and hugged him, that Bruce feels even more real to me, that I feel more connected to his songs. And while it's true that I'm always going to be able to picture those places now when listening to his songs, none of it feels really real. He's still up on this untouchable pedestal and just because I've been to New Jersey I'll never really know him, and I'm still going to appropriate his songs to be about me and my experiences.

Speaking of appropriating Bruce, I'm dead excited that the book I've contributed to -  Bruce Springsteen and popular music: rhetoric, memorial, and contemporary culture has a publishing date of April 2017. My chapter is about interpreting Bruce lyrics as queer anthems and it's been a super fun experience contributing to a properly published book. Although I miss the immediacy of zines and not having to spell check my work or worry about copyright, zines forever! So today I started work on the next in my zine series Me and Bruce #4 which should be out dead soon. I love making Bruce zines and it's been a while since my last one. I might even ask for contributions this time round as when I started making them I didn't know anyone who loved Bruce like me and now I seem to know loads of queer Bruce fans. In the meantime you can get issues 1-3 of the Me and Bruce zine series in a special bundle here