Sonny does some growin’ up with Bruce Springsteen


Springsteen AutoI received Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography “Born to Run” for Christmas. As I stared at the cover, a picture of the Boss circa late 70s standing next to an old Corvette I got to thinking, why is he so iconic? Why do people love him? What is it about him that I know already? Bruce Springsteen has a certain zest and a romance for glorifying the mundane moments that shape a persons life. He is a purveyor of memories, his own personally and yours as well. Lyrics like, “Girls comb their hair in rear view mirrors” can conjure up many images maybe personal or something you saw in a movie. He is a poet, a film director and a storyteller all rolled in one. So why did I never get it? Why do I change the station when I hear certain Springsteen songs? I got along all these years without Bruce. I got board on a flight from Denver and started reading his book and I got sucked in to his story. That curiosity led to me revisiting some of Springsteen’s back catalogue throughout my reading.

The Springsteen song “Growin’ Up” off of the 1973 record “Greetings from Asbury Park” answered my question. I was simply too immature or inexperienced to comprehend his coming of age stories of love, work and daily struggle. Even at age 39 I did not get it and Bruce was 22 when he wrote “Growin Up”, so that shows you how much of a late bloomer I am. However I was biased on Springsteen’s music based on me not liking his mega hits of the 1980’s with the album “Born In The U.S.A.”, particularly the songs, “Dancing In The Dark”, “My Hometown” and the loser jock anthem “Glory Days”, the latter specifically for his pronunciation of the word “recapture” in that sort of southern tinged, Indiana hick, shit-kicking vernacular. By the way, he is from Jersey why the fuck does he have a southern accent in so much of his work? I often asked myself that question then the obvious hit me. He is playing the antagonist and protagonist in his songs, sometimes playing himself but rarely. He is a storyteller and like every good storyteller one must spice it up and be genuine. Springsteen has that gift to “recapture” all the characters that have danced in the dark through his life and very uneven upbringing in Freehold, New Jersey as well as throughout his musical journey to super stardom.  

“Blinded By The Light” has always been my favorite Springsteen song, especially Manford Man’s Earth Band version of it in all of its Moog synthesizer glory. The original Springsteen version of “Blinded” is such a departure from the remake you may almost not recognize it other than the lyrics, which are brilliant, thought provoking and clever. His sound at that time in 1973 was self-described as “punk soul”. I am thinking of the familiar sounds of a great bar band with a raucous gutbucket, white boy vocalist and a back up band that wants to be Booker T. and the MG’s. I guess putting a sound to that label is what made me want to dig into some of Springsteen’s early stuff and give it a chance where I couldn’t do it before I had no frame of reference and his book “Born to Run” gave me that insight.

“Greetings From Asbury Park” also contains “I Came For You”, which Manford Man also covered and charted big with in the late 70s, and the catchy, boozy and Van Morrison-esque song “Sprit in the Night” which along with “Blinded” were plucked as singles off the record. Both songs had minimal success on the charts (until “Blinded” hit number one in 1977 with Manford Man covering it) but managed to catch the ears of a few rock critics in 1973, especially Jon Landau of the publication “The Real Paper” and “Rolling Stone”. Landau championed Springsteen as the future of rock and roll at a time when it seemed rock and roll was finally dead. The crushing big business of Led Zepplin style stadium rock and the hybrid of fusion jazz like Chicago and progressive noodling of Emmerson, Lake & Palmer seemed to dominate the airwaves making the sound and sprit of the music all to unattainable and complicated to rock music fans, critics and garage bands alike.

Landau saw in Springsteen what John Hammond at Columbia Records saw and signed him for in the first place. He was cut from the Bob Dylan mold but had a different perspective and sound altogether. Brue had a personality where I don’t think Bob Dylan had one at all. Bruce was a poet for the everyman not just the wet, jet set, hipster crowd who read between the lines and tended to think they were more intelligent than you but they were usually just really high, and full of shit. Bruce was blue collar talking about the circus, cars, girls, adventure turned sour, relationships, being let down, fighting and having a laugh when the coast is clear. He wrote songs about living hard and he was not pretentious about how he delivered it down to every detail he could muster. Landau saw the big picture in all of this and became Sprinsteen’s manager, producer and confidant for most of his career from 1974 onward. Landau’s story is something else for another time, very interesting guy.  

Other cool stories in “Born to Run” include his early rocking years in his high school group the Castiles where he first discovered his voice and guitar playing. He ditched his high school graduation day taking a field trip into New York City instead and roaming around the Village. Another great tale was one of his first Gibson guitar which he strung up and later realizing many months later it was a six string bass when he was rocking out in his band Steel Mill a high energy blues rock band, reminiscent of the groups Cream and their American counterpart Mountain. Then there is meeting Jon Hammond at Columbia Records, bad contracts, new band members, struggle, love, politics, endless studio hours, rejection and acceptance. “Born to Run” has it all for the rock fan that wants to know more but that is the obvious motive of any autobiography. However changing ones mind about how you feel about someone else is an entirely different animal and I have to say I feel different about Springsteen. I still dislike some of his work but I found some material I really like and more importantly I found a new respect for him. He ran from the future that could have imprisoned him, three kids, a factory job and a wife who no longer loves him but tolerates him for the kid’s sake. He chose to find his calling at any cost. As far as I’m concerned that can be the hardest thing in the world to do as a person.

Springsteen’s tales are full of characters you can mentally picture because his story is the blue collar, baby boomer, spot on tale of life as a latch key kid in America from the mid 50s and onward. The backdrop in Springsteen’s stories are slightly grainy, vintage coming of age tales of arguing with authority, running away, driving cross country, hitchhiking, touring the globe, surviving life’s lessons and such. Essentially he kind of wrote his own version of Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road”. It is kind of an ostentatious move some may say but you have to admit when a man gets to live the life of ten men in one life it’s enough to tweak a person’s curiosity.  

I know it’s a cop out to say and I have said it before “I am more partial to their early work”. I will say the same about Springsteen but for good reason. When he had no hype his mind raced, he took more chances and was naturally more transparent. Like any musical artist who is mega successful there is always a Zenith period and it seems to label that artist which is what should not always be case if you want to know where their true roots may really lie. Usually when I finish a person’s autobiography I often feel empty for a while after reading. I reminisce of lives, moments and eras that I would have loved to live through, or maybe have been a part of. “Born to Run” was a great rock and roll autobiography because it gave me that feeling but it also gave me some new feelings that were not quite so empty. The thought of hope and following your heart to lead you on your destiny is not unattainable, it works for some people and that dream is not dead if you are willing to just keep trying. The struggle is part of the reward.

Last week I walked into a neighborhood tavern on a Wednesday night. The place was dead and I noticed a jukebox blinking in the darkly lit corner. I was feeling kind of blue, five beers in and was contemplating a shot of whisky to put out my brain for the night. I was goodly buzzed looking at some singles lying on the bar and I realized maybe I should throw some money in the jukebox instead of throwing the whisky down my throat. As I loaded up the jukebox I was humming “Sprit in the Night” I had to hear it and a Springsteen song became my first song pick. If you know me, believe me this was a first time in history moment! I followed it up with a few other great songs that were itching in my head on this cold, damp and somber evening. As luck would have it the bartender liked my song picks and she bought me… you guessed it, a shot of whisky and a beer. I called in sick for work the next day. Sorry boss.

Sonny Vitkaukas

Sonny Vitkaukas

Drummer, Writer, Podcaster, Advocate

6 Responses to Sonny does some growin’ up with Bruce Springsteen
  1. zita vitkauskas Reply

    Excellent article, very insightful and informative. Write more please. You got right down to the “heart” of Springsteen. Now, I will l listen to his music in a very different light.. Thank you Sonny!

  2. Fred Reply

    Sonny;

    Great review. Keep this going
    My thoughts after seeing a Springsteen show are
    It’s the greatest night in my life and I’m going to conquer the world
    It’s also the worst night in my life because I said this the last time I saw a Springsteen
    show and what changed

  3. Shawn C. Baker Reply

    I Love this article. Thank You Sonny. Please write more.

    • Sonny Vitkaukas

      Sonny Vitkaukas Reply

      Thanks Shawn. It was a tough sell because he was never in my wheelhouse but I am a sucker for a good music story. I really like the Asbury Park album but it can be a bit of a downer if you are not in the mood for it but if the timing and feeling are right the album holds up well. I still never saw him live, except on video it is a bucket list item for me.

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