I was a late starter to the Springsteen revolution. Before my education, what I knew about the Boss was that he wrote “Born in the U.S.A” and “Dancing in the Dark” and, despite the fact that neither my stepdad nor old man particularly enjoyed his music, he seemed a prolific purveyor of “dad rock.”
I met a great woman in 2008, a Springsteen fan, and during our brief relationship she educated me in Bossology. We took a drive to the Dandenongs one day and she played his then recent release, “Magic” on the car stereo. I was hooked instantly.
A few months later I took off overseas to haul everything I owned in around in a backpack like a wayfaring turtle. “Magic” became the soundtrack to my journey of self-discovery. I fell in love with the Boss’s melodic rock, and with the “Big Man,” Clarence Clemons’s wailing horn sound. My Springsteen admiration deepened.
Though I am indebted to Springsteen as a listener, I am even more indebted as a musician. I’d all but given up playing live music after years gigging around the pubs of Melbourne in my early twenties. I missed the stage, the rush, the camaraderie of playing to crowds.
I wound up living unexpectedly in New York City that year. I’d met a girl and didn’t want to leave, so I stayed with her in her cosy Queens apartment for as long as I could. Inspired by the recent revelation of the Big Man and the Boss, I put up a Craigslist ad offering my services. The ad read:
Sax Beast – Sax/guitarist from Oz looking for band. Influences: Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, Tim Capello, Tom Petty, Paul Kelly, David Bowie, John Lennon. Can serve up balltearing rock horn on a metal platter. Keen to jam.
I received one reply. It was from a guy named Vin Brue, guitarist/songwriter who ran a band called “Lifeguard Nights” (formerly “The South Jersey Seashore Lifeguard Convention”). I checked out their Myspace page and was pleasantly surprised. Their music was really good, main influences listed as Bruce Springsteen’s E-Street Band and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention. It was a fine description of their music—rocking and melodic like The Boss, but with an underlying Zappa eccentricity. The confluence was exemplified by their song, “My Chevrolet,” which sounded initially like a Springsteen-esque rocker, but kicked in with the chorus “I wanna fuck my Chevrolet” and became a tongue in cheek ditty about loving your car so much that you want to have sex with it. I agreed to meet Vin and have a jam.
The apartment I was living in was in Woodside, Queens, an old Irish neighbourhood 20 minutes on the overground train from Manhattan. I took the 7-line into Grand Central, an increasingly familiar route, and from there, the Seventh Avenue line south to Christopher Street and Sheridan Square. Evening sun spilled over the West Village and the streets were full of action and weird life. I bought a six-pack of beer from a liquor store and wandered over to 184 west 10th street, apt 3D.
Vin opened the door, shook my hand. He seemed a sparky, enthusiastic and respectful guy. Apartment 3D was cosy, functioning as a bedroom, lounge and studio in one, typical of the New York experience. I could hear the big city commotion through closed windows, the familiar hum and rumble of the subway, horns honking.
It turned out that Vin loved Springsteen even more than I did, an appreciation that, like mine, took him a little while to discover.
Growing up in Basking Ridge, New Jersey—just an hour drive from Freehold Township, where Springsteen spent his formative early years—Vin somehow managed to avoid hearing “Born To Run” until he was 19 years old. He said he had an early memory when he was five years old seeing The Boss on MTV—his Mum came downstairs and said she thought Springsteen “had a great ass.” Because of this, Vin believed his Mum was intending to leave his Dad for Springsteen’s ass. For the better part of his youth he harboured ill-will towards the Boss, figuring him a homewrecker, picturing an illicit affair between him and his mother. When he finally heard “Born to Run” on a shift at the local supermarket, he too believed he was born to run. His Mum had not run off with Springsteen. He dusted off his guitar, started a band, and never looked back.
As frontman initially for the “South Jersey Lifeguard Convention,” Vin would often strip down to red budgie smugglers mid-set, to the hollers, and perhaps horror, of the live crowd. He was also nothing if not prolific—he’d released over 26 DIY album releases, over 500 original songs, all in his own bed/lounge/studio, all fine quality. Ultimately, he just wanted to have fun with music, end of story, and I liked that a lot.
His best childhood pal, John, the band’s guitarist, sat on the couch drinking beers. He seemed a humble guy, bespectacled and instantly likeable. He talked about how Bill Murray used to hang out in the bar around the corner, and about the stabbing that went down in Christopher Park the night prior, and that the local bodybuilder/eccentric with blonde hair who everyone calls “He Man” may or may not have had something to do with it.
We jammed together on their tunes. They seemed to dig my ball-tearing style, said it reminded them of Clarence, and that I should play some shows with them. This made me happy, so I drank more and later, after the woman from the apartment over the way told us to keep the noise down, I high fived Vin and John, my new pals and, drunk on cheap American ale, I carried my horn back out into the hot New York night. I was back in the game.
My first show with Lifeguard Nights was at a place called Bar Nine on Ninth Avenue. On the train over from Queens, a fella got talking to me.
“Hey, what’s that,” he said, pointing to my sax case.
“That’s a saxophone,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah, but, ah, what case you got there? What brand?”
“You play?” I asked.
“Yeah, I play a bit,” he said.
It turned out that the guy was no deviant, but Neal Sugarman, sax player for Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings and chief brain behind the Daptone Record label. He played a lot more than “a bit.” As well as having a badass name, Sugarman was a smooth tenor and baritone player and got the job done well. He chatted to me about his new neighbourhood, Sunnyside, not far from Woodside where I lived, about leaving Brooklyn “cos of the crazy rents,” and that some of the other Dap Kings had recently followed suit.
The show at Bar 9 went well, and I agreed to play more. Gigging with Lifeguard Nights was fun and very undemanding of much skill. Plus, I got to drink for free. It was just great to play in a band again, made even more special by the fact that I was doing it in New York. I played a handful of shows with Vin and the guys, down at the Bowery Ballroom and the Delancey and a few other places around the Lower East Side. But I recall one gig that sticks out the most.
Vin booked us to play in the back room of a dive bar called “Tommy’s Tavern” in the Brooklyn neighbourhood of Greenpoint. The back room was no more than 6 metres x 6 metres, a concrete shell without a stage, fluorescent lights dangling from the ceiling and a single door to get in and out. The atmosphere was like a bomb shelter. We went on early. I counted five people who slinked in from Tommy’s front bar to listen to us. We were supposed to be supporting the headline act, “LA Velvet,” on their “sexiest, sweetest & louder” tour. When our set finished, I felt claustrophobia from the tiny room and headed home for Queens. Vin would later attest that I had left at the right time.
LA Velvet didn’t even turn up, “due to an emergency,” which Vin guessed was STD-related. Worse than that, the middle band, “Smite,” almost killed him, figuratively and literally.
“Smite” claimed that our drummer stole their hi-hat clutch and felts. He was gone at that point, so Vin had to try to explain on his behalf that he hadn’t, which wasn’t easy. Smite were pissed. Even the bartender was pissed, flipping out on Vin too, possibly because he was wearing a red leather jacket and the jukebox had written on it: “Don’t even think about playing any Michael Jackson/Jackson 5/Alien Ant Farm/Weird Al Yankovic in here, fucker.” Since “Smite” were using Vin’s mic, mic stand and cables for their performance, he had no choice but to stick around for their whole set—alone, with a stiff drink, in a windowless concrete room, while an angry metal band of psychopaths in chains and white make-up screamed at him through his own microphones. He likened the experience to being in a David Lynch film.
I said goodbye to New York and Vin and the guys when my lady and I took a hiatus from hectic city life to shack up in a cabin in the Northwoods of Duluth, Minnesota. The sleepier pace of the American Midwest was dreamlike, a welcome shift from the frantic city, an experience that Springsteen’s acoustic ballads would latch onto, enhance and become affiliated with forever.
It is said that the real America can only be experienced on the road. I took a number of highway journeys across the American heartland in my time in the states—once, in a 16-foot truck, from New York City to Las Vegas and back, with a 37-hour straight shot through the night from Vegas to Louisville, Kentucky. Springsteen was with me there too.
But my American dream eventually came to an end, and I returned home to Melbourne to start fresh. With memories of being on stage with Vin and the Lifeguard boys, my musical thirst continued. I reconnected with old brothers and sisters from the “Melbourne Ska Orchestra,” a band I’d performed with years earlier, which was on the verge of playing top festival shows. Reconnection with them led to another regular gig as a gringo mariachi shaking my pelvis with a 10-piece Mexican rock ‘n roll band called “Abbie Cardwell & the Chicano Rockers. I couldn’t get enough of the costume action, and found myself in a five-piece calypso outfit, dressed as a 1970s cruise ship cabin boy. I took up the bass and jammed with janglers, Big Tobacco; and then again on sax with the prohibition-era blues dynamo, “Mojo Juju.”
Life suddenly got busy. Weekends were full with club gigs and regional tours. I became a working musician again, and I got better at my craft. It humbled me, remembering how privileged it is to be able to create music with people and share it with others. Few get this chance.
The Boss and the Big Man had led me back to the Promised Land.
Since returning from America years ago I have dived into the Boss’s back catalogue to educate myself further in Bossology, chuffed at the breadth and quality of material waiting there for me. From the tinny funk and sombre cinematic ballads of “The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle,” the meticulous brood of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” to the jiving frat rock of “The River.” I admired the way Springsteen crafted songs into rounded albums, each with their own signature. A repertoire rich with tales of yearning and failure, of fallible humanity—love, life, relationships and death—driven by fictional characters so true to life. With his musical imagination, he creates worlds.
Until last year, I had never seen the Boss live. The Big Man had since died, and I wondered if I would ever get the chance to see the E-Street Band play. Then, the announcement of Australian “Wrecking Ball” dates; the boss was coming to town. I caught the show at Hanging Rock, and another at Rod Laver Arena. They were electric and surreal, 3 hours long each time. He left me wanting more.
On Saturday night, with Ian Moss’s dad rock still ringing in my head from the Riverboats gig, I strolled down to AAMI Park with my pals Rusty and Bradders for another dose of Springsteen magic.
The reviews have since come in and we’ve heard everything there is to be said about the enigmatic Springsteen, who at 64 years old, has the tenacity, endurance and physique of a very fit thirty year old. This show was far and beyond the best I’d ever seen—from him, or anyone. It exploded with the appearance of Eddie Vedder for the opening two songs, “Highway to Hell” and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” and sizzled with the “Born in the U.S.A” album played from start to finish. I was happy to see consigliore Steve Van Zandt on stage, who was absent from the last tour, sporting a fresh set of brilliant white teeth.
Springsteen brought his marathon 3 ½ hour set to a close with a croaky, tender rendition of “Thunder Road,” a song I have loved for a long time. Tears welled up in the eyes of mine and many in that 30,000 head arena. It made me think about America and the road and the beauty of music and the passage of time; about Vin Brue and the New York boys.
I still hear from Vin—he sends me songs he’s recording, and I overdub the occasional ball-tear for him in my bedroom, then send it back to him out there on the other side of the world. He still calls me “Sax Beast,” sometimes just “Beast.” He lives in Jersey again now. Sadly, I heard from him that John, the friendly, lovable, bespectacled guy I had the pleasure of playing with in Lifeguard Nights—Vin’s childhood friend—fell asleep a little while ago one night like anyone else, and he never woke up.
The Boss rasped the final lines, and in the passage about “ghosts in the eyes” and “dusty beach roads” and “Cadillacs,” he sang the word “men” instead of “boys”. I realised I’d grown a lot since America, since all those years ago. My life was verdant with music and creative freedom, which I’d always wanted. The Boss pointed the way to it. His cinematic imagination pulsed through my own that night, and I thought about past loves, about greatness, the lure of the past and the immaculate future.