Bruce Springsteen, approximately
By Jorge Otero and Pablo A. Bertrand
So, I walk towards the microphone. Behind a rain of camera flashes, Bruce Springsteen and me are singing “I have two kids, two cats, a faithful dog and lucky hat; an old house, a fast car but I con’t go very far.”
The song is by Joe Grushecky and I’m not dreaming: it’s 1:46 am at the Starland Ballroom, where a thousand people are attending the 7th Light Of Day benefit festival. Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers have a couple of guests in his concert. One is Jorge Otero. The other is Bruce Springsteen.
Me. Bruce. In New Jersey.
Night falls on East Brunswick as two unwary people make enormous efforts to start a purple Chrysler PT Cruiser, whose automatic transmission causes more problems than we anticipated.
Hilton Hotel, in the middle of nowhere, no sidewalks or pedestrians, a clear reflection of the current USA; the cold and a loneliness sensation in the parking manifests violently, but nothing matters because tonight is different to all others.
The time of the initial acoustic performance concert conditions our arrival at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville and to increase our already latent state of awareness, Jorge’s guitar jack has broken the night before. That forces a stop at the Guitar Center in town.
It’s five in the afternoon and you have to be in the room in twenty-five minutes, the GPS seems to be our salvation, but there’s an endless queue of teenager Guitar Hero wannabes making their purchases in a Saturday night. That’s our barrier in our forecast time.
Nothing affects us, destiny is our ally and both the queue and traffic are beaten, not without some dose of luck on our part. Squaring the circle. Links from state roads lead us direct to the destination.
We enter using the guests door, as has been suggested; there’s a quick safety inspection, and the clerk puts our passes in our necks. We found that this time everybody is following a fairly stricter protocol than the day before (in fact we obliged to adhere to a kind of clothing fabric stickers that will allow us wandering with freedom through the alleys of the club).
Having achieved the first step we proceed to the examination of the scene: there are two scenarios, the acoustic and the principal. Jorge gets on the first of them to make the soundcheck while I check and, as we feared, there is no piano arranged on the stage. Those are the house rules, for space reasons this year I’m out.
Since we had not rehearsed too much, I take confort thinking that my participation in the event would not have contributed decisively to show American people how their music should be properly interpreted. Dozens of Japanese armed with flamenco guitars come to mind, and that helps to pass the initial disappointment.
After the soundcheck we turn to examine the main stage where we get the first sign that something special is preparing for the evening: in the center, next to the drums, you can watch a beautiful colored tweed guitar amp pointing toward the ceiling in the classic position commonly used by Bruce Springsteen. First signal.
The acoustic show runs according to the rules set by the organization, three rounds as a song between the three contenders. I can observe different weights, but there are no categories. Jorge Otero, Ken Shawne and Lorenzo Bertochini’s gloves exchange hits, and end up making peace over the chords of “I shall be released” (Bob Dylan always finds a way to fix sticky situations).
After these initial rounds, we conduct our initial trip into the dressing rooms to check in awe we are only allowed access to the room that’s on the side of the main stage. The day before we had been able to keep the gear in the upstairs office, but for some strange reason, today seems to have changed the protocol. “New orders, guys”, you can tell the security guys are tighter than usual, but we choose not to care too much about that.
The evening goes on, and there are some performances worth remembering, first are Maybe Pete, great local group that put all their energy into a small twenty five minutes set. Then come the old Exit 105, followed by divine Jennifer Glass (someone could tell, judging from the abundance of male flashes, that the runways have lost a star that music hasn’t find yet).
Various Spanish guys in the room begin to make us partakers of the existing hearsay about the possible arrival of Bruce, it appears that someone has seen around his guitar technician and that is a fact that anyone who knows how this hierarchical world of rock and roll can not let it go unnoticed.
We decide to go forward. If fate is meant to be rewarding us, this is the day. Jorge knows that Joe Grushecky has given his word that tonight he is one of the guests onto the stage and is well known that Joe is a man of his word.
Actually all Houserockers, Grushecky’s band, are the most normal people (is famous the anecdote according to which, one day the whole group was having dinner at Bruce Springsteen home, and the bassist, Art, was questioned about his preferences for drink, “what do you want Art?”. The answer: “water”. What kind, natural gas, Perrier, Springlife?, to which he responds with absolute naturalness: “tap, I mean, water”).
Jorge has been already cited some days ago to play on the song “A Good Life”, but now we need to make a landing approach to verify that the promise remains. The problem before us is purely logistical. Grushecky staff is not in thw room, so our only choice is to go back to the backstage adventure.
We crossed the enemy frontline using our artist passes, and just as we lined the corridor to the stairs on the upper floor, a security guy with extreme kindness asks if we have an “Access All Areas” pass. In his honor I must say that he was a very professional gentleman of the aforementioned job. Did the task without raising his voice and we were forced to recognize a more than evident momentary defeat.
Faced with this setback, we opted for plan B, which was basically talk to the event coordinator, Joe D’Urso, who knew Jorge since last year’s festival. We had to ask him for a special permit that gave us the power to access the offices where the more private dressing rooms were located.
The truth is that the excuse we used to take our request was not, strictly speaking, no excuse, access to dressing rooms was essential to talk with Grushecky, because Jorge was going to be one of the guests of the night and had to confirm the song to play and the time it would take place.
The contact is a success and, thanks to him, we got the approval of the goalkeeper who, hereafter, as a great professional, was going to look the other way whenever we passed in front of him.
When we went upstairs, we observe how in the meeting room is only Grushecky’s guitar tech. In a relaxed conversation with the guy, covering themes like their children or OJ Simpson, he tells us with the most natural tone that he has been waiting there for a while because “the boys are rehearsing with Bruce in the hotel”. Hit and sunk. The funny thing about the situation is that these people speak of this as if you already knew days ago.
We try to compose the figure as far as possible and in a knowing look, we swear or promise not to leave the dressing room until the situation is of no return.
Hours pass by and festival performances happen. Some of the Houserockers make an appearance in the backstage and after several delusional conversations, we chose to go down to see the concert of Jeffrey Gaines. His mere presence fills everything. He’s a black guy who sings and plays the guitar as if his life depended on it and that feeling is transmitted to the public powerfully cramming the room, creating an unbeatable atmosphere for us prior to face to something that was yet to come.
Nth return to the backstage area but this time, down the hall, we see a small change: there is a security person stationed at the bottom of the stairs. We act like we don’t care, directed our steps to the first step, and that will be our surprise when we see the upper door completely closed.
Instantly the door opens with violence and there is a guy who Jorge already knows because he’s developing a documentary about Joe Grushecky. Immediately awares our presence and says, quite suddenly and in a tone of despair, that they need a guitar immediately.
Jorge retraces his steps to the downstairs room where we kept things after acoustic concert, while the security guy stares at me with a scowl. Within a few seconds, Jorge returns with the Gibson Hummingbird, just when it seemed they were trying to get another instrument.
We climbed the stairs, we handed in our passport, aware that something important is about to happen and, in the moment we go through the door with a smile from ear to ear, we stopped by a command of the Sopranos. Tony Amato, better known as Boccigalupe (or “Bocci” to his friends), then a visible musical leader of the “Bad Boys” of New Jersey, of small stature but highly intimidating, we tuck his eyes and says, “Hey guys, they do not need a lot of people there right now “(if you know Steve Van Zandt, Bruce musical partner and actor in the series previously touted, good old Bocci seems his twin brother with the distinction of being even more badass much less sympathetic).
Immediate disappointment, we were punished in the hallway watching how in the back room the guitar delivery is effected to someone starting to play a few chords dominated by an unmistakable voice. It’s the man.
They play “Darkness on the Edge of town”, “Murder Incorporated” and “A good life”. Jorge and I looked again and again implying the surreal of the situation and nailed the hatred of our eyes on the small Italian-American who continues to laugh at our face.
We see the figure of Bruce’s guitar tech, Bocci says him in front of us, that he is going to introduce him to two Spanish “stalkers” (how miserable). Jorge tells him that want to stay there simply “because we do not trust that we’ll get our guitar back, capisci??”, to which the guy replied that whoever is in there you can buy two hundred equal than that.
Within ten minutes of being there, the rehearsal concludes, and a familiar figure tuck the hall toward us. Springsteen himself is of greater height from which it could be inferred from the photos, played with the hood of his sweatshirt over a baseball cap and an enviable physical shape for his 57 years, goes dragging the boots as a pimp neighborhood to the room towards the room with the entrance just where we have been intercepted.
Illuminated under the spotlight of the aisle, his circumspect figure resembles a boxer approaching the ring. Followed by Joe Grushecky, both are introduced into the room, while we implore our kidnapper to be released with our sad sight. It does not work, the torture continues, and we must listen, this time exactly two meters away, how the two musicians rehearse “Atlantic City”. I think to myself this is the cruelty of fate, just the song that I played in public for the first time in my life and I am condemned to listen from the hallway.
It’s the end of this small rehearsal, Bruce leaves the room and goes to the bathroom. When he comes back, little Bocci says “Hey B, sign this shirt” (who’s the stalker now, eh?). Once he achieves his goal, the little guy stares at us and says, “Come on, I don’t want to see you two again, go wherever you want and do not bother me.”
Last access barrier overcome. We don’t think twice and walk down the hall to the back room where, for the next forty minutes we are going to be integrated as part of the furniture. We dare not take a seat on one of the sofas, though only people in the room are the Houserockers bassist and sound engineer. We opted to lean on a wall and what we witness is really funny.
Bruce appears in the room, dressed up for the show and asks me to let him pass to the other side of the couch. I turn away and to my surprise, I see him puting on the cap he was carrying in his hand and begins to try posturing before the mirror. To be a rock’n’roll star you must suffer, guys.
Cross a few words with the others in the room and he is constantly pacing (I guess after almost forty years of playing one still has some nerves that contribute to optimize performance on stage). The comings and goings unfold before our astonished gaze.
Meanwhile I have mutated my being into another element of furniture, I’m kind of a lamp with glasses that illuminates the room absorbing interior pictures with a long shutter. I’ve never been a mythomaniac guy, but I must admit that being there next to the guy whose music has been growin up with you since you were nine impresses anyone.
I have to say that reality is fully consistent with the myth. Bruce is a very normal guy, pretty badass, communicates almost monosyllabic Amazingly, everyone around him follow his lead, and he gets to do that just using those little expresions. Now I begin to understand why the nickname “The Boss” which has been attributed since immemorial times.
His face shows a gesture of seriousness mixed with exhaustion and you see that maybe today he would have preferred to stay at home in Rumson, with his wife and children, instead of coming to play at the festival. However, his level of commitment, with friends first and charitable causes in the second, makes it his contribution essential to this “Light of Day” big night.
One of his friends, Bob Benjamin, manager of Grushecky, contracted Parkinson’s disease several years ago, and since then, he has organized this annual event festival in order to raise funds for “The Parkinson’s Disease Foundation”. Springsteen knows that his presence at the festival, never announced but always intuited, is a source of income for a cause today is threatened by the restrictions imposed by the Bush administration on stem cell research.
(By Pablo A. Bertrand)
(And now the story in Jorge’s words)
So Springsteen, with his cap goes back out of the room to “go unnoticed amongst people,” as he himself says. Pablo and I stay with Joe Grushecky and the band, I still have not been able to verify what song I’ll play.
They are all copying the setlist: there are three Grushecky songs (which will be four) and several with Bruce. Joe confirms to me that I’ll play in “A Good Life”, as planned. It’s the title track to his new album, the second of the set with Springsteen. Just in case, and seeing what is planned (Bruce masterpieces as “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” or “Atlantic City”) I tell Joe that I know all the songs from the list and do not hesitate to call me to play more.
Downstairs seems that Bruce has played two songs with Marah, and that makes the scheduled times become unexpected, but finally we went down and put everything on stage. Joe Grushecky’s rock and roll with soul flavour and The Houserockers captivate New Jersey audience instantly. Joe knows that everything’s on his side and enjoys the moment.
There’s just one song left for Bruce to take the stage and I have him by my side. I hesitate to introduce myself or not, but I do. His only reply: half smile, a slight elevation of his bottle of water and a word: “yeah”. Well worth it.
Joe introduces me: “from Spain, my good friend Jorge Otero”. On stage the Starland Ballroom, I had given four minutes to fulfill a dream, to extract the essence of the moment and to remember it forever.
A sign from Grushecky tells me that I approach the center of the stage, between him and Bruce. Next to me is also Johnny Grushecky, playing guitar with his father in almost every song. The atmosphere is relaxed onstage. With another short signal I instantly understand that Bruce did not know the words and I have to sing in Joe’s mike the vocals that Bruce had recorded in the album… what a moment!
When it’s time to sing the chorus, the three of us (Joe, Johnny and me) are in the same microphone, Bruce barely reads the lyrics from the stand, and I see that hole in the stage but let the occasion pass. But the next chorus is here and onstage all seems ready to make the most logical move. I have to walk the two meters that separate me from Springsteen and sing with him on his microphone in the center. I must admit that I hesitated for a split second.
So I approach the microphone and in a rain of flashes, Bruce Springsteen and I sang “I have two kids, two cats, a faithful dog and a lucky hat, an old house, a fast car but I don’t go very far.” We both lie.
Bruce is playing his classic Telecaster guitar, he looks excellent and the more pronounced physical characteristic (besides his jaw) is that he resembles beyond belief to Bruce Springsteen. When she speaks, he even looks like a copycat of himself. And he walks with a limp, just like everyone says he does.
But also, that night Bruce plays rock and roll like he ever did, or more like as always does. The way we’ve all wanted to play sometime. And me, that night I touched with the fingertips that mythical universe of New Jersey where he was born to run, you live to find out if love is real and every night you can pursue your dreams in the promised land.