Bruce Springsteen & Anniversaries, The Origins of Movements and Sounds of Lives Changed
Summer has a certain cadence. There’s a rhythm of long days, the beach beckons and the pace of office life creates the illusion that time is slowing. There’s also that moment when you step outside and smell the air and your body reminds you that fall is looming.
It’s also the time when Bruce Springsteen shows up in the clubs of his native Jersey shore. Such a ritual happened one Saturday night in July at the Wonder Bar in Asbury Park when he joined longtime friend Joe Grushecky for a two-hour set. In the age of Facebook, news travels as it happens and there was no shortage of user generated content, forcing all of the major news outlets to report for several days on what had already happened. By the time everyone went back to work, Barry Paripsky in the Facebook group Calling All Bruce Springsteen Fans was at a loss for words how his video of “Darkness On The Edge of Town” had gone viral and has been played over 160,000 times. Over the next few weeks, Springsteen came back there one more time for a private event, shwed up with U2 at Madison Square Garden and closed out Jon Stewart’s final show.
Just like seasons change, time sneaks up on you. It’s hard to believe that it’s the 40th anniversary of Springsteen’s landmark third album, Born To Run. You won’t see any anniversary reissue because the box set with accompanying film Wings For Wheels already came out and that was ten years ago, another time that feels like almost yesterday. The biggest difference between the Wonder Bar and his ten hot August nights at the Bottom Line club in New York forty years ago? He was not crawling on the barroom tables as he sang, maybe because he didn’t want to upstage Grushecky or maybe because there were no tables or more likely because that was one moment frozen in time.
But what you are seeing to commemorate the anniversary is an oversized commemorative poster of the cover of Born To Run. It is being sold as a fundraiser for WhyHunger through the Springsteen fan magazine Backstreets. It commemorates both the year of the release as well as the founding of WhyHunger. The iconic image of Springsteen and sax player Clarence Clemons is perhaps one of the most famous covers ever and the poster is the idea of photographer Eric Meola. A limited edition of 1975 are being made available to benefit WhyHunger. An autographed poster is also being auctioned into September through Charity Buzz.
The poster is one of several Springsteen items that has benefited the charity. WhyHunger is a leader in building the movement to end hunger and poverty by connecting people to nutritious food and by supporting grassroots solutions that inspire self-reliance and community empowerment. Bill Ayres, the organization’s co-founder with the late Harry Chapin, first interviewed Springsteen back in 1974 on the ABC radio network. As he told Backstreets Magazine, one time Harry Chapin leaned out of a Los Angeles hotel room and saw Springsteen walking in a courtyard and shouted “What are you going to do about hunger Bruce?” Ayres’ appeal to Springsteen led to the singer hosting local community food banks at his shows and exposing millions to the widespread problem in their own communities.
Ayres, who just stepped down as the organization’s CEO, was honored for a lifetime of service at the WhyHunger Chapin Awards Gala in New York in June. When he sat down with SiriusXM radio host and longtime friend Dave Marsh on his show Kick Out The Jams, he brought a new business card with the title “Co-Founder and Ambassador.” Ayres revealed he had received congratulatory letters on his “retirement” from President Obama, Springsteen and numerous food banks across the country. He laughed when he said he has no interest in retiring and will continue to be involved, especially in policy and childhood hunger issues. He just won’t be running the organization he handed off to Noreen Springstead, a veteran of WhyHunger for twenty-three years.
Ayres calls photographer Meola one of the many wonderful partners he has been fortunate to work with over the years. As an only child, he talked about how longed for brothers and sisters. Working in the anti-hunger movement he helped to create, he admits to being blessed with the many people he has found along the way. The word partnership has a special meaning in the lexicon of the former priest and broadcaster who began WhyHunger with Chapin as a radiothon in the lobby of the United Nations building.
“Hunger is caused by poverty and poverty is caused by hopelessness,” he said espousing the message he had been saying for years. But as he’s noted many times, people need help and WhyHunger has found the best way to do that is through partnerships with community-based organizations, developing models that help to give people power over food and get access to healthy and nutritious foods.
On this day, the two were talking of upcoming wedding anniversaries, including Marsh and his wife Barbara Carr to whom he dedicated his first Springsteen biography called “Born To Run.” Carr went on to manage Springsteen and set-up Ayres’ first meeting with the singer which led to decades of involvement with WhyHunger, with activities including benefit concerts, fan meet and greets, auctions of memorabilia and personal contributions.
If change is incremental, sometimes progress can only be viewed with the vantage of time. Today the food banks that still set-up tables at Springsteen shows are far different organizations than they once were. For many, their role has expanded from giving out food to helping people to get jobs, helping children receive social services and educating people about growing and gaining access to nutritious food.
The charity invests in programs that look at self-sufficiency and sustainability. Project Nourish teaches people about growing their own food. In Cooking Up Community, WhyHunger provides online resources that teaches people how to cook. The organization can quantify the cost of feeding someone for a day but tries to focus on the ability and capacity of communities to feed themselves over time. With the Imagine There’s No Hunger campaign with Yoko Ono and the Hard Rock Cafe, it partners with community based organizations run by poor people throughout the world to spur farming that is sustainable in what Ayres calls “agro-ecological farming.”
The growth of urban agriculture, which is big now in China, is taking off in the U.S. with community gardens, backyard gardens and urban gardens like in Marsh’s hometown of Detroit. Ayres marveled at the forces that have been unleashed, citing a feeding program run by someone a mile from his house he didn’t know and the growth of farmers markets being run by youth.
Ayres said transformation is taking place all around him and broke down the food movement into a number of different segments, including “foodies” who want to share good food with others; “nutritionists” who are aghast at the ill effects of diabetes and obesity and chronic disease; environmentalists who are concerned about the use and misuses of water; and those fighting for fair wages of those growing food.
“All of these forces… if we could bring them together,” he was saying. “It’s like herding cats.”
Marsh suggested that when you are a kid, you think of revolutions happening in a moment. Ayres, who said his life was changed by going to the March On Washington during the Civil Rights era, counters that, no, it’s a process and there’s a movement happening right now. He calls it a movement of movements.
Marsh went on to say the lesson of previous movements is to create the conditions by which they can bring themselves together. As he and Ayres discussed during Hungerthon last November, perhaps the greatest result of the anti-hunger movement is the network of connections that have resulted.
The two wrapped up their conversation by discussing the role of musicians in all of this. Ayres believes that musicians help people aspire to something greater than what our culture and the economy present which, going back to Springsteen, is why his music has continued to have such an impact.
“We know we’re looking for something bigger,” Ayres remarks citing “Badlands” as one of his favorite Springsteen songs.
Marsh: “What it does is put me in that place and demand I return to that place.”
Marsh wears another hat as the co-host of E Street Nation, a two-hour weekly program on SiriusXM’s E Street Radio channel, a 24-hour station of Springsteen radio. The two-hour program delves into news of the day, Springsteen minutia and caller conversations where Marsh facilitates generational linkage appropos for someone with five decades of recorded music. When callers phone in to tell hosts Marsh and Jim Ritolo that their kids know the words to Springsteen songs, Marsh calls it good parenting.
That the channel exists is somewhat of a phenomenon. As best I can tell, it’s the only channel dedicated solely to a performer currently performing. If you want to know such arcane details as the last time he played “Devils & Dust,” Jim Ritolo can tell you with the touch of a keystroke (it was at a soundcheck in 2012). The channel also plays everything Springsteen, including demos, outtakes, concert recordings and what its listeners share. Once upon a time in the pre-digital era, Springsteen sued bootleggers who manufactured record albums of his radio concert broadcasts. Now the channel boasts it more than likely has whatever bootlegs still exist and they probably sound better.
Because they don’t have a crystal ball and therefore didn’t know Springsteen would be at the Wonder Bar, there was for the most part little news to report following Springsteen’s drop-in appearance. The show started off with a bit of the summer duldrums. There was a mention of a new Springsteen archival concert from the Tunnel of Love tour. They played “Tougher Than The Rest” a song which Marsh contends determined and shaped the direction of country music for nearly the last thirty years. It’s a song covered by Emmylou Harris, Travis Tritt, Rez Boys and Chris LeDoux among others. This led to conversation about his influence on Kenny Chesney and Eric Church. “There is no Eric Church without ‘Tougher Than The Rest,”‘ Marsh concludes.
Marsh is part host, part psychologist. He tells listeners he spends so much time analyzing what Bruce is doing that thinking about what he’s not doing would take the show to another dimension.
One caller, John, posits a theory that a song from Blood Brothers could be the title of his next album because it’s largely unknown. Marsh can’t help himself but ask why he would think if he put it out already twenty years ago, he would use it again. He’s pretty sure Springsteen is more interested in what he’s written lately.
But then he asks if Bruce might ever consider doing a country album. The question is prompted by the caller’s reflection on his twenty-fifth wedding anniversary in October and thinking about what his life would have been without his wife. Knowing Marsh is coming up on his own anniversary, he puts the question to him. Marsh responds, “You do think about that and you think about everything you would have lost.” His voice get increasingly emotional as he talks about his wife being one of the most extraordinary people he’s ever met.
Another caller rambles in a stream of consciousness that does not quite lead to a question. “Eric what’s your point… we only have two hours.” The caller finally reveals he has been sober for fifteen years. The song “Better Days” is one that became the personal anthem of his AA program. Barbara Salvatore, who drove in to guest dj on the show with her friend Jen Ursillo, recalled her sister Kathy banging Springsteen songs into her head and how they used to sleep out at night at record stores to be first in line to get tickets. The song “Waitin On a Sunny Day” got her through the difficult days as her sister awaited a transplant to fight leukemia. “When I Need You,” a song from Tracks, is so personal because she wasn’t able to be with her when her immunities were compromised. Ultimately she was able to give her the gift of a bone marrow transplant and thanked Rob Eccles and the Trinitas Foundation for getting her family through all of this.
She picked “Badlands,” the first Springsteen song her sister liked, to close the show. It’s one of the songs she had brought on a list. Time being what it is, the show can’t get to all of them but there’s a power by reading the names and feeling their thematic sequence come to life: Waitin’ On a Sunny Day/Trapped/JerseyGirl/Rocky Ground/Workin’ On a Dream/When You Need Me/Promised Land/Ain’t Good Enough/Tougher Than The Rest/Better Days/All or Nothing At All/Leap of Faith/If I Should Fall Behind. Marsh mentions there’s a line from “Badlands” he forgot was inscribed on the back of his iPod. The line is “It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive” and he says it’s about how we keep going on as and individuals and together.
When Michelle from Chicago calls, she talks about her son who is a special needs child struggling with issues on the spectrum. They’re most likely the same things that Joe Grushecky deals with during his day job as a special needs teacher in Pittsburgh. She has found that her son responds to Springsteen’s music which he finds soothing. The music often opens up communication about the words and meanings in the songs. She shares how she savors the magic of a minute of conversation between mother and son.
He likes “Land of Hope and Dreams,” perhaps Springsteen’s greatest achievement, a triumph of vision and aspiration that summarizes his lifelong community activism and democratic values and faith in the redemptive power of music. Marsh says if we want to get righteous we could just make it the national anthem. The song is the last recorded work of saxophonist Clarence Clemons, the “Big Man” with whom Springsteen stood in solidarity on Born To Run, the two leaning on each other, their partnership forged one night at the same Wonder Bar Springsteen stepped back into on a Saturday night in July.
What happened since is far too great to try and sum up here. Except to say that all the lives that have been affected since are just too impossible to be able to count.
(This article first appeared in For The Country Record)