The Faulkner of Freehold

Published in the Asbury Park Press and the Home News Tribune


Anyone of a certain age who grew up in Freehold -- in the real Freehold, that is, somewhere in the shadow of the rug mill, not out amid the house farms that have sprouted where potatoes once grew -- has heard the question at one time or another.

"Did you know him?"

The "him" can be only one person.

For some natives, the answer is simple and literal: Yes, they went to St. Rose of Lima or Freehold High with Bruce Springsteen; yes, they heard him sing "My Generation" with The Castiles at the Elks Club; yes, they worked with his father at M&Q Plastics on Bannard Street, or with his mother in the Lawyers Title building on Main Street; yes, their lives directly intersected with his, however briefly or long ago.

But for many others, the answer is more complex and figurative: No, the closest they ever came to him was two booths away at breakfast in the diner; but, yes his songs so uncannily echo their own lives -- right down to the elm-shaded frame houses, the smudgy factory streets, the ecstatic abandon of summer nights on the beach -- that although they may not know him, they can't help but believe he must certainly know them.

"When my sister first heard it," Springsteen wrote recently about his song "The River," she came backstage, gave me a hug, and said, "That's my life."

His genius, of course, is to make people in Albany and Detroit and Tacoma say the same thing, to invest his work with the emotional truth that raises it to universality. But it is the particularity of his songs, the portrait they offer of the real life of a real place, that makes people in New Jersey -- more especially at the Shore in general, and most especially of all in Freehold -- so proprietary about him. You can put him beside Elvis in the Hall of Fame, they say, but he will always belong to us.

Almost uniquely in the annals of rock 'n' roll, Bruce Springsteen is a narrative artist. Line his songs up end to end over the last three decades and they assume the shape and size and weight of a novel, an epic about the struggle to build a decent life in the shifting sands of postwar America. His chapters mirror, and at their best, even help explain, the chapters in his listeners' lives.

And like the best novels, his is rooted in a deep understanding of the world that made him. Charles Dickens walked miles through London by night, soaking up sights and sounds and smells. John Steinbeck traveled the migrant camps of his native California. Bruce Springsteen kept returning, again and again, to the streets of the town he was once so desperate to escape.

"I had to write about me all the time, every song, 'cause in a way, you're trying to find out what that 'me' is," he once explained to critic Robert Hillburn. "That's why I chose (to write about) where I grew up, and where I live, and I take situations I'm in, and people I know, and take them to the limits."

"The whole thing is, when you tell a story, a story is only good if it's your story in some fashion," he told Dave Marsh, the author of two Springsteen biographies.

Springsteen's appeal has always rested on his Everyman qualities: If Frank Sinatra seemed to descend upon us from above, with a voice of unearthly purity, Springsteen seemed instead to rise up from among us, a concentrated, pluperfect, ideal version of ourselves.

And if he is rock 'n' roll's Jimmy Stewart, then Freehold -- confining, sustaining, maddening, inspiring Freehold -- is his, is our, Bedford Falls.

America in miniature
"Here's a song set right here in town," Springsteen said by way of introducing "Mansion on the Hill" at his 1996 benefit concert in the St. Rose of Lima gym, his first formal performance in Freehold since The Castiles were playing high school dances 30 years earlier.

The audience that night was, by his instruction, restricted to residents of the borough of Freehold, the very people who, because they shared the landscape of his life and work, knew better than anyone else just how well that introduction fit so many other of his songs. From the outside, Freehold doesn't look large or interesting enough to engage an artist of Springsteen's stature, but once inside you can see how closely it reflects America in miniature, and how he could find there the raw material that, transformed by his vision, reaches so far beyond its small-town borders.

Springsteen is not just from Freehold, but is of and in it as deeply as William Faulkner was of his corner of Mississippi -- the "postage stamp of native soil," as Faulkner called it, in which he found the whole world. Springsteens were among the original Dutch settlers of Monmouth County, already firmly planted by the time George Washington arrived in Freehold for the Battle of Monmouth. Springsteens fought in the Revolution, and again in the Civil War, when the last local slaves were finally unbound from the surrounding farmsteads.

Freehold has always been distinguished by an uncommon mixture of village intimacy and city diversity -- small enough, with never much more than 10,000 people, to constitute a knowable world, but large enough to contain the whole sweep of America. The black people who moved into town were followed by the Irish, who had first been drawn to the potato fields that stretched for a half-day's walk in every direction, and then the Eastern Europeans, who came to work in the factories, and finally by Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and the whole spectrum of more recent immigrants.

"Without drawing too heavily on its storied past, Freehold has individuality produced by a fusion of rural, urban and residential life," observed the "WPA Guide to New Jersey" in 1939. "In an unobtrusive way it seems to embody America's growth from farm to factory."

In the Freehold of Springsteen's youth, Main Street's grocers and haberdashers and notions stores bustled with shoppers; migrant workers in overalls strolled up Throckmorton Street on just-paid Saturday nights; the rug mill whistle blew at 8 each morning; and semipro baseball teams earned their pay by passing a hat through the Lincoln field stands at their Sunday afternoon games.

All he wanted to do was get out, naturally, and his early songs are filled with fears of being trapped, and promises of escape. "It's a town full of losers, and I'm pulling out of here to win," he screamed in "Thunder Road." But 10 years later he wrote a song that so movingly captured his hometown's soul that it became its unofficial anthem.

"I used to think that once I got out of town, I was never going to come back," he told an audience at the height of his stadium fame in 1985 before singing "My Hometown." "But as I got older, I'd come home off the road and drive back into town and still see some of my old friends and see what their lives were like and what they were doing. I realized that I would always carry a part of that town with me no matter where I went or what I did."

"Instead of finding escape, something that would free me from the things I'd known, I wanted to write about those things," he told the Press in an interview soon after his solo acoustic concerts in Freehold and Asbury Park in 1996. "For me the story was what was going on in my life and in others' lives -- the place you grew up, the people you know, how that all interacts socially."

Generations of meaning
Springsteen's deep connection to Freehold, his long and tangled roots in a single place, offered him a rare lens through which to view life in a shallow, fast-moving America -- the hard-won wisdom that comes from watching stories play out not only over lives, but over generations. Freehold was, after all, ground that George Washington's men had died for, and Springsteen seemed to feel about it what Sherwood Anderson had described in "Winesburg, Ohio": "One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of that town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes."

He has come back to town often enough over the years that the locals mostly know not to trouble him. ("There's something about holding your kid's hand on the street where you held your father's hand that's very resonant," he said in a "60 Minutes" profile.) And he offered an incomparable gift of thanks with his concert devoted exclusively to them -- the one shimmering night when the ties that bind him to Freehold, and Freehold to him, were exposed more plainly and beautifully than ever before.

"I wouldn't have believed it myself if I wasn't standing here," Springsteen said when he stepped onto the stage at St. Rose, just a baseball toss away from the patch of parking lot on Randolph Street where his grandparents' house, his home for his first six years, had once stood.

He talked between numbers even more than he usually does, speaking about Freehold in the voice of his songs -- the warmth and love shaded by darker undertones of loss, regret and bitterness -- and sprinkling his raps with references to local landmarks, from the old Caiazzo music store to Ring's Barber Shop. Before one song, he told about driving through town with his mother, and asking her about the stark white memorial markers that graced the triangle of grass at Elks Point, at the intersection of Main Street and Broadway.

"Those are the men from our town who died in the war," he said slowly, quoting her, and then, before launching into a slashing version of "Born in the U.S.A." almost unrecognizable from the thumping stadium hit, he said something else, just above a mumble: "This is for my Aunt Edie."

Many in the crowd knew exactly what he meant -- that one of the crosses was for his aunt's husband, Frank Bruno, killed at Okinawa, Freehold's last casualty in the Second World War, the father of the cousin whose guitar had so intrigued a young Bruce -- and they shivered with the intimacy of the moment, the clear, startling glimpse into the secret power at the heart of a song.

It was everybody's song who had ever heard it, of course, everybody who had ever been touched by it, but that, as Freehold had just seen, was only because it was so completely his own first.

Freehold native Kevin Coyne, the author of two nonfiction books, is working on a book for Viking about the lives of six World War II veterans from Freehold.

Source: from the Asbury Park Press and the Home News Tribune
Published: March 14, 1999