Published in the January 2003 New Jersey Monthly Magazine
Thirty years after he left Freehold to become the world's most celebrated rock star, Bruce Springsteen still draws strength from the place where he grew up.
By Kevin Coyne
On the morning of the first anniversary of the September 11 attacks, after my kids are safely on their way to school, I put on a blue shirt and a red tie and walk from my house to the interfaith service the local clergy association is holding at one of the stately Protestant churches that line Main Street in Freehold. I go not because I've lost anybodymercifully, I haven'tbut because it's what my town is doing to mark the day, and I think I should be there.
It's a service much like thousands of other services all over America this daysolemn and understated, simple and deeply moving. The weight of the event it's commemorating is sufficient so that no flourishes are necessary. As a rabbi intones the names of county residents who died that day, a minister reads a mournful litany of remembrance. There's a choral response led by a soloist:
May your strength give us strength
May your faith give us faith
May your hope give us hope
May your love give us love.
It's sung without comment or introduction, and it's repeated several more times throughout the litany and again after the reading of the 46th Psalm, as if it were a psalm itself, a refrain that everyone everywhere is saying today, a prayer that dates back centuries rather than the chorus of a song that was released barely a month ago, Bruce Springsteen's "Into the Fire." Springsteen's name is never mentioned; his words are simply absorbed into the fabric of the day.
The singing of the chorus is a fitting, seamless grace note in a somber ceremony, but it's also an almost perfect illustration of the complex, subtle, and powerful bonds between Springsteen and his hometown, between an artist and his art. I'm the town historian in Freehold Boroughwhere Springsteen was born in 1949, where he lived until he left to become a rock star, and which he revisits often in the lyrics of his songsand I frequently get calls from reporters and fans plumbing his biography. Most of their questions are simple and easily answered: Where did he live? Where did he go to school? Where did his first band play? Where's Greasy Lake?
They end up coming to me because there's no other obvious place to go, and that often becomes their next question: Why aren't these spots marked? Why aren't there any tours? Why isn't there a museum, a monument, at least a sign somewhere? Why is there no public acknowledgment at all of your most famous native?
Proposals, in fact, surface occasionally in townto rename South Street Bruce Springsteen Boulevard, to put up a statue in front of Borough Hallbut they've quickly died. Such conventional ways of honoring Springsteen miss the point of his relationship with his hometown and that of his hometown with him; they would memorialize it as something dead and distanta historical curiosity, like Grover Cleveland's birthplace in Caldwell, sayrather than the deep and complicated thing it really is, alive and near. The reason we don't have any public acknowledgment of Springsteen in Freehold isn't because we don't love him here, but because we do.
People in New Jersey always have felt proprietary about Bruce Springsteen because he's always seemed to be so completely one of us. He's never pretended to be from New York or Philadelphia, never said he was anything but what he was. He proudly proclaimed where he was from at a time when many other people from New Jersey didn't. He doesn't set his songs in some generic landscape, some floating world detached from this one, but in a familiar territory you could navigate with the map of your own experiencethe Turnpike, Madam Marie's, Highway 9, the boardwalk in Asbury Park, the auto plant in Mahwah. He knows the ragged cities, the faded factory towns, the seductive beaches, the guys who "come home from work and wash up, and go racing in the streets."
Local references like that go only so far, though, in explaining his saint-like stature here in his home state. Behind them is the larger sense that he knows what our lives are like and that he's telling our stories. Springsteen's music can be insistent, propulsive, ecstatic, tender, and indelible, but in the canon of popular culture it will never approach the formal innovation, the startling melodies, of a band like the Beatles. Springsteen's power is derived instead from his gifts as a writer. He's by far the best novelist rock-and-roll has yet produced, and he's even better than most who have emerged from the novel-writing business itself.
In his songs the chapters of his books he draws characters, depicts scenes, and touches themes that have a quality sufficiently universal to make fans in Florida or Michigan or Sweden hear their own lives in them. That largeness of vision is what has made for the largeness of his appealwhy he sells out wherever he plays in the world. Here in New Jersey we can see the smallness too, the details that seem lifted almost whole from our own lives, that are rooted in the place we share with himwhich is why he can sell out Continental Airlines Arena at the Meadowlands for fifteen nights, as he did in 1999.
Some writers get locked into writing about their home territories and never rise above the level of regional chroniclers. Others burrow so deeply into one place that they hit the stream running underneath all placesWilliam Faulkner's Mississippi, John Steinbeck's California, Robert Frost's Vermont, Flannery O'Connor's Georgia. William Kennedy, the laureate of Albany, once described himself in a way that seems to fit Springsteen too: "a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs for the life of the soul."
Springsteen has the purest pedigree of almost any important New Jersey writer since Stephen Crane. There have been Springsteens in New Jersey almost as long as there has been a New Jersey; it's an old Dutch name that goes back to the colony's early settlers. Springsteens from Monmouth County fought in the Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. His mother's side, of Italian stock, arrived much later, part of the wave of twentieth-century immigration that transformed the state into the polyglot culture it is today. "I was born right here on Randolph Street in Freehold," he sang in "In Freehold," an alternately funny and bitter slice of autobiography that he debuted in a concert at his old parochial school gym in 1996. "Well my folks all lived and worked right here in Freehold."
That concert was his gift to all of us in his hometown, a benefit to raise money for a Hispanic community center the Catholic parish was building, with admission restricted to residents of Freehold Borough. Imagine the intimacy that you, a resident of Plainfield or Montclair or even Asbury Park, feel when you see him perform at the Meadowlands, multiply it by, say, a hundred, and you'll get a glimmer of how we felt that night. It was like a conversation at a family reunion. He didn't have to explain to anybody what or where Caiazzo's was.
It was far from a sentimental lovefest, though, and more like a reunion for a family that had traveled a lot of rough roads but was still together. He sang darkly of the hard times the town had given his father, his sister, and him. Between songs he was at times profane, riffing on oral sex in a way calculated to offend the priests and nuns in the crowd. "If you were different, black or brown, it was a pretty redneck town," he sang. And we nodded in recognition and cheered him loudly.
I thought back to that night recently, when a reporter asked me why Freehold seemed to embrace Springsteen so wholeheartedly when his portrait of our town often seems so unflattering. She was thinking mainly of "My Hometown," with its shuttered factory, its racial strife, its ghostly Main Street. Because we don't see it as unflattering, I told her. We see it as the truth. Freehold isn't like that anymore, but it once was. He was just being honest, and honesty is the basis of all good relationships. And while people on the outside assume that song is about leaving, we on the inside know it's really about staying.
When he sang "Freehold" again several years later for a much larger audience at the Meadowlands, he added a verse about "the statue of me in my hometown" that had been proposed and, to his relief, rejected:
Well I'd like to thank the town council, my friends, for saving me from humiliation
By demonstrating the good, hard common sense that we learned in Freehold...