An Incident for a Lifetime
I grew up on the Jersey Shore in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s in Monmouth County, New Jersey. To my mind, it was the perfect location. 20 minutes from the Atlantic Ocean and about an hour away from New York City. I was into music very early in life. At six years old, I became a fan of The Monkees and Glen Campbell. A couple of years later, Tom Jones and The Beatles. True story, on the first day of 1st grade, our teacher asked us to introduce ourselves. With my last name situated toward the latter half of the alphabet, I grew bored by the time my turn came. To inject some humor into the exercise I said “I’m Glen Campbell”. My classmates giggled. My teacher did not.
I became aware of Bruce Springsteen toward the end of 1975, probably right after he was on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week of October. He was a young guy from nearby Asbury Park who’d hit it big and was receiving lots of airplay on New York’s big FM album-oriented rock radio stations. Springsteen lived in Asbury Park, which in the late 60s and early 70s was a hub soul and rock n’ roll music but was also a worn-out tourist mecca that had fallen on hard times after riots in 1970. Bruce actually grew up 16 miles to the west, in Freehold, the county seat. As a young child, I loved going on the rides on Asbury Park’s boardwalk and had driven through Freehold enough times to get a sense of its working-class nature and small-town charm.
As a young adolescent in 1975, “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “Born To Run” were decent tunes, but I wasn’t a Springsteen fan. My reaction to him was “sheesh… everyone just likes him ‘cuz he’s a local guy. Big deal. Overrated.” When I was 15 years old, a friend gave me the album “Darkness on the Edge of Town” as a birthday present. A day later, I re-gifted the album to my sister. At some point, I took it back after and because …
The night of July 11, 1981, the summer after I had graduated from high school, I was working in Red Bank as a busboy at a restaurant, The Gables on Oakland Street. Red Bank was the next town over from where I lived. It was our “downtown” as my town, Middletown, weirdly, had no cultural hub. That very hot summer night, Clarence Clemons, Springsteen’s saxophone player, known as “The Big Man” opened up a nightclub on Monmouth Street, the next block over the restaurant, where I was clearing tables and yuckin’ it up with the dishwashers, bartenders and servers. Clarence’s club was called Big Man’s West. The club was directly behind the restaurant and Bruce was the surprise opening night guest.
After my shift at The Gables was over I wandered over to the parking lot to see what all the fuss was about. I saw my friend high school buddy, Johnny Johnson there. “JJ” who along with 50 or other fans, was standing in the parking lot. There was a packed house inside, and the sounds of “Cadillac Ranch” were bustin’ outta da joint. All at once, like a lightning bolt striking me from high above, I was captured by the sounds, energy, and passion emanating from inside. I also caught glimpses of Springsteen because it was so hot in the club. They had to keep opening up the doors — a useless exercise as it was about 80 degrees outside! Nevertheless, Springsteen was running around on stage like the energizer bunny. I thought to myself… “Dude, there’s a party that’s been goin’ on, right under your nose, and you’re missin’ it.” Not anymore! My epiphany, my baptism, my conversion took place in that instant.
A month and a half later off I went off to my freshman year at Lafayette College, located in Easton, Pennsylvania — a small city, 60 miles due north of Philadelphia. Easton was similar to Springsteen’s childhood town of Freehold. It had fallen on hard times in the mid 20th century as industries had shut down and factories closed in the Lehigh Valley. Nothing replaced those companies and the working class fell further and further behind, chasing the American Dream. Lafayette, however, was the proverbial, “Mansion on the Hill” — a beautiful campus up a very steep incline next to a nice neighborhood, safely ensconced from “the Townies” who lived in the hardscrabble bowels of downtown Easton.
At Lafayette, I slowly nurtured my interest in Springsteen’s music along with other interests in new bands like REM and Modern English as I caught the “punk-influenced, new wave” in rock n’ roll. I was a DJ at the college’s radio station for two and a half years. In my second semester, sophomore year, I had an early morning show. Each week I dedicated a song to my girlfriend Karen, to wake up to. With only 10 watts to blast barely across campus, she was among 10s of listeners!
I had also become good friends with a fraternity brother who was two years ahead of me — Steve, class of ’83. Nicknamed “Boosh,” he was a righteous music aficionado and his favorite rock n’ roller was Springsteen. He was also from the NYC suburbs and had the same sort of benign wise guy sensibilities that I had. Thus, began a friendship of kindred spirits and a connection that continues to this day.
Boosh served as the catalyst for many a Springsteen-related moment during my time at Lafayette. The key moment for me occurred when he came back to school for homecoming during my senior year in the Fall of 1984. By this time, I had seen Springsteen three times in concert as it was the time of the Born in the USA tour — which catapulted Springsteen to the top of the heap of rock superstars. In fact, Boosh and I had seen Springsteen in concert together at the Brendan Byrne Arena in August of ’84. Thus, my first Bruce concert was somewhere in the swamps of Jersey, at an arena named for still living former governor who exciting no one. Somehow, this was oddly appropriate for Jersey.
On that homecoming day in 1984, Boosh and I got to talking about famous Springsteen bootlegs — LPs manufactured by nefarious “record companies” and then traded via cassette among the hardcore fans. This one day we talked for probably over an hour about a boot of Bruce’s concert from February 5, 1975, at a small club, The Main Point, in Bryn Mawr, Pa. Boosh said “if there’s one show you gotta hear, THIS IS IT!” He assured that me that a greater understanding of Bruce’s signature traits as a genius songwriter, musician, and performer all came together perfectly on this one performance.
The Main Point show was broadcast on Philadelphia’s legendary rock station WMMR. So, the bootleg of the show was in wide circulation and had good sound — traits not too common in those days. On a mission like a religious zealot, a day or two later after my enlightening discussion with Boosh, I tracked down a copy of the show. As soon as I put it in the cassette player, the next spark was lit. The entire concert blew me away and I highly encourage you to listen to the whole show, which can easily be found on YouTube. However, the opening song floored me the most.
So, let’s go back to late 1974 — early 1975. During this time, Springsteen was hard at work on his third album. He wrote an enormous amount of material for this album, there were tremendous rewrites, and multiple recordings (which later became bootleg material). He put himself and the E Street Band through one grueling recording session after the next. This was on top of a heavy rotation of concert dates which were taxing in of themselves. Nonetheless, the shows served as the proving ground for new material and further burnished his reputation as a performer that compelling fans to see him perform live.
The thing is, Springsteen had to have a hit with this third record or he was going to be dropped by his label Columbia Records. Columbia had put out two great records by Bruce already, but they didn’t sell very well. So, they told him that he had one more chance or it was bye, bye, Johnny. He knew that he was up to the task of writing a great album that could hit the charts, but he nearly drove himself and his mates crazy by the pressure he put on himself and everyone around him. He was at an inflection point in his career. If he struck it big with album number three, he could go to on to play and be known anywhere and everywhere. If the third album didn’t chart, he’d be a regional act, and develop a loyal following. He’d surely have a career in rock n’ roll, but it would always be a struggle — a life of constant touring, new record labels, and maybe he’d make it out of the club level. He didn’t want that. He wanted it all. He had to break out. He HAD TO MAKE IT BIG. Into this setting, Bruce walked on stage on a cold winter’s night in early 1975 to give a concert that perfectly captured this place in time — and thankfully, was broadcast live by WMMR-FM Philadelphia.
Live concerts on FM radio were not uncommon in those days but were nonetheless, “treats” served up by stations to build ratings and boost the careers of young artists. MMR was Philly’s number one rock station and for all intents and purposes, Bruce’s number one fan in all of the Philadelphia listening area was Ed Sciaky, an influential MMR DJ. Ed was on to Springsteen early and gave his songs heavy rotation on his daily show. Sciaky, (pronounced “shockee”) had a classic FM voice. It had a deep, bass-level tonality; easy on the ears, comforting, informative, and cool. I write in the past tense because sadly, Ed is no longer with us. I didn’t have the fortunate of “growing up” with Ed as I was in the NYC listening area, but we had very similar DJs. I know from listening to recordings and speaking to my Philly friends, that Ed had an infectious enthusiasm, passion, knowledge, and a warm kinship with his audience. He was the kind of guy you’d want to keep you company on an evening by yourself, spinning cool tunes and setting a chill vibe as you lie on your bed listening with headphones on, deep into the night. In other words, Ed the quintessential Rock FM DJ of the 1970s. He was also according to two friends of mine who worked with him, one of the nicest guys you’d ever want to meet.
Sciaky was the organizer and emcee of the Main Point show as he arranged to have Bruce play this show as a benefit fundraiser for the Main Point. Sadly, the Main Point was headed in the opposite direction of Bruce’s career and ultimately closed about 10 years later. So, this little coffee house/music club’s ill fortune is our good fortune as it allows us to time travel back to catch Springsteen on the precipice of rock n’ roll stardom.
Sciaky’s introduction of Springsteen is a treat unto itself. He’s cool but excited and passionate about the performer. I’ve heard this show dozens of times, yet I get giddy with anticipation every time I listen to Ed introduce Bruce. He’s even unintentionally charming in a slightly nerdy way as he states the words “the Main Point” four times in about 35 seconds. Most prescient in his intro is his forecasting that after the show, “Bruce will play one more show at Widener University and then conquer the rest of America and then the world.” Truer words were never spoken and the audience of just over 30 people(!), responds accordingly.
After Bruce receives such a lofty introduction by Sciaky and the ensuing, eager applause by the tiny but rapt audience, you might expect a high energy new song to open the show, or perhaps one that the audience would know pretty well like “Spirit in the Night” or “For You”. Instead, his first track on the setlist is a cinematic romantic ballad, “Incident on 57th Street” off his second album, “The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle.” Even more surprising is the song’s arrangement that night (and on that tour): just three band members — Springsteen the singer, joined by Roy (The Professor) Bittan, on the Piano, and Suki Lahav, an Israeli violin player who joined The E Street Band on that tour.
“Incident” is one of the only seven songs on “The Wild and The Innocent”. Like the rest of the songs on the album, the undercurrent running through this song reflects the duality of the worlds of youthful innocence and coming of age in a small beach town set by the Atlantic Ocean vs. the fast times and romantic, sprawling landscape of the intimidating and dangerous big city. The small seashore town romanticized is of course, Asbury Park, New Jersey. Springsteen “made his bones” in Asbury, but he wanted to leave it behind. In fact, he hated Jersey before it became “Jersey” — and he idealizes the big city — New York City, Los Angeles, or down San Diego way — as destinations to move on and up to. Springsteen illustrates the conflicts, drama, and dangers of urban life in “Incident” and that’s where we find our two protagonists — Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane.
Johnny is a street hustler and not a particularly good one. He’s on the make for both a little easy money and easy women. But he’s also being chased. Chased by the law, rival gang members, his own gang members, and his conscience. He’s chasing a dream too. He’s a confused, romantic young boy, but tonight he wants a little action, a little hustle, a little lovin’ and he is determined to find all of it. He’s got “bruised arms and broken rhythm in a beat-up old Buick but dressed just like dynamite” and he wants to score in more than one way.
From out of the shadows steps Puerto Rican Jane. “Janey” as Bruce calls her later in the song, calls out, “Johnny, don’t cry” to which Johnny says, “Puerto Rican Jane, oh, won’t you tell me what’s your name. I want to drive you down to the other side of town. Where paradise ain’t so crowded, there’ll be action goin’ down on Shanty Lane tonight. All them golden heeled fairies in a real bitch fight pull thirty-eights and kiss the girls goodnight.”
In the story, Johnny desires Janey and wants to escape the danger lurking around the corner to the other side of town. Janey, meanwhile, has her needs and desires, and she is lustful herself. She also knows Johnny isn’t a keeper and even though part of her wishes he was, he’s attractive because he represents danger and excitement, and she too wants to taste a little bit of that tonight.
In this one night the desires of the heart, of the flesh, and for a different kind of lives become intertwined, rise up in conflict with each other and ultimately clash and crash. But not before one last kiss, one last touch, one last little whisper of love and tenderness … before the flame is extinguished, and our male hero walks out the door falling prey to the temptations of the street.
The imagery is lush with characters — some kind of mash-up of “West Side Story” and its original inspiration “Romeo and Juliet”. You can almost see and feel the characters. The Main Point version of the song lends itself so well because Bruce still has a very youthful almost innocent voice as if he’s Johnny himself. In a perfect example of “less is more,” the only instruments accompanying him are the stark and dramatic notes of Bittan’s piano and Lahav’s sweet but haunting violin. Their playing underscores and serves the narrative but doesn’t get in the way of the story. It informs, makes it soulful and poignant. The piano and violin are harmonic sonic partners in this song, and beautifully symbolize the male and female energy that Springsteen at age 24 so brilliantly captured in the lyrics and melody. Thus, for me, this version of the song eclipses the version on the album and full band live versions.
What I love about a great song is not only the story it tells but the vision it paints in my mind about the characters, the drama, and the world they inhabit. I never needed MTV (when it played videos), because I create a visual narrative in my mind that accompanies what the songwriter is telling me. This version of “Incident” does that so elegantly and simplistically because it is just Bruce singing, Roy on the piano, and Suki on the violin. When Springsteen plays the song live with the full band, it is enjoyable, but again, I feel that a full band iteration, and especially Bruce’s wailing solo on his trusted Fender Esquire/Telecaster actually detracts from the story. It gets in the way. At the Main Point in 1975, “Incident” has a chance to breathe, to move, to paint, to dance across a floor of escape, danger, romance, eroticism, and ultimately despair and disappointment.
I could go on and on. But the song’s lyrics and listening to the song are really the point of the very long-winded, perhaps overwrought essay of mine. So, I present the lyrics in full here. I’ll meet you on the other side for a few parting words…
Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night
With bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat-up old Buick but dressed just like dynamite
He tried sellin’ his heart to the hard girls over on Easy Street
But they sighed, “Oh, Johnny, it falls apart so easy and you know hearts these days are cheap”
And the pimps swung their axes and said, “Johnny, you’re a cheater”
And the pimps swung their axes and said, “Johnny, you’re a liar”
And from out of the shadows came a young girl’s voice — “Johnny!”
Said, “Johnny, don’t cry”
And Johnny sighed, “Puerto Rican Jane, whoa, won’t you tell me what’s your name
I want to ride you down to the other side of town
Where paradise ain’t so crowded, there’ll be action goin’ down on Shanty Lane tonight
All them golden-heeled fairies in a real bitch fight, pull thirty-eights and kiss the girls goodnight”
And Johnny sighed, “Goodnight, it’s all right, Jane
Ah, let the black boys in to light the soul flame
We may find it out on the street tonight, baby
Or we may walk ’til the morning light, maybe”
Well, like a cool Romeo he made his moves, oh, she looked so fine
And like a late Juliet, she knew he’d never be true, but she did not really mind
Upstairs the band was playin’ and the singer was singin’ something about going home
And she whispered, “Spanish Johnny, you can leave me tonight, but just don’t leave me alone”
And Johnny sighed, “Puerto Rican Jane, word is down the cops have found the vein”
Them little barefoot boys, they left their homes for the woods
Them little barefoot street boys, they say homes ain’t no good
They left the corners and they threw away all their switchblade knives
And kissed each other bye-bye
And now Johnny sat on the fire escape watchin’ the kids playin’ down in the street
And he called down, “Hey, little heroes, uh, summer’s long, but I guess it ain’t so sweet around here no more”
Janey sleeps in sheets damp with sweat; Johnny sits up all night and watches her dreamin’ on
And the sister breaks down in the chapel late at night after everybody’s gone
Janey wakes up and moves over to share her pillow, but she sees Johnny up and out of bed and putting his clothes on
And she sighs, “Them romantic young boys (them romantic young boys), all they ever want to do is fight”
Well, them romantic young boys (them romantic young boys), and they call in the window:
“Hey, Spanish Johnny, you want to make a little easy money tonight?”
And Johnny whispers, “Goodnight, it’s all tight, Jane
I swear I’ll meet you tomorrow night on Lover’s Lane
And I may find it out on the street tonight, baby
Or we may walk until the morning light, maybe”
Ooh, ooh, ooh
Ooh, ooh, ooh
In October of 2002, some 20+ years burning down the road and in the middle of an eventual 50 Springsteen concerts. I celebrated year 40 of my life by seeing Springsteen twice on the European leg of The Rising Tour, in Paris and then in Barcelona. I was certainly the fortunate son in Spain, as I was able to sneak down from the upper deck into a fourth-row seat to the Big Man side of the stage in an otherwise packed Palau Sant Jordi arena. The real ticket holder never showed up. But toward the end of the show, Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rico Jane did!
I look back at my first few years of being a Bruce fan as a transformative experience and in no small part, it is due to my friend, my brother in arms, Boosh. That first epiphany at Big Man’s West might have propelled my interest on its own. I might have discovered this version of Incident on 57th Street, the moment in time that this song and concert captured. I might have come to understand the important role people like Ed Sciaky and other early supporters played in boosting Bruce’s career without Boosh. But it’s unlikely. I’ll also note that he has turned me on to dozens of other artists, and hundreds, if not thousands of other beautiful, amazing songs. Left to my own devices I could have easily stayed enthralled with the likes of the Marshall Tucker Band, The Outlaws, and The Allman Brothers Band. But the music gods had other plans for me.
My faith in Boosh’s musical tastes and knowledge continues to be rewarded to this day. And, thus, I bow down and honor my pal with gratitude and humility. Of course, I also thank Bruce, The Big Man, Spanish Johnny, and Puerto Rican Jane.