I had my first illegal beer at "Down the Hatch" in Atlantic Highlands. Rene Leno taught me the words to the song the band was playing. She couldn't believe I didn't know them. Truth was I'd decided to hate Bruce Springsteen from my first day in that school. I'd walked into sophomore homeroom and the words "Born to Run" were written on the blackboard in thick chalk script. Some time later I'd learned it was the name of an album released by a local guy. He was a native, and I wasn't. That was it.
And then I wound up with my buddy Joe in the basement of the Hatch, where the proprietor didn't need to worry any responsible adults would notice there were pitchers of the cheapest swill in front of every sixteen-year old in the place. He was making money and getting rid of the crap the regulars wouldn't touch.
I remember Rene's eyes glistening half a pitcher down, teaching me the words, and deciding to fall in love with her for fifteen minutes, and then thinking better of it. She kissed me and then went off to sit with Brian and Linda.
"She kissed you," Joe said.
"No, I don't think so," I said, because it wasn't a real kiss, though it would have happened when I was still counting. "One" was making out with Wendy at Patty's Christmas party. But I knew if I mentioned it the next day in chemistry she'd probably just deny having ever done it.
"That's your three," Joe said.
I said, " Doesn't count," then sang along, "...spirits in the night. Woah, night."
"I hate this shit," Joe said.
"Me, too," I said, falling in love with Bruce Springsteen and every other sensory impression for fifteen minutes, the way a guy does on his first half pitcher of cheap beer.
When we could get into bars legally we were a band, though the "we" of it was fluid. Kid musicians cycled through monthly. Every time we had a full forty-tune evening down someone would quit and we'd have to go out searching for someone who could play. It was always the bassist or the drummer. Most kids who picked up a guitar wanted to play Stratocaster leads. You had to be a nearly psychotic introvert to practice the bass in your bedroom and get good at it. A bassist who answered an ad in the weekly Musician rag was usually a guitarist who figured he'd just strum on the low four strings and no one would notice. They didn't know anything about the way a song is supposed to feel, and we were a bunch of kids from the New Jersey suburbs who played Motown numbers long before Phil Collins made it quaint for creepy white guys to play soul music.
And everyone we auditioned wanted to play Springsteen.
As an electronic keyboard player I approached E-Street music the way most people will themselves into the chair for a root canal. Candy's Room has an almost progressive staccato piano opening I could deal with. The opening strains of Thunder Road are kind of folksy.
The songs didn't end fast enough as far as I was concerned. But the high school kids danced to them. We played them to University kids at coffee houses. They were what we had to get through to play our undancable King Crimson or Genesis tunes.
We were progressive rockers. We practiced until we played tight and precise. Hundreds of notes per minute, thousands per hour. It was hard stuff to master and nobody we knew was playing it. We figured it was because they couldn't.
It didn't hit us till long after we broke up and got older that there was a reason nobody was dancing to Roundabout.
We played Born to Run exactly once in public at a bar in Red Bank. I couldn't handle the vocals, and neither could my brother, our lead guitarist and front man, replete with leather vest and cherry red Strat, white pickguard. He collected girls' phone numbers while he belted out all the rock tunes of our set of popular covers.
I remember when we were done that night, packing up our gear, he told us he'd never sing it again.
Far as I know, he hasn't.
Jungle Land seemed contrived. What kind of jungle was Freehold, Bruce's childhood home? Asbury Park? I used to go there to get discount tires. It had a beach and a boardwalk. It was a suburb. They had the Stone Pony, where everyone who was anyone played in Jersey.
It was a made up song that gave people the wrong impression. There couldn't be that much drama and despair between the Casino Arcade and the parking meters. We were there most summer Friday and Saturday nights.
You could get a Kohr's frozen custard and jump the ticket stand for free rides on the Wild Mouse. A few of the places would serve 17-year olds when the cops were away.
We'd ride the ferris wheel and the bumper cars and head down to the lake looking for crazy Janie because the song said there'd be action there if we found her.
If we had dates we'd stop in the parking lot at Scenic Drive to make out. And if we didn't we'd park there anyway, popping beers and making life miserable for the love makers. Usually, we didn't have dates, so it seemed unfair anyone else should.
One humid July evening I stopped the Buick under a streetlight. I'd driven us to the beach earlier that day to go scuba diving, and there was a blanket and beach chairs and scuba gear in the trunk.
We lay the blanket on the street, slid on our sunglasses, and settled into the chairs. Propped the scuba tanks on the curb. Sat there swatting at mosquitoes.
When the cops stopped by they just laughed. Four teenagers in sunglasses sitting on beach chairs at midnight.
"What are you guys doing?" an officer asked.
"We were just sitting. You know. The beach."
"It's a little late, isn't it?"
"It's better when it's late."
"Ok. Look. Just pack up and go home."
"But we are home," said John, and he poked his thumb backward toward his front door.
"Don't be a wiseass. Just pack up and go inside."
And we did.
Through the rickety screen door we could hear John's sister had Springsteen on. Growing Up The weathered gray aluminum squeaked and slammed but never latched. Kids hung out in the living room. Conversation drifted between music and relationships, world events, plans for the next big summer thing. There were always plans.
Because in those days something great was always about to happen.
The end of it was really abrupt. Like an elevator door opened and I was on a new floor. I didn't even realize I was moving.
It hit me it was over the day I was picking the kids up from school and Born to Run came on the radio.
"...baby this town rips the bones from my back, it's a death trap, a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we're still young..."
I sang along. The kids thought it was funny.
And that's what stopped me. That they had no concept of Springsteen or Down the Hatch or the ferris wheel at the Casino on the boardwalk. It would all be as far away and remote to them as the Second World War or dinosaurs. There was their mother in her sweater in the front seat of my parent's car while Jersey Girl played on the radio. All that was gone and over and not even written in a book. I'd lived what the song said. Got my girl, got out and moved to California.
No one would care. It would all be distant history to my kids and any friend I cared to tell about it, about as real as a Jimmy Stewart movie or top 40 hits on AM radio.
The other day I was on an airplane heading off to work, and I was listening to an NPR radio podcast. It was a science show about memory. The prevailing theory is that memory is not something actually stored in your brain. Rather, it is the re-experiencing of some long distant event. You remember things by reliving them, and as you relive them, you alter them in tiny ways. Memories are fungible. They can be altered, deleted, or inserted into the human mind.
So when I write about Rene Leno kissing me at Down the Hatch there's no saying that with the distance of nearly 35 years I haven't just made it all up.
Except that whenever I hear Spirits in the Night I feel it again. Over and over. Year after year.
If it wasn't real, I made it so.
One of my favorite sayings about life is that when we think of the "good old days" and we remember them fondly, we forget all the angst and grief. Because truly, things were as good or bad back then as they are now.
But what was good, back then, was that we were young.
Only we didn't know it.
Today I was working in the garage and my iPod randomizer queued up Spirits in the Night. As I worked I remember I hated the song. I remember I hated Springsteen and loved Emerson Lake and Palmer.
I remember pitchers of Genessee Cream Ale and Utica Club and pounding piano keys in dim bar light, surrounded by the reek of puke and sour dried beer.
I remember learning Spirits in the Night in the bar basement in Atlantic Highlands, and everyone was shocked someone from Middletown could actually not be a Springsteen fan and even worse, not know one of his more popular sing along songs - and then singing along with 20 other drunken kids, out for a night we didn't want our parents to know about.
Then my throat got tight and my eyes got blurry so I couldn't see the measurement I was making. And I had to swallow to keep from outright crying because it would be idiotic to be crying alone in my garage just because a rotten Springsteen song came on.
I tried not to, but my mind was reliving it. Waiting in line for the bumper cars. Back to Born to Run and Jungle Land. Back to shoulder length hair and ridiculous corduroy jeans. Back to warm summer nights on the beach drinking crappy beer we got from 7-eleven with fake ID.
And it seems entirely feasible that the reality I remember is all a fiction. As real as Star Warz or When Harry met Sally.
But what is true, what I know, is that it was good to be young.
My father used to tell me that when he shaved he couldn't believe there was an old guy looking back out from the mirror at him. Inside he was still himself. Still eighteen.
Now I look at the guy staring back at me from the mirror and I can tell it's that same eighteen year old who played Born to Run because it was the only way to get the band hired. He's just looking a little road weary. Lots of things have happened since they closed down the boardwalk. Lots of people have been born. Lots have died. I'm still here.
And I slide into bed at night and the blonde haired girl asks me what's up.
"I had a tremendous bout of nostalgia," I say. "I was listening to Springsteen songs and I got to thinking about when I was young back in New Jersey. You know, I couldn't stand Springsteen music back then. Now I can't listen to it without getting teary eyed."
"I get the same thing when I think of chickens."
"We had a farm when I was young. Cows, too."
"Aren't you glad you don't have to shovel chicken poop anymore?"
"Aren't you glad you don't have to figure out how to get a date for Friday night?"
And then I look at the woman next to me, and realize that all that cruising and raving I remember, well, that was good stuff but it belongs back a couple elevator floors down, and there's no reason to go back. No reason to resurrect the bad stuff that went with the good old days.
And these days, living together in our perfect Owl House, my icegirl and me, well they're pretty damned good days right now, too.