Kurt Vonnegut wrote “If you ever need to find the existence of God, all you have to do is look to the existence of music.” I believe that. I cannot imagine my life without music, something which in one way or another is the soundtrack to all of our lives.
Where words cease to exist, music fills in the void and gives meaning and breath to Life. To me, the most amazing thing about music is how it stays with you; songs you haven’t heard for 30 years, and you hear a brief refrain or some opening notes and you’re transported back in time to your first love or heartbreak, our victories and defeats. It’s why Sesame Street was so successful with kids and it’s why the CHP doesn’t let you sing the alphabet; even the worst drunk can sing it.
In addition to God, I spoke to several others who have blessed my life’s path in one way or another, asking them to name their favorite artist, band, album and/or song, with a final paean to the artist who stands out the most in my life.
As a kid growing up in north Jersey, outside of Newark, my old man was a pretty taciturn, moody guy, not given to shows of affection but every now and then his eyes would light up while looking at my Mom and with his beautiful tenor voice, he’d break into the Ink Spots “I’ll Get By (as long as I have you)” and our row house would feel a whole lot warmer.
Pelican Bay Warden Darin Bradbury fondly recalled growing up singing with his Mom in church. He went on to say his favorites go from Hank Williams to Kiss to Mozart piano concertos, but his “Final Answer” would have to be “Eagles-Eagles-Eagles.” If you’ve ever seen Darin passionately fronting the band Disturbing the Peace, you’d know it’s “tru dat” for the man.
Orthopedic surgeon and local health care activist and champion Dr. Greg Duncan weighed in with Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler and Creedence, with a special nod to Johnny Cash. He related how as a boy of 10, he used to listen to his father’s vinyls of Johnny so much he could write from memory every lyric to every song and how it broke his heart to see the “Hurt” video at the end of Johnny’s life.
Judge William Follett and Sharon and Doug Plack both nominated Jimmy Buffet (the effusion approaching a POTUS ’20 nomination), with Sharon adding Bob Marley, Johnny Mathis and Patsy Cline — obviously our affirmative action, incurable romantic. And Doug just called — eight hours later — to add The Four Seasons, rescuing his Jersey bona fides.
SoCal pal Jim Rome from CBS Sports Talk Radio referenced The Who, the Replacements, Blink 182 and Guns ‘n Roses “Welcome to the Jungle” (shocker there) while Fourth District Court of Appeal Justice Bill Bedsworth, one of the finest wordsmiths I know, nominated James Taylor’s “Secret ‘O Life,” for his most inspirational, adding that his ringtone is Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” the best concert he ever saw was Leonard Cohen, his favorite performer is Bob Seger and fave songwriter, Billy Joel. None of it surprising if you know the man they call “Beds.”
Another devotee of fine lyrics was found in Triplicate photographer Bryant Anderson who credited Tom Waits, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen as bench marks in his life, while noting country rock pioneer Gram Parsons. He closed with saying he’s currently digging Mose Allison.
Forty-year brother in arms sax and guitar player Joe McGlohon from my old Carolina house band called from across the pond where he’s teaching music at one of London’s finest teaching academies. A former sax player and band manager of 13 years for Reba McIntyre, Joey said his greatest influence was his mother, who taught him “to read music, listen intently, appreciate all styles and ethnic music as they all come from the same place — love.” He noted King Curtis and Jr. Walker for saxophone as “the baddest.” Also, Cole Porter and George Gershwin, Ray Charles and Oscar Peterson on piano. Fave albums: Zeppelin, Chicago, Four Tops firsts, as well as “Something Else” by Cannonball Adderley.
Local singer, songwriter and recording artist Scot Perry shared some thoughts, saying he first got into the Backstreet Boys to impress a girl who loved Nick Carter. He gravitated, as a young father at 16, to writing country songs, listening to George Strait and Garth Brooks who give him great inspiration. Casting Crowns and Mercyme are his most influential musical groups and he writes Christian based music to give back to God who gave him his craft.
Ditto George Strait for Kevin Hartwick who put up the “Cowboy Rides Away” title cut and tour show from Phoenix on Feb. 7, 2014.
Teri McCune Oostra had to go with The Band’s “Across the Great Divide” and “Acadian Driftwood,” which she credited with helping her understand Southern culture during the years she lived and worked there.
My cross pasture neighbor Lori Robson put up Chris LeDoux and Waylon Jennings, concluding with Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me,” saying, (with apologies to Thomas Wolfe) that, “Yes, you can go home again, because it’s the best place on earth and the one God blessed you with.”
As for me, it was 1967. Something had descended upon the small town I lived in just outside Newark in North Jersey. It spoke to long hair, clothing style, new music and it was called California.
Among other reasons to ditch school, we now had surfing. Some buddies and I went Ron Jon’s Surf Shop on Long Beach Island and bought long boards, mine a 9-foot-8 Surfboards Hawaii signature David Nuuhiwa noserider.
It was a Wednesday night and Eddie, Spanky and I had made the trek down to Asbury Park. There’d been a great swell all day and night found us surfing the pier lights. There was 12-foot of snow on the ground and we had full wetsuits, mitts, hoods and boots on.
Around 10:30, there was a good size blue fish run. The old guys on the pier were tired of our act messing up their fishing and began chucking sinkers at us. Spanky, who came from a broken home and lived in a shotgun shack down by the paper mill and always the first one down for a scrap, wanted to go up on the pier and dance with the locals. Fortunately Eddie and I prevailed in talking him out of it. We’d had a great day and night in the water and why screw it up with some busted knuckles and a probably trip to juvie.
We began our walk down the empty boardwalk. The stands all eerily closed, waiting for the spring thaw and the carney hucksters’ clamor and bark as they raked in your bread on 50 to 1 odds games of chance for stuffed animals made in Taiwan.
The snow crunching against the boards, falling in clumps to the sand below where you tried to lure those silly girls outta Philly months ago, faded to the blaring sound of a Fender guitar.
There’s something visceral about a Fender that distinguishes it from other electrics, something approaching twang that emanates from somewhere your gut and groin. It was coming from just down a block or so and like the rats in Hamelin, we were drawn to this little juke joint.
It couldn’t have seated more than 100 people but the music soared with that guitar slamming blunt force trauma, then searing and slicing like a surgeon’s knife, while finishing off with a flourish that cauterized. We stacked our boards against the wall and began to walk in, only to have some 6-foot-5 bouncer appear, look directly at me and loudly proclaim, “You gotta be at least 10 to get in here, kid, beat it.” Immediately jump starting Spanky into action, wanting to square off with this guy, the ubiquitous barrage of f-bombs being loudly exchanged as things escalated toward fist city and another opportunity to meet Asbury Park’s finest.
Just when Spanky went into a stance I’d seen many a Friday night in the Goody’s parking lot after football games, the music abruptly stops and from the small riser, this lead singer calls out, “Hey Bobby, what’s the problem out there?”
Our new acquaintance, Bobby, keeping one eye on Spanky, who I know is contemplating pasting the guy when he turns his head, calls back over the spooky quiet, “Nah, just some kids that wanna hear the music.” The guy on the bandstand is leaning on what appeared to be a 60’s model Fender Telecaster, his pick hand resting on the body like some gunslinger, not goin’ anywhere until a play is made or resolved. He has a sparse beard, such that he might have had a name for each of the follicles. He’s wearing a floppy hat, a doo rag around his neck along with a host of chains and a gold earring. Some greasy jeans cover the tops of some beat-up motorcycle boots, definitely not a cat that’s dressed to impress.
Four other guys-drums, sax, bass and a B-3 round out this group who’re fixed, eyeing their front man as he intently leans on that Fender and yells back at “Bobby.” For the rest of my days, then and since, I’ll recall the words he spoke, not so much for themselves, but for the tenor of them. It wasn’t a plea, a wish or a prayer. It wasn’t an order, a directive or a challenge. It wasn’t said in anger or disbelief or good humor. It wasn’t any of those, yet it was all of them in one.
And what he said was, “Well, let ‘em.”
It was obvious the band wasn’t playing until their lead man did and it was obvious he wasn’t playing until we were let in.
Bobby looks over to the bar where a guy with coiffed hair, mutton chop sideburns and a softball size knotted tie is working, apparently the manager. He shrugs his shoulders, palms up, silently asking what to do. Muttons looks at the lead guitar guy then back to Bobby Bouncer and mouths “...let ‘em in.”
We get seated in the back, dripping penguin like and for the next hour listen to some excellent music, going from R ‘n B to hard rock, then to blues. Around midnight, with a 90-minute drive back up the turnpike to Exit 14 and homeroom, we decide to leave. I tell Eddie to get Spank out of there before he gets in a scrap with Sasquatch, while I go to the bar and square up.
The band’s on break and as I’m digging into my wet suit for my wallet, all of a sudden this lead singer/guitar guy’s in front of me asking how we liked the music. I tell him they were great, noting that they played mostly all originals. He laughs, kind of quiet like, and says “Yeah, we try to do originals.”
I tell him if he’s ever around the Exxon station by Exit 14, just off the turnpike where I’m a pump jockey, my name’s Jon Alexander and I owe him a solid. He smiles, puts out his hand, as he says, “Bruce Springsteen, I just might take you up on it someday.”
Over the years and 70 different shows I’ve seen and listened to the man they call The Boss, no one in rock and roll can lay claim to giving you more bang for the buck, ounce for ounce, guts, juice and effort at a show. If you ever catch him on a night when you got less than three butt kicking, soul wrenching, heart pounding hours, the planets were out of alignment or your watch has stopped.
That said, several occasions immediately come to mind. I had followed Bruce’s career from early on with his first release of “Greetings From Asbury Park” in 1973, followed in ’75 by his blockbuster “Born To Run.”
It was 20 years later. I was trying a case I had taken pro bono. Pastor Wiley Drake of the First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park was being prosecuted criminally for allowing the homeless to live in his church shelter.
Buena Park, home to Knott’s Berry Farm, Medieval Times, the Movieland Wax Museum and other assorted theme parks had declared war on the homeless, believing the sight of the great unwashed was bad for business.
Drake gave the 70 residents living on the church grounds health care, job training and shelter but had refused a city prosecutor’s order to throw the inhabitants out, who took him to trial seeking jail time.
I recall on closing argument feeling lost for a moment, then abandoning my notes, quoted off the top of my head:
“Men walking along the railroad tracks
Going no place there’s no going back
Highway patrol choppers’ comin up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretching around the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families in their cars in the southwest
No home no job, no peace no rest
The highway is alive tonight
Nobody’s kiddin’ anybody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searching for the ghost of Tom Joad.”
I told them that the lyrics were from a young poet and songwriter named Bruce Springsteen and they harkened to mind Henry Fonda’s moving character in “The Grapes of Wrath,” which portrayed the misery and hopelessness of the dispossessed masses of the dust bowl Depression of the 30’s. I told them how tragic it was that those words were written just months before by this young man from New Jersey and how gut wrenchingly tragic that they could be topical amid the wealth and riches of Beach Boulevard in a place called Orange County.
It was a closing argument I would use in many more cases defending the homeless from the onslaught of the powers that be in Buena Park.
A scant year later, my father died of mesothelioma. Having moved with my Mom to be close to my sister and I, the Orange County Register apologized for calling to give us 15 minutes to go to press with my Dad’s obituary. Once again, I leaned upon the guy with the floppy hat and Fender guitar, telling them, “He took the hard way every time and pulled out of here to win.”
A decade later found me in a new home called Del Norte County, moving to be by my mother, dying of Alzheimer’s. Heartbroken at her death and exhausted with seven-day work weeks, once again I looked around for the man whose craft and heart I had come to depend upon for joy and deliverance. I found him to be on tour in Seville, Spain. Within 4 days, I was in a soccer stadium with 50,000 brothers and sisters, who, despite the barriers of language and distance, let me know that we are all connected, that there is a spirit and spirituality that unites us all and that my mother was indeed there that night.
On 9/11, my cousin was killed at the Pentagon. The Rising Tour, dedicated to 9/11, found me on Aug. 17, 2003 at Dodger Stadium. As Bruce and the E Street Band broke into the title anthem, the tears began to flow-until a woman my age, out of nowhere, took my hand, with a beatific smile, pointing at Bruce and saying “A five-letter word for hope.”
Two weeks ago, looking for yet another shot of something to believe in from the man who has always delivered for me, I put in for the Ticketmaster lottery for “Bruce on Broadway,” a way long odds attempt to score tickets for his upcoming one man show at the intimate Walter Kerr Theatre on, yes, Broadway. And notwithstanding a few rainy days of late, the skies parted, the sun shone and looks like I’ll be in the balcony on Oct. 11, once again seeing the man who never fails to lift me up and remind me that as long as we stay in tune, we’re never alone.
Jon Alexander lives in Fort Dick and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org