Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Ties That Bind Me to Bruce Springsteen

The pending release of Bruce Springsteen’s seven-disc “The Ties That Bind: ‘The River’ Collection,” stirred up memories of a close encounter of sorts with the album’s unveiling 35 years ago.
Photo by Richard McCaffrey-Getty Images
One of my favorite studio recordings, “The River,” is a double album with a diverse 20-song set. I purchased it days after its debut on October 10, 1980, and it ranks as the third favorite in my Springsteen collection. It is preceded by “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” in 1978, and, at the top of that list is 1975’s “Born to Run,” which thrust him into the national spotlight. Incidentally, within a month of its release, “The River,” became Springsteen’s first recording to chart Number One.
Before the long-delayed album was unveiled, Springsteen performed the title track at one of the No Nukes shows, The MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future, at Madison Square Garden in September 1979, shortly after recording it in the studio with the E Street Band. The track was excluded from the event’s subsequent two-record soundtrack the highest-charting benefit album ever on which Springsteen only performs two cover songs. However, “The River” was featured in the 1980 documentary film version, which features songs from other rock icons of the day, including Jackson Browne, James Taylor, Carly Simon, Crosby, Stills and Nash and Bonnie Raitt. To date, it is only available in the hard-to-find, nearly extinct, VHS format.
My “close encounter” with Steve Van Zandt occurred when I worked in the music department of the entertainment publicity firm, Solters & Roskin (later to become Solters/Roskin/Friedman, but my connection to the new partner was in name only).
Five months before “The River” debuted, I stopped by Disc-O-Rama, a popular Broadway record store, after work, to socialize with the store’s manager with whom I had recently become acquainted.
While hanging out, a young black man on crutches came in and told my friend he worked at the Power Station, where Springsteen and the band were laying down tracks, and handed him an audio cassette. I thought nothing of it, at the time, though my ears perked up when I heard the music and Springsteen’s voice, singing songs I’d never heard, emanating over the sound system.
After we listened to the tracks, we asked him how he got the tape and he said he found it in the trash. Springsteen was, by then, legendary for habitually recording more tracks than possible for a finished product. Nonetheless, tossing them in the trash sounded highly unlikely.
At work, the next morning, I related the episode to a co-worker, who knew Steve Van Zandt. I was unaware she called him and repeated my account to him. While he was on hold, she approached me and said Steve wanted to talk to me.
After picking up the phone and pressing her extension, I said “Hi,” then, acting like a fawning, na├»ve adolescent, I asked, “Is this really Miami Steve (the nickname he sometimes used)?”
He acknowledged and asked me to tell him about the previous evening. I repeated the story, he expressed his gratitude and hung up.
I later learned the young man had stolen the cassette from the studio, was confronted and subsequently fired. The episode is briefly described — with no reference to my involvement in Dave Marsh’s first Springsteen biography, Born to Run. He wrote, “within a few days the situation was corrected – dramatically” and security tightened with more precautions taken to avoid any future troubles.
A few weeks later, a grateful Van Zandt called and said that Bruce was appreciative, then offered me complimentary tickets to two upcoming scheduled New York City “River” tour performances, which I gladly accepted.
I saw Springsteen and The E Street Band three times on the first leg of the “The River” tour in 1980 Thanksgiving night, November 27, again on November 28 and the last MSG show on December 19. When they played a six-night homecoming stand at the Meadowlands Arena the following summer, I went to the July 8 show. By the way, the tickets for that concert were not gratis.
Cover of 1979's 2-record set
Though I subsequently met Van Zandt at a New School seminar, I didn’t meet Springsteen until nine years later when I was working on the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels” tour. On opening night, in Philadelphia, the Jersey native stopped backstage and as he was speaking with tour personnel, I waited for a pause and instantly introduced myself, telling him I enjoyed his music and extended my right hand. He shook it and thanked me.
I never had an opening to tell him I was the one who reported the stolen cassette incident, though meeting the man whose music I’d come to value and appreciate was sufficient.
Despite that fleeting encounter, it remains a unique moment and, along with my modest collection of Bruce Springsteen music, reinforces the ties that bind me to him.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Despite Fame, Pete Hamill’s Just A Regular Guy

(Originally published March 31, 2005)
Throughout my careers, in journalism and entertainment public relations, I have, on occasion, worked for and/or met some high-profile celebrities — Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson (before his shocking legal woes) and Elizabeth Taylor, among them.
I don’t boast about my past, nor was I star struck when I confronted those celebrities, but, if asked, I enjoy talking about it. It was, in spite of everything, just a job.
Nevertheless, when I stood in front of the stage as The Rolling Stones went through a pre-tour rehearsal at the Nassau Coliseum in 1989, I was, to say the least, awestruck when it sunk in for the first time that I was working for The *%#@$& ROLLING STONES!
Despite our celebrity-obsessed society, I grew to realize that the famous possess unique talents that, due to success and wealth, set them apart from the rest of us, but they are no more important than you or I and some don’t act like it.
There are a few renowned people I admire and respect and would savor an opportunity to meet and talk with. As a matter of fact, I recently had the opportunity of meeting someone who’s had a negligible, indirect influence on my journalism career — author/journalist Pete Hamill. (I actually met him years earlier, but the encounter was fleeting.)
A Brooklyn native, Hamill, 68, was the latest guest in Brooklyn Public Library’s “Brooklyn Writers for Brooklyn Readers” series at which he read excerpts from his latest book, “Downtown: My Manhattan,” and peppered the discussion with anecdotes about his childhood.
Hamill signed autographs for fans at  BPL event.
I became aware of Hamill in the mid-60s when he was a columnist for the New York Post. I consistently read his pieces that covered an array of topics from politics to sports to ordinary New Yorkers. I’ve kept track of his career, through his work, ever since.
As a journalist, he covered wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Northern Ireland. He holds a particular distinction in New York journalism history —as editor-in-chief of both the Daily News and the Post. His brief stint at the Post is credited with saving the tabloid at a time when it was on the verge of collapse.
In addition to his distinguished journalism career, with stretches at the Village Voice and New York Newsday, Hamill has written for several magazines and penned many books, including eight novels and two collections of short stories. His 1997 novel, “Snow in August,” was a New York Times bestseller and his memoir, “A Drinking Life,” was on the list for more than three months.
Hamill’s epic, “Forever,” a fictional history of Manhattan from the 17th century through September 11, 2001, seen through the eyes of a young Irish immigrant, was published in 2002. He told me that it is being considered for development as a theatrical movie or possibly a television miniseries. The novel was likely the seed that spawned the non-fiction “Downtown” two years later.
Hamill also holds the distinction of winning a Grammy Award®, without having sung a single note. He earned the honor for Best Album Notes for his insightful essay on the jacket of Bob Dylan’s acclaimed 1975 album, “Blood On The Tracks.”
I was initially drawn to Hamill’s columns for their penchant for liberal causes and issues, but even more for his vivid, insightful, judicious and compassionate writing. In his 1996 collection of non-fiction essays and articles, “Piecework,” he wrote something that sums up how I, too, feel about journalism. “No day was like any other, no story repeated any other in its details. Day after day, week after week, I loved being a newspaperman, living in the permanent present tense of the trade.”
After the program ended, Hamill signed books for the scores who patiently lined up. Before the autograph session, he allotted me time for an interview for the article that ran a few weeks back. However, a woman running the event cut the discussion short after only two questions, but I did get to ask him something that’s concerned me for years: why don’t New York’s newspapers cover the outer boroughs like they do Manhattan? Hamill said that’s a growing problem because many editors don’t live in the city and it alienates them from readers.
Hamill was gracious and accommodating with each autograph seeker. He briefly talked to everyone, not brushing anyone off or acting like he had something better to do. Just a regular guy with an exceptional talent.
As I drove home, I realized why his legion of fans, of which I’m a loyal member, enjoy the Brooklyn native’s writing. Despite fame and status, Pete Hamill maintains the humility and sincerity that’s discernible throughout his work.