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Joe Grushecky Talks Working With Springsteen - and Teaching High School

'If you're hanging out with him, he's pretty much a regular guy,' says the Pittsburgh musician

November 14, 2011 2:25 PM ET
grushecky springsteen
Joe Grushecky and Bruce Springsteen perform in Pittsburgh
Jason L Nelson

In the fall of 1979, Rolling Stone critic Greil Marcus reviewed the debut album by Pittsburgh bar band the Iron City Houserockers. "They've made one of the least polished first albums I've heard in the last year, and one of the best," he wrote about their LP Love's So Tough. "With luck, they might fill part of the gap left by Lynyrd Skynyrd; they might even help bury the rotting corpse that outfits like Journey, the Doobie Brothers and the Knack have made out of mainstream rock & roll. Without luck, the Houserockers may not even get a chance to cut a second LP – they offer no frills. I hope they're around for a long time."

Things didn't turn out quite how Marcus hoped. The group did release a second album (and even a third and a fourth), but they never caught on nationally, and in 1984 MCA dropped the band. "Both of my kids needed health benefits really badly," Iron City Houserockers frontman Joe Grushecky tells Rolling Stone. "I had to find a way to provide that, so I took a job as a special education teacher."

Grushecky had actually worked in education before the band took off in the mid-1970s. "My father was a coalminer and he dropped out of school when he was 12," says Grushecky. "I promised him that I'd get an education and I sort of drifted into special ed. I taught profoundly retarded people. I financed my rock and roll dreams through special education."

In 1989 he formed the group Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, but it never generated enough income for him to leave his job. "I wish that I had more money and had a more comfortable career," says Grushecky. "I wish I had sold more records. It would have made life easier. Ever since I had kids, I've been busting my ass working two or three jobs, and I'm playing four nights a week just to make ends meet."

He reports to Sto-Rox High School in Pittsburgh every weekday at 6:45 a.m. Many of his students are only vaguely aware of his double life. "I work with a lot of inner-city kids," he says. "Rock and roll is not a big thing with them. It's a population that's very hardcore, and tough to work with. I have students that are not only verbally aggressive but are sometimes physically aggressive. I've had my share of physical confrontations. Waking up that early in the morning just about kills me some days. Hopefully I don't have too many years left and I can retire soon."

Just about the only time that Grushecky's students became interested in his rock career was back in January of 2009, when his good friend Bruce Springsteen played during halftime at the Super Bowl. "That was a big deal," he says. "Some thought it was cool, though others could care less."

Springsteen and Grushecky met in 1980 when the Iron City Houserockers were recording their second LP, Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive! Steve Van Zandt played guitar on the track "Junior's Bar." "He was going back and forth between our session and The River with Springsteen and the E Street Band," says Grushecky. "One night I walked with him to the Power Station and he introduced me to Bruce. Over the years we became friends. We had a lot of similarities in upbringing and age and the whole nine yards. He was playing the same songs in New Jersey that I was playing here in Pittsburgh."

The two kept in touch over the years, and in 1995 Springsteen produced Grushecky's album American Babylon. During the sessions, they also developed a songwriting partnership. "I had this really good lyric for a song called 'Homestead' and I had written some music," says Grushecky. "Bruce had been encouraging me to write some better songs. My music wasn't up to the standard of the lyrics. I said, 'Hey, if you want to do something with this, be my guest.' Lo and behold, we started writing together."

Springsteen co-wrote a number of songs on the album, and in October of 1995 he briefly joined his touring band as a guitarist. They have continued to perform together over the years, often when Springsteen shows up unannounced at Houserockers gigs in New Jersey. But last year they booked two gigs at Pittsburgh's Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall to celebrate the 15th anniversary of American Babylon. The setlist mixed songs they had worked on together with Springsteen classics like "Atlantic City," "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "The Promised Land."

Springsteen fans traveled to the shows from all over the world. "We're both relieved of the pressure of carrying the whole show," says Grushecky. "He knows he's just there to have fun. He doesn't have the E Street Band legacy with him. I imagine that's part of the appeal."

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