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."
They played two more shows at Soliders and Sailors Hall Memorial Hall earlier this month. "We were sort of hanging out this summer and the subject came up," says Grushecky. "He said that he'd like to do it again. Of course, I was thrilled beyond words. We waited until some free time popped up, and it just coincidentally lined up with the same dates we did last year." The venue is a beautiful turn-of-the-century museum with a large auditorium, but it's not made for concerts. "We had to bring in everything, from the generators outside to the sound system and lighting. It was very labor-intensive, but I think the end product was worth it."
On the second night, the show stretched to three and a half hours. "We had a setlist," says Grushecky. "But before we went out, Bruce and I discussed that if we were having a good time, we were just going to let it go at the end. It was truly one for the ages. If you're a football player, you want to play with Joe Montana. If you're a baseball player, you want to play with Mickey Mantle or Roberto Clemente. Just to be able to keep up with him and hold our own says a lot for the band. We're the guys down the street who have a band. We're not highly paid professionals. One guy in the group is a physical therapist. One guy works in wholesale, and another is a welder."
Despite their vast income differences, Grushecky says it's never awkward being close friends with Springsteen. "He doesn't flaunt it," Grushecky says. "If you're hanging out with him, he's pretty much a regular guy. If you didn't know who he was, you wouldn't think this guy has millions and millions of dollars. He wears it very well. My kids grew up with Bruce. When they were small, they had no idea. They just thought he was one of daddy's friends who had a bigger house."
Around 2000, Springsteen and Grushecky wrote another series of songs together, including "Another Thin Line" and "Code of Silence." The latter was included on the 2003 compilation The Essential Bruce Springsteen. It won a Grammy for Best Solo Rock Vocal Performance. "Residuals do come rolling in occasionally for that one," says Grushecky. "I'm not retired, but they come rolling in... We messed around with another song a couple of years ago, but it never saw the proverbial light of day. Besides that, we haven't done anything in a while."
Still, Springsteen has taken on very few writing partners during his long career. "I don't want to say that validates my work," says Grushecky. "But it's a great thing for me to write with a talent like Bruce, who is obviously one of the greats. I think that in a quiet way it sort of says something about my writing ability."
Springsteen and Grushecky have no concrete plans to perform together in the near future. "I'm always thinking about it," says Grushecky. "Hopefully if Bruce is not on tour next year, we'll do more shows. But he might be on tour next year. You can never tell. But we'll work around his plans." Springsteen usually makes a surprise appearance during Grushecky's set at the annual Light of Day Foundation fundraising concerts for Parkinson's disease in Asbury Park. Might that happen again this year? "Well, we hope," says Grushecky. "Again, it depends on what he has going on."
Grushecky and the Houserockers recently cut a new live CD and DVD in Pittsburgh. "My band is playing so well now that I felt we just had to document it," he says. "I'm really proud of it because it showcases the talent of our band." He knows that it's unlikely to top any national sales charts. "But it's what I love to do. I'd be down in my basement playing music if I didn't have a band. I'll keep doing it as long as I feel like I got the chops."
Countless articles about Grushecky written over the years refer to him as a huge talent that should have become a superstar – if only things had worked out a little differently. "You know, 'what ifs?' are hard to draw on," he says. "But my family is intact and my sanity is pretty much there. And you can't discard the work I've done with children. With the type of kids I work with, you don't see results until they're a little bit more into adulthood. I've had numerous kids stop me over the last several years that I see randomly. They come up to me and give me a big hug and tell me how much I meant to them. It's pretty cool."