Patti Scialfa has always been a mystery. As a member of the E Street Band alongside husband Bruce Springsteen, she's a familiar but enigmatic presence, and her one solo album, 1993's Rumble Doll, yielded few biographical clues. "When you're married to someone famous," she says, "people know you, but they're not really seeing you."
With her deeply personal new album, 23rd Street Lullaby, Scialfa has decided it's high time she opened up. She is sitting in a New York recording studio, where she's tweaking songs for a pay-per-view special. The epitome of a sexy rock chick, Scialfa is long and lean in her stovepipe jeans, and she kicks off her high heels to lounge barefoot, her red hair spilling down her back as she leans over the board. She is a down-to-earth Jersey girl, funny and likable. ("I'm fifty," she says at one point, moving her face under a light. "This is what fifty looks like.")
On 23rd Street Lullaby, Scialfa delves into her starving-artist years in Seventies and Eighties New York, a richly creative time both for the city and herself. Scialfa is a born storyteller, and her evocative rock songs perfectly conjure the wild hopefulness of youth, when you knew everything and stayed up all night talking, talking, talking about life and philosophy and music.
Scialfa is backed by a solid band of old friends, including E Streeter Nils Lofgren and drummer Steve Jordan, who co-produced the album with her. "I've always loved the way Patti sings," Jordan says. "She has a little Ronnie Spector in her voice, but she can remind you of Emmylou Harris." He pauses. "You know, the person she's married to casts an extremely long shadow, so there's a tendency to get lost in the sauce. But if you're making good, timeless music without the pyrotechnics and helicopters and the bombs going off, it doesn't matter when you do it."
Springsteen, her husband of thirteen years, agrees. "Patti has only been able to use a small portion of her talent onstage with the E Street Band," he says. "She's always been a beautiful songwriter, and on this record people will get the chance to hear what she can really do."
Scialfa's life is, essentially, a love story - not just between her and Springsteen, although there is that, too (they grew up ten miles from each other). It's really the story of a girl and her music. She was raised in the Jersey Shore town of Deal, the daughter of a successful entrepreneur. As a teenager at Asbury Park High School, she hung out at the beach and cruised the streets, blaring music in a Firebird repossessed from a race-car driver. (Who else could Springsteen have possibly married?) Sometimes she and her girlfriends would cut class and hitchhike into New York. "We'd tell our art teacher we weren't going to class, and that we needed to borrow markers to make hitchhiking signs," she says. "He'd go, 'Oh, don't tell me this. The world's not as nice a place as you think.' And you're that age where you're just thinking, 'Oh, please.' " She laughs. "And we'd walk out the door. We'd get lost on the subways, drunk on red wine. I just wanted to go out."
Scialfa's interest in music sparked when she was twelve and envied her older brother Michael, who played in local bands. At fourteen, she joined her first group, the excellently titled Ecstasy, which played, among other places, Catholic Youth Organization dances supervised by nuns.
After high school, she attended the University of Miami's well-regarded music school, whose alumni include Pat Metheny and Bruce Hornsby. At the time, Scialfa was the lone girl in the jazz department, and she immersed herself in the local music scene. "You'd go see your friends play, or your teachers, or your teachers would see you play, and sit in," she says. One memorable course was the Listening Class. "You'd listen to Charlie Parker or John Coltrane straight from six to nine," she says.
While at Miami, she started shopping around her demos. One day, she received a call in her dorm room from Atlantic Records honcho Jerry Wexler, who produced Bob Dylan and helped launch Aretha Franklin's career. He asked if he could give one of her songs to Franklin. When she agreed, he met with her in Miami at Criteria Studios (nicknamed Atlantic South). "He said, 'If you change one verse of this song, I guarantee you'll have a big hit,' " Scialfa recalls. With the hubris of a twenty-year-old, she refused. "I remember Jerry just shaking his head and saying, 'Well, you think about it,' " she says.
Wexler doesn't remember the incident ("I'm lurching into the sunset at the tender age of eighty-seven") but does recall that "she was charming and gracious, and had some talent for songwriting," he says. "I very well might have wanted to edit her lyrics. Because they're never sacrosanct, are they?" He laughs. "But I totally lost track of her, and the next thing I know, there's a Patti Scialfa married to Bruce Springsteen."
In 1974, Scialfa transferred to New York University and started scratching out a living in the music business, waiting tables and busking on the New York streets with her friend Soozie Tyrell (who sings on the new album). "It just looked like an adventure," she says. "And we could make forty bucks apiece on a good evening."
A third friend soon joined, and they became a downtown fixture, sometimes singing in cocktail dresses for the hell of it. "We thought we were on the Left Bank of Paris," says Scialfa. "It was one of the best times of my life. As soon as you have enough money, you go into a cafe, order some wine, talk to everybody, go to another cafe. It was this whole community."
By the late Seventies, Scialfa had landed work as a backup singer for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, which led to gigs with David Johansen and the Rolling Stones. In 1984, Springsteen auditioned her to join the E Street Band for the Born in the USA tour. They'd never had a woman in the band, he told her, warning her that he wasn't sure how this would work. Three days before the tour, he invited her on the road.
Frantically, she learned all of the band's songs, poring through piles of notebooks. ("I was a fan, but I listened to a lot of women's music.") On the tour's opening night, she realized that the group was just as unprepared for her. "I was wearing some kind of pastel kind of ribbony top," she says, "and Bruce goes, 'Maybe you should wear something not as pretty.' " She laughs. "I tease him about it now. I'm surprised he didn't ask me to get a haircut. He said, 'Why don't you try this?' It was a T-shirt of his that said BROADWAY MOTORS on it."
In 1985, Springsteen married actress Julianne Phillips, but a few years on, the marriage began to fray. Tunnel of Love, from 1987, chronicled their rocky relationship, and after Phillips saw tabloid photos of Scialfa and Springsteen together, she filed for divorce.
In 1990, Scialfa gave birth to their first son, Evan James, now fourteen. She and Springsteen married in 1991, the year their daughter, Jessica Rae, was born (their youngest son, Sam Ryan, is five). The couple have one of the most enduring marriages in rock, even if their kids are grossed out when she and Bruce kiss in the kitchen. "They say, 'Please don't do that in front of us,' " she says. "I said, 'Hey, you're going to be happy one day when you look back and know your parents really loved each other.' "
They live in a nineteenth-century farmhouse in Rumson, New Jersey, where their low-key lifestyle centers around the family. Indeed, if you live in Rumson or its environs, you are not issued your driver's license unless you can do the "Jersey boast," a story of your personal encounter with Bruce and Patti that concludes with the proud declaration that they are Just Like Us: "I saw Bruce and Patti at the grocery store/diner/dry cleaners, and they were so freakin' down to earth. They were buying trash bags/talking to my sister's cousin/eating pancakes while they sat in a booth, just like everyone else."
"What am I supposed to do at a diner?" says Scialfa. "Speak in French?"
Scialfa's peaceful home life has been the perfect perch from which to examine her past for 23rd Street Lullaby. "And it's always fun going back," she says. "I mean, you drive past your old high school, and even if everybody treated you terribly, you still go take a look, don't you?"
And as she has excavated her past, she has unearthed some surprises. Until a high school girlfriend reminded her, she had utterly forgotten that when she was fifteen, she actually called Springsteen to audition for his band. "I had seen an ad in the Asbury Park Press," she says. " 'Touring band, must be able to travel.' " She called the number and was pleased to discover that it was Springsteen, already known around town for his fast guitar playing. "He was very sweet on the phone," Scialfa recalls. "I was so relieved." How old are you? Springsteen asked. Fifteen, she replied. Well, that's a little young, he said kindly. You should stay in school. But good luck. See you around.