In a tale later immortalized in his song “The Wish,” the Boss received his first electric guitar for Christmas 1964: a $60 Kent purchased by his mother, who took out a loan to get it for him. Springsteen promptly formed a band, the Rogues, bashing out rhythm guitar on tunes like “Twist and Shout” (the first song he ever played live) with some high school friends. Unfortunately his beloved solid body, which rarely stayed in tune, became a sore point. “I got thrown out of my first band because they told me my guitar was too cheap,” he later said.
A better opportunity would soon come knocking – literally. George Theiss, another neighborhood kid with rock & roll aspirations, was in the process of putting together a group. Named for Theiss’ preferred brand of Conti Castile shampoo, they called themselves the Castiles. The loosely formed gang set up shop at the Freehold home of Gordon “Tex” Vinyard and his wife, Marion, a big-hearted and patient couple who took fledgling local groups under their wings. The lineup began to coalesce in the spring of 1965, but they still needed a lead guitarist. “George Theiss, who was dating my sister, Virginia, knocked on my door, told me he had a band, wanted to know if I played lead guitar,” Springsteen remembered. “I told him that I did, which I barely did, and he took me over to Tex’s house and I met the other guys from the Castiles.” Skeptical of his soloing abilities, Vinyard told him to come back when he learned more tunes. Overnight he learned five off the radio. After returning the next day to demonstrate, he got the job.
Though accounts vary, Springsteen recalls his first gig with the Castiles taking place in the summer of 1965 at the Angle-Inn Trailer Park in nearby Farmingdale. “It was a summer afternoon cookout social for the residents,” he wrote in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run. “We set up in the shade under the overhang of a little garage and stood in front of an audience of maybe fifty souls. Our equipment was at its most primitive. We had Bart [Haynes]’s drums, a few amps, and a mic plugged into one of the extra channels of our guitar amplifiers. … We had only one option: to play. Play until they liked it, until they could hear it and, most important, until they DANCED!” They got them dancing, and over the next few years they played upwards of 120 gigs, performing everywhere from teen clubs, school dances and wedding receptions to supermarket openings, drive-in movie theaters, Marlboro State Hospital and even a converted stable.
On May 18th, 1966, Springsteen made his first studio recording at Mr. Music Inc., a low-tech facility tucked in a Bricktown shopping center that allowed customers to make what were essentially vanity recordings. Over the course of half an hour, the band completed two original songs – “Baby I” and “That’s What You Get” – written by Theiss and Springsteen in the back of Vinyard’s 1961 Mercury on the way to the studio. Given their hasty composition, the tunes are simple garage-rock fare, mixing Stones, Animals and Them poses with all the tough-guy bravado a bunch of 16-year-olds could muster. Four copies of these studio acetates survive today, as does a tape made of the band’s September 1967 show at a church-owned youth center in Freehold called the Left Foot. The earliest live recording of Springsteen known to exist, it offers a glimpse of the Castiles’ set list, which blended Top 40 covers with more obscure cuts (see Moby Grapes’ “Omaha,” the Yardbirds’ “Jeff’s Boogie,” Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” and even “Purple Haze” by Jimi Hendrix).
Late 1967 saw the band play a series of recurring gigs at the famed Café Wha in New York City’s Greenwich Village, but internal bickering began to take its toll by the following year. Relations were further strained when some of the bandmates were arrested for possession of marijuana, an apparent first in sleepy Freehold. “It was a town scandal, trouble all around and the finale of the Castiles’ great three-year run,” Springsteen wrote. “Our band was fraying anyway. George and I had begun to have some tension between us and the bust gave us all a final out. My epic elementary school of rock was closed forever.”