The spiritual center of Freehold, New Jersey, might be the rug factory, on the edge of town. The rug company is long gone, but the factory is still there, a brick reminder, partly filled with small businesses. Freehold is really too small to have neighborhoods, but this part of town is called Texas, perhaps because, to Jersey ears, everyone who moved out of Appalachia to work in the rug factory sounded like John Wayne. There are two Freeholds, actually; out in Freehold township, where the nice suburban homes of commuters into New York butt up against manicured horse farms, they call Freehold borough the hole in the doughnut. That’s not really fair; this isn’t the Bronx, or East St. Louis. The streets around the rug factory are lined with two-family houses, with neat yards kept by working people who worry that their blue-collar jobs will head south, like the rug company, or to South Korea, or just evaporate. Bruce Springsteen grew up here, in a gray two-family house next door to a Sinclair gas station; this is his hometown.
Not a bad place to grow up, now or twenty years ago, but not a breeding ground for great expectations either. In Freehold, you’re expected to go to work instead of college, to make Scotch tape for 3M or instant coffee for Nescafé, and you weren’t expected to make a lot of noise about it. Which is what Douglas Springsteen did, coming home from jobs as a factory worker or prison guard or bus driver to sit in his kitchen and think about the world. There was a living room back beyond, but it was for special occasions, and for company; the kitchen, the biggest room in the house and stolen from the set of The Honeymooners, was where it all happened. So you walked in, and your dad was sitting there at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper, growing old in a job designed for it. Maybe he said something, like, get a job — or at least a haircut. And you thought, uh-huh: the rug factory. No thanks.
Suddenly it was 1964, and the Beatles hit, and everybody had a guitar. “Suddenly, there was a band on every street corner,” says Vinnie Roslin, who played bass with the first hot local band, the Motifs, and later with Springsteen in a band called Steel Mill.
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“I remember the first time I saw the Beatles, on The Ed Sullivan Show,” says George Theiss. “I got this feeling in my chest, this tightness, almost like I was crying.” There was nothing left to do but get a guitar and form a band, play out your gunfighter fantasies, wear Long Rider coats and meet girls. So Theiss did, and that band became the Castiles, after the shampoo he was using. They practiced over on Center Street in Texas, in the half of a two-family house that their drummer, Bart Haynes, lived in.
The Appalachian families had moved on, replaced by Italians, who were being replaced by blacks. It was the era of the transistor radio: outside of town, country & western reigned, but on the streets of Texas you got Top Forty from the New York stations and, increasingly, soul — Temps, Tops, Otis and Aretha. Jangle it all together, and you’ve got rock & roll, and on Center Street, the longest street in America because it ran from Texas to Main, it jangled. The Castiles tried to jangle, but. “We were awful,” says George Theiss, laughing. The other half of the two-family house was occupied by Gordon “Tex” Vinyard, and he finally came over one night and asked them to knock it off. Theiss came by Vinyard’s a couple days later to apologize; they hit it off, and in the end, Vinyard said, hey, if you’re going to do this, let’s do it right. And they did.
Tex was in his late thirties then, a factory worker who loved kids and had none of his own. He became a legend to Jersey bands; eventually, he would manage more than twenty of them. But the first and possibly the best was the Castiles, and in no time he had cleared out his living room and turned it into a practice hall. The Castiles were going through personnel, and looking for a guitar player. George Theiss was going out with Ginny Springsteen, and somebody else mentioned that her brother, Bruce, played the guitar, so Theiss took him over to meet Tex. Springsteen came in with a borrowed guitar, played a few snatches of songs and wondered if he was in the band. Tex suggested he come back when he’d learned a few songs. Springsteen showed up the next night, played five songs he’d learned off the radio and asked again. An astounded Tex said yeah. Sure.
Vinyard didn’t know anything about music, but he knew what he liked, and he liked his opinions. “Tex liked country & western,” says George Theiss, laughing. “He couldn’t tell you how you were playing the guitar part wrong, but he made us do it again and again until it was right.” He sobers up and nods. “An authority figure,” he says respectfully.
Tex was a large man, and sometimes he would become impatient and start yelling, say they were acting like kids. His wife, Marion, would come in then, with sodas from Foodtown — they went through cases and cases of Foodtown soda — and say, “Tex, they are kids.” The Castiles would tease him when he was in a good mood, and call him Flash. The black kids on the block were a little more raffish. They called him Bwana.
There were two sides to him, and on the one side he leaned a little toward George Theiss — a charmer, a lady’s man having a time. Theiss would show up ten minutes late for practice, and Tex would yell, “Theiss, that girl better walk herself home tomorrow.” But on the other, he leaned toward Bruce Springsteen — shy but very, very serious, a believer in the power of rock & roll, at least in its power to get you out of a two-family house in Freehold. Tex maybe didn’t understand rock & roll, but he believed in it too, and that’s why he was replacing the shock absorbers on his old Mercury every couple of months after hauling a load of kids and equipment to gigs all over Jersey, or going into debt on a factory worker’s salary to buy equipment across the street at Caiazzo’s Music Store, getting old man Caiazzo to write out the music to the original songs the band wrote so they could be copyrighted, even paying Ray Cichone, the Motifs’ guitar player, to teach Springsteen how to play leads. One observer’s estimate is that Tex eventually put $10,000 into the band, in 1965 dollars, for kids who could never have put it together themselves, and he found somebody whose obsession matched his own. When you think of Springsteen as the Boss, remember those black kids on Center Street who called Tex Vinyard Bwana.
Outside the band, at Freehold Regional High School, Bruce didn’t make much of an impression. “No, he made no impression at all,” says one high-school classmate. “He was very shy — no activities, no sports, nothing like that. If he hadn’t turned out to be Bruce Springsteen, would I remember him? I can’t think why I would.” He stops, then says, “You have to remember, without a guitar in his hands, he had absolutely nothing to say.” George Theiss went out with Ginny Springsteen for a year and didn’t even know Bruce played guitar until someone else told him. “We were trying to be cool,” Theiss says, “trying to get by without carrying any books at all, or carrying one, almost like a prop. You would see Bruce, coming down the hall with an armful of books, carrying them up around his chest, like a girl. I thought he was real studious.”
He wasn’t, but he was an outsider. Freehold High divided into Greasers and Rah-rahs. Rah-rahs wore madras shirts and white pants, were going out with cheerleaders and on to college. Liked the Beatles, the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean. Greasers wore black jeans and white T-shirts, black leather jackets. They were going to work, or to Vietnam; liked the Stones, Motown, the Who. It was a compliment to say of a fellow greaser, “He wears black socks, even in gym class.”
The Castiles rode it down the middle, some band members leaning one way, some the other. Bart Haynes, the drummer, Vince Manniello, who replaced him, Bob Alfano, the organist, and Springsteen were the Greasers. George Theiss, who had moved over to rhythm guitar and handled vocals; Curt Fluhr, the bassist; and Paul Popkin, who played tambourines and did some vocals, were the Rah-rahs. But these are arbitrary groupings; the lines shifted all the time, and the band could shift too, depending on where they were playing. Still, there was a time at one Rah-rah stronghold in Sea Bright when the band had to go out the back door and toss the equipment over a barbed-wire fence, with Ray Cichone and Tex standing guard — too much “My Generation.”
But there were places to play all over, school dances and CYO dances and YMCA dances. “I saw that ‘Dancing in the Dark’ video, and I started laughing,” says Curt Fluhr. “When he did that dance in high school, he used to call it the boogaloo.” There were clubs up and down the Jersey coast, in Red Bank and Long Branch and Asbury Park. There were battles of the bands at the Keyport – Matawan Rollerdrome — the kind of contest where you could hear two bands play “Satisfaction” four times each.
They could play now, although nobody played his own instrument. Curt Fluhr was playing a Silvertone bass Tex owned. Popkin’s Stratocaster was played by George Theiss. Springsteen played Theiss’ blue solid-body Epiphone. They were in Tex’ house five nights a week until eleven or so, joined by as many as twenty other kids, and out a couple times a week at a gig somewhere, then back to Tex’ for Foodtown sodas and some of Marion’s tuna-fish sandwiches. There was a teen club in Freehold called the Left Foot, started by a Catholic priest named Father Coleman, with help from Tex — a juice bar, a place for kids to hang out — and the Castiles ruled it. Occasionally, the band went up to New York to play Cafe Wha? in the Village for ten dollars a man. Fluhr laughs, thinking about it. He remembers the night his Hofner bass was stolen offstage, mainly because a waitress took pity on him, gave him his first joint and took him upstairs to meet the Fugs. Glory days.
On the haul up to the city, they would take back roads to avoid the tolls, Springsteen sitting quietly, thinking out songs, and then, in the Village, standing around with his mouth open like the rest of them. There was a gay man named Josie, a West Village legend, who took a liking to Springsteen and would sneak up on him to kiss him. The band would be standing around with slices of pizza in some joint on Bleecker Street, and they’d see Josie coming, and nobody would say a word until Josie had done his work and had run away, giggling. “Even then, I’d have to say Bruce is the most heterosexual person I ever met,” says Fluhr, “and he’d get this look on his face that was just . . . incredible.” Despite the loner mystique, there was always a girl, lots of them, but Springsteen didn’t talk about that either. Back in Freehold for soda and tuna fish, he just quietly slipped away.
Glory days. They were famous. Their hair was down in their eyes, which irritated the Rah-rahs, and everybody else, too. “We were the only five freaks in Monmouth County,” says George Theiss, laughing. “And at that time, you had short hair, and were an American, or you didn’t, and weren’t.” It made ordering a cup of coffee interesting, but when the principal of Freehold High called the band in and told them to get haircuts, a petition sprang up — you can’t do this, these guys are the Castiles — and the order was rescinded. Glory days.
They hung out in Federici’s Pizza (no relation to E Street Band keyboardist Danny Federici), acclaimed by Freehold residents as the best pizza anywhere — very thin-crusted pizza, very greasy, the only pizza anywhere that came in a paper bag instead of a box. In the back seat of everyone’s car was a circular slick that told you just how highly Federici’s pizza was esteemed.
The big acquisition in Freehold was a driver’s license, but long after everybody in the band had his, Springsteen was still hitchhiking, incapable of learning to drive. Tex once spent an afternoon with him in the six-acre parking lot at Freehold Raceway, trying to teach him, and came back shaking his head. Every day between May and September, Bruce would take his guitar and hitchhike to the beach. He would get picked up three or four times a year by the cops for hitchhiking, but who cares when you’re hearing songs? In September, he always had the best tan.
“You could tell there was something special about him,” says Curt Fluhr, a bit abashed. “You had this kid, terribly shy, not terribly attractive, but put a guitar in his hands . . .” And what? “You ever see Bill Bixby turn into the Incredible Hulk?” Fluhr asks. “Put him onstage with a guitar and he lit it up. It was like somebody had plugged him in.”
The Castiles made a demo record, paid for by Tex, in a cheap recording studio, but you can hear the power — the slashing leads of a hot seventeen-year-old guitar player and his gritty, high-in-the-throat voice. There was some tension in the band, and that shows up, too. “We weren’t the Everly Brothers,” says George Theiss, only a bit ruefully. Springsteen wanted to do fewer covers and more of his own songs, and when he did covers, he wanted to do harder music — the Stones and the Who — and he wanted to sing, too. The Castiles’ vocalist was Theiss, who has a great voice — a Mrs. Butterworth rock & roll voice, thick and rich — and Tex wanted George to sing.
The end was coming. They had all graduated from high school, except Fluhr, and Springsteen’s parents had moved to California. He had stayed behind to attend Ocean County Community College in Toms River (known as Hooper High because it’s on Hooper Avenue) and was worried, as they all were, about the draft. Somewhere from those last shows, Theiss says, is a picture of Springsteen giving him the finger onstage. The Castiles played their last gig in August 1968 at the Off Broad Street Coffeehouse in Red Bank.
They went off to do other things. Springsteen became Bruce. The Castiles’ first drummer, Bart Haynes, joined the Marine Corps, and was killed in action in Vietnam. Vince Manniello knocked around for a while and now lives at home with his parents in Freehold, helping them run their antique store. Bob Alfano played in local bands, including one with Springsteen called Earth, and is now a milkman living in Asbury Park. Curt Fluhr went up to Boston University, then came back to help his father run the family’s fuel-oil business, continuing to play. The fuel-oil business was sold, and Fluhr made a little money and married a former Miss Nashville who is also a former first soprano with the Atlanta Symphony. They’re running a country band and thinking about moving south. Paul Popkin and George Theiss enrolled in RCA’s electronics school to get deferments, and a year later Popkin was dead, mysteriously, from hepatitis. Theiss got married at nineteen and has stayed married; they have two kids and a nice house in Freehold township with a pool in the back yard. He works as a carpenter, but he keeps on playing rock & roll, and this month he went into the studio to make his first album, with the guys who put Bonnie Tyler on track. He’s still a believer in the power of rock & roll. “You can’t talk about things,” Theiss says. “You have to do them. I just want to do the music.”
The Friday before the Born in the U.S.A. Tour started last summer, Springsteen wanted to rehearse before a live audience, and so the E Street Band went on at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park sometime just after midnight on a hot night. This is Bruce country, a fading shore town where they know their rock & roll, and four hours later, they knew it better. The band was sweating, exhausted, and dragging out the door when Springsteen began yelling at them to come back. They did, and he launched into “Born to Run,” and when it was over, they had to carry him outside and drape him over the hood of a car so they could throw buckets of ice water over him.
The Stone Pony is just about the last vestige of the once exploding Asbury Park music scene. The Pandemonium, the Student Prince, the Sunshine Inn — clubs where you heard Top Forty cover bands all summer long, and whatever was happening all winter — they’re all gone, victims of Asbury Park’s downslide after the riots in 1971. It was always a town for music — Lester Lanin’s big band in the Forties, jazz and rhythm & blues clubs on the edge of Asbury’s black sections through the middle Sixties, rock & roll after that. The list of people who played standing gigs in Asbury Park includes names as diverse as James Brown, George Benson and Eddie Arnold.
But they’re cleaning up the boardwalk now; at one end, the once elegant Berkeley Carteret hotel is being made that way again by a consortium of partners that includes Johnny Cash. Coming down the boardwalk, past Madame Marie’s (palms read, fortunes told, see “Sandy,” on The Wild, the Innocent), you wonder how long the arcades and miniature-golf courses can hold up in the face of gentrification. There may no longer be any room on Ocean Avenue for a mere rock & roll club like the Stone Pony, and although it can resettle inland, it just wouldn’t be the same.
But who knows? They probably said the same thing when the Upstage closed. The Upstage was another teen club, a juice bar without a liquor license, open till five on the weekends, started by Margaret Potter and her then-husband, Tom, in 1968. Before that, the Potters ran a hairdressing salon on Cookman Avenue, Studio Six, and spent weekends in clubs, and when the clubs closed, musicians came back to the Potters’ apartment for breakfast and to teach Margaret how to play guitar. It evolved into a hangout for musicians and might have gone on like that indefinitely, except that Tom Potter became allergic to hair dye. Two doors down on Cookman Avenue, the Potters found a lease, the second floor over a Thom McAn shoe store, and opened the Upstage. It turned into a folkie coffeehouse, and when the third floor came open, they took that, too. On the third floor, the back wall was covered with tiny speakers — the largest was fifteen inches — and it was there the prototypical Asbury band was born, blaring out of the wall — a big, flathead rhythm section, drums and bass. A saxophone, to blow response to the singer. Keyboards, or an electric piano, or better yet, an organ player on a big B-3, like Booker T. And finally, a funky chunky guitar player for Steve Cropper leads on Strat. After that it was what you could carry — harmonica, another guitar, a horn section. The Upstage became a drop-in, hang-out club for musicians up and down the shore. You paid twenty-five dollars for the year in order to duck the two-dollar cover, and because there was a wall full of speakers, all you had to bring was your guitar.
Margaret Potter remembers the first night Springsteen walked in: “He came up very politely and said, ‘Excuse me, but would you mind very much if I borrowed your guitar? The gentleman downstairs said it would probably be okay.’ I said sure and stuck around awhile while he plugged in, to make sure he understood the system. He played some blues thing, and I said, ‘Oh, Lord,’ and went back down to the second floor. Vini Lopez, the first drummer in the E Street Band, was sitting down there, and Miami Steve, and Southside Johnny, all playing Monopoly, which is what you did while you waited to get up, and I told them they had better get upstairs. They were involved in the game, and asked why. I said, ‘Hey guys, there’s some kid up there who can really play.’ ” Then, as she turned to leave: “They said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘Where do you think? Upstairs.’ “
At the time, Springsteen was doing his power-trio thing in a band called Earth to get the hard edges out of his system. But that was over soon enough, and his first real band in Asbury Park was something called Child, a band that grew out of the Upstage and the hot players there. Soon enough, they found out there was another band called Child, and they were sitting around the Ink Well coffeehouse in Long Branch, depressed, trying to come up with another name, when an acquaintance came in and asked who died. They stole our name, and we’re trying to come up with another one, was the reply. What’s the band like? he asked. It’s sort of hard, and fast, and . . . heavy. Call it Steel Mill, the friend said. Why? they asked. Well, they’re sort of heavy, aren’t they? So Steel Mill got a winter rental in Bradley Beach for $125 a month, including a snooker table, which they wore out, since nobody had any money to do anything else, and when they weren’t playing snooker, they practiced.
These were serious working musicians, not high-school kids, and Springsteen exhausted them practicing. “He just had this enormous appetite to play,” says Vinnie Roslin, the bass player and former member of the Motifs. “He’d play anytime, anywhere, for anybody. He was like a television set with one channel, and on the set was ‘practice music.'”
Their manager was a man named Carl West, who ran Challenger Eastern Surfboards. They would surf all summer and then play all winter in the office of West’s deserted surfboard factory. But nothing really came of Steel Mill either. West took the band to California to see his old haunts and get rich, but it didn’t happen. They got incredible reviews, including a gig at the Fillmore West that caused a San Francisco Examiner writer to gush, “I have never been so overwhelmed by totally unknown talent.” They tried to get something going with Bill Graham’s Fillmore Records, but couldn’t, and came home in March, wondering. There were other missteps along the way — they had a chance to play Woodstock, but West blew it off, believing too many people would show up and their equipment would be stolen or damaged. Instead, they played to a handful of people in the Student Prince in Asbury Park. Soon enough, they split up. Some of Steel Mill ended up in the E Street Band — Vini Lopez, the first drummer, and keyboardist Danny Federici. “I’ve never played in a band so tight,” says Roslin. “You could tell when the next guy was going to breathe.” Springsteen, he remembers, was completely calm, through all the money troubles and missed opportunities, and one night Roslin asked why. “He just turned to me and said, ‘Well. It’s like looking up at a light at the end of the tunnel, and what can you do? You just keep walking. And you get there.’ ” Roslin shakes his head. He’s playing bass, here and there, working a day job to keep together and play music at night.
“You just keep walking, and that’s what he did,” Roslin says. “Remember, one channel.”
This story is from the October 10th, 1985 issue of Rolling Stone.