Born to Run
A new exhibit on the ties that keep The Boss local
By Chuck Darrow

Photo by Michael Kravetsky

In the Broadway show about his life, Bruce Springsteen talks a lot about his love-hate relationship with his hometown.

“My home, New Jersey – it’s a death trap. It’s a suicide rap. Listen to the lyrics, alright. I had to get out,” says Springsteen, who even refers to himself as “Mr. Born to Run.”

The monologue goes on, with colorful language describing grand, romantic fantasies turned lyrics about escaping the Garden State. The irony that defines his life is not lost on the boss.

“I currently live 10 minutes from my hometown,” he says. “But uh, born to come back or uh – who would’ve bought that sh**? Nobody.”

Turns out “Mr. Born to Run” didn’t run that far away after all.

Keys collected from hotel stays while touring. Photo: Mark Krajnak for MCHA

And that, in a nutshell, is the point of Bruce Springsteen: His Hometown, a new museum exhibit at the Monmouth County Historical Association (MCHA) in Freehold.

His Hometown is not just another Hall-of-Fame-style collection of guitars and wardrobe pieces, although they can be found among the 150 or so items on display, 20 of which belong to The Boss. There’s a bigger picture that will make it worth the trip up Thunder Road (well, really the New Jersey Turnpike) for Springsteen fans.

The ties connecting Springsteen’s music with the town he loves/hates is both unique to the town and relatable to people from all walks of life, says Meg Sharp Walton, MCHA executive director.

“The way he has crafted his image, his lyrics, speaks to people in a way that is honest and people connect to,” says Walton. “And he just does that so much better than, I believe, other artists do. That’s why I think people relate to him. They feel connected to him because they feel he knows them.”

Focusing on Freehold, she says, offers a perspective of the forces that shaped The Boss’s worldview.

“I think Bruce is a real intellectual, and in a way he’s an author, so he’s writing about the American experience,” she says. “He often talks about the importance of history, whether it’s his personal history or on a more national and global scale. So he has a few themes, including home and identity.”

“And it turns out the seed of his greatest art is him returning over and over again to his home,” she adds.
Certainly, geography has long been a strand in the DNA of popular music. Seattle, Memphis, Philadelphia and Liverpool, England are just four cities that have been closely associated with a specific sound and/or cultural point of view. But with the possible exception of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, who created enduring songs about Southern California’s beach-and-car culture in the early 1960s, no single locale has had more of an effect on an artist’s body of work than New Jersey – more specifically, the Borough of Freehold – has had on Springsteen.

Over the course of more than 45 years, so much of his music has been the direct result of the often-complicated relationship with the town and surrounding area that forged him as a person as well as a songwriter.

That point of view is emphasized by the new exhibit, which encompasses both floors of the MCHA’s building. Each level has its own focus.

The first is more artifact-based and contains such items as a Kent guitar, the first electric guitar Springsteen ever owned. While the one on display is not the one his parents bought him in 1965, it is identical to that, and is actually owned by Bruce.

Some other pieces on display:
• An original sign from the Upstage Club, the Asbury Park nightclub where Springsteen not only played early gigs, but formed lifelong friendships and musical partnerships with the likes of the late Danny Federici, the E Street Band’s original organ player, guitarist “Miami Steve” Van Zandt and bassist Garry Tallent, his longest-tenured musical lieutenant.
• Posters advertising gigs by pre-E Street Band groups including Steel Mill and The Castiles.
• A portable four-track recording unit on which Springsteen recorded the 1982 acoustic album, Nebraska.
There’s a short film about Freehold circa the mid-20th century as well as Springsteen’s relationship with his family.

A scrapbook of newspaper articles about Springsteen. Photo: Mark Krajnak for MCHA

But it is the second-floor presentation that gets to the heart of the exhibit. It’s here where the Bard of Asbury Park’s deep-seated local roots are examined.

Several items speak to Springsteen’s American heritage, which dates back to the 1652 arrival from The Netherlands of Joost Casperse Springsteen. There’s displays about John Springsteen, a Revolutionary War soldier who spent two weeks as a prisoner of war on a British prison ship, and Alexander Springsteen who, at age 40, enlisted in the Union Army.

Bruce’s father, Douglas, whose personal struggles Bruce has long chronicled and who died in 1998, is prominent. But the surprise star of the exhibit is Springsteen’s 94-year-old mother, Adele. Although she spent her child-rearing years in an era when stay-at-home moms were the norm, visitors learn that she was, by and large, the family’s main breadwinner and a highly respected legal secretary. His Hometown celebrates Adele’s life in a manner second only to that of her illustrious son’s.

If there is a subtext to His Hometown, it is Springsteen’s long-established, and still-growing, importance to tourism in Freehold and the vicinity.

“We hear anecdotally that there are tourists seen all the time here in Freehold,” says Linda Bricker, museum president and one of the principals behind the program that was co-curated in association with the Bruce Springsteen Archive at nearby Monmouth University.

“We hear from the Chamber of Commerce that people are seen all the time on the streets in front of the important locations in his life, looking at his three former houses, his high school. And he donated a firetruck to the fire department that people now want to go and see.”

“We have seen tourists around town, evidently from places all around the world,” she adds. “They are certain to be seen in greater numbers, now that the exhibit is here. In fact, they are spiffing up the town in preparation for more people to come.”


November 2019
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