Springsteen closed the 1996 benefit concert he presented at the gym of his grammar school — Saint Rose of Lima in Freehold — with a song that couldn’t have been a bigger surprise: “Freehold,” a kind of talking blues number in which he looked back at his own days as a boy and young man in the town.
I was at that show, and figured, at the time, we might never hear it again. This was before the days, remember, of iPhones, so there were no YouTube videos to watch the next day, or anything like that. Springsteen even said, when introducing it, that he would never sing it again.
But Springsteen continued to perform it, occasionally, over the years, and officially released it last year, on an archival concert album including the entire Freehold show. You can listen to it below.
Though obviously not one of his greatest achievements on a musical level, it’s still a remarkable song, ranging from risqué to sentimental, and from plainspokenly honest to downright goofy. He would expand on many of these themes later, in his 2016 autobiography “Born to Run” and the Broadway show that followed: his Catholic education, his father’s drinking, his early attempts at rocking, Freehold’s shortcomings (“If you were different, black or brown/It was a bit of a redneck town,” he sings) and so on.
He immortalizes his friends and supporters, including mentors Tex and Marion Vinyard, early bandmate George Theiss, and “my buddy Mike (Wilson),” who was then the city’s mayor. He shares memories about his first kiss, and having his heart broken. He sends love out to his sister and tells a story about his father being irascible. He jokes about losing his hair, and sings about bringing his own children to the town.
“I showed ’em where their dad was born and raised/And first felt the sun on his face/There in Freehold,” he sings.
It was the perfect song to close a concert that was, at least partially, about him making peace with his own past.
“I left and swore I’d never walk these streets again,” he sings. But there he was, returning like a conquering hero, surprising even himself.
“In the end it all just goes and comes around/It’s one hell of a town, Freehold!” he concludes.
Background facts: According to Brucebase, Springsteen performed “Freehold” 21 times between 1996 and 2003. He has never released a studio version. However, it is on the archival concert album he released documenting his 1996 show at the Saint Rose of Lima gym in Freehold. For more on the archival series, visit live.brucespringsteen.net.
On each of the 70 days leading up to Bruce Springsteen’s 70th birthday (on Sept. 23, 2019), NJArts.net will do a post on one of The Boss’ best songs of the last 30 years. We’re starting with No. 70 and working our way up. For more on the project, click here.
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