Bruce Springsteen’s Sept. 27 book signing at the Barnes & Noble store in Freehold will be just his second public appearance in his original hometown since he became a rock star. So it seems like a good time to share some memories of the first one, on Nov. 8, 1996, when he presented an acoustic benefit concert at his old grammar school, the St. Rose of Lima School, singing and playing guitar and harmonica in the building’s gymnasium. Proceeds went to the St. Rose of Lima Church’s Latino community center.
“Everybody kind of ends up with a love/hate relationship with the place they grew up,” Springsteen said while introducing “My Hometown” as one of the encores. “And the balance shifts. Sometimes it’s all hate, sometimes you really love it.”
The 2½-hour event was restricted to Freehold residents, but I was one of the few non-Freehold residents allowed to be there, as I was covering the event for the state’s largest newspaper, The Star-Ledger. It was a Friday night show, and I wrote an overnight story for the Saturday newspaper, as well as a review that ran later. I brought a laptop computer but couldn’t get it to transmit my story back to the office — that happened a lot in those technologically primitive days — and so I ended up dictating it to an editor via payphone, on deadline, as people waiting to use the phone glowered at me. Fun!
The show had not been announced by an official press release, or anything like that. The fact that it was going to happen leaked out via a story in a small Freehold newspaper. I couldn’t believe it at first, but it was true: Springsteen was going to perform in a school gymnasium!
And a very ordinary and not particularly large school gymnasium it was, with no seats and people standing throughout the evening. Springsteen was booking himself into classy mid-sized theaters in those days, since he was on a solo acoustic tour following the release of his album, The Ghost of Tom Joad. This was something very different.
It wasn’t quite a solo show, actually, because Springsteen was joined, on six songs, by violinist Soozie Tyrell, and on three of those songs by his wife, singer Patti Scialfa, too. (The show marked Tyrell’s most substantial concert appearance with Springsteen, to date: She had made two guest appearances with him at 1993 concerts, but she played a bigger role in Freehold. She continued to make occasional appearances with him through 2001 and, in 2002, became a touring member of the E Street Band.)
After opening the show with “The River,” Springsteen shared a few of his thoughts about the occasion:
I wouldn’t have believed it myself, if I wasn’t standing here. Right under the cross, too. What can I say? Myself, I’ve probably been excommunicated … but it’s still great to be here. I told my buddy Steve. I said, “Steve, I’m playing Friday night.” He said, “Where?” I said, “I’m playing at my catholic school.” And he said, “Oh, revenge, huh?” I said, “No, no, no … well, maybe just a little bit” … (Get) ready for a night of sin and redemption. I’ll take care of the sin. Father McCarron’s gonna handle the redemption on Sunday.
The show featured plenty of The Ghost of Tom Joad material, plus many songs of great personal significance: “The Wish,” for instance, and “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Growin’ Up,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Used Cars” and “The Promised Land,” in addition to “The River” and “My Hometown.” Given the setting, the most daring song choice was the raunchy “Red Headed Woman.”
Springsteen said before playing it:
I’m gonna move on now, to a great song about a great subject: cunnilingus. I know, I know. I know you’re saying, “Bruce, how is it possible for you to get up in your catholic school and sing a song about cunnilingus?” Well, I talked to Father McCarron before, and I said, “Father, can I sing a song about cunnilingus at St. Rose of Lima School?” And he said, “I’m not sure.” So, I took that for a yes.
The evening’s emotional peak came during the encores, when Springsteen dedicated “This Hard Land” to Marion Vinyard, who was in attendance. Vinyard and her husband Tex, who died in 1988, were vital supporters of Springsteen early in his career, letting his band The Castiles practice at their Freehold home.
When we were just getting our band together and it sounded, like, really bad, and everybody was sort of telling you to turn it down, you know. Marion and Tex Vinyard were people that let us in their house, threw out their dining room furniture, let us play as loud as we wanted … I can’t really say how, at that time, how valuable that support was. That was a wonderful and giving thing to do. Marion, I love you very much.
Springsteen closed the show with the debut of the autobiographical “In Freehold,” singing about the Vinyards, his Castiles bandmate George Theiss, his first kiss, his father, his sister and so on.
He sang, in one verse:
My buddy Mike (Wilson), well he’s the mayor now in Freehold
I remember when we used to have a lot more hair in Freehold
But I left and swore I’d never walk these streets again, Jack
Tonight all I can say is ,”Holy shit, I’m back
Back in Freehold.”
“I’m only gonna sing this song once in my life,” Springsteen said, and I really thought he’d stick to that, since it is so studded with local and personal references. But that didn’t turn out to be true. He’s sung it 20 times since then, at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, as well as at shows in Boston and Somerville, Mass., Sydney, Melbourne, Vienna, Warsaw and Prague.
Here is the setlist from that remarkable evening, and you can listen to all the music on the YouTube video below it:
“The River” (with Soozie Tyrell)
“Adam Raised a Cain”
“Darkness on the Edge of Town”
“Mansion on the Hill” (with Tyrell and Patti Scialfa)
“Red Headed Woman”
“Two Hearts (with Tyrell and Scialfa)
“When You’re Alone” (with Tyrell and Scialfa)
“Open All Night”
“Born in the U.S.A.”
“The Ghost of Tom Joad”
“Across the Border”
“This Hard Land”
“My Hometown” (with Tyrell)
“Racing in the Street” (with Tyrell)
“The Promised Land”