Cristina Chillem| A&E editor
Presently featured at the National Constitution Center is an exhibit called: From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen. All items displayed are on loan from either the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio, or from Springsteen himself.
The exhibit is generous with descriptions, explanations and dates for almost all items on display. Visitors can follow Springsteen’s journey from his early days in music to becoming The Boss. For many, the experience will be a revisit of their own glory days, while younger generations will come away with a greater understanding of American life in the 1970s. All ages can enjoy tracing the growth of one man’s personal vision and passion, as well as the impact his music had on a whole generation.
Upon entering the exhibit, visitors can see family photographs: Springsteen riding the merry-go-round with his sister in Asbury Park, in front of the alter at his Roman Catholic Church in Freehold, NJ, his grandfather outside the electric shop he owned in Freehold, and his father sitting in sand on the beach. Then one can observe the earliest seed of Springsteen’s music career- The Castiles- a group of Freehold teenagers very serious about rock ‘n’ roll.
The Castiles were inspired by The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, The Who and The Rolling Stones. At an audio station, visitors can listen to never- released songs by them, and also their covers of Hendrix’s “Purple Haze” and The Beatles song “Eleanor Rigby.” A scrapbook kept by the wife of Castile’s manager, Tex Vinyard, is displayed digitally on a television screen that flips through the pages, and also physically in a glass case. Newspaper clippings, photos, handbills, and other documents sentimentally recount the hopefulness of Springsteen’s small beginnings. In the glass case beside the scrapbook is a petition with twenty-four signatures stating: “We feel these young men could someday become great stars and someday maybe become as great as The Beatles…We feel that someone should take the time to at least listen to them and, if deserving, give them a boost.”
Direct quotes from Springsteen appear frequently throughout the exhibit. His voice echoes throughout the exhibit, giving visitors a feeling of intimacy with the world- renowned icon. His words feel like information on the down-low, insights to his unique, artistic genius, which only we get to know.
For example, in the section dedicated to Springsteen’s “Growin’ Up,” Springsteen is quoted saying, “I learned when I was very young how to build a band that would excite you, impress you, that we’re putting on a show for people … that it’s a circus, it’s a political rally, it’s a dance party, but that also the band is a group of witnesses, witnesses to our times, that our job is to make you laugh, make you cry, and to testify as seriously as we can … about the things we’ve seen. ”
Not particularly enthusiastic about college, Springsteen frequented Upstage, a club in his beloved Asbury Park, where musicians gathered to jam after-hours. He formed Steel Mill, a popular band along the Jersey Shore and in Richmond Virginia. Their shows were attracting as many as 5,000 fans when they broke up in 1971. Numerous concert posters are on display, as well as for his following musical endeavor, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. Visitors can see the Gibson Les Paul guitar that he played in 1968 with both of these bands, as well as The Bruce Springsteen Band. He traded it because it weighed too much.
The Bruce Springsteen Band involved an ambitious 10- piece band. Five of its members would go on to play in the E Street Band.
However, first came Springsteen’s audition for John Hammond of Columbia records in May 1972. The original reels of tape from the audition are on display and visitors can listen to songs from the audition at an audio station. Hammond said of the audition, “The kid absolutely knocked me out. I only hear somebody really good once every ten years, and not only was Bruce the best, he was a lot better than Dylan when I heard him.” Bruce was signed and released his first album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” in January of 1973.
Other tracks are available at the audio station from a 1974 Harvard Square Theater performance and at the Agora in Cleveland in 1978. Also in this section of the exhibit is a television showing rare footage of performances from the 1970s and a personal scrapbook kept by Springsteen. The scrapbook is opened to an article written by Peter Knobler titled, “Who is Bruce Springsteen and why are we saying all these Wonderful Things About Him?”
In it Knobler states, “I figured rock and roll had priced itself out of its own salvation. No one, my reasoning went, could possible mature before being discovered and absolutely no one could ignore his own hype and do it after,” so when he found Springsteen shaking up N.J he was both amazed and ecstatic. He states, “Springsteen tosses words around like marrow in a meat shop. His band jolts out music like an anti-craft.”
Thousands of others, like Knobler, have connected to the soul of Springsteen’s music. Social, political and cultural chaos from the sixties continued to stream into the seventies, when Springsteen began writing and composing. Although many radical ideas such as war and social change became part of mainstream America, there was a strong sense of struggle, loneliness, and restlessness in the midst of a disillusioned, flourishing America.
Springsteen’s music echoes the voices of the working class family, the inequalities faced by veterans returning from Vietnam, the experience of growing up Catholic, living during the Vietnam war, being raised in a small town, and simply coming of age and leaving home. Springsteen states, “I’m interested in what it means to be an American. I’m interested in what it means to live in America. I’m interested in the kind of country that we live in and leave to our kids. I’m interested in trying to define what that country is. I got the chutzpah or whatever you want to say to believe that if I write a really good song about it, it’s going to make a difference. It’s going to matter to somebody, you know?”
Included in the exhibit is an activity for visitors to interpret the messages behind the lyrics in songs such as “Born in the USA,” “Streets of Philadelphia,” “American Skin,” and more. The section circles specific phrases and asks what each says about American culture and life. Also for visitors to take part in, is a wall covered in yellow post- its, each scribbled on by visitors answering the question, “Which Springsteen song speaks to you and why?” Also accompanying visitors on their tour through the exhibit is an activity pamphlet that prompts them to write their own lyrics and further explore the messages in Springsteen’s music. Simply precious are the countless notebook pages scribbled with lyrics.
The exhibit will surely reconnect Springsteen fans to their past and with their own rebellious souls. Those who have followed him and experienced the Tunnel of Love tour will relive it when they see the actual Ticket Booth set prop used in 1988 again, this time up close in the museum. Numerous stage shirts are displayed, including ones from his 2005 Devils and Dust tour, and during the tour for The River. A priceless collection of tour itineraries, programs, passes, concert tickets, and hand- written set lists are on display.
The jacket he wore at Obama’s inauguration ceremony when he played acoustic guitar on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, backed by a full gospel choir, is on display. Also likely to mesmerize are the worn jeans, white t-shirt, decorated belt and red cap The Boss wore on his Born in the USA album cover. Perhaps even more exciting is the showcased Fender electric 1952 guitar from the Born to Run album cover- Springsteen’s favorite guitar.
Overall, there are eight guitars showcased, as well as Danny Federici’s keyboard operated glockenspiel and most prized Avanti accordion, a microphone used to amplify Clarence Clemon’s saxophone, Springsteen’s surfboard from 1969, guitar straps with harmonicas and neck-racks, and even the larger than life stage banner from the 2006 Seeger Sessions Tour. Of course, among these unforgettable items are Springsteen’s 1989 Harley Davidson and 1960 Chevrolet Corvette.
Another scrapbook is opened to an August 25, 1975 newspaper article titled, “Is Springsteen worth the hype?” Author Paul Nelson writes, “Even his weaknesses stem from too much talent. But the stamina of his personal vision is far preferable to the formulaic nowhere of the music business.”
Springsteen himself has said, “You write the song just for yourself, but it’s not good unless you play it for somebody else. That’s the connection between people that is forever lasting and can never be broken apart.”
The fact that the pieces of this man’s journey have been preserved and made into a museum exhibition surely says something of his stardom. More significantly, the pieces of Springsteen’s journey are treasured because they are the physical remnants of a whole American generation expressing itself, finding solace in, and breaking free, through music.
The exhibit is on display until September 3, 2012, which leaves plenty of time for a quick trip over the bridge. Student and child discounts available. Free admission for active military and veterans. Visit constitutioncenter.org for more information.