Spirit in the Night: Clarence Clemons, Chris Christie, and the Future of New Jersey

One night we were playing in Asbury Park. I’d heard The Bruce Springsteen Band was nearby at a club called The Student Prince and on a break between sets I walked over there. On-stage, Bruce used to tell different versions of this story but I’m a Baptist, remember, so this is the truth. A rainy, windy night it was, and when I opened the door the whole thing flew off its hinges and blew away down the street. The band were on-stage, but staring at me framed in the doorway. And maybe that did make Bruce a little nervous because I just said, “I want to play with your band,” and he said, “Sure, you do anything you want.” The first song we did was an early version of “Spirit In The Night”. Bruce and I looked at each other and didn’t say anything, we just knew. We knew we were the missing links in each other’s lives. He was what I’d been searching for. In one way he was just a scrawny little kid. But he was a visionary. He wanted to follow his dream. So from then on I was part of history.

– Clarence Clemons

A lot more below the fold.

1. End of an Era

For so many years, it seemed like the E Street Band was encased in a time bubble; sure, they didn’t tour together for nearly 15 years from the Born in the U.S.A. tour until their reunion at the end of the century, but in some ways it just kept their sound in place. And then the reunion tours at the turn of the century made it clear: they still were the E Street Band, playing for three hours without stopping, on night after night, tour after tour. While Danny Federici’s death in 2008 was a tragic loss, the tours continued, culminating most recently with the big bang of playing sets of entire albums. Having had the privilege to see both Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born in the U.S.A. done live in that stretch, I can testify that they still could take me back to growing up in central Jersey in the 1980s, listening to Z100 and PLJ, when it seemed like every other song was from Bruce.

With Clarence Clemons’ death, something changed forever. We will never again hear the solo in “Jungleland,” the nodding over to the Big Man in “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” – the full E Street sound.

And maybe we were living on borrowed time. We are – amazingly – as many years away today from that first encounter in 1971 as that moment was from the start of the Great Depression.

So much of the New Jersey of factories, fire roads, and broken-down shore towns that the E Street Band sang about early on is gone. We don’t have many “old abandoned beach houses” anymore; those old beach houses in Avon and Seaside Park that families working in the factories passed down for generations now can sell for close to a million dollars.

Indeed, much of the E Street Band’s greatest work is actually about the disappearance of that New Jersey:

Well they closed down the auto plant in Mahwah late that month

– “Johnny 99”

They’re closing down the textile mill across the railroad tracks

Foreman says these jobs are going boys and they ain’t coming back

– “My Hometown”

2. Perfect Together

New Jersey and You: Perfect Together – another constant message from my childhood. The factories may have been closing in Mahwah, Freehold, and Edison, but we were all in it together. The state’s slogan reflected a great era of can-do optimism in the state’s politics and culture, from the luring of the Giants and Jets to the Meadowlands in the mid-1970s through the great efforts at beach cleanup in the mid-to-late-1980s. Looking back at Gov. Kean’s state of the state addresses for a recent research project, I was struck by how positive and upbeat they were – the state would work together to create more jobs and a better place to live.

The E Street Band’s music caught onto this optimism in the face of change, at least at times:

You sit around getting older

There’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me

I’ll shake this world off my shoulders

Come on baby the laugh’s on me

– “Dancing in the Dark”

But Bruce in particular also worried about the potential for the rhetoric of optimism to mask an uglier vision of America’s future, one quite far from the New Jersey of the 1960s and 1970s in which there were decent paying union factory jobs, cheap houses, good schools, and nascent attempts to bridge the state’s racial divides with a new generation of African-American business and political leaders.

Disgusted at President Reagan’s shameless appropriation of the protest song “Born in the U.S.A.” as a campaign theme, he introduced the song “Johnny 99” (with that line about the factory in Mahwah closing, followed by a homicidal rampage from a former worker) at a September 1984 show as follows:

The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album. I don’t think he’s been listening to this one.

The rapid national changes of the 1980s worried Springsteen – exemplified perhaps most strongly by the turnaround of nearby New York from the rough and tumble, cheap place where the E Street Band and fellow New Jerseyan Patti Smith helped create a rather amazing music culture to the center of Wall Street greed with a growing gap between rich and poor.

But New Jersey did things a bit differently under the leadership of Govs. Byrne and Kean, and did a better job of creating economic growth for everyone – creating new high-tech and pharmaceutical jobs, making infrastructure investments like the Midtown Direct project that attracted new residents and businesses, passing landmark environmental and shore protection laws, and developing policies in areas like schools and housing that resulted in significantly more opportunities for many lower-income families, African-Americans, and Latinos than in many other places. New Jersey created an alternate model that responded to the devastating deindustrialization of the economy in a more innovative and inclusive way than most of the country.

We stuck together as a state through tough times and created another generation of New Jerseyans proud of our state’s unique strengths. Me included.

Last night me and Kate we laid in bed

talking about getting out

Packing up our bags maybe heading south

I’m thirty-five we got a boy of our own now

Last night I sat him up behind the wheel and said son take a good look around

This is your hometown

– “My Hometown”

3. Christie and the Boss

Chris Christie’s obsession with Bruce Springsteen reminds me of nothing more than the movie “Bob Roberts,” in which Tim Robbins plays a folk-singing right-winger running for Senator of Pennsylvania who is secretly controlled by Wall Street. Christie simultaneously adores Springsteen while doing everything he can to destroy Springsteen’s New Jersey.

No doubt, the last decade has been a tough one for the state. We shouldn’t mince words about that: despite the many great accomplishments such as abolition of the death penalty (a cause Springsteen was heavily involved in), New Jersey in the 2000s failed middle-class families. We barely created any private-sector jobs, shore homes became out of reach for all but the ultra-wealthy, and our state became more and more Wall Street West.

Christie’s response, however, has been to divide the state – whether through the offensive “take a bat out” comment against Sen. Weinberg, the us vs. them attack on teachers and police that culminated in last week’s pension and health vote, or his proposed cuts to Medicaid – instead of urging New Jersey to come together to rally around shared purpose and sacrifice as Byrne and Kean did.

Christie’s policies led Springsteen to speak out in this letter to the Asbury Park Press in March:

The article is one of the few that highlights the contradictions between a policy of large tax cuts, on the one hand, and cuts in services to those in the most dire conditions, on the other. The cuts are eating away at the lower edges of the middle class, not just those already classified as in poverty, and are likely to continue to get worse over the next few years.

We are at the start of a new era, one that will supplant the pre-1970s New Jersey of factories and farms and the more recent Byrne/Kean social contract of new industries with shared support for education and the environment. Christie’s vision of that new era is that we need to focus on making the state attractive to Wall Street, including handing out huge state subsidies to big companies in deals that please his Wall Street social circles.

That’s not a vision worthy of our state’s history and culture. Our challenge is to build an alternate vision, one that will fulfill the promise of our state to work together to shape a better future.

Oh, come take my hand

We’re riding out tonight to case the promised land

– “Thunder Road”

I do believe we’ll get there. But it will be harder without the Big Man providing part of the soundtrack.

R.I.P., Clarence.

Comments (5)

  1. rockcat

    I agree with virtually everything above, but I have 1 minor correction. The author seems to have selectively forgotten about the Tunnel Of Love Express Tour in 1988…with The E Street Band! Those were some pretty great shows…especially nearer those nearer the end of the tour. They weren’t away for 15 years, it was 11.

  2. speedkillsu

    I know Bruce personally I’ve met with him at friends houses ,we grieved when that friend died a few years ago .Although I grew up at the shore I was more into “cruising  the circuit”  than listening to music …so I missed his younger years ,my loss .I always believed Bruce intentions were from the heart whatever his political views were .He was sincere about everything he did …

  3. Jersey Jazzman


    Great post, TPL


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