Discover more from Thunder Pie
The Importance of Loving Springsteen
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man. -Heraclitus
In the evening, when I still smelled like Pert and Irish Spring, the house my mom got us would wrap me in it’s arms and I could feel it like a protector. Like a cave up in the hills away from all that dangerous human jazz. And in that dark, with only the red blip of the power light shining off my Walkman, I would lay there on the bottom bunk in the bedroom I shared with my younger brother and I would feel outside of all the life I had witnessed that day. Like I was there but I wasn’t there.
Like I was a ghost. A spirit. Something that could bear witness but move through hours unseen, unnoticed.
It felt strangely sheltering to me back then, same as it remains today, that sense/ that odd configuration of reality and removal plugging into one another deep within me. The currents of invisibility shooting through my physical presence. The uplift that comes with closing your eyes/ hearing your blood blowing by the back of your face like a train/ the wild calm of staring at someone beautiful/ a peer you will never have or even know/ and understanding- in a moment raining down out of the halogens- that you are there but not there.
A kid but nothing at all.
Stepping off the bus and wandering into the morning river/ the unstoppable current of kids from all directions/ like a crushed cup tossed off a bridge and headed for some little log jam somewhere long before the ocean. Only lucky trash hits the sea, man. Everybody knows that. I knew it by time I was 10. I’d look down into the Schuylkill River as my Pop-Pop’s Matador crossed us over from Conshohocken into West Conshy and I just understood the raw truth about things down there.
It smelled ripe, like the slime of eel.
That old river/ dark as death.
And the Atlantic? Just a dream. A possibility for sure, but that journey is long. And damn near impossible, probably.
I sometimes wonder if it’s a problem, you know? Like, if I should be worried about the fact that ever since I was a husky kid laying there in my tighty whities/ showered skin/ thinking about rubbing one out in the darkness of my bedroom as my brother laid up in his bunk listening to his Walkman/ watching the red blip light of power laid there on his bony chest and thinking about what his day was like to Creedence or The Stones or whatever cassette he had in there/ ever since I was laying there in the protected lonesome of that faraway room that I will never know again: I have felt more or less the same feeling for vast stretches of time. The unseen. And I wouldn’t trade it for anything in this world.
Is that normal?
Is that okay?
I guess I don’t care enough. Because even back then, only seconds after the notion would come to me and I’d question my own ways, I’d simply let it go almost as swiftly as it showed up. Because I liked it, I guess. I like the feeling now and I liked it back then too. At 13 and 14 years old, I was pretty into this loosely constructed concept of me drifting down past the painted orange lockers in the 8th grade hallway without consequence. Without recognition and without consequence.
You see, unnoticed kids go untouched, and that truth was punishing, I can’t lie. Teenage boys trapped in their horny shell and craving young body touch: it can pound voices inside you into some kind of weird submission. And yet, I remained out in front of all that somehow. I didn’t act weird with girls or act mean or fucked-up to them in the light of day just so I could cash in those bizarre run-ins later on in the quiet darkness. I simply stared at them from behind the walls of an invisible life unfolding from within me. Unnoticed kids, I realized early on, they go un-kissed, it’s really true. But if they play those cards right, they can also go unpunched too. Unpunched and un-attacked. Un-bullied and un-laughed-at. Un-laughed-at and un-kissed, there it is again and you can’t just not reckon with it, but un-kissed means un-noticed, remember? You couldn’t really have one without the other. You couldn’t navigate some east coast American middle school in the 1980’s without understanding that stark naked truth.
And so I did.
Laying in my bed at night, I’d feel my thick body settling into the cheap mattress and I would know I was okay. I was alright. I was alive, but I wasn’t making waves. I was alive, but I wasn’t really living yet.
Touched my nuts with one hand and pushed play with the other. And the soft locking in would happen then. The tiny silver head of the player moving smoothly up into the cassette itself/ the transpiring in our blacked out room/ my mom downstairs watching the TV/ tired from work/ tired from everything.
The potatoes au gratin in my guts. The stars in the sky. The clicking in of the tape engaging with the universe because I made it so. The magic moving up around me like vapor, like Milky Way. Suburban Philly. Italian Hoagie Land. Tastycake Boy Tits.
I sighed again, I remember it vividly, the history of all teenage soldiers slipping out my chappy spring lips. My baseball lips. My divorce kid lips. My paper route lips. My Cola Slurpee lips. My onion breath lips. My cheek zit lips. My horny toad lips.
Letting go of self.
Darkness on the Edge of Town. Side 2. The Promised Land.
Kid on fire / red blip light.
My god, the fucking power.
In the long driveway, across what I remember to be a pretty solid lawn/ probably aerated like a motherfucker/ we stood out there maybe a hundred yards from the front door/ maybe two hundred/ me and my brother, Dave, and our bandmate and friend, Mike Brenner: stood watching/ enchanted-like/ a beer-buzzed Bruce Springsteen running full blast back towards his house, like he was being chased or something.
Or like he was happy.
Bruce Springsteen was good to go, I guess.
We lit cigarettes in the shadow of our van, three cigarettes getting smoked in the New Jersey twilight. Stood there in the evening dusk, darkness on the edge of our van. A civilized hour to let things wind down, I remember thinking to myself. Then I wondered if' he’d planned it that way. If he somehow had known all along sort of how it would end. Not that it mattered. I mean, I suppose you need an out in most situations like that one if you’re him and we are us, which is how it went, how it was.
Us: poor dudes, hardscrabble rockers from an up and coming Philly band called Marah. Unseen mostly. Unknown by and large but making a few waves here and there in the smaller circles written in the dust by a stumbling megasaurus on it’s last legs. These were, it turned out, pretty much the last days of rock-n-roll as any of us had ever known it.
And him: my hero. A constellation fell and hit me and it was him. The greatest rock-n-roller of all time. But also: fuck. I don’t know. Down to Earth. Grounded. Easy, at least around us. Always confident and comfortable and far from the shy kid he’d told us all about down the years. Galaxies away from me back in my bottom bunk with my Walkman and my teenage blues and all of that electricity spilling down onto my chunky kid body, spilling down off the cassettes with his music on them.
But also not that far at all.
Are you following me here?
Now, after dinner/ after chit chat in the living room and the family photos on the wall and the jukebox in the corner and nothing fancy beyond that/ nothing overwrought/ nothing bombastic or ridiculous. Just a cool room with some last beers and people talking and me talking sometimes but also- in full disclosure- me continuing to struggle with feeling invisible. Sure I was there but not there. Surrealistic paintings being splashed up and down the walls and all across the goddamn table. Buckets of mad paint/ moments in which I was looking around me and seeing Nils Lofgren there chomping on a hunk of bread/ Patti Scialfa over there leaning back and emptying her glass of wine in a full-on back tip/ then laughing/ all of us laughing at a story Bruce just told about The River and Bryan Adams/ and me moving in and out of myself/ my consciousness/ thrusting my smile into the room to say things, to be present and to give or try to give something back instead of all this taking.
Me: inside myself and not understanding quite where I was or what was happening at all.
Me: trying to make sense of maybe the best thing that had ever happened to me.
Me: sure this was a mistake/ something handed to me only because I was attached to the others/ to my brother and Mike/ to the real musicians. Surely, Bruce recognized that. Surely he wanted to hang out with the good guitar players but figured he had to invite me along because, well, I came with the package. And that was that.
But now, the dinner over, Bruce was running back into his house to grab us something, it seemed.
“Oh, I almost forgot!,” he’d exclaimed a few seconds prior. “Wait right here a second!” And he took off running as me and Dave and Mike watched him go. Back across the lawn. Back to the front door. No one else around. We had no idea what was happening.
Jesus Christ, I remember Mike muttering.
We all cracked up a little. The three of us. Motherfuckers.
I can still smell the mowed lawn, the cut grass.
I should have grabbed a scoop of it and kept it.
Watching Bruce hit his front stoop and disappear back into the house where we’d all just said our goodbyes to Patti and everyone, I remember talking to myself inside myself like I do all the time. Like: turning back away from the scene on the lawn, I crawled back inside myself to catch my lost breath and back there inside of my echo chamber I remember thinking how I had all this food of his down in my system/ down in my guts and moving round my bones/ all this swordfish and all this lemon juice and all this steak and ground pepper and other shit I have forgotten about all these years later, but also all this cold beer that Bruce Springsteen had kindly offered up to me. Time and time again.
You need anything? You wanna have some more?
I felt seen somehow even though my whole life had been setting me up to feel like shit here. To feel invisible/ dissipated in some kicked-up cloud of old school anxiety. I didn’t know myself back then though, so I wasn’t sure what I was feeling much at all. I just knew my heart was beating so fast that I thought I might die.
It was profoundly beautiful too, because you know what?
I’m pretty sure that Bruce knew. I have this ancient hunch that he recognized something in my eyes coming and going that night. Like, he knew what must be going through our heads and he empathized without going too far.
Someone told us what we could choose from. The fish or the steak. I remember smiling. Freezing. Paused like a cassette.
Bruce cut me down from the ceiling. Or at least that’s how I choose to remember it, man. You only get one chance to get saved by certain people, you know? You have to control the narrative at times. So I do. I remember what I remember. I recall what I recall.
The fish. The steak. The choosing. The freezing.
Have both, he had suggested, looking right at me with that smile. I’m having both.
Later on- years later- I stumbled into this idea that Bruce probably wasn’t going to have both the fish and the steak that night at the dinner his guy had prepared for all of us in his home. His home where he had invited us because he liked our record, liked our music, and must have known, by then, that we would talk about his influence/ his music/ his writing/ and his performances. His home where we had no real right to be, except, and it took me many many moons to finally accept this: except for the fact that we were truly wanted. Respected. Maybe even needed? I don’t know. That last one is just a wild guess on my part.
I was just a young gun then. All smelling like Marlboro Lights and Right Guard/ and so maybe I’m way off base here about any of this but here’s what I think.
Bruce Springsteen wasn’t looking me in the eye after a couple of cold Heinekens and cold dropping the fact that he was gonna be having both the nice fish and the nice steak instead of just one or the other as some kind of small talk.
He was handing me the keys to a certain kind of very lovely kingdom. He was telling me that everything was gonna be alright. Same as he had fucking told me that a million times before. A billion times before. But this time we were next to each other in the world. Paris was in Paris. Rome was in Rome. China was over in China and you were probably just at home.
But me and Bruce were at the dining room table.
And we both had the fish.
And the steak.
Falling in love with my wife, Arle, it all came easier than falling in love ever had for me before. Probably because it was truer. Less phased by hang-ups. Less shackled to the demons of being younger than it takes, I guess, to fathom what you’re up against when you begin to slide down into it all one more time.
I let myself go, you let yourself go, we both know the feeling of being so scared in the face of powerlessness. Love lurks and seduces and the final move is so frightening, right? All power is unplugged and all you can hear is the wind.
Blasting at the windowpanes.
The sound of the person you are falling for breathing there beside you.
We fell in love just talking and fishing and eating hunks of cheese and dipping them in hummus. Taking turns flipping vinyl. Taking turns picking the records we would listen to together on those Friday nights when neither of us had our kids with us.
Sometimes she would bring her old black lab, Luke, to my place for our dates. He’d waddle out into the middle room of my old railroad place and he’d just flop down and stare at us out there in the kitchen Christmas lights.
His lady and this other dip shit. Cutting red pepper strips. Uncorking wine. Looking at a record cover together. Putting it on. Chopping basil. Cutting chicken thighs.
Otis Redding. Billie Holiday. Miles Davis. Mellencamp. Sinatra.
Falling in love to the music and the drinks and the food and the whole world out there doing it’s own thing. No one else invited. Just us. Luke. Chips and guac. Talking so long, finding each other collectively in the sharing of our solo stories.
It was Bruce though, mostly.
Talking about the music. Talking about the E Street Band. Long soliloquies from either of us feeling lit from the fires of the well-earned booze. At the end of strange long weeks: here we go: me and you: have a drink: tell me something: tell me your life: talk about Bruce. And we did. And we do. Even now, Fridays. Even now. Kids at our exes, I put the old warped cutting board up on the table and I get down my wine glass and I grab her a beer and we rinse the green onions and she chops the chilies as I heat up the wok and sometimes we put on Bruce and when we do it is a return to a place, for me, where I still go to feel safe and seen and loved and understood.
I know I cannot go there with any others. Not the way we go there now. I have seen her eyes light up as she talks about the meaning behind Ghosts. She has seen my eyes light up as I talk about the Spectrum show the night after he turned 50. I have seen her eyes light up as she talks about Clarence while she peels a hunk of ginger. And she has seen my eyes light up as I tell her about that time. The fish or the steak. Or both.
Wondrous is this life, even with all its bashing river tides and all its cruel, cruel voices moving down and through our minds. Magic is the music that can connect us to something larger than a planet in the sky.
Connect me to myself. Connect me to my love. Me and Arle.
The screen door slams/ forever and ever.
In Bruce Springsteen’s music, in his band’s joyful noise and in the ebbs and flows of the live shows I have witnessed, I have bumped up against what appear to be things that are affiliated with no words that I can come up with. Language, by and large, has failed me too often when I try to talk of the things I have felt in the presence of the music and the words of the writer. I have told some of my stories about Bruce before and I might tell a few of them again eventually but it’s not really intentional. I’m not repeating myself on purpose or because I’m trying to milk an old cow or whatever. The only reason I keep circling back to all of this stuff is because every now and then I get frustrated with how little I have ever been able to convey what I have wanted to for so long.
I still feel like I’m standing there in the crowd back in Philly in ‘99. Me and my buddy, Big Ed. Paul Smith. My brother, Dave. People from Conshohocken and Lansdale and Upper Darby. People from Roxborough and Manayunk. People from Chester. People from Cherry Hill. People from Plymouth Meeting and people from Telford and people from Frankford and people from Atlantic City and Norristown. My people. People who grew up where I come from. People who remember long hot afternoons stuck in rush hour traffic/ WMMR/ WYSP/ the first notes of Cadillac Ranch coming down/ familiar/ welcome/ turning sweat into rain/ turning water into wine.
They were the early days of our band then.
What I saw across 6 Springsteen/ E Street Band shows down the street from where we were making our own record in a loft above an auto garage is something I cannot, to this day, even begin to describe.
I find that furiously frustrating.
The vibe. The grey and black clothes the band wore. The set list. The way everyone moved and smiled in the lights. The way they came out on that stage, two at a time, waving at me.
The way Bruce came out last, alone, not smiling, but not not smiling.
Waving at me.
Even back then I think he knew what was coming.
Fish or steak?
I’m having both.
He came back to us maybe three minutes after he’d run away. Maybe five minutes. I can’t remember. Time stood still. Me and my brother and Mike standing there on his lawn as twilight settled in and he came out his front door again. Alone. Wherever we were, I knew we were not all that far from the ocean. Somehow I recollect feeling its powerful presence even though it was a little ways off.
You can always tell when you are near an ocean.
You just can, you know.
Bruce Springsteen ran back, right at us, smiling/ huffing a little. He’d been hustling. He didn’t want to hold us up, maybe. Holding up a box as he got close to us standing there by the side of our van, he started waving it around.
Here you go, you guys, he was saying as he rolled up. This is some music I did with the band that never released until now.
Something like that. I can’t remember his exact words. But it was the Tracks box set. It had just come out not long before that day. I recall even now how my heart skipped a beat at his innocence in that moment. How I couldn’t actually believe that he might think that I didn’t already have that thing. I had bought it the day it came out. Of course I had.
But Bruce, he wasn’t sure, I guess. And he wanted us to have it. He wanted to give it to us. Pass his music along to these guys from Philly because… I don’t know. I’ll never know for sure. Because they seemed like good lads? Because he loved one of our records? Or maybe just a song? Or was it possibly because he recognized something in us?
But if so, well, what was it?
Don’t answer that.
I don’t wanna know.
I close my eyes this afternoon and I can feel the smoke in my lungs from the cigarette I was smoking as he handed me my copy and thanked us for coming and we gave him hugs and pats on the back and then got back into our van and drove towards the Garden State Parkway with heads full of racing thoughts.
Young, hungry, my boys by my side, cigarette smoke slashing out the open windows, I steered us out through the Jersey night in a way that seems like a dream to me even now.
A dream/ even now.
So I’m 50 now and I have been listening to Bruce Springsteen since I was probably 10. Which means he has been riding beside me along most of my trail up til now. Which means Bruce has always been there.
And that won’t change, I know that now, no matter what.
He will see me out in the ways that only music can do. The songs will resonate and remain long after we are all gone. But for me, it has been more than just the music. It has been much, much more.
I’m a mostly a loner. I don’t run with hardly anyone. I’ve always been like that really. I run with Arle these days; I run with my kids and her kids whenever any of them will let me. And I run by myself a lot too. In dusty old book shops or in the back of flea market joints/ looking for old cigar boxes/ looking for old Civil War books/ picking through forgotten crates of records to see if there’s any George Jones or any Lee Morgan or any Bill Monroe or any Patsy Cline. There is no misconception in my mind these days about where I stand in the grand scheme of things.
Bruce doesn’t call.
No one does really.
I keep my ringer off. I watch the birds as much as I can. I take my Honda across these old bridges around here and I look down to see if I can see a trout rise. The sparks of ambition have settled within me. Anymore, I just like getting through the day with minimal anxiety. A smile at 8pm? Then I won another one. That’s all I need.
Still, I write these essays and I poke around the distant frayed edges of a young man’s life turning away from its former self and I smile at the quick quiet sadness of a regular life. Look, I no longer chase the sun: except in my mind where I write these old west novels that change the world. And I no longer yearn to capture entire night skies: except on Tuesday mornings when I sit down like clockwork to try and write my world out for a small group of folks who give a shit. I’m honored if they’re reading it and pondering it. It’s everything in almost all the ways.
And truth be told, I no longer fantasize way outside my pay grade except when I dream, man. Except when I dream about all the things I’m going to do and all the battlefields I am going to wander across one of these days, when me and Arle pick up our lottery money and head out on that interstate.
Coffee from Sheetz in the cupholders. Smell of hash browns mixing with the sweet lotion on her hands.
Catching dawn breaking into the vault/ the slow crackling light of one more summer morning.
I hit the stereo.
I give myself goosebumps.
Long ago, in that dark bedroom in that small house in the town where I was born, I fought back sleep for a time by staring hard into the single pin dot of blood red light coming off my Sony Walkman.
Down in the machine, the batteries were being juiced by the churning gears as my heavy eyes would begin to shut. Then I’d catch myself and stare at the light some more. Desperate to stay awake, I wanted to finish Side B of Born in the USA. To fall asleep before it would end felt like I was cheating myself somehow. To get the end of the entire record/ all of it having played across the utter darkness before my face over the last 40 minutes or so/ that felt like something real that I needed to do.
So I did. Or I tried like hell to, anyways.
But despite my desire, I lost it.
Somewhere in the middle of it all, I went without a fight.
I closed my eyes and Bruce was singing but then his voice, it faded, and I heard my other truth rising.
Leaning hard into my loosening muscles, I heard the school bus pulling away from me/ smelled the autumn leaves out on the street/ felt the panic from the day’s hallway bustle/ recognized my earnest science teacher’s tones/ heading to the cafeteria I dodged the meathead football players grabbing each other’s dicks/ and as I got in line and took a deep drag of hamburger steam I felt the popular girls walking in chatty packs behind me/ like wild animals/ so rare and difficult/ the sound of the basketballs on the gym floor at sixth period/ the smell of ghost skin in the library/ the sharp fresh cold snap of the water fountain water/ laying on my upper lip/ I hear the girl who smells like candy talking to a boy/ at my kitchen table somewhere around 4pm/ eating Oreos and drinking generic root beer/ I slipped away from all I’d known then.
I slid deeper into sleep.
That dot of red light like some bluefish party boat bobbing up and down out there in the dark.
My Hometown came on right about the time I was trying to escape even my dreams, settle into something further down. Something further in. I didn’t clock it though. By then I was gone.
Like some old man passing away in the night.
Except I was just kid and my lungs were pink and my mind was clear and my soul was pure back then for sure. And I ended my days in my underwear, under blankets, in between cheap plastic headphones that hid no sound.
So anyone listening, if there had been anyone at all, would have heard Springsteen, tinny in that darkness. But there he is, unmistakably, singing to that kid. That kid: chest rising and falling/ teenage lust sleeping down in him now like heavy dope crawling through the sewers of his veins.
Last night me and Kate we laid in bed
Talking about getting out
Packing up our bags, maybe heading south
Me, not far from everything still. Just a kid with no fucking clue. Years from taking a stage myself. Years from falling in love. No dad in my life. A giant hole where something good should have been for a young kid.
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”
Me, gone from the song now. Fallen into the calming void. Lulled there by a voice I attached myself to long ago in the dark of some uncertain night, when nothing was easy and nothing made sense. Scared as hell. My heart beating, breaking, bashing away. The cassette runs out, pops off with a fat click. The red dot goes out.
I notice nothing/ dream of sex/ run from meatheads/ Paradise by the ‘C’.
Some things never change.
Thanks so much for reading this free Thunder Pie essay. If you like my writing, please become a subscriber by hitting this button below.
I write a new essay every week and publish it on Friday mornings, straight to your email inbox. There are two ways to subscribe: I have a free option ( 1 new essay per month) or you can become a paid subscriber (only $10 for 4 new original essays per month).
Your support means a lot to me. So thanks.
Photos: Arle Bielanko / Serge Bielanko
Carefully edited by Arle Bielanko
Subscribe for FREE to Letter to You by Arle Bielanko
Email me: email@example.com
Mail me : Serge Bielanko/ PO BOX 363/ MILLHEIM, PA 16854
Venmo : @Serge-Bielanko