Saturday, November 10, 2007

Springsteen Cases The Promised Land
(Part One)
(Of a Whole Bunch)

by Bart Bull
(published in
Sounds, 1975)

It's
Wednesday, no show tonight,
and Bruce and his guitar player, a guy called Miami Steve Van Zandt, and another guy, remarkably and conveniently named R.M, who turns out to be road manager for something called Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band, are all wandering around the Arizona State Fair, looking for something to do in Phoenix F. Arizona on their night off. Bruce was more than a little disappointed at only getting two encores at last night's show, and now . . . now there's this Hollywood business. It's getting to be a real drag.

"They got me going to California on Thursday after the show," It sounds especially ominous the way he delivers it. " . . . some guy . . . " And then, even worse, to actually have to talk to him. Striding down the midway with his tough guy punk walk, the tough punk walk that fits him right in with every other tough guy punk who's cruising past the corn-dogs, sauntering beyond the all the flashing bulbs on all the Tilt-A-Whirls and the Swedish Bobsleds and the Haunted Houses of Horror, and Bruce is mostly and mainly distinguished by his distracted thoughtful look, and by the fact that there's a red-headed photographer scrambling over all kinds of obstacles to grab just the exact right perfect shot off this one particular tough-walking punk at the State Fair. It's real late on a real slow week-night in those last final days when the State Fair has pretty much shot its wad (they've got to be losing money just by being open) and the carneys aren't hustling like they would if there was anything that vaguely resembled a crowd. It's empty, pretty much, and pretty much dead. Besides, Springsteen and R.M. and Miami Steve (Bruce never calls him Steve, and never even just shorthands it down to "Miami," it's always "MYYY-AMI-STE-Eee-EVE!") are spectacularly easy marks. You'd never guess they grew up within stumbling distance of the Asbury Park, New Jersey boardwalk.

Matter of fact, Miami Steve even falls for that one where you try to toss ping-pong balls into glass ashtrays, with the ashtrays floating and spinning as they swirl around a blue-green plastic wading pool. A genuine sucker's shot, one that nobody ever wins, nobody ever, except maybe that long and lean lantern-jawed cowboy over there, the one with larceny in mind, that Cottonwood cowpoke who's looking surreptitiously side to side, waiting ultra-obviously until the carneys allegedly aren't looking — because, you know, they've never ever had any local Wednesday night cowboy attempt to put one over one 'em before — and then, leaning way, way, wa-a-ay over, and ever . . . so . . . gently . . . and — Da-amn! But eventually he somehow finally manages to actually slip one in, and then the carneys grab up a big giant stuffed St. Bernard and toss it back and forth among themselves, semi-bored, chanting "Anothah winnah! Anoth-ah win-nah!!" and big Tex is grinning his jaw so hard it looks like he actually believes he won a stuffed dog on the up-and-up square and so, to properly focus her attentions, he keeps a steady pumping motion of his elbow right directly into his cowgirl companion's ribs all the while. Miami Steve catches all the hoopla and decides, the perfect victim of the shill, that this has got to be his game. He plunks down his buck, gets his dozen ping-pong balls and commences tossing. The astonishing experience of watching ball after ball hit dead center and then bounce blithely right back out again begins to get to him, so he sort of sidles over to the blond kid in the ponytail and gets him to secretly slip him some of the balls that have rolled under the counter. It's a ploy that nets him maybe a couple of extra balls, but to no avail whatsoever. He strikes out. Daunted but entirely undaunted, only just slightly dejected, he rushes and hustles to catch up with Bruce over at the video machines.

The two of them start out with a duck hunting game, then they move over to "Anti-Aircraft," shooting down fighter planes as they jet across the screen to the sound of engines roaring and calamitous explosions. "We got it! This is our machine," chortles Miami Steve, a winner at last, yanking at his artillery controls. "This is our machine, Boss!" The Boss is leaning back grim-lipped and silent, trying to gun down the jet that just shot past Miami Steve. The game trailer attendant is eyeballing them impatiently —as soon as their last plane goes down with a sputtering spluttering buzz, he reaches up to lower the trailer's siding, which has been propped up to create a roof. Bruce and Miami Steve are searching their pockets for more quarters, entirely oblivious, but when the carney starts to lower the siding right down on top of them, Miami Steve stage-whispers, "I think they're trying to give us a message..."

Looking for a way out, winding around the fairgrounds, they break into two bunches. Miami Steve and the redheaded photographer are profoundly engaged in a philosophical discussion at a volume level right on the borderline between debate and armed combat.
Springsteen, R.M., and the blond kid are lagging. "I kinda O.D.'ed on interviews," Springsteen says, scuffing his boot at an empty popcorn box. Within the week, he'll be on the cover of both Time and Newsweek simultaneously. "Everybody wants to spend all their time talkin' about what we're doin'. All I want to do is do it, but it's gettin' harder and harder." His speaking voice is surprisingly identical to the pained Brando-esque voice on his recordings. It would sound affected if it didn't come so easily. Maybe it was an affectation back in some dim and obscure adolescence, when some skinny kid first tried it on in front of his friends, like a too-new leather jacket, unworn, unstained, with not a rip or a scratch. Now, nicely broken-in, nothing could fit more naturally.

Both the two small groups pass by the flag-draped stage only just vacated by "Poncie Ponce — TV's Favorite Hawaiian cabdriver!" and "his Royal Hawaiian Revue." (Poncie Ponce was once a sort of sub-sidekick on "Surfside Six;" with a billing like that, you can't help but wonder who works out to be TV's least favorite Hawaiian cabdriver.) Outside the Exhibition Hall, where prize cattle and sheep are settling in for the night, there is a wooden box, painted as if to resemble an old fashioned red barn, but with a glass showcase in front. On the other side of the glass resides a chicken, a white hen who will, if a dime is shoved into the slot, begin to tap-dance. Miami Steve sees the sign over the miniature barn, "Dancing Chicken," and hollers back over his shoulder to Springsteen: "Hey, here's one of them chickens!"

There is a metal floor beneath the bird, and when the dime drops, electricity is conducted, and the chicken hops and skips and jumps and does its best to keep from touching the hot-wired floor it has to touch. Springsteen swing his hands-in-pocket shuffling to steer by the chicken's cage, staring in silently. Concerned, perhaps, or maybe just reconciled, the bird stares back. No wisdom is exchanged. "Those poor chickens. In Jersey, it's against the law to do that." This, however, is Arizona; not every state is so enlightened. He jams his hands into his pockets even more fiercely, then begins to mumble to himself. Looking up at R.M., he says, "I don't think I wanna go. Mike keeps tellin' me I gotta go, but I'll just get on some plane and go there and meet this guy and then get back on some other plane. I don't think I'm gonna go." His boot heels are dragging hard against the fairgrounds. The chicken is still staring as he goes. Maybe it's waiting for the next dime to drop.

"Okay with me," says R.M. "You're the Boss."


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