Rock star Bruce Springsteen just came off a year-long world tour, so you’d think he’d had enough of performing for a while. But you don’t know Bruce the way the people of Asbury Park, N.J., do: He is their local hero. Last night he gave them the second of three shows to raise money for a host of civic improvements, including uniforms for their high school’s marching band. The third show is tonight. You should not miss it.
It’s an understatement to say he put on a show, too. At the Asbury Park Convention Hall, a run-down edifice in a decaying beach community, Springsteen organized guest stars including another rock star, Jon Bon Jovi, legendary R&B star Sam "Soul Man" Moore, cult fave Garland Jeffreys, up-and-comer Jesse Malin, and a couple of prominent members of the E Street Band, Steve Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren. The band was the Max Weinberg Seven, which is the house band for Conan O'Brien’s TV show and happens to feature Springsteen’s E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg.
This is the third year (he missed last year because he was out of town) Springsteen’s held this Christmas bash. I should say holiday bash because even though a gigantic wreath and big fir trees ornamented the stage, there were menorahs, too. And while the highlight is his famous rendition of “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” — Danny DeVito played Santa on Friday night – the overall effect is to raise much-needed funds for a town that is so poor it didn’t even plow the streets around the Convention Hall last night after Saturday’s huge snow storm.
“This is Beirut,” Bon Jovi, a Springsteen neighbor, said backstage of the town, and he was only partially kidding. Not only is Bon Jovi also helping out Asbury Park, he’s raising money for Pop Warner football in a nearby community where there are no funds. His 8-year-old son is on the team and this year they got underwriting from Nike. Now they’re undefeated. “I want to write them and say, 'Clothes do make the man,'” Bon Jovi joked.
Lesser men would have picked up their families and moved to Greenwich or Bedford Hills by now. (Don’t fear though: Both rockers live in more upscale neighboring towns in mansions.)
But back to the show. After a rousing opener by a local gospel choir, the evening belonged to Springsteen. He almost never left the stage during the three-hour-plus show, playing with all the guest stars and singing with them, too.
Freed from doing a regular set, Springsteen got to perform some songs he never gets to do during his regular shows. There were gems last night that the diehard fans went wild for: “So Young and So in Love,” “Thunder Crack,” “The Wish” and “Kitty’s Back” drew cheers from the several thousand who were jammed like sardines on the Convention Hall floor.
Springsteen is a loyal man, that much we know by now. When he loves you, he loves you for life. Jeffreys, who is almost a cult pop star in New York, a musicians’ musician, came on after Bruce performed three songs and wowed the crowd with “Wild in the Streets” and “R.O.C.K.” Jeffreys —on the verge of a tremendous career spurt in 2004 after laying the groundwork all this year — is the kind of artist Springsteen is not. He is impossible to pigeonhole. His music runs from reggae to salsa to rock and pop with tinges of Tin Pan Alley and the Lower East Side. The beauty of it is that it is eclectic. Springsteen knows that. Holding him tight on stage he said, “We started out at the same time. He was on Epic, I was on Columbia, so there was a little rivalry I guess.” He later ordered the audience, “Buy his albums.”
He introduced Moore with no less a pronouncement than, “This is the greatest soul singer on the planet.” (He’s also the greatest soul singer on the planet without a recording contract, something that should be remedied ASAP.) Moore — who just returned from taping a TV special in Hollywood with Al Green — lived up to this heavy burden by leading the band through his best-known songs from the era of Stax soul: “Soul Man,” “Hold on I’m Coming,” and “I Thank You.”
The two men did what amounted to a duet on “When Something Is Wrong with My Baby,” turning Sam and Dave into Sam and Bruce. I hope it turns up one day on a Springsteen live set. Moore, who is 68, continues to astound. His voice is in better shape now than ever.
There was a lot more, too: Van Zandt gave a Christmas tribute to Joey Ramone. He also played with Springsteen and Southside Johnny — he of the Asbury Jukes fame, an E Street Band spinoff in the mid '70s. The only people in the world who probably even know Southside Johnny’s songs were all in the same room last night, and they were thrilled to sing along with “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “This Time It’s for Real.”
Lofgren got to pull out his own mini-masterpiece “Shine On Silently,” and Bon Jovi, who ambled about on stage all night, helping out and looking like a movie star, showed off his own voice with “It’s My Life.”
Asbury Park is an hour-and-a-half drive from New York, and not a particularly inviting place even when it hasn’t been snowed on for two days. Even so, I spotted “Sopranos” creator David Chase in the crowd, as well as “The Nanny” star Fran Drescher and sports commentator Bob Costas. They just sort of mixed in, since there wasn’t much of a VIP situation to fall back on. They were visitors, for the night, at a very parochial event, like a grange supper, only with a horn section. To wit: At the end of the night, right before the whole gang on stage sang Nick Lowe’s “What’s So Funny Bout Peace, Love and Understanding,” Springsteen — sweat pouring off him — spouted off a list of places where the money raised from the night was going. He also read off a list of holiday activities in town, and a number of local sponsors and businesses from bakeries to hair salons to florists.
“Oh, they’re sick of us by now,” Bon Jovi told me later, facetiously, about the constant fund-raising he and Springsteen have done in the area. “They’re always saying, 'What are they doing now?'”
Something tells me the people of Asbury Park aren’t sick of them at all. Every town should be so lucky.
Here’s a story I thought you might enjoy. The son of a rap mogul/entrepreneur is getting a bad rap at his posh New York private school. The kid is selling autographed pictures of his dad’s biggest act to his pals, out of his locker, for $30 a pop. This child of privilege is also outfitted with bling-bling: a diamond stud in his ear the size of a mushroom and a variety of chains that would put LL Cool J to shame. He’s having fights with anyone who gives him a crossed look, but has no fear of retaliation since a burly bodyguard walks him in and out of school every day. Junior is, however, “very nice to the teachers when they’re around,” says my spy. His mode of transportation? A Bentley driven, I am told, by a man wearing a tuxedo, top hat, the works.
As my pal Cindy Adams would say, Only in New York, kids. Really.