Turning 50 and the Boss

“I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear … the last one you’d ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise … then the apocalypse.”

-- Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

A couple of months ago, my wife Margo was cleaning or snooping -- after 19 years of marriage it's sometimes hard to tell the difference -- and she came across this old sky blue 59 cent notebook of mine. She had never seen it before and so she opened it up because, yes, 19 years of marriage. Inside, she found what she thought was an entire notebook filled with poems -- poems I had written 25 years ago.

Only those weren't poems. They were songs.

* * *

"Over months, I could feel the story I was aching to tell seep into my lyrics. Slowly, I found words I could stand to sing, always my first, last and only criteria to move ahead."

-- Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

My back hurts. Well, it isn't always my back. Sometimes my neck hurts. Sometimes it's my hip. Sometimes it's my knee or my ankle or I just have a throbbing headache. It's just easier to say my back hurts. It's something my friends instinctively understand ... because their backs hurt too.

This isn't a complaint, by the way. It's a celebration. I know it sounds like a complaint, especially to younger people. When I was young and heard 50-year-olds gripe about their backs hurting, it sure sounded like kvetching to me. This is because, when you're young, the alternative to "my back hurts" is simply the opposite: "My back doesn't hurt.

At some point in life, the alternative changes. And "My back hurts" becomes much better than the new alternative.

* * *

"Music on the radio is a shared fever dream, a collective hallucination, a secret amongst millions and a whisper in the whole country's ear."

-- Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

I never intended for anyone to hear the songs I wrote as a young man. They were my secret. They still are. I have no understanding of music beyond what I hear on the radio. I can't play an instrument, though I occasionally wake up with a hunger to learn. I can't hold a tune. I once sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," during the seventh inning stretch at a minor-league baseball game. The horrified look of the public relations manager who set that up told the story. He fully expected to be fired for putting paying customers through hell.

These songs I wrote all those years ago, they just poured out of me, uninvited. Normally when you see something a phrase like that ("The songs just poured out of him") you might expect the songs to be good. Songs poured out of Bob Dylan. Songs poured out of Paul McCartney. Songs poured out of Bruce. After all, can bad songs really just pour out of a person?

Yes. Yes, they can. I always liked the line in Arthur:

"Everyone who drinks is not a poet. Some of us drink because we're not poets."

* * *

"(Someday we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny"). Not that it would BE funny, but that would all SEEM funny."

-- Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

Lost in Traffic.

Keep Me Dancing.

No. I Didn't.

An Open Floor

Don't Let Me Go.

Downtown Utica.

White Carpet.

Fool's Bluff.

Two Kids.

Augusta.

I'm looking through this notebook now ... grimacing ... feeling embarrassed ... grimacing more ... wanting to hide in a tree somewhere... remembering some of the horrifying tunes that went with these words ... I can't believe how many songs I wrote back then.

* * *

"People don't come to rock shows to learn something. They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep down in their gut. That when the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one and one equals three."

--- Born to Run. Bruce Springsteen

* * *

When "Born to Run," Bruce Springsteen's autobiography, came out last year, I wanted too much from it. Don't we always want too much from autobiographies of our heroes? One of the basic themes of magic is that you should never explain how the illusion is done. There are numerous reasons for this, but the reason I cling to is that when you explain how the card got to the top of the deck or how the coin vanished, you take just a little bit of wonder out of the world. Autobiographies do that too. You often find that the subject's genius is reduced to cliches or drug-induced episodes or unappetizing ambition. I once read an autobiography of a successful and brilliant man. He wrote all about the famous women he'd seduced. That kind of ruined the magic.

With Springsteen, of course, it was more than just wanting the book to be good -- I knew it would be good. Bruce wrote Born to Run with the help of my editor, Jon Karp, who is impossibly great. Bruce's writing combined with Jon's sense of art, well, the book was certainly going to be terrific. And it is.

But I need more than a terrific book from the Boss. I'm turning 50. And Bruce Springsteen is the one guy I know who seemed to figure it out, the one guy I know who ages but doesn't age, who has endured all the pain and anguish of life but who still sings Badlands and Dancing in the Dark and Thunder Road like it's the first time.

What I wanted from the book was nothing less than a guide for growing old and staying young all at the same time.

* * *

"Trust is a fragile thing. It requires allowing others to see as much of ourselves as we have the courage to reveal."

-- Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

Why did I write all these songs? I wish I could remember. I was living in a tiny apartment in Augusta. It had no air conditioning. I worried about a lot of stuff -- mainly that I would never get out of that apartment in Augusta. I worried that I would never fall in love or, more to the point, no one would ever fall in love with me. I worried that I did not have the talent to do what I wanted to do. I worried that I would not have enough money to pay the rent. I worried that I didn't have anything worth saying.

Based on these words, I wasn't wrong.

Walking through downtown

Never felt more lost, never felt more found

People look up, I just stare at the ground

Walking through downtown

Who WAS that kid? What is he doing there in that crummy apartment, dishes piled high, pizza boxes scattered, writing lyrics in a sky blue notebook, singing to himself to make sure the words match the absurd melody in his head? He knows -- I can see him -- he KNOWS that he will never do anything with these songs, never let anyone else hear them, never try to get someone who can actually play music and sing to perform them. He knows that they will die in that notebook.

Still, he keeps writing them. He's 25 years old. It was 25 years ago. His back doesn't hurt.

* * *

"I wasn't hearing myself so regularly on the radio anymore. What we'd done was getting farther away, receding into rock's glorious but embalmed past. I didn't like that. We were far too formidable a unit to go gently into that good night. of rock history."

-- Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

Fifty. There's a Web site out there that shows what people accomplished at your age. At 50, it seems, the best anyone could come up with was that Herman Hesse wrote Steppenwolf, Antoine Lavoisier went to the guillotine, Tolstoy considered suicide and Samuel Adams directed the Boston Tea Party. Also, someone named Larry Silverman got a third-degree black belt. It doesn't exactly fill the heart with endless possibilities.

Fifty. It's the year you go to on golf's Senior -- oh, excuse me, "Champions" -- Tour, the year you get that first letter from AARP, the year you have to stop clicking that "Age 35-49" box. No Major League baseball player has ever been 50. No NFL player has ever been 50. I am older than 13 NBA coaches -- one of them I saw play in high school.

Fifty. It's just a number, George Foreman will tell you. It is that. It's a pretty big number, though, a golden anniversary, the number of states in America, the speed which Sandra Bullock had to keep the bus going or else it would blow up.

* * *

"We are more than an idea, an aesthetic. We are a philosophy, a collective, with a professional code of honor. It is based on the principle that we bring our best, everything we have, on this night, to remind you of everything you have, your best."

-- Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

Every time I see Bruce Springsteen play, I wait for Born to Run, wait to see if he and the band still give it their best, everything they have. What could that song even mean to Bruce now after all these years? Death traps? Suicide raps? Last chance power drives? How can he and Nils and the Mighty Max and Little Steven and the rest find anything still living inside that song after they have played it to death, night after night, so many years, so many stops, all over the world?

Only ... they do. They find the life. I've seen and heard the older Eagles play "Hotel California," and the older Rolling Stones play "Gimme Shelter," and the older Robert Plant sing "Whole Lotta Love," and the older Clapton play "Layla," and the older McCartney sing "Let It Be." They performed those songs professionally. It was a thrill to hear in its own way, a bit like watching a great hitter who only recently retired hit home runs on Old Timer's Day. But the spark was gone. The newness was gone. How could it not be?

And yet, somehow, Bruce and the Band, they find the life. How? Is it in his book?

* * *

"About my voice. First of all, I don't have much of one. ... It's a journeyman's instrument and, on its own, it's never going to take you to higher ground. ... But what could I do? It was the only voice I had."

-- Born to Run. Bruce Springsteen.

* * *

Friday morning, two days before I turn 50, I hear the alarm go off at 5:50 a.m. Then at 5:59 a.m. Then at 6:08 a.m. This is my wife's idea of how to wake up. I have never been able to snooze between alarms. My back hurts, of course. Also my teeth. I just had some dental work done. I have to eat soft foods for a while.

The topics of the car ride with the girls to school include the funniest scenes in movie history -- with a big nod to Bill Pullman's turn as the dumbest man on the face of the Earth in "Ruthless People," -- and the enduring philosophical question about whether you are allowed to be frustrated when the car just misses a green light if it was your own lateness that caused us to leave a few minutes late. The dropoff goes as smoothly as these things can go (only two near accidents) and then I'm alone in the car, driving back home, muttering about cars that drive too fast in a school zone.

A song pops into my head. It's not a song you've ever heard, not a song anyone else has ever heard. I start to sing along with my memory.

She walks into the bar, looking for a hero

She says she's come too far to stop just yet

She'll dance around the room, like any other night

Smell of sweet perfume playing Russian roulette

I saw her one night, from the little balcony in that little apartment in Augusta. It was the balcony that made me choose the place. It overlooked a courtyard. The rent was $310 a month when I first moved in. It moved up to $340 later.

Her looks begin to fade, like a photo in the sun

But enough beauty stayed so she does not stop

Screams, "I want a hero." Volunteers appear.

She wouldn't know what to do, though, if her hero showed up.

I wasn't in love with her or anything. I barely even saw her through the darkness as she walked through the courtyard. I did hear someone call her name.

I'd tell her that I'm no doctor but I play one on TV

I cry a lot in public, but just for the sympathy

And I would be your hero, but I wouldn't know where to park

So, why won't you love me, Melissa in the dark

I remember that night, the humidity, the gnats, the dim lights of the lamp posts in the courtyard, me in an old rocking chair someone had given me, rocking back and forth, furiously writing the song down in that sky blue notebook as if taking dictation. The weird part is the one thing I don't remember at all is what Melissa looked like.

No, I never wanted to be President, only Secretary of State

But that was many years ago when I thought I could be great

I'd have the only talking dog, but all he does is bark

So, why won't you love me, Melissa in the dark.?

Strange I should think of that song -- or any of those terrible songs -- as I close in on 50. Or maybe it isn't strange at all. When I get home to write this, I pull out the sky blue notebook, a Pen Pal Wireless Theme Tablet with the remainders of a price tag and the oh-so-precious WORDS written on the cover, all capital letters, underlined, just like that. I leaf through it the way a historian might. Who was this absurd boy? What in the world was going on inside him? How did he ever get out of Augusta?

I'd tell her I killed a hundred bad men and I chased a thousand moons

Saturdays I drink whiskey and watch the morning cartoons

I'd write the Great American Novel, but I don't know how to start

So, why won't you love me, Melissa in the dark?

Here's the funny part, the punchline I guess. As I grimace and turn the pages, shaking my head at the aspiration and zeal and silliness of that boy I used to be before my back started hurting, I look for that song, Melissa in the Dark, in the sky blue notebook.

And it isn't in here.

I guess I never wrote it down.