Outside Newport library, Victoria, Australia. Saturday 7 July, 2012. Midday
He was standing on a little platform, a pallet with “busker’s stage” painted on the side. He had an acoustic guitar over his shoulder and a harmonica around his neck. It could have been 1965.
He wore a black jacket, with a t-shirt underneath. Jeans and boots. Fair hair. Not long. Not short.
The midday sun was in his eyes, so he closed his eyelids or gazed into the footpath, where Saturday morning shoppers or local music fans were coming and going. But not stopping.
He might have been 20.
I recognised the tune before the words. It had been a long time since I’d heard the song. I’d always remembered the line about finding ‘the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car’, but it wasn’t until the chorus that I put a title to it all.
Growin’ Up is from Bruce Springsteen’s first album, 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. It’s an album full of words, words and more words, full of characters and enthusiasms. Springsteen was just 24 years old.
I took month-long vacations in the stratosphere, and you know it’s really hard to hold your breath
I swear I lost everything I ever loved or feared, I was the cosmic kid in full costume dress
Well, my feet they finally took root in the earth, but I got me a nice little place in the stars
And I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car
I hid in the mother breast of the crowd, but when they said, “Pull down,” I pulled up
Ooh… growin’ up
Ooh… growin’ up
I’d had the Asbury Park album since the late 1970s but I didn’t know it very well, not like my mate Bill from high school, not like my mate Kevin from uni.
And not like the busker outside the local library on a sunny winter’s day. He had an audience of one, as I stood there off to the side, trying not to look too conspicuous.
How long was it since I’d put Greetings From Asbury Park N.J on the old turntable? Years, probably. A decade? Possibly.
When Growin’ Up finished I gave the busker a few dollars, and we spoke a little about Springsteen’s debut album. The busker said, Do you know For You? I said, I’m more familiar with Blinded By The Light. He said, I’ll sing For You.
Princess cards she sends me with her regards
barroom eyes shine vacancy, to see you her you gotta look hard
Wounded deep in battle, I stand stuffed like some soldier undaunted
To her Cheshire smile, I’ll stand on file, she’s all I ever wanted…
I came for you, for you, I came for you but you did not need my urgency
I came for you, for you, I came for you, but your life was one long emergency,
and your cloud line urges me,
and my electric surges free
A couple, my age, stopped to listen, tripling the audience. Passers-by passed by, on their way to the butcher or the green-grocer or the baker or the Newport Folk Festival. The festival was hosting gigs in the park beside the library, in the senior citizens hall, in the scout hall, at the bowls club, in the RSL club. And it was hosting the buskers stage too. The music was more than folk and fiddle –jazz, gypsy, choirs, country, blues, swing, rock. Good local talent. And lots of it.
After For You the middle-aged couple headed off and I stood there alone listening to the busker singing a wordy Dylan-like protest song. The busker slipped in a few topical references – climate change, for instance, and also managed to get the phrase ‘Newport Folk Festival’ into the closing lyrics.
I wondered if he knew about the rather more famous Newport Folk Festival on Rhode Island, USA, in July 1965 , when Dylan went electric. He probably did, given how well versed he was in the music of that time. I considered asking him, but I was also starting to feel a bit self-conscious standing there on my own listening to a lone performer.
So I thanked him with a nod of the head and then stood in the little park listening to trios and quartets playing on a slightly bigger stage, while children did chalk-drawings or climbed over the playground.
Every now and then I turned to see the busker playing. And playing, and playing. He must have had a break at some time, given I was in the park for about 90 minutes.
And then he walked by, a smoke in one hand, talking with another musician. I saw just a few of the 60 performers who played in Newport that weekend, but mostly I remember the bloke growin’ up on the little stage outside the library.
Jack Gramski, Melbourne musician, busker
When I was about 16 I heard Springsteen’s Born In The U.S.A and didn’t like it. I thought it was dumb and hated it. It put me off listening to Springsteen again.
A few years passed, I left school. I got a job working at a bakery that always had Gold 104.3 in the background. Strangely enough, every time I was on the cleaning shift, around exactly the same time, Mannfred Mann’s version of Blinded By The Light came on. I liked it. I liked it so much that I’d sing the words “Blinded by the light” at random times, which probably annoyed people.
I looked up the song on Wikipedia and found out it was a Springsteen song, from his first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.
I bought the album as soon as I could but didn’t like Sprinsgsteen’s original version. It sounded nothing like the Mannfred Mann version. But once Blinded by the Light finished, the next track, Growin’ Up, began. It started with a simple, gentle piano riff and then busted out into this Dylan- like song. It became one of my favourite songs right then and there.
The main reason why I love the song (beside the catchy music) is because when I heard the song I was growing up… that sounds really corny, but it’s true. I’d just finished school and entered the workforce, which was completely different to safe and sheltered environment of a classroom. Major changes were happening. Everyone I’d grown up with was changing: getting jobs, having kids, moving away, finding new friends etc. It was a very confusing point in time and that’s why Growin’ Up was a song that spoke to me. The internal monologue tone of the lyrics (“Well I stood stone like at midnight/Suspended in my masquerade”) helped me make sense of what was going on. Springsteen wrote and performed it so perfectly, that I honestly couldn’t think of better lyrics or music to express that feeling of, yes, growing up.
Apart from Growin’ Up and For You, I’ve learnt two other Springsteen songs: The River and Thunder Road. I’m now in the process of learning Racing In The Streets.
As for Born In The USA, today, I look back and realise I was just as dumb as those politicians who used that song for their political campaigns.