A Deeper Dive into Stephen Crane, with All My Adjacent Obsessions

I started a Substack (free). The first post is a longer look at my current fascination with Stephen Crane. It all started at The Stone Pony. Here’s the full text (but check out the Substack!):

In the administrative office at my undergrad alma mater, Ursinus College, hangs (or hung, I don’t know if they’ve thought better of it since) a letter from JD Salinger, recommending his children’s babysitter for admission. Salinger recalls his own time as a student at Ursinus fondly in the note, and elements of Ursinus do make their way into his fiction (the characters of Franny and Zooey, the oak tree in the endzone). Having read the small missive, you’d be forgiven for thinking Salinger spent more than a semester at the small liberal arts college in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. For all kinds of reasons, he did not.

Lafayette College sits mostly on a hill in Easton, Pennsylvania, some 55 miles north and east of Ursinus. The quickest route from one to the other approximates the indented Jersey coastline at Perth Amboy, 80 miles east of Allentown, where PA Turnpike exit 56 creates a near-identical vector. There are some personal coincidences here that make me bother: I was born in raised in Allentown, Lafayette is not far, and I never knew that Stephen Crane, late of Asbury Park, spent a sole semester on College Hill in Easton forty years before JD Salinger did the same thing at Ursinus. Incidentally, my grandfather also enrolled at, and did not finish, a course of study at Lafayette. You may know that Lafayette and Lehigh University in nearby Bethlehem own the nation’s oldest football rivalry, but you probably don’t know that both Hilda Doolittle and Stephen Vincent Benet have connections to Lehigh. All of this is to say that the Lehigh Valley, where I live, has done a poor job of broadcasting its literary history. Few people even know Sandburg’s magnificent poem that references the Bach Choir of Bethlehem, another local institution of national renown I grew up knowing well.

Anyway. I know about Crane at Lafayette because I’m reading Paul Auster’s meaty Crane biography, Burning Boy. My interest in Crane was piqued last summer by a visit to Asbury Park, a shore point I chose solely because of Bruce Springsteen. Not far from Wonder Bar and The Stone Pony and a bust of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I is the Crane home, now run by the regional historical society.

Anyway. I know about Crane at Lafayette because I’m reading Paul Auster’s meaty Crane biography, Burning Boy. My interest in Crane was piqued last summer by a visit to Asbury Park, a shore point I chose solely because of Bruce Springsteen. Not far from Wonder Bar and The Stone Pony and a bust of Greek Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I is the Crane home, now run by the regional historical society.

Auster’s book is long, exhaustive without exhausting. It has been a quick read so far, partly because of his deft surveys of the world into which Crane was born: 19th century Methodism, temperance, suffrage; the early movements for workers rights, the trust-busting of the gilded age. All things I’m already interested in. Among the gems (a six year-old Crane buying his first beer from “a fat Pennsylvania Dutchman” while his mother is giving lectures on temperance stands out) is this wry observation that you may feel as keenly as did Crane.

The source is a letter from Crane to his old classmate Viola Allen upon the publication of The Red Badge of Courage. Crane remembers Allen fondly, and gives a litany of other girls from his time at Claverack Seminary (really, a high school) he has not forgotten, including one Ms. Jennie Pierce:

Alas, Jennie Pierce. You must remember that I was in love with her, madly, in the headlong way of seventeen. Jennie was clever. With only half an effort she made my so very miserable. Men usually refuse to recognize their school-boy dreams. They blush. I don’t. The emotion itself was probably higher, finer, than anything of my after-life, and so, often I like to think of it. I was such an ass, such a pure complete ass–it does me good to recollect it.

Crane’s not looking back from 50 (he would only live to 29). He was about 24 when he wrote this, old enough to believe he’d likely been an ass, young enough to probably still have been one. And he’s obviously still flirty. I’d bet the town of Winesburg, Ohio, that Sherwood (I’m A Fool) Anderson was a Crane devotee. He could not have been aware of this letter, but he echoes the sentiments a generation later in stories like “I’m a Fool” and “Sophistication.”

As for Asbury Park, here we find Crane laying the gravel for what would eventually become Thunder Road.

The Stephen Crane House in Asbury Park. Image credit: Jerrye & Roy Klotz, M.D., CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Volare: Italian Americans in Popular Music

I was listening to Dean Martin last night, and I got to thinking about putting together some sort of superlative list of Italian-American figures in American popular music. Below are my current Sweet Sixteen. Who would you add in order to fill out a proper field of sixty-four?

Joe Satriani 

Jon Bon Jovi

Gwen Stefani

Steven Tyler

Frank Zappa 

Tony Bennett

Jim Croce

Louis Prima


Dean Martin

Lady Gaga

Frankie Valli

Frank Sinatra

Mario Lanza

Henry Mancini 

Bruce Springsteen

The best Bruce Springsteen songs – NME

As far as these lists go, this is a pretty tight one.  I’d leave off “Hungry Heart,” which is, to date, his only number one single.

It’s hard to say which Bruce Springsteen songs are the best because, frankly, they’re (mostly) all works of genius. Springsteen writes songs that plough deep into the American spirit and show the fragility, heart and heroism of the working man. Not to mention the fact that quite a few of them are total dancefloor bangers. […]

Source: The best Bruce Springsteen songs – NME

That’s Why He’s The Boss

I swear it’s not about being a cliche or being read like some rust belt book, young American men and their patron, prophet, saint. I swear it’s not that we inherit quiet desperation, that we’re destined by our chemistry toward being hung up, that it happens less with age and with what we’re calling care of self. I swear it’s none of those things. I swear Bruce Springsteen has me figured out.

Rock and Roll Word Association

We start with Mumford and Sons:

Mumford and Sons: Fleet Foxes

Oasis: Blues Traveler (don’t say Blur. Don’t ever say Blur.)

Coldplay: Yellow

Beatles: Beach Boys

Kinks: Stones

Who: Led Zeppelin

Foo Fighters: System of a Down

Tom Petty:  Hearbreakers

Bruce Springsteen: E-Street

John Mellencamp: Pink Houses

Pink: Areosmith

Dream On: Dream Until Your Dream Comes True

Joe Perry riffing: Conan O’Brien

Morrissey: Kevin Max

James: Oasis

REM: Third Day

The Police: U2

R2D2: Not The Droids You’re Looking For

Is Jon Bon Jovi the Key to the Supercommittee Tax Compromise? (This Is Not the FarmAid You’re Looking For)

James Coburn in Charade2
If only.

Maybe so.

As The Hill notes today:

A leading Senate conservative is taking aim at tax breaks that he says amount to welfare for millionaires, a line of critique that usually comes from liberal Democrats.

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) released a report detailing special tax breaks for wealthy income earners that could give members of the supercommittee common ground for raising tax revenues.

And just who are these welfare millionaires? Oil executives and bankers, every last one of them, right? Well, not exactly. From The Daily Caller:

Wealthy celebrities including Bruce Springsteen, Jon Bon Jovi, Quincy Jones and Ted Turner have received federal subsidies, according to “Subsidies of the Rich and Famous,” a new report from the office of Oklahoma Republican Senator Tom Coburn.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) identified several individuals receiving farm payments “whose professions had nothing to do with farming or agricultur[e],” says the report. These individuals include real-estate developer Maurice Wilder, a “part-owner of a professional sports franchise [who] received total of more than $200,000 in farm program payments in 2003, 2004, 2005, and 2006.”

The report also says millionaires Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen and Ted Turner have collected farm subsidies.

“These individuals include Scottie Pippen and Ted Turner, respectively. Millionaires also receive state tax breaks on farm land. For example, Jon Bon Jovi paid property taxes of only $100 last year on his extensive real estate holdings in New Jersey that he uses to raise bees. At the same time, Bruce Springsteen received farm subsidies because he leases his property to an organic farmer,” the report explains.

Oh, super-rich artists.  I respect and admire your endeavors in sustainable agriculture, horticulture, apiculture and so on.  We need better ways forward with regard to farming practices and safe food supplies.  But subsidies for millionaire gentlemen farmers?  We, the working poor and middle class, paying for Bon Jovi’s bees? If there’s an Occupy New Jersey, maybe they can move it on over to JBJ’s Bees of Glory Apiary Prototype Community of Tomorrow.

Let’s keep railing at Wall Street and Congress, but let’s also rail at people who identify with the working poor and middle class on one level, have made zillions of dollars doing so, and whose agribusiness is being paid for by those same working people.  Talk about double and triple taxation.  We buy their music, go to their shows, and help fund their farms with our taxes?  And the they is people like Bon Jovi or, even more incongruously, Bruce Springsteen?  How can this be?  Bruce, listen to Nebraska again and get back to us.

Jon Bon Jovi on stage live at Dublin May 2006.

Disclaimer:  I don’t own so much as a Bon Jovi single.  But I’ve seen them in concert (and they were awesome, so there).   Bruce Springsteen is one of my favorite artists of all time.  Brucie, baby, I expect you to fix this.  Let’s get you on up to Capitol Hill for some hearings where you’ll say things like, “yeah, man, I don’t need that subsidy stuff.  Save that for the real working farmers.  Shit.”

Thanks, Boss.

Saying Goodbye to America’s Showplace

Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night
you know they blew up his house, too.
-Bruce Springsteen

I hate seeing things I loved as a kid get torn down or paved over.  Green space in Lehigh and Montgomery Counties, PA, for example.  The cornfields behind my old neighborhood mowed down for overvalued McMansions that block the fireworks from three cities on the 4th of July.  More recently, Veteran’s Stadium.  Now, finally, the Spectrum.

America's Showplace

You might not know this, but the Spectrum invented the concept of arena as rock show apogee.  Without it, Bruce Springsteen would, quite literally, not have been possible.  Opened in 1967, the Spectrum was the first of its kind, “America’s Showplace.”  The Sixers and Flyers won championships there.  I saw Dr. J play there, and Charles Barkley.  I held a Hulk Rules sign and swore the Red and Yellow pointed right at me from the ring in post-win celebration.  I saw Shawn Michaels roll Marty Janetty over while the seeds of their inevitable feud were being sewn.

Bruce Springsteen and hundreds (thousands?) of others got their first big-venue gigs at the Spectrum, due in part to Philadelphia’s legendary support of rock radio and working-class talent.  Sure, there were old-time concert halls and places like Madison Square Garden, but the Spectrum was the first indoor sports facility to have been specifically built with popular music shows also in mind. It was the first premier arena of the rock era.  As such, it was the place to be seen and heard, and like Esther Smith would say, it was right here in my own back yard.

Last night, they finished tearing the last old concrete guts and bones from this historic place.  On October 20, 2009, I was lucky enough to be on hand for Bruce Springsteen & The E-Street Band’s last-ever Spectrum show.  In case you don’t know, Bruce is a Philly favorite, an adopted son from just across the river, and he and Billy Joel had their own banners in the rafters of the Spectrum for their record-setting streaks of consecutive sellout shows (still counting.  The banners have been in the CoreState/First Union/Wachovia/Wells-Fargo Center for years, but Bruce’s was moved back for his last stand at the Showplace.)

The 10/20 show was historic by default: the last rock arena, the last rock star, the last time in Philly.  The last time in the place where modern concert-going and giving started, the last time in the place where The Boss cut his teeth.  Sitting in the Spectrum, you’re right down the street from all other kinds of American history.  Throw in the themes of the Born In The USA album, which was played in its entirety, and you’ve got yourself a certain kind of seminar.  In the context of the financial crisis, the wars, the Revolution, the loss of dear things, the loss of dear people, the loss of whole places, it was powerful to feel so obviously American and so absolutely not ironic.  When the band opened with “The Price You Pay,” which they hadn’t been played live since 1981, the tone was set:  recognition, celebration, sincerity, thanks.  “Wrecking Ball,” a paean to the lost shrines of our youth, was exuberant even in its decidedly antifatalist fatalism:

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it’s been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you’re burning the clock down
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires, are scattered through the wind
And hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
And hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
Hard times come, hard times go
Yeah just to come again

Bring on your wrecking ball
Bring on your wrecking ball
Come on and take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got
Bring on your wrecking ball
Bring on your wrecking ball (bring on your wrecking ball)
Bring on your wrecking ball (bring on your wrecking ball)
Take your best shot, let me see what you’ve got, bring on your wrecking ball

The view form our seats.

That this set would be a once-in-a-lifetime rock and roll moment was never really a question, but there are all kinds of emotional intangibles going on in settings like this.  It wasn’t just Bruce’s last show at the Spectrum.  It wasn’t just the last time the Spectrum would welcome Bruce or any of us home.  It wasn’t just Clarence Clemmons’ last time ever in Philly as part of E-Street (be healthy, Big Man), and it wasn’t just the ghosts of 42 years piled to the ceiling.  It was all of these things, but also the kind of joy that comes from impossible defiance and being in the company of thousands of strangers celebrating something immediately collective. That E-Street, the tightest band to ever grace the Earth, and Bruce, the greatest figure not named Elvis, were the evening’s spiritual directors meant the farewell ritual would be orchestrated perfectly.  That these fans are passionate and savvy, that these songs are about them, meant something else entirely.  This was rock and roll church in a very sacred sense. Afterward I texted one word and one word only: transcendent.  There were even random acts of kindness. When Joe Torre and Donnie Baseball casually assumed regular-guy seats in the middle of the Phillies/Dodgers NLDS, Philly fans actually greeted them with warm applause and good-hearted jibes.  Call that appreciation for a respected baseball man (Philadelphia knows its baseball and its baseball manners. Remember when we booed Brett Meyers for walking Griffey when Griffey was sitting at #599?), call it Brotherly Love.  I call it everyone being in on what the night was all about.  Grown men cried.  Children laughed. Bruce slow-danced with his 90-year old mom.  Quite simply, it was perfect.

Below are two videos from the night of the show.  The first is a short clip of “The Price You Pay” taken on my camera phone.  The second (not by me) is “Higher and Higher.” Given the angle of the later shot, it’s quite possible that two of the smiling, transfigured faces behind Bruce belong to me and my #1 Bromance respectively.  Yep, I got to go to the best rock show ever with my best friend, and he’s also the one who orchestrated the logistics and made the whole thing happen.  Seeing the concert of a lifetime with my life-long partner-in-crime, concert-going, and Meg Ryan movies was really the only way to do it.  What?  We also go see all the Apatow movies.  Hmmm? You don’t remember how cute Meg Ryan was in 90s?  So what if I cried when she died in City of Angels?  You were right, Johnny Rzeznik, the world won’t understand.  To Jonny my BFF, thanks again, brother. You’re the Nils Lofgren to my Steven Van Zandt.  The Nic to my Cage.  The Conan to my Andy Richter.  The David Spade to my Chris Farley.  The Ramon to my Vic.

There are lots of videos from 10/20 all over the web, but these two are significant to me:

Goodnight, friend.  America just lost of piece of itself. Thanks for the memories.