the root cellar: joe grushecky – looking forward, looking back

Now Joe returns to New York and his concert is sold out the day it is advertised in the Village Voice. How can a show that has not been advertised at all be sold out? This is like reading your own death notice in the obituaries even though you’ve never felt better. Likewise, his concert in Chicago is immediately sold out. Why? Bruce is going to be there. …”

 

by john pinamonti, janeen porter, don hamerquist and mike morgan

 

OK, all of you who don’t live in Pennsylvania, New Jersey or New York – how many of you know who Joe Grushecky is? Yes, you there in the back… No, he was not a tackle for the Steelers! You over there… No, he is not a Polish gangster! Now listen up, class, and listen good – Joe Grushecky IS the past, present and future of rock and roll. What’s that you say? You thought it was Bruce Springsteen? Well, it’s time you learned the truth…

In the last few weeks, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers twice – once at the Bottom Line in NYC and most recently at the “legendary” Stone Pony in Asbury Park, NJ. Both shows I attended with my good friend Mike Morgan. Before, during and after these shows, we’ve talked about Grushecky and all that he does and doesn’t stand for, and about his famous friend Bruce and what he was and what he’s become. I wanted to talk about all this in this issue’s Root Cellar, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it. Fortunately, Mike told me of a piece that he wrote back in 1995 with two other long-time Grushecky fans (the honorable Janeen Porter and the righteous Don Hamerquist). When I read it, I realized that their words were even more relevant today than they were 7 years ago, and they hit on all the things I’ve been thinking about lately. Here, 7 years down the line, Joe has released his 11th album, and, as you read this, Springsteen will have just released The Rising, the latest incredibly-hyped East Street Band album (having premiered it to a multitude of millions on a huge Today Show special remote broadcast before launching yet another stadium tour). Joe is still playing club dates where people expect Bruce to show, but Bruce almost never shows. A stellar moment at the fantastic 2 hour Stony Pony show was when Joe said “And now I’d like to introduce a very special guest…”, which prompted much “Bruuuuuce” ing by the audience. He then proceeded to bring up his teen-age son Joe Jr., who completely kicked ass on drums and guitar! Bruce or no Bruce, Joe has always rocked on. Now you read on and pay heed to what my friends wrote. And if you find yourself at the record store with a copy of The Rising in your hands, make sure you wander over to the “G”s and pick up a little something from Joe, too!

— john pinamonti

* * *

“If we coincide
it’s just a coincidence,
Know what I mean”

–The Del Lords

This one comes from the soul. We are long-time Joe Grushecky fans going back to the Iron City Houserocker days. This essay is about the latest Bruce Springsteen/Joe Grushecky collaborative effort. Bruce produced Joe’s new record American Babylon, wrote and co-wrote a number of tracks on the album, and recorded as a guest member of the Houserocker band. In late October of this year (1995), Bruce, Joe and the Houserockers played six club events on the East Coast and in the Midwest. These events got us to thinking about some imporant things – remaining true to one’s roots; the relationship of the audience to performers and vice versa; the role of fame and fortune and; the nature of the music industry. All of these issues are inter-connected, and we address them all in the following discussion.

Joe Grushecky is a school teacher and social worker. He is also Mr. Blue Collar and Bruce is aware of this. Joe is a roots rock and roller in the true sense of the term. His songs reflect that. “I Ain’t Going Down,” “Have A Good Time But Get Out Alive,” “I Won’t Apologize” and “Pumping Iron” are anthems to the culture in which he is still grounded.

Bruce Springsteen, and we have a tremendous amount of respect for the man and his body of work, is now a rich and famous artist. He still wants to talk to us about working life, and the frustration and satisfaction, the resignation and rebelliousness of the working class. He cannot because these circumstances are no longer relevant to his life, nor are the attitudes that come with them. He knows this. That’s why his later records are generally about love relationships, family and, now and again, the contradiction of having money when a chunk of his audience doesn’t. It’s not surprising that these newer songs generally reflect the current stability of his life. That’s a far cry from “the Promised Land” or “Streets of Fire.” Bruce’s alienation from his working class roots has obscured his view of the changes that are occurring amongst poor and working people. If he attempts to speak on their behalf or articulate their views, this could make him vulnerabl e to the criticism leveled at Eric Clapton for playing the Delta blues. As good a bluesman as Clapton is, a millionaire white rock star singing the worksongs of the plantation is nauseating enough to get one hooked on Mylanta.

Bruce could well learn from Joe, instead of what is commonly perceived as vice versa. We believe that Bruce reached out to Joe Grushecky, precisely because Joe represents a Bruce without the alienation and the other baggage associated with music business success. Joe is still roots. Bruce lost a lot of his when stardom struck. It’s tragic, but true.

The resemblances and distinctions between the two artists’ life experiences help explain this. The music critic Jon Pareles recently wrote in a New York Times article, “Were Bruce Springsteen and Joe Grushecky separated at birth? They could have been lucky and unlucky brothers.” Their starting points were both very similar. Joe grew up in a town called Manor, Pennsylvania, a small coal mining village, a few dozen miles east of Pittsburgh. Bruce grew up in Freetown, New Jersey, the son of working class Catholics. Both started recording songs in the ’70s reflecting the conditions around them, with lyrics and a sound that evoked hope and despair, and love and rage. Above all, these songs, such as Joe’s “We’re Not Dead Yet,” and Bruce’s “Jungleland,” were gritty, hard and honest from the respective points of view of the songwriters. They impacted positively on the developing Bruce and Joe audiences, which then could still be described as regional.

As Bruce Springsteen’s career eventually skyrocketed him into superstar status, the Iron City Houserockers collapsed along with the industry that named them. By 1984, they were no more, while Bruce was contemplating a future life on the glitzy other side of the country. Yet the Iron City Houserockers had left their mark. Their seminal record Have A Good Time, But Get Out Alive was chosen by the music press as one of the top ten rock and roll albums of 1980.

Bruce’s success has limited his performances to football stadiums, large auditoriums, or occasional unannounced club gigs that immediately sell out as soon as word hits the streets. Bruce Springsteen has become a superstar. Bruce’s audience is no longer sophisticated, it’s massive. People in this country are conditioned to relate to the celebrity status of artists, not to the merits of their work. His audience’s enormous size is perhaps its primary defining characteristic (its whiteness is a close second). Being present at an arena Bruce event is akin to rubbing shoulders with NASCAR fans. The crowd has that same kind of amorphous, present-for-the-event-only feel to it. This represents the worst aspect of music audiences…entertainment as consumption. The tyranny of the majority in its mediocrity is at work.

The following is an example of how backward, confused and downright contradictory a large audience such as this can be. In September, 1988, we attended the Amnesty International concert in Philadelphia. We, like almost all of the audience, were there to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform. Other well-known entertainers such as Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Tracy Chapman also played at the show. A variety of human rights groups and leftists paraded with banners around the stadium seeking support for their particular causes. It was an alphabet soup of social issues, from fighting apartheid, to freeing Joe Doherty, to Native American land rights, etc. Every issue was well received by the crowd, except for one, which was overwhelmingly rejected with loud boos and hisses from the bleachers. This was the MOVE group, the militant, black nationalist organization that Wilson Goode (the former black mayor of Philly), the Philadelphi a P.D. and the FBI declared war on. On May 13, 1985, these “benign” law enforcement institutions dropped an incendiary device on the MOVE house, which happened to be on a residential block. The entire block burnt down, leaving all of its dwellers (MOVERs and non-MOVERs alike) homeless. At least eleven people were murdered by this dastardly bombing. If ever a group had a right to be present that day at RFK stadium in Philadelphia, it was MOVE. Yet this audience, who cheered so enthusiastically for justice 10,000 miles away, could not see the injustice in its own city. This was more than a white blind spot. It was an angry statement opposing MOVE’s right to exist. Seasoned though we are to witnessing disgusting events, this was so disgusting that even we were thoroughly disgusted. We responded by popping the freedom beach ball that was being tossed around with our cigarettes. As unpopular an act as this was, it got even less of a boo than MOVE receiv ed.

At this concert, we noticed a tough looking young white prol sitting in front of us. He was toting a WAR tattoo on his arm indicating that he was associated with the Aryan Nation. One of us was wearing a Waylon Jennings cap. So, we got into some banter with this member of the so-called master race, who liked David Allan Coe even more than Waylon, and we asked him about the origins of his tattoo. He had been in prison and joined out of racial, national identity. He no longer claimed allegiance to the aryans and when queried more regarding how he felt about the human rights issues, he said “Free Sonny Barger” (Sonny Barger is the former head of the Oakland Hell’s Angels who was recruited by the Oakland Police and the FBI to beat up on anti-war demonstrators…a real pillar of social consciousness). The fascist then went on to boo MOVE.

Seated on the other side of us, was a neurotic liberal in his mid-thirties. He spouted off all of the correct slogans…Free Nelson, Viva Sandino, save the whales and other intelligent mammals and fish, etc. In further discussion with him, he confessed that he was in great trepidation of what he perceived to be as the rise of anti-semitism in the United States. He seriously spoke about relocating to Scandinavia because he expected a pogrom here. We did not tell him that he was five feet away from a genuine son of the Gestapo. It would’ve ruined his day. This liberal also booed MOVE.

Bruce was one of the few performers who spoke about domestic human rights’ abuses. He encouraged the audience to clean up their own backyard. Sting warbled on about himself and the rain forests, and Peter Gabriel, exhibiting a real firm grasp of the complexities and problems of a racist, class-riddled society, said to the predominantly white crowd that unless they understood and fought for their own human rights, they couldn’t understand the lack of the same for others elsewhere in the world! This merely reinforced the notion that we are all in the same boat, and that there’s no distinction between the projects and the suburbs, between the metropolis and the third world. The problem, according to Peter Gabriel, was one of education, not race and class. People would do the right thing if only they knew. But while lack of information certainly creates bad decisions, no Philadelphia crowd could claim ignorance of MOVE’s existence and repression. They supported the cops, not MOVE. They were exercising their right to be white racists. Peter Gabriel completely missed the point. The audience lapped it up. It was sickening.

Both the fascist and the liberal were “Bruuucing” themselves silly, as was everybody else. Hardly anybody understood what Bruce’s backyard statement really meant, even though they all cheered wildly when he said it. This is what we mean by an unsophisticated audience.

Bruce cannot shoulder the responsibility for this. He has always gone out of his way to treat his audience with absolute respect. In many instances, such as the Philadelphia concert described above, this respect is more than they deserve. Bruce’s four-hour concerts are legendary. Usually most performers’ entire shows would be over by Bruce’s intermission. We had an opportunity to catch one of his Human Touch/Lucky Town concerts at the Brendan Byrne arena in New Jersey during the summer of ’92. That night, there was a torrential rainstorm in the early evening, and the traffic from the City into Jersey was gridlocked in a way that would’ve made the Pope proud. Bruce came on stage at starting time and announced that he was going to postpone the show for forty-five minutes in order to allow those, who were delayed by the weather, to get to their seats. He didn’t shorten the performance either. It is this kind of concern for hi s fans that distinguishe s him from most other big-name performers.

Joe Grushecky has not suffered from the problems of celebrity and stardom. He is much closer to his audience because they are still part of his day-to-day life. Joe has continued to write and play with his current band, the Houserockers, mostly around Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia. We have been to many of these shows. They are mostly small in size, anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred people at the max. Up till now, Joe has remained the world’s best kept secret outside of the Pittsburgh area.

Last June we were fortunate enough to see Joe and his band play in the basement of the American Legion Hall in Manor, Pennsylvania, his hometown. His father worked in the nearby Biddle coal mine. The audience consisted of former high school mates, drinking buddies, moose lodge members and loyal followers. These facts were told to us by a fortyish guy, well-steeped in Rolling Rock, who said he’d been a classmate of Joe’s. Joe Grushecky plays these kinds of gigs regularly. It’s one of the ways he makes his living and he loves doing it. He’s also very good at doing it. One of us suggested that the atmosphere was not unsimilar to what it might have been like to be present in the Cavern in Liverpool in 1962 or the Stone Pony in Asbury Park in 1971. Compare this to Giant Stadium or Soldier Field, where the person you’ve plonked fifty smackers down to see, is the size of a pinhead on a large video monitor, and some yahoo is screaming for “Born To Run” in your ear drum, while spilling warm Budweiser down your neck.

Six years ago, when Joe released that wonderful record Rock and Real, we saw him play at the Lone Star Roadhouse in New York City. It was a joyous but sad occasion. Joe and his band were awesome. There were approximately thirty people in the audience. Ahmet Ertegun, the head of Atlantic Records, was present, not to see Joe, but to witness the ridiculous opening act, a heavy metal airhead band, whose sum total social statement for the night consisted of a song about a kid who stabbed his father so he could steal the money in the cookie-jar to go the high school prom. If memory serves us correct, this devastating insight was backed up by the line “He used to hang with bikers, now he’s doing time on Rikers.” We responded by igniting our cigarette lighters. Ahmet left before Joe even came on stage, as did half the audience (fans of these acned nitwits). One of us spoke to Joe at half-time (it was hard not to miss him, at that point the personnel at the club consisted of us, Joe and his band, the bartender and seven very drunken Japanese businessman who kept on shouting out for Deep Purple songs), and Joe philosophically mused that the sea that he was currently swimming in was not the same as it was back in 1981.

Joe has not been back to New York City since that poorly attended Lone Star gig in 1990, Since then, he has released two other records (not counting American Babylon), and an Iron City Houserocker anthology. They are all available in the bins of used CD stores.

Now Joe returns to New York and his concert is sold out the day it is advertised in the Village Voice. How can a show that has not been advertised at all be sold out? This is like reading your own death notice in the obituaries even though you’ve never felt better. Likewise, his concert in Chicago is immediately sold out. Why? Bruce is going to be there. Some people on the inside track of the industry know this and take advantage of it.

The motive for the Joe/Bruce venture is not in question. It is a natural union, not a contrived one like so many others. Bruce recognizes his doppelganger, who has never gotten the respect he deserves, and wants to give his buddy a chance to go to the Big Dance. Joe, unless he’s some kind of masochist, is not going to turn this offer down. On the surface, this sounds like a great idea. Joe enjoys the exposure, Bruce gets to help out an old pal, the masses get a chance to see them both in smaller settings, and there is a record available to boot.

Bruce is one of those rare individuals that society is occasionally blessed with. He is a leader and fortunately lives up to this responsibility. This is noticeable in almost every project he undertakes. For example, he was part of the band that played with Roy Orbison on A Black and White Night, the live Roy Orbison record and video that came out shortly before Roy’s untimely passing. This was a super-band comprised of musicians like James Burton and Jerry Scheff (former Presley sidemen), T-Bone Burnett, Elvis Costello and Tom Waits to name a few. Despite this amalgam of talent, Bruce clearly led the the band. The other players were taking his cues and he was in command the whole night, whether he wanted to be or not. It’s not unlike watching Elvis Presley direct his band in the film of his 1970 concert in Las Vegas, That’s The Way It Is. Both Bruce and Elvis drew on their experience and their feel for what sounds right, an d to watch experts craft ing their skills is a treat.

At the Joe Grushecky concert in Chicago, Bruce avoided the limelight in an unpretentious way, even though the audience didn’t necessarily want this. The crowd went bananas when Bruce was introduced and he said, “Alright, shut up now.” Joe appeared to be a little uncomfortable by this crowd behaviour. Jon Pareles referred to Joe as “slightly flatfooted.” But comfort levels aside, Bruce lifted Joe and his band to a level of live performance that was stunning. Joe is no stranger to these collaborative efforts. In early 1993, we saw him perform jointly in Pittsburgh with Scott Kempner, the former leader of the Del Lords (R.I.P.). Both the Scott material and the Joe songs pushed the edge of the envelope even further that night. Bruce was the catalyst that evening in Chicago, and, for the true believers, it was magnificent to see both Joe and Bruce on stage together.

These are the positive aspects of the Bruce/Joe project. The negative ones are more sinister. It’s what occurs underneath the surface that’s cause for concern.

What determined the audience of these shows was not the music of Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, but the expectation that a rich and famous rock star was going to bless us with his presence. At the Chicago concert, Joe and his band came out on stage and were immediately hit with the “Bruuuce” number. In one song, Bruce played but two notes on the harmonica, and there was a grotesque audience over-reaction. If Bruce had a more ironic sense of humour, he might have considered staying away from it all and let those upset punters deal with what they got…great rock and roll from somebody they’ve more than likely never heard of.

We are paying a price here, and its cost is directly determined by fame and fortune. The quality of Joe Grushecky’s work, the respect for the man and his band, the things that should matter to the audience, don’t anymore. And that’s really sad. Like Graham Parker recently sang, “They’ve got short memories, they’ll forget things all too quickly,” this is America, and people are expected to behave like sheep. The bigger the success, the less accessible the artist becomes, and the more difficult it is to even try and get in the door. The audience, on the most part, is there for the wrong reason, and they’re going to moan and grumble if Bruce doesn’t steal the spotlight. And what happens to Joe when Bruce goes away?

The problem here is that this collaboration makes Joe’s audience temporary and dishonest. Having been a part of that audience for many years, we know what we are talking about. How can the audience be any different when the scalpers are asking for $175 a ticket (advertising them as Bruce Springsteen tickets) and the lettucehead/frat boy crowd and the industry poohbahs are coming out of the woodworked suburbs? A large section of the Chicago club was reserved seating for music business people.

While it can be argued that this latest effort will no doubt increase the size of this same audience, its long term positive effects are dubious at best, because of the lack of consciousness of the bulk of the Bruce followers.

This is an example of the curse of success. It potentially confounds the best of intentions. Whether Bruce wants to be or not, he’s like King Midas. Everything he touches is fettered by his fame and while this guarantees a certain amount of success, it comes with a cost. That’s why Graham Parker warns us that “Jerking to the rhythm of success” is a cancer that permeates this society. Good intentions have to be weighed up against this monster. Sometimes, it creates its opposite. Only the very few and great have survived their own fame to continue to grow and create anything of quality.

On issues such as venue, ticket availability etc., we cannot claim to know exactly who is responsible, but we can hazard a good guess. We are not pointing fingers at Bruce or Joe, but they both have to know the problems inherent to this process. We know that Joe is conscious of this. Due to our frequent trips to Pittsburgh, we casually got to know Joe and his band. Joe remembered us and when, to our dismay, we found out that we couldn’t buy tickets to see his current show in Chicago, he personally intervened and made a dozen tickets available to our crew in the Windy City. He didn’t have to do that. Likewise, in the Houserocker newsletter, he made a point of telling his Pittsburgh fans that tickets were likely to sell immediately. He made two tickets available to people on his mailing list in advance of general sales. It is this kind of intervention that shows respect for the real audience.

The Bruce/Joe show in New York City took place at Tramps. Tramps used to be a comfortable setting to see a gig. Recently, its owner(s) have adopted this Auschwitz cattle car approach of cramming as many people into the room as possible. All seating has been removed, it’s impossible to buy a drink or to take a piss, and the wait for the actual performance is interminable. The greed of the proprietor(s) is directly responsible for the discomfort of the paying customers and, believe us, everybody in there is extremely uncomfortable.

In Chicago, they played at the Park West. Joe normally plays in a more neighborhood-type music venue when he plays here, like Fitzgerald’s, the pride of Berwyn. The overwhelming character of the Park West is that it’s for economically privileged white people, with all of the accoutrements they demand, such as safe parking and trouble-free street activity.

This is not some idle kind of whining on our behalf. The nature of the music business is that the performer becomes the raw material and the capital for the exploiters and piranhas. Bruce sells well and the real fans suffer from this exploitation.

Everybody we talked to in Chicago who called Ticketmaster within an hour of them posting the show, could not get tickets, despite the fact that Ticketmaster advertised themselves as selling tickets. Ticketmaster claimed that it was a ten minute sell-out. The “sell-out” was phony. What happened was collusion between Ticketmaster, Jam Productions, the ownership of the Park West and the scalpers, who respectively gobbled up all of the tickets. Tickets were either handed to cronies or had their prices jacked up. This is not unlike bankers and Wall Street suit and tie johnnies filling up the skyboxes at baseball stadiums on free tickets while real fans can’t even afford the bleachers. Alternatives to this bloodsucking are difficult, but do exist. Bruce might feel that he controls the destiny of his creative work, but the profiteers and organizers are the people who ultimately control the circumstances of the event, such as where it is, who can and cannot attend, and how much it’s going to cost. Bruce should put his foot down and rein in some of the more larcenous people in and around his organization. Either that or perform clandestinely.

The music industry has the power to create and destroy, to shape and manipulate. A good example of its ability to manufacture ersatz products is Garth Brooks. It’s scary watching this man on television. He incorporates everything into his show, a few Bruce routines, a little Frank Sinatra, the current crowd of rhinestone wannabee cowboys’ butt-wagging theatrics, a wee bit of hip-hop, even some Julio Iglesias! He doesn’t have an original bone in his body. The industry foists this garbage on us at will and gets away with it.

Bruce Springsteen is not just valuable capital to the music industry, but he is potentially useful to the ruling class in general, both to sell things and to keep people in line by promoting the existing order. The ruling class’s goal is to make his success a commodity that can be bought and sold. Bruce has clearly put limits on this expropriation. He doesn’t sing the national anthem at big sporting events, endorse hack politicians nor advertise consumer products. So far, he is “like a rock,” unlike a well known peer of his from the Detroit area, who has resorted to Chevrolet salesmanship on television in order to revive his flagging career. Bruce’s fame puts him at this crossroad. It’s not an easy place for people with principles to be, especially in America.

Bruce’s music has become ambiguous enough to let Ronald Reagan think he can expropriate “Born In the USA” to represent his political agenda. While Bruce told Reagan to go shove it, the fact that this happened leaves us with an interesting analogy. We just can’t imagine the USX corporation (U.S. Steel) or some other corporate, industrial behemoth approaching Joe Grushecky to advertise the steel industry. His music is too partisan. Joe’s songs, such as “How Long,” clearly distinguish between an “us” and a “them,” as exemplified in the line “How long do they expect us to take it.” He chooses a side, and such an attitude makes his music indigestible to Madison Avenue and Wall Street, even though they have avaricious appetites.

Our job is to create the conditions so that Joe Grushecky’s work can stay this way because neither he nor anyone else is impervious to the pressures of the music industry, big business and success. What we, as followers of both Bruce and Joe, can do is put up a fight to define the true audience, one that is conscious and adult rather than parasitic, shallow, spoilt and juvenile. It must remain “ours” not “theirs.” This is also the responsibility of Bruce and Joe, although their input into making it happen is limited by various factors, such as having to make a living, and, in Bruce’s case, being surrounded by money people eager to get a piece of the action.

There are obvious paradoxes within the Joe/Bruce collaboration. The most noticeable feature of the record American Babylon is Bruce’s production, because he has styled Joe and the Houserockers to fit the way he currently approaches songs. There are more middle tempo marches and less blazing rockers. As good a record as it is, Joe has done better and so has Bruce. If there is any criticism here, it’s that Bruce might have left too heavy of his own mark on the record, thus detracting from Joe’s original guitar attack sound. With the exception of the song “What did you do in the war,” the social content of the material is ambiguous.

Another paradox is that the great working class creations that Joe Grushecky has written, that are centered around the downsizing, restructuring and/or demise of basic industry, will now be performed to an audience generally limited to the social class that made money off this transformation. Perhaps if Bruce and Joe had thought about it more carefully, this might not have occurred.

These are the issues that must be addressed to maintain the integrity and sincerity of the music, the artists and the audience. We care too much to remain silent.

–Janeen Porter, Don Hamerquist and Mike Morgan
November 13, 1995

 

Originally published:
Issue Twenty-One
August 2002

 

(For current information about Joe Grushecky, please check out http://www.grushecky.com)


John “Pointy” Pinamonti is a Managing Editor of Smokebox and an accomplished guitar slinger who practices his trade while slurpin’ fine bourbon and playing smoky clubs in New York City. His latest cd “High, Wide And Handsome” is available at his website.

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