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He was born poor in Freehold, N.J., a working-class town near the shore. His mother Adele ("Just like Superwoman, she did everything, everywhere, all the time") worked through his childhood as a secretary. His father, Douglas Springsteen (the name is Dutch), was "a sure-money man" at the pool tables who drifted from job to job stalked by undetermined demons.
"My Daddy was a driver," Springsteen remembers. "He liked to get in the car and just drive. He got everybody else in the car too, and he made us drive. He made us all drive." These two-lane odysseys without destination only reinforced Springsteen's already flourishing sense of displacement. "I lived half of my first 13 years in a trance or something," he says now. "People thought I was weird because I always went around with this look on my face. I was thinking of things, but I was always on the outside, looking in."
The parents pulled up stakes and moved to California when Bruce was still in his teens. Bruce stayed behind, with some bad memories of hassles with nuns in parochial school, an $18 guitar and random dreams of a phantom father for company. By the time he was 18, he had some perspective on his father. "I figured out we were pretty much alike," Springsteen says, by which he means more than a shared cool skill at the pool table and a taste for long car rides. "My father never has much to say to me, but I know he thinks about a lot of things. I know he's driving himself almost crazy thinking about these things ... and yet he sure ain't got much to say when we sit down to talk." The elder Springsteen currently drives a bus in San Mateo, a suburb south of San Francisco. Neither he nor his wife made it to Los Angeles for their son's big show.
Bruce bunked in with friends back in Jersey and tried to make it through public high school. He took off on weekend forays into Manhattan for his first strong taste of big-city street life and began making music. He started writing his own because he could not figure out how to tune his guitar to play anyone else's material accurately. "Music was my way of keeping people from looking through and around me. I wanted the heavies to know I was around."
In 1965, while he was still finishing high school, Springsteen began forming bands like the Castiles, which did gigs for short money in a Greenwich Village spot called the Cafe Wha?. He met up with Miami Steve Van Zandt, current lead guitarist of the E Street Band, around that time. "We were all playing anything we could to be part of the scene," Van Zandt recalls. "West Coast stuff, the English thing, R&B and blues. Bruce was writing five or ten songs a week. He would say, 'I'm gonna go home tonight and write a great song,' and he did. He was the Boss then, and he's the Boss now."
Still, the Boss was sufficiently uncertain of his musical future to quit school altogether. He enrolled in Ocean County College, showed up in what is still his standard costume—Fruit of the Loom undershirt, tight jeans, sneakers and leather jacket—and was soon invited round for a chat by one of the guidance staff. As Springsteen tells it, the counselor dropped the big question on him immediately. "You've got trouble at home, right?"