The Backstreet Phantom of Rock

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"Look, things are great, I feel fine," Springsteen replied warily.

"Then why do you look like that?"

"What are you talking about?"

"There are some students who have ... complained about you."

"Well, that's their problem, you know?" said Springsteen, ending the conversation and his formal education.

Instead, he took his music anywhere they would listen. His bands changed names (the Rogues, the Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom) as frequently as personnel. "I've gone through a million crazy bands with crazy people who did crazy things," Springsteen remembers. They played not only clubs and private parties but firemen's balls, a state mental hospital and Sing Sing prison, a couple of trailer parks, a rollerdrome, the parking lot of a Shop-Rite and under the screen during intermission at a drive-in. A favorite spot for making music, and for hanging out, was Asbury Park.

"Those were wonderful days," says Springsteen's buddy, Southside Johnny Lyon. "We were all young and crazy." Bustling with music and the fever of young musicians, bands swapping songs and members, new jobs and old girls, Asbury Park sounds, if only in memory, like Liverpool before it brought forth the Beatles. Springsteen lived in a surfboard factory run by a displaced Californian named Carl Vergil ("Tinker") West III, who became, for a time, his manager.

Everybody had a band: not only Springsteen and Southside, but also Miami Steve, Vini ("Mad Dog") Lopez (who played drums on Bruce's first two albums) and Garry Tallent (now bass guitarist for the E Street Band). They all would appear at a dive called the Upstage Club for $15 a night, work from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m., then party together, play records and adjourn till the next afternoon, when they would meet on the boardwalk to check the action and talk music. For sport everyone played Monopoly, adding a few refinements that made the game more like the Jersey boardwalk they knew. There were two special cards: a Chief McCarthy card (named in honor of a local cop who rousted musicians indiscriminately) and a Riot card. The McCarthy card allowed the bearer to send any opponent to jail without reason; whoever drew the Riot card could fire-bomb any opponent's real estate.

Springsteen was a demon player and won frequently, according to Southside, because "he had no scruples." Nicknamed "the Gut Bomb King" because of his passion for junk food, he would show up for a Monopoly tourney with armfuls of Pepsis and Drake's cakes. Whenever anyone would get hungry and ask for a snack, Springsteen was ready with a deal: one Pepsi, one hotel.

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