It was a Tuesday. New albums used to release on Tuesdays and even when I was out on the road, I kept decent tabs on upcoming records I wanted to hear. I didn’t buy a lot of music while I was hitchhiking the country. Space was one issue; money was another. Of course, I bought cassette tapes exclusively and my occasional purchases were usually limited to something from the used section of a small-town record store. That cold Tuesday, November 10th, 1986, Columbia records released Bruce Springsteen’s first live album, a deluxe boxed-set spanning ten years of legendary concert performances and I was waiting outside The Blue Mill records and tapes before they opened. That was an album I had to have and I didn’t mind waiting in the early morning high desert cold or laying down a hard-earned twenty bucks to get it.
I was in front of the store an hour before opening time and as I waited, others came along until there was a small crowd of a dozen or so, sipping gas station coffee from styrofoam cups, smoking cigarettes and talking about Springsteen. A few of us bragged about concerts we had been to and I took a little pride that no one else in the group had ever hitched hundreds of miles and worked a roadside diner to see a Springsteen show. Most of the kids hanging around the store had never seen Springsteen live, but it didn’t matter who had and who hadn’t; all of us were itching to hear the record.
In the brief time before the store opened, a few friendships were started, addresses exchanged, listening dates made. I stayed out of those conversations; not because I didn’t like the idea of listening to the live album with other fans, maybe passing a joint around, but because I didn’t want to tell them all that I was camped in a clump of trees next to the Yucca Valley drive-in theater, sleeping on the ground in a roll of scrapped carpet padding.
The Blue Mill opened at 8 o’clock sharp with the jangle of an old tin bell and the creak of an aluminum door frame. We crowded through the door, out of the cold, and the clerk knew what we were there for. He hadn’t even stocked the records in the bins, just had them stacked on the counter and, damn; that was a beautiful stack of boxes. I hung at the back of the crowd. There were plenty of sets for all of us there and when I got up to the counter to make my purchase, I was confused by the box the clerk handed me.
“No, I want the cassettes,” I said, looking at the big square box, scanning the track list, savoring the cover photo, “Not the records.”
The clerk frowned slightly. “Yeah, that’s tapes you’ve got,” he said, “They all come in the same box.”
I was a bit disappointed that the box was so large; it would take up too much space in my duffel bag and I was going to have to trash it. I made up my mind in about a second that the box didn’t matter as long as I had the music and the booklet that was promised with the set. I had never bought a boxed set of records before, or even heard of one, but the nineteen dollars and ninety-five cents sale price seemed like a bargain for three hours of live Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band.
I hurried out of the shop, made a quick stop at the Circle K store for a few packs of batteries, and headed for my rough camp. I had been camped out in Yucca Valley for the previous two weeks or so, working for the money to buy the boxed set. There was a hardware store in town that paid cash for laborers to unload and stock their delivery on Wednesday nights and I’d been lucky enough to get picked out of the crowd to work two weeks in a row. Even with the luxury purchase I made at The Blue Mill, I had money left in my pocket for food and coffee and i had cigarettes and pot to last through the week. If I could catch work at the hardware store the following night, I’d have a nice stash of cash to get out of town on, into the lower desert where the nights weren’t so bitter in winter. I knew a truck stop outside of Indio where I could catch a ride to any warm place, but that day I was content to laze at my camp with hobo coffee and live Bruce Springsteen blasting out of my cheap Walkman headphones.
My camp was under two trees, up against a fence that separated the drive-in theater from an alley behind a strip mall. I had scavenged some scrap carpet remnants and padding from the dumpster behind a flooring shop and managed a little shelter that kept most of the misting rain off me. When I slept, I rolled myself up in some carpet padding like a human burrito and I spent the freezing nights warm and dry.
I built a small fire and put water on to boil for coffee, tore the shrink-wrap off the boxed set and jammed Cassette 1 in my Walkman. I opened the booklet, skimmed through the photographs and then flipped back to the first page to follow the lyrics, even though I knew them all by heart.
“Ladies and gentlemen, Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band…”
There was a smattering of applause, the soft tinkling of a piano and then a voice I knew well; tough and tender, gruff and beautiful, almost a gravelly whisper. I had heard Thunder Road hundreds of times, but never like this; desperate, pleading and haunted. I sat spellbound, watching the fire lick the bottom of my makeshift coffee pot, and the song ended so softly and tenderly that the sudden burst of guitar that followed startled me and I nearly knocked over the boiling water.
It rained all morning long and I sat beneath my hobo tent, sipping hot black coffee and getting stoned and I followed the E Street Band from town to town, track by track through ten years of rock and roll barnstorming.
That first tape made me homesick; all those early songs that were soaked in New Jersey myth. I thought about the friends I had left behind, wondering who was still hiding on the backstreets and which of them had made it out. I changed out the old batteries for fresh ones, slipped the second tape in and I was just stoned enough to dance around my campsite in the chilly rain, shaking my ass and pumping my fist.
I was lost to the music, a prisoner of rock and roll and nothing could stop me while the beat went on.
Then I saw a cop standing on the fence-line, staring at me, almost smiling.
I stopped dancing, flushed red and pushed the stop button on my Walkman.
“Kid, what are you doing back here?”
“Just listening to Bruce Springsteen.”
The cop took a circular stroll around my camp. He frowned at my small fire, shook his head at my carpet remnant tent and asked me if I was on drugs.
“No, sir,” I said, lying about the pot, fairly certain he had smelled it, “Just camping out. I’m sort of homeless”
He asked me for my name, if I was over 18 and lectured me about the fire. “You know you can’t be camping out back here. This is the drive-in’s property. You could get a trespassing charge.”
I was no stranger to trespassing charges.
“It’s just until tomorrow,” I said, “I’m gonna work the truck at the hardware store and make some money to get out of town on.”
I could tell he didn’t like it, but he wasn’t a hard-ass cop and he told me I could spend one last night in my back-alley camp.
“No more fires,” he warned, “You douse that and if I drive past and see it burning again, I’ll run you out tonight.”
“And I want you to clean all this up before you go,” he said, “All this carpet back in the dumpster, all these cigarette butts picked up.”
I will, Officer.
He went back to his patrol car and drove away I put out the fire and the day grew colder, but I rolled myself up in the carpet padding and listened to the third and last tape in a dark, warm cocoon. I should have been miserable, wrapped up against the frigid desert cold, sleeping on the ground in the back of a closed drive-in, but it was one of the best days I ever spent in four years of hard traveling. I played the set again and again throughout the day, took a walk to the Circle K for more batteries and fell asleep that night somewhere in the middle of Cassette 2.