Romancing the Boss
They stood together, smoldering in the spotlight, separated only by a glinting microphone stand. “I’m looking for a lover/ Who will come on in and cover me,” he sang, looking into her eyes as she layered a rich harmony over his words. Bruce Springsteen’s passion was there for all to see—and it wasn’t for his wife. Three years ago the Boss, newly married, would gaze lovingly offstage as he sang a heartfelt version of Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to Julianne Phillips, who stood adoringly in the wings. Now the object of his affection is right out front, holding her own against the driving guitars, and matching Bruce note for note. After four years as the only woman in the the E Street Band, backup singer Patti Scialfa has moved center stage as Springsteen’s new paramour.
In a romantic roundelay that shocked some fans and rankled Julianne’s friends, the picture-perfect model-turned-actress has been supplanted by an unlikely successor. Her angular features too skewed for classic beauty, the lanky, red-haired Scialfa, at 35, seems to be everything that Phillips, 29, is not. The Boss’s wife, who recently filed for divorce, is a wide-eyed straight arrow, a former cheerleader who was the Christmas Princess in ninth grade. Patti Scialfa, on the other hand, has always been the archetypal Jersey girl—decked out in denim and cruising the streets of Asbury Park with music blaring. If Julianne is America’s homecoming queen, Patti is “one of the guys.”
“She’s a beer-drinking buddy,” says Bobby Bandiera, a singer with the Asbury Jukes who joined that band after Patti left it four years ago and who knows Scialfa from the New Jersey club scene. “If you’re in a bad mood about having a fight with your old lady, you can talk to her about it.” Whether that’s how Bruce, 39, came to keep time with the lady, no one is saying. But certainly the two natives of the Jersey shore share enough other interests to keep a conversation going—like music, music and more music. “Her life’s dream was to be a musician,” says a childhood friend of Patti’s. “She started writing songs prolifically in high school.”
Patti traces these ambitions to her grandfather, who once wrote songs on the London vaudeville circuit. “When I was 3 or 4, I would sit with him at the piano,” she said once. “He’d have a cigarette dangling from his mouth, and he’d ask me, ‘Do you like this ending or that one?’ He was the first adult who seemed to care about my opinion.”
But it wasn’t until her teens that Patti discovered the other great attraction of a musical life. Her older brother Michael played rock and roll, and practiced in a soundproof room at the Scialfa’s oceanfront home in Deal, N.J. “I remember all these boys came to the house,” Patti said. “I thought, oh, my God, this is fantastic! I want to be in a band with some BOYS!”
Patti had been praised for her voice since elementary school, where she sang in school shows. One day Michael, now a 36-year-old keyboardist and sometime substitute teacher at Asbury Park High, asked her to sing a song with the band. “I heard my voice on his little tape recorder,” Patti recalled. “That was it. I went out and found a band. I must have been 14.” A friend confirms the story: “Michael was her inspiration.”
Like Springsteen, Scialfa set her adolescence to music, playing out her minor rebellions against a sound track of thrumming guitars. “She was always with her guitar,” says Marie McLoughlin Cascone, who was a year ahead of Patti at Asbury Park High. “She’d play for you at school outside on the lawn. She had a pretty, sweet voice.” Patti’s first musical role models, reports another friend, were Grace Slick and Joni Mitchell.
Patti’s father, Joseph, was a successful businessman who owned an appliance store, among other things, and Deal was a wealthy community. But while their parents played tennis, Patti and her gang, who called themselves the “Deal Rowdies,” took their social cues from the other side of the tracks, hanging out on the beach, driving around Asbury Park and dancing in small, smoky bars. “Patti was a little wilder than I was,” says a close friend, who can remember the whole group camping out on the trampoline at her parents’ house. “Sometimes eight or nine of us spent the night on it, all lined up in a row.”
Patti’s teachers at Asbury Park High School remember her as “very quiet” and “intelligent,” though she didn’t push herself and got only average grades. In her junior year she landed the lead in a student-written musical, Step Forward, which had already been cast when Patti showed up to audition. “It was at the last moment that we discovered her,” says the playwright, Anthony Zaleski. “She had a unique, lovely voice. It had resonance and warmth. And she had a very bubbly, effervescent personality. I never remember her in a bad mood.”
After high school Patti auditioned for, and was admitted to, the University of Miami’s music school, whose alumni include pianist Bruce Hornsby and guitarist Pat Metheny. “There were very few girls in the jazz department, and Patti stood out,” recalls one of the school’s professors, Whit Seidner. “Her main interest was pop music, and she was into writing a lot of tunes.” Metheny, who lived in the same dorm as Patti, remembers that “all the hardcore jazz guys loved her and wanted her to sing with them”—and not just because of her rich, smoky voice. “She was definitely good-looking. Everybody always dug her, but she was the girlfriend of [keyboard player] Cliff Carter.” Still, Metheny says, Patti tended to “hang out with the guys a lot. I can remember going to see midnight movies with her. Then we’d stay up all night and talk about music. Everybody was talking about John Coltrane all the time. We were a very serious group.”
After her junior year, Patti transferred from Miami to New York University’s “university without walls,” where she earned a B.A. In 1975 she moved into a Manhattan apartment with a girlfriend from New Jersey and started scrabbling in the music business. Between trips back to New Jersey to play tiny bar gigs, she cut demo tapes and supported herself as a receptionist at a midtown recording studio. She also picked up cash “singing on the streets in New York and as a studio musician, doing jingles,” says a young woman who knew Patti then. “She did whatever she had to do. She’s a very straight-ahead person.”
By the late ’70s Patti had achieved some success as one of the three backup singers for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, local boys with four albums and a growing national rep. “With that red hair, Patti stands out,” says Lee Mrowicki, manager of the Stone Pony, the legendary Asbury Park club that serves as home base for many New Jersey bands. “She’s always been here at the club. Everybody knew who she was.” Including, it seems, Bruce Springsteen, who would come in on Sundays to catch the Stone Pony’s house band, Cats on a Smooth Surface, which sometimes featured Scialfa doo-wopping to such standards as “Be My Baby” and “Boy from New York City.”
Patti “has been hanging out on that New Jersey scene since she was 15 years old,” says someone who ran in the same crowd. “She knew [former Springsteen sideman] David Sancious, and we were friendly with [current band member] Clarence demons. Bruce and Patti had casual social contact.” Patti was “nice, not stuck-up, friendly—not a flirt, but pretty male-oriented,” recalls a Stone Pony employee. Adds another: “Along the way she had some boyfriends.”
Local lore has it that when Patti first auditioned for Springsteen 10 years ago, he turned her down for being “too young.” But in 1984, at the start of the Born in the U.S.A. tour, he signed her on as the E Street’s only female member—a tambourine-thumping backup singer. While one Stone Pony denizen considers her singing “just average,” Springsteen seemed to think otherwise. “Bruce is a perfectionist. I can’t see him keeping her in if she couldn’t make the cut musically,” says a source.
On that first tour Patti played little sister to the band. “It’s a very male-dominated group,” says the source. “Bruce is a man’s man. In the beginning I think she really had to be flexible and have a good sense of humor. The group spent a lot of time together when they weren’t performing. They talked about music nonstop.” For Patti, being one of the guys was a familiar role—if not the one she might have chosen with Springsteen.
“Patti’s been in love with Bruce for as long as I can remember,” says Curtis K. Smith, her art teacher at Asbury Park High. “We’d always heard this and that about Patti and Bruce from [her brother] Michael. It wasn’t a big surprise around here when it finally came into the open.”
Says another source who’s close to Julianne: “I know Patti’s said to a number of people that getting Bruce has been her goal.” But that’s not to say she pined for him in those early years with the band. She dated Tom Cruise briefly in 1985 and was seen around New York with a number of well-known studio musicians. “Patti was hardly a nun before she met Bruce,” says a friend, adding, “She doesn’t go out with accountants.”
Still, one observer reports that Scialfa was heartbroken in 1985 when Bruce decided to marry Julianne. For her part, Julianne seemed oblivious to any competition. “She would always support Patti to Bruce,” says one of Julianne’s close friends. “When there were fan letters that mentioned Patti, Julianne would always make it a point to mention it to her. She felt sorry for Patti being the only girl in the band. She felt it had to be difficult. And she urged Bruce to support her.”
He did. But, ironically, Bruce’s bringing Patti front and center in the band provided the first public hints that his amorous attentions might be wandering. Fans and critics also detected notes of discontent in the lyrics to his new songs: “Man meets woman and they fall in love/ But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough,” Bruce sang on Tunnel of Love. When the band began to tour with Tunnel’s new material, Scialfa was in the spotlight almost every night. Asked about her expanding role, Springsteen told a reporter it was just because the new tunes had a more love-laden subject matter. “The album is about men and women, you know,” he said, smiling.
Scialfa was ecstatic about her new work. “I didn’t know when we started rehearsing that he was going to give me a lot to do,” she told a reporter. “It happened slowly over the course of rehearsing. Bruce coaxed me and urged me to reach. He was very patient, very willing to teach. He had a lot of confidence in me.” How long his motives remained purely musical is difficult to say. But by last spring, as Bruce and Patti’s onstage duets took ever-steamier turns, rumors of a marital split began to fly. In May there were reports that Bruce had vacated the Rumson, N.J., home he shared with Julianne. In June, Patti and Bruce were snapped smooching in Rome. By midsummer they were openly keeping company in New York, dining tête-à-tête in Greenwich Village and strolling arm in arm down Park Avenue. And they’ve been dropping in at the Stone Pony to drink beer and talk music, a habit that Bruce lost during his marriage to Phillips. “Patti stifled her feelings for a long time,” says one source. “She’s in love. They’re both in love. They’re glowing. They’re together a lot and they seem very affectionate. It’s not like they’re necking every minute, but they hold hands a lot.” (Scialfa has flatly denied she is pregnant.)
Friends are now divided between the mistress and the Mrs. camps, but the general consensus seems to be that Julianne never saw the storm clouds. “Unless you’re one of the two people married, you never know what’s going on,” said someone who was friendly with the couple. “But one thing is certain: Julianne’s blown away. She didn’t have an inkling that there was a problem. She had no idea he was having an affair.” Now, says a Phillips intimate, Julianne and Bruce are at least talking. “There’s no fighting anger there. There’s personal anger, but they communicate. Actually, other than displaying that sleazeball all over town, he’s been pretty respectable.” The initial reaction to the affair among band members was “not very favorable,” says a confidant of Julianne’s, and Patti’s new status has created tensions. Having enjoyed the spotlight on the Tunnel of Love tour, she’s temporarily out of it at the Amnesty International shows while Bruce plays older tunes.
Still, Scialfa’s life these days has all the elements of a rock and roll fantasy come true. When she’s onstage with Bruce, Patti told a reporter during the Tunneltour, “It’s like for a moment nothing bad can happen to you. It’s a wonderful give and take. You go through every emotion every night.” At the same time, the spotlight can be a risky place to carry on a love affair. “What a position to be in—terrible and wonderful at the same time,” says one of Patti’s high school friends. “A little pressure, anybody?”
—By Susan Schindehette, with Victoria Balfour in New York and bureau reports