I’ve been snacking on MTV of late. Saw that cubbish John “Uh-huh” Cougar Mellencamp frolicking across a fruited plain, hollering, “Ain’t that America?” Been reading some grim predictions in the music industry press that if the guy once heralded as “the future of rock ‘n’ roll”—precursor to all those small-screen Stray Cats, Def Leppards and Cougars—doesn’t finish his new album and twitch his bony self in front of a split-screen, multitrack bank of video cameras, Bruce Springsteen is going to be rock history, uh-huh.
No one’s counting his car-wash attendant cameo on saxman Clarence Clemmons’ video or Springsteen’s black-and-white montage, Atlantic City, off his Nebraska album. The camera panned that crumbling seaside city but never its guitar-playing eulogist. Frustrated fans and deejays had come up with all sorts of explanations, including the rumor that Bruce was morally opposed to video, that it’s against his bar-rocker religion—though this is soon to be disproved by a video of Dancing in the Dark, the first single off his Born in the U.S.A. album, which is to be released June 4.
All the fuss made me think of my favorite rock video. I saw it, live, at the outset of Springsteen’s last tour, back when MTV was still a blip on some cable mogul’s spreadsheet. It was after a show, quarter to three. Having laid his Fender Esquire to rest for the night, Bruce walked, somewhat stiffly, toward the lobby of his Minneapolis high-rise mall/hotel. We’d just crossed the Mississippi from a gig in St. Paul—got out of the car just a twist and shout away from the Nicollet Mall where Mary Tyler Moore still tosses her hat on all those 2 a.m. reruns.
“Where am I?” Bruce said. “Man, I love this. I’m suspended. I love it when I got no idea exactly where I am. I mean, this could be anywhere in America.”
The grilles were down on the mall stores; Muzak’d Beatles percolated in the elevator. Bruce was triple-sealed against the Midwestern chill: thermal shirt, hooded sweatshirt, leather jacket, and beneath it all, a reeking coat of Ben-Gay smeared on the abused chest and back. Having played for nearly four hours, he was hungry, poking into a bag filled with Twinkies, Drake’s cakes, chips and pasty-looking Parker House rolls. He handed it off to his beefy then road manager, Bob Chirm-side, and the two lapsed into what was obviously a favorite on-the-road pastime—playing out a classic scene from The Honeymooners, Jackie Gleason’s ’50s sitcom. The show is still so popular that fans hold yearly conventions, reenacting the goofy friendship of a Brooklyn bus driver (Ralph Kramden) and a sewer worker (Ed Norton). This night it was Springsteen who leaned forward and said in perfect Ed Nortonese, “Pray tell, who are you?”
Any Honeymooners fan, any true child of television knew the answer.
“Whoa-ho-ho,” said Big Bob, in booming imitation of Gleason’s Kramden. “I am the Chef of the Future.”
Bruce stretched his chin forward and slipped into Art Carney’s wacko, flappy-wristed Norton, pitching his Brooklynese heart out on an ill-fated TV commercial for the Handy Housewife Helper kitchen gadget: “This thing is a can opener, corkscrew, apple corer, fish scaler, screwdriver, scissors sharpener—it’ll even take the corns off your feet.” It’s just cheap junk, but Ralph, stuck with 2,000 Helpers, had convinced Norton, “If somebody’s got something to sell today, how do they do it? Television!”
“Tell me, Oh Chef of the Future,” said Bruce (a/k/a Chef of the Past). “Can it core a apple?”
“Ha. Ha. Certainly, it can core a apple. Watch this.” (A Twinkies pack stood in for the Handy Helper.) “See? Zip, zip, zip.”
As the elevator reached my floor, Bruce was sliding down the wall, laughing, but still into it. “Zip, zip, zip,” he wheezed. “Another proof of a happier life through television.” The steel doors closed, and their laughter rose up the elevator shaft. Fade out.
Now, ain’t that America? I wish I had it on videotape.