A Rock Musician for Kids & Families Recalls an Unusual Path to Fandom
I was a young teenage boy fresh from my Bar Mitzvah as Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. album, the one that made him a household name, tore through MTV’s rotation. I got to know the hits at the time and I liked Bruce’s on-screen presence well enough. But it would be years until The Boss’ songwriting, storytelling, scene setting and live entertaining would really hit home with me. I was vaguely aware of the Jersey connection (I was a Morristown kid after spending my first decade in East Brunswick).
At the time, my main instrument was keyboard and I had my hands full with the sheet music of Michael Jackson, Van Halen, Paul McCartney (wasn’t he in a band before he went solo?) I was dabbling in my own songwriting, mostly instrumental composition then.
Fast forward to my post-college years when the acoustic guitar grabbed my attention along with finding my voice as a singer/songwriter, expressing emotions instead of just what I thought were cool sounds. Part of what helped me find the acoustic guitar was a north Jersey singer/songwriter by the name of Jim Kilby whose energetic shows with his band Kilby Taylor and songs full of local references echoed much of what I had heard about Springsteen. Watching Kilby Taylor live made me imagine what a Bruce show would be like (I hadn’t been to a Bruce concert). Without knowing it, I was on a path toward having The Boss inform much of what I’d come to do musically.
I felt the piano calling to me during those singer-songwriter years and I even rekindled, for the first time since childhood, an interest in relearning to play classical piano. Meantime when I heard that Jim Kilby was hosting open mic events, I would show up, at first to play electric guitar, and later acoustic as I learned about pouring my personality and my life’s story into more intimate songs. Jim watch this transformation in me and remembered it. His friend Kathy, who attended all those open mics, called me to tell me Jim was auditioning a band to take on the road. I tried out on electric guitar, but mentioned I was also playing piano. I was called back again for a piano audition. At the same time, I was also auditioning for Clarence Clemons’ son Nick as a keyboardist. I really enjoyed playing with both bands. I was a little aware of the power behind the famous dad’s name but did not want to choose my band just for that reason. My interest in joining Jim’s band had much to do with how long I’d been a fan, how much I loved his older tunes and how impressed I was with his new stuff. Jim Kilby’s band was a passion project with a prospect of growing into a career. Nick’s band was a very new thing to me, tunes that felt instantly classic, with free flowing jams built into them. I liked the players in both bands. After thinking it over, I felt like I connected more with Jim’s band and joined it.
Jim and I both admired the piano work of Bruce Springsteen’s pianist, Roy Bittan, so I started borrowing Bruce records and listening with closer intent to how Roy was making the band sound like the carousel on the boardwalk – like chiming bells on a music box. I started to tap into that feeling in my own piano playing. My friend Tracy (also a huge fan of Jim’s from the Kilby Taylor days) lent me her cassettes of Bruce’s most iconic records – Born To Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. While I was listening Bruce’s more classic records – at this point in my mid-20s – I was hearing and feeling the stories Bruce was telling in his songs. I felt the loneliness, the desperation, the romantic dreams and the hope of a brighter tomorrow, that were coming through those songs. Bruce Springsteen cassettes became my constant travel companion on my way down and up the Parkway to the shore gigs.
Especially when traveling to the Jersey Shore I started to feel like I was walking in a path blazed by Bruce a generation before. It really hit home when we played Belmar and Long Branch – but especially Long Branch. We in Jim Kilby’s band were the opening act for Nils Lofgren. Nils had an extra guitar and mic set up – a Fender Telecaster guitar, the kind played by you-know-who. The place was packed and the rumors were swirling that night that there might be an unannounced guest. While that rumor never turned out to be true, Nils played a masterful set where he squeezed every ounce of emotion out of those guitar strings. Word got back to us that Nils dug our set as well.
Our classic rock band was up against a lot of resistance in the age of alternative rock in the mid-90s; we soldiered on for hundreds of gigs over the course of 2 years and then real life gradually pulled us in separate directions. Ultimately it pulled me away from the ambition to make music for a living.
I’m pretty sure my first-ever Bruce Springsteen concert a few years later (Summer 1999, E Street Band reunion tour) ultimately gave me back the desire to make music professionally – though this time, no longer as a side man. I wanted to be that guy at the center of the stage telling his stories and inspiring the audience, maybe transforming them along the way. Bruce was at the Meadowlands Arena (Byrne? Continental? Izod? I’ve lost track at this point…) playing for an ecstatic hometown audience and I was getting a master class on turning a concert into an invitation, a journey, a sermon, a Bar Mitzvah. He created some moments that still stay with me, like the band taking turns singing leads on “If I Should Fall Behind” that still gives me chills as I write this almost 17 years later.
Bruce’s later work would hit home with my wife Amy and me (We were married in 2000) as “The Rising” helped us clarify the sadness we felt for families and couples that were torn apart by the horrors of 9/11. We imagined the roller coasters of emotions from the desire for revenge to ultimately the resignation to its uselessness. We came to understand that the stirring “My City of Ruins” had come to mean two things at the same time. It was about the state of disrepair that Bruce’s beloved Asbury Park had fallen into and took on new meaning about the shattered New York skyline.
The summer that The Rising was out, Amy and I took a spur of the moment trip to the Jersey Shore, our first as a couple, that had Bruce’s music as its soundtrack. We’d drive by 10th Avenue and E Street in Belmar. We’d eat at Sonny’s Southern Cuisine, a restaurant that Bruce had endorsed on the NBC Today Show while taking Matt Lauer on a personal tour of Asbury Park. We felt the connection of place and time that drives Bruce’s songs. Our fandom was complete.
Now, all these years later, our 5-year-old daughter’s favorite Bruce song is “10th Avenue Freeze-Out.” We always associate Bruce (and Bon Jovi, Southside Johnny, Joe D’Urso, John Eddie and William’s Honor) with our Jersey Shore trips. Since we’ve formed a band that plays for kids and families, called Jason Didner and the Jungle Gym Jam, we’ve brought our love of the Jersey Shore Sound, with Bruce at the center of it, to create our beachy new album Lollipop Motel.
Those magical sounds of saxophones, bells and pianos chiming together, jangling guitars, wailing organs, and sometimes the accordion, come together to create how we hear the Jersey Shore sound and rejoice in the glory of a sunny day.
We’ve also been incredibly honored to play at legendary The Stone Pony to share the music of this special album on our 2016 Beach Tour, which will also include, Java Haus in Brick, NJ, Coney Island, Jones Beach, The Great South Bay Festival on Long Island, and more to be announced soon.
Learn more about the new album Lollipop Motel and get a free song from the album (plus two additional tracks from our previous work) at njkindiemusic.com.
How did you become a fan of Bruce Springsteen? Tell your story in the comments below.