Outside Newport library, Victoria, Australia.
Saturday 7 July, 2012. Midday.
He was standing on a little platform, a busker’s stage. He had an acoustic guitar over his shoulder and a harmonica around his neck. It could have been 1965.
He wore a black jacket, with a t-shirt underneath. Jeans and boots. Fair hair. Not long. Not short.
The midday sun was in his eyes, so he closed his eyelids or gazed into the footpath, where Saturday morning shoppers or local music fans were coming and going. But not stopping.
He might have been 20. Maybe a bit more.
I recognised the tune before the words. It had been a long time since I’d heard the song. I’d always remembered the line about finding the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car, but it wasn’t until the chorus that I put a title to it all.
Growin’ Up is from Bruce Springsteen’s first album, 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. It’s an album full of words, words and more words, full of characters and enthusiasms. Springsteen was just 24 years old.
I took month-long vacations in the stratosphere, and you know it’s really hard to hold your breath
I swear I lost everything I ever loved or feared, I was the cosmic kid in full costume dress
Well, my feet they finally took root in the earth, but I got me a nice little place in the stars
And I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car
I hid in the mother breast of the crowd, but when they said, “Pull down,” I pulled up
Ooh… growin’ up
Ooh… growin’ up
I’d had the Asbury Park album since the late 1970s but I didn’t know it very well, not like my mate Bill from high school, not like my mate Kevin from uni.
And not like the busker outside the local library on a sunny winter’s day. He had an audience of one, as I stood there off to the side, trying not to look too conspicuous.
How long was it since I’d put Greetings From Asbury Park N.J on the old turntable? Years, probably. A decade? Possibly.
When Growin’ Up finished I gave the busker a few dollars, and we spoke a little about Springsteen’s debut album. The busker said, Do you know For You? I said, I’m more familiar with Blinded By The Light. He said, I’ll sing For You.
Princess cards she sends me with her regards
barroom eyes shine vacancy, to see you her you gotta look hard
Wounded deep in battle, I stand stuffed like some soldier undaunted
To her Cheshire smile, I’ll stand on file, she’s all I ever wanted…
I came for you, for you, I came for you but you did not need my urgency
I came for you, for you, I came for you, but your life was one long emergency,
and your cloud line urges me,
and my electric surges free
A couple, my age, stopped to listen, tripling the audience. Passers-by passed by, on their way to the butcher or the green-grocer or the baker or the Newport Folk Festival. The festival was hosting gigs in the park beside the library, in the senior citizens hall, in the scout hall, at the bowls club, in the RSL club. And it was hosting the buskers stage too. The music was more than folk and fiddle –jazz, gypsy, choirs, country, blues, swing, rock. Good local talent. And lots of it.
At the end of For You the middle-aged couple headed off and I stood there alone listening to the busker singing a wordy Dylan-like protest song. The busker slipped in a few topical references – climate change, for instance, and he also managed to mention the Newport Folk Festival into the closing lyrics.
I wondered if he knew about the rather more famous Newport Folk Festival on Rhode Island, USA, in July 1965 , when Dylan went electric. He probably did, given how well versed he was in the music of that time. I considered asking him, but I was also starting to feel a bit self-conscious standing there on my own listening to a lone performer.
So I thanked him with a nod of the head and then stood in the little park listening to trios and quartets playing on a slightly bigger stage, while children did chalk-drawings or climbed over the playground.
Every now and then I turned to see the busker playing. And playing, and playing. He must have had a break at some time, given I was in the park for about 90 minutes.
And then he walked by, a smoke in one hand, talking with another musician. I saw just a few of the 60 performers who played in Newport that weekend, but mostly I remember the bloke growin’ up on the little stage outside the library.
© Vin Maskell
The busker, Jack Gramski, is now part of The Stereo Stories Band, in between his solo performances.