In the summer of 1975, I was seven years old, and I’d just saved up enough money to buy my first record. I had other albums already: the ones my musician-father gave me as gifts (Wings, Chicago, The Woodstock Soundtrack), and the ones my older brother kept in the room we shared (Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath), but I’d never gone out on my own, with my own money, to buy a record of my choice before.
I split a small paper route with a friend, and after a few months of saving, I had enough to walk across the fields behind our house, through the dusty hills beyond the electrical plant and the cookie factory, across the highway where cars went to and from the city, past the bowling alley and Carvel ice cream store, to the Pathmark supermarket where, in an out-of-the-way aisle, they sold records. I knew exactly which one I wanted.
I’d heard Bruce Springsteen on the radio before that summer. Some unusual tracks from unusually named albums, songs that lasted a long time and had a lot of words and shouts and instruments. And I knew he was from Jersey, where I lived, but I wasn’t into him so much. But this new album was different. Before its release, they’d been playing it on New York’s rock station, WPLJ, a lot, and I kept an ear open all summer to the radios that played out of windows of my teenage neighbors’ bedrooms and the cars they worked on in their front yard.
The songs were punchy and tight, clever and romantic but muscular, too. They seemed to exist in a new territory, somewhere between the artistic rock albums my father bought me and those hard bands that my brother liked. So I delivered my newspapers in the heat and saved best I could. And by the time Born to Run came out in late August, I was ready to take that long walk.
The album cover blew me away. The Pathmark was cold in August, and I stood there, still sweating in my sneakers and jeans and t-shirt, nearly shivering, holding this amazing-looking album. I’d gotten used to fantastic imagery on album covers of rock bands, artistic creations of magical places full of vivid color and shapes. But here was Bruce Springsteen, in black and white, all scruffy and cool, a guitar strapped outside his leather jacket. An earring stud in his left ear! I’d never actually seen his picture before, but I knew it was him.
But he wasn’t alone. He shelved one arm on the shoulder of a large figure that partially entered the photo from the side. A figure Springsteen looked at with great admiration. I turned the album over, and there he was: The Big Man. I knew it was him, the guy in the “10th Avenue…” song, from the line about Scooter and the Big Man busting the city in half. Scooter was Springsteen, and this saxophone colossus, Clarence Clemons, was the Big Man.
Suddenly, I could hear all the songs in my head, and I knew—somehow, by instinct—why the album cover moved me so. The real image of “Scooter and the Big Man” embodied what I imagined those radio songs really represented: friendship, rebellion, style, substance, joy. Right there in my hands, a great big image on the front and back of an album spoke about things that I knew nothing formally about but already sensed were important and desirable. And the album itself met all those expectations. I played it over and over for many years.
I moved away from New Jersey a few years later. The kids in the Midwest weren’t into Springsteen, and the St. Louis stations didn’t play him on the radio. My tastes changed, but I always longed for those things that Born to Run spoke to. In my teens, my family moved back to the east coast; I went to my old Jersey town often to stay with the kids I’d been friends with as a child. I remember fingering through a yearbook, feeling lonely for a hometown of my own, when I came across a photograph of a gorgeous girl, leaning into the shoulder of a boy who played the saxophone. The obvious homage to Born to Run captured the themes of the album and its cover, especially the girl’s effusive smile and rebellious pose.
Fifteen years later, I married that very same girl. And 15 years after that, we were driving home from the Jersey shore, our son and daughter asleep in the back seat, when the radio announced that the Big Man had died. I thought back to that album cover and how it had made me feel at such a young age, about all the many things I’d made me want and that I eventually got; and I thought of Scooter and all him and the Big Man must have experienced over nearly a lifetime of friendship, rebellion, style, substance, and joy, and how he must feel about that picture they took together that made it on a record cover and spoke to all those things.