The Garden State. It’s like Rodney Dangerfield. It gets no respect. Which is one of the reasons why Bruce Springsteen’s rendition of “Jersey Girl” always gets to me. Because he takes all of that disrespect and throws it out the window of a fast moving car on the way to the shore. He sings that to his Jersey audience. He gives them pride of place and evokes memories his audience can easily relate to. He takes Tom Waits’ song and makes it his own and theirs. He makes it a Jersey song, which is something Waits could never do, as great a songwriter as he is. Waits was born and bred in California. Not his fault. He couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to grow up in Jersey, in the shadow of the Big Apple.
I love the song. I love to hear the people in the audience go crazy when Bruce sings that he’s going down to the shore and about his love for his Jersey Girl. I love that the kids in the audience get the chance to feel good about their home state for a moment, to see their champion proud of his roots and his memories. Because it makes them proud, too. Their reaction to those words is so immediate, so joyful, so spontaneous, I doubt they really connect it with a sense of pride, but that’s largely what it is. I also doubt they’re thinking about the difference between Tom Waits singing about his future wife, Kathleen, and Springsteen singing about what is natural and normal for a kid from Jersey. For a Californian to fall for a Jersey girl is a leap of sorts. For Bruce and his Jersey fans, it’s as natural as walking down a boardwalk.
If they know his music, if they really know his music, they might even think he was singing about the same character who was in love with Sandy and Rosalita, and had such big plans. And this was one more step along the way for him, now that he found his Jersey girl. And they probably thought about their own lives, their own times down at the shore, walking on the boardwalk, dancing in small clubs, listening to the scene . . .
Another thing that drew me to the song initially was its rarity. It was nearly impossible to find a recording of it until he came out with his live album in 1986. You could sometimes hear it on the more independent minded stations, but it was tough to purchase the song. So I never got tired of it. Never heard it too often . . . It always had that ability to surprise me and flood me yet again with memories, the way people talk there, that extra gear of life-pace, that enthusiasm for life in the least depressed state in the nation.
Still, Jersey gets no respect. But Springsteen’s art should. And perhaps his audience is feeling that subconsciously as well. Respecting that art should get people to think again about homes and home towns and home states across the country. Everyone has a story. Every state has a story. Every town. Art, music, literature . . . can bring that home. Rather than looking past someone, or looking right through them, art puts them front and center, gets in your face, makes you stop, step back, tune in. Makes you remember when you went down to the shore, walked along the boardwalk, kissed a girl underneath that boardwalk, while the waves beat against the posts and your parents looked for you. Or when you went swimming at the quarry with your friends, and someone got badly hurt, but it all worked out in the end.
Or, when you met a girl from Jersey and loved her at first sight and never forgot her. All of that makes me connect with this song so much. But there is one thing more than anything else that does it for me. My own ties to the state go way back, but there was a gap in time. A time lapse. And I wonder how things would have been if I had never left. How different I’d be today. And at the end of that time, when that gap closed, I met a uniquely beautiful girl of Italian and Puerto Rican ancestry, whose dark eyes, bright smile and sweet accent drew me back to Jersey in a thousand ways, and how I saw her everywhere, in everything, in a thousand eyes, for years afterwards. Long, long ago. So when I hear Bruce sing about his love for a Jersey girl, I know what it’s like from experience. And I know that Jersey is much more than people think it is, and Bruce knows it too.