Beyond the adulation, awards and mega-star treatment over a four-decade career, Bruce Springsteen remains a Jersey guy. Back in the winter of 1978 at the urging of musician Patti Smith he turned up at photographer Frank Stefanko’s house in Haddonfield, N. J. The two roamed the town’s streets that day in search of an album cover shot for “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” They pulled up in front of Frank’s barber shop.
“The photo depicted a young Bruce, with a leather jacket and an unruly hairdo, leaning against the barber pole and there was a reflection of his face in the chrome of the pole,” said Stefanko, 65, who now lives in Palmrya, N. J. “There were religious artifacts showing through the window, the lucky number seven hung over the shop and a part of a surfboard was in the window next door. It was pure small town New Jersey and symbolized Bruce’s life to that point. It’s my favorite photograph.”
Their photographic collaboration lasted five years, producing thousands of images and a second album cover photo for “The River.” In another Haddonfield session Stefanko captured Springsteen famously sitting on the hood of his 1960 Corvette parked in front of his house.
Stefanko’s iconic black and white pictures and the eye-popping Corvette convertible will be on display at the National Constitution Center that plays host to the blockbuster exhibition “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen.” Celebrated as an icon of free speech, the Springsteen exhibit runs from through Sept.3.
The Constitution Center is the first and only venue in the country to present the exhibit in 2012 and takes a comprehensive look at the musical legend’s career and catalog which contains numerous items never seen by the public. The 5,000-square-foot exhibition tells a well-paced narrative through more than 150 rare personal artifacts and vintage photographs, including one of Springsteen as an altar boy at his New Jersey Catholic church courtesy of his mother Adele.
Whether strumming an acoustic guitar as a solo artist or rocking out with the E Street Band, Springsteen continues to entertain and inspire millions of fans around the world. His music reflects the vast American landscape and his vision of our country.
“Bruce Springsteen represents the deep American story about independence and freedom,” said National Constitution Center President and CEO David Eisner. “This exhibit explores and provides a unique perspective on what it means to be an American.
“In his unmistakably unique tone Springsteen gives voice to everyday Americans. The working class, immigrants, veterans and in doing so he shows, in a deep way, the struggle to attain the American dream and the distance we have to go to achieve it.”
The exhibition dates back to Springsteen’s first bands the Child and the Castiles that Springsteen signed on with as a sophomore in high school in 1965. Then it gallops through time with the group Steel Mill where he teamed up with future E Street Band members Steven Van Zandt and Danny Frederici.
A few of the highlights range from Springsteen’s legendary Fender Esquire guitar (which appears on the cover of the “Born to Run” album) to a paycheck his teen garage band pocketed for a 1966 YMCA gig. There is the Oscar for best original song from “The Streets of Philadelphia” and scrapbooks and notebooks with the handwritten lyrics that show “Born to Run,” “Jungle Land” and “The Rising” in their early stages.
Originally created by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 2011, the exhibit was the most extensive ever for that venue. Vice President of Exhibitions Jim Henke worked closely with Springsteen and his organization and curated the show.
What was Henke’s biggest score? Springsteen’s recording engineer personally escorted the Fender Esquire guitar and hand delivered it to Henke.
“He still plays it and it was Bruce’s idea to let us have it,” said Henke, a former writer and editor at Rolling Stone Magazine who wrote a book “Human Rights Now” about the 1988 concert tour that featured Springsteen, Sting, Peter Gabriel and others to call attention to the International Declaration of Human Rights.
“Bruce always had an extraordinary huge following in Philly, so to have that guitar in the show where even more people will be able to see it now up close, that’s pretty cool.”
Fans really do get to look behind the curtain of yesteryear.
At several work stations fans can experience audio and video tracks that have never been seen or heard before. There is an acetate of the Castiles of their first recording, 1966’s “That’s What You Get”; a rollicking audio tape of a 1967 concert in Freehold, NJ.; Springsteen's successful 1972 audition for Columbia Records; and interviews with Springsteen on topics such as his songwriting process, his first recording session and some of his best known albums.
Video footage through the exhibition includes archival performances, an edited version of "Wings for Wheels: The Making of Born to Run" and clips of his appearance on MTV's "Unplugged" in 1992.
Stefanko says he calls Springsteen each year on the The Boss’ birthday. As for his photographs, they are never far from the public eye. Stefanko’s 2003 book “Days of Hope and Dreams” captures the most personal images and his behind-the scene stories from his time working with Springsteen.
Along with Danny Clinch, a fellow Jersey resident, Stefanko is represented by the Morrison Gallery in SoHo, New York City. The two have been behind the lens of some of the most intimate and iconic portraits of Springsteen that worked to create the visual narrative that illuminate the mood and poetry of his music and albums over the past three decades. Clinch’s work has graced the recent album covers of “The Rising,” “The Seeger Sessions,” “Working on a Dream” in 2009 and “Wrecking Ball,” due in early March.
Stefanko became a fan listening to “Greetings from Asbury Park, N. J.,” Springsteen’s 1973 debut album.
“Music wasn’t happening for me. I had gone into the doldrums, then I heard Bruce and he rejuvenated everything for me,” recalled Stefanko, who began photographing performers at classic venues such as the Main Point, The Second Fret and the Bijou Café.
“We were both born and bred in a working class environment. Over the years I’ve seen a young guitarist evolve into this rock legend and as his popularity grew he matured as a person and an artist. He’s still a down to-earth guy. Best of all he has chosen to take his fame and power and use it for the good of humanity and of the planet.
“To me, it’s still pretty amazing that in 1978 Bruce came and knocked on my door.”
If You Go: Admission is $24.50 for adults, $23 for seniors and students and $12 for children ages 4-12. Group rates also are available. Admission to the Center’s main exhibition, The Story of We the People, including the award-winning theater production Freedom Rising, is included. For ticket information, call 215.409.6700 or visit www.constitutioncenter.org