It’s not every day you can get Bruce Springsteen to produce your album, let alone perform on it.
In fact, aside from Gary U.S. Bonds’ 1981 comeback album and an ’82 follow-up in which The Boss has acknowledged he played only a minor role behind the boards, no one has been that fortunate.
Joe Grushecky now considers himself one lucky man, and all it took was a simple phone call.
Grushecky, 47, has been friends with Springsteen for years. They crossed each other’s path many times between Springsteen’s E Street Band home base in Asbury Park, N.J., and Grushecky’s hometown of Pittsburgh, where he led the bar band Iron City Houserockers till it disbanded in 1984.
“Whenever he comes to Pittsburgh to play,” Grushecky said in a recent phone interview, “we always renew our acquaintance. Last time, on the ‘Lucky Town’ tour, he invited me up to play (‘Glory Days’) and we had a really good time.”
Juggling time between preparing a new solo record and a day job as a teacher at an East Liberty, Pa., facility for troubled teens and tutoring adults trying to earn their GEDs at night, Grushecky needed little encouragement to call on his friend.
“My wife first suggested I call Bruce and ask him to help out a little bit,” Grushecky said. “I gave (his manager) Jon Landau a buzz and Jon put me in touch with Bruce. Bruce said, ‘Well, come on out to California and you don’t even have to bring a guitar. Just come on out and we’ll see what happens.’
“We started messing around in the studio, and we got two songs. I was just thrilled to death with them, and he seemed to be having a real good time. Two songs led to three songs, three songs led to five songs and five led to the whole album.”
That album, nearly three years in the making, is “American Babylon,” released Oct. 10 on Razor & Tie Music. It’s clearly Grushecky’s album – his raw, gritty voice alone lays the foundation – but Springsteen’s imprint is all over it, from his soaring harmonies to the “Brilliant Disguise”-like keyboards on several tracks. Springsteen’s wife, Patti Scialfa, also lends her vocals (on “Comin’ Down Maria”).
Grushecky shares Springsteen’s working-class upbringing. He is the son of a coal miner, and like Springsteen, he’s at his songwriting best when he tells tales of “regular guys” overcoming personal struggles. Those themes are most prevalent on the searing tracks “Dark and Bloody Ground” and “Homestead,” which Grushecky co-wrote with Springsteen.
“I was saving most of the lyrics for ‘Dark and Bloody Ground,’ ” Grushecky said. “I was letting it age, I guess. I knew it was going to be a powerful song.
“My family were all miners and the town I grew up in Kentucky, the mine had closed by the time I was old enough to remember. Most of the guys ended up working in the steel mills, and there were stories related to me, about the labor problems and the tough lives they had. I’ve always been interested in history. ‘Dark and Bloody Ground,’ I believe, is the Indian name for Kentucky. I had read this book about Kentucky and the struggles of the land over the generations, and that’s where that came from.”
Grushecky has had his own share of problems. When he wasn’t collaborating and recording with Springsteen, he was working full-time at the East Liberty school and tutoring.
“I worked with disturbed kids,” he said. “It’s a private school and we specialize in the severe acting-out behavior. That’s the type of kids I worked with for five years. I was doing that all while I was working with Bruce. It was culture shock, believe me. I even called in sick one day, from Bruce’s house (in New Jersey).
“It was hard to turn it on and off. It was difficult because if you’re an artist you have to be sensitive to the world around you and, in the particular job I had, the kids were so hard core and so tough that if you took that stuff personally it would be even more difficult. There were a lot of peaks and valleys there.
“I can remember flying home from Beverly Hills (Calif.) and getting home at midnight Pittsburgh-time and getting up at 5:30 in the morning, going to work in the inner city. Going from Bruce’s home in Beverly Hills to the inner city in Pittsburgh is quite a shift in gears.”
It didn’t help matters that all the major labels Grushecky approached gave him a thumbs down for the project.
“Initially, we didn’t have much interest in the states, and it sort of threw us for a loop,” he said. “We got turned down by everybody, I mean everybody. That’s another reason why it took so long, I didn’t have any funding.
“Right around the turn of the new year, someone suggested, ‘Why don’t you go to England?’ and Pinnacle (Licensed Repertoire) became involved rather quickly and, once we knew we had a home for the project, we had a specific goal to go in and finish the record.”
Razor & Tie, which released Grushecky’s “End of the Century” in 1992, then entered the U.S.- distribution picture.
Grushecky has no problems with the media attention Springsteen’s involvement undoubtedly will attract.
“I mean, geez, am I going to deny that he’s involved and be jealous?” he said. “I had a great time making the record. Any time you can get Bruce Springsteen playing in your band, it’s pretty damn good, as far as I’m concerned.”