An American memoir
From New Jersey to New York and beyond –
with Sinatra, Ginsberg, Springsteen
Aspiring young men who grew up close to the Manhattan skyline but lived in smaller towns across Hudson River in New Jersey, has followed me for decades. Of Frank, Allen and Bruce, I have only seen the middle one in person.
This is a personal rambling tale of these heroes of New Jersey along with my own memories of America, which includes their dream metropolis New York.
But first it was Sinatra’s voice in my Swedish home town, Uppsala. My parents grew up with his records so they also became a part of my musical taste, although I tried to protest. Only later did I understand how he could catch the imagination of so many. And why he resembled my father, Hans Sjunnesson, born 15 years after The Voice in 1915.
Let us go there and then, Hoboken, New Jersey.
It takes only 15 minutes to take a ferry over the Hudson to Hoboken or walking through the Holland or Lincoln tunnels, probably a little longer in 1915. From the docks the backside of the Statue of Liberty could be seen on a clear day. Baby boy Francis Albert Sinatra weighed almost six kilograms and had to be drawn out with forceps which left him with a scar on his ear, neck and cheek and his beloved mother Dolly with no ability to have any more children.
In the working class area where the Sinatra family lived, each ethnic group lived separately. Italians as the Sicilian Sinatra family were the lowest rank of white, below the Irish, Jews and Germans. Blacks were unheard of, something Frank Sinatra would try to change in his way later. The hard times of New Jersey created an underdog role that gave Frank his strength to fight his way to the top and to conquer New York, a place he always tried to reach from across the river.
His father had odd jobs such as guarding trucks with contraband liquor that was smuggled at night. Once he got hit over the head and came home all bloody to this young son, then just under 10. The illegal bootlegging became the early riches of the Kennedy family, a Democratic political but also mafia related family line that Frank Sinatra would support, especially when getting John F. Kennedy elected in 1961.
The Depression years after 1929 that came after the alcohol prohibition years, 1920–1933, were not much better and gave the growing Frank an incentive to struggle hard for a career and a good life. As he sung in his first hit, he wanted “All or nothing at all”.
Frank told in a radio programme 1980 that in Hoboken at that time, young men either became factory workers or boxers (like his own father for a while). The left out group he belonged to were into music, admiring and mimicking Bing Crosby, Gene Austin, Rudy Vallee, Bob Eberly etc., but also Billie Holliday whom Frank saw at 52nd Street in the early 1930s.
In 1935 Frank had an opportunity to listen to his hero Bing Crosby at the local Sicilian cultural association at Loew’s Journal Square in Jersey City. The same year he joined a trio, renamed The Hoboken Four and they sang on an amateur audition at the New York radio station WHN/CBS. That was his breakthrough moment which reached a peak during WWII.
His position as only son with a mother and grandmother,who both spoiled him with nice clothes and a Chrysler at age 15, was useful. The last possession was an advantage to get music instruments and his fellows around at the time, since his talent was not evident in the early 1930s when he quit high school for a music career. In fact, he was thrown out of school for “general rowdiness”, a strong Italian temper that would get him in trouble with the press later but also take him to New York where he moved in 1936.
In 1940 Sinatra left a career going on in New Jersey for his first appearance in New York in March, at Paramount with Tommy Dorsey, the grand band leader of the time. In the following 15 months, Sinatra recorded 29 records with Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra. By then he had sung for elite crowds at Rio Bamba and Waldorf Astoria where the high society of Manhattan gathered.
After he left Hoboken, New Jersey for Pasadena, California in 1944, Sinatra called his hometown a sewer. When riding a float in Hoboken, tomatoes were thrown at the famous son of the town. His love- hate relationship with his hometown in the shadow of New York was a source of inspiration as the songs, “Autumn in New York”, “It was a very good year”, “The girl next door”, the bittersweet album “Songs for Swingin’ lovers”, but foremost in the song that confirmed his last comeback, “New York, New York”:
“These little town blues, are melting away.
I’ll make a brand new start of it, in old New York.
If I can make it there,
I’ll make it anywhere.
It’s up to you, New York, New York.”
I agree with the Canadian writer Mark Steyn who quotes Bono:
Rock’ n’ roll people love Frank Sinatra. said Bono at the 1994 Grammy Awards, because Frank Sinatra has got what we want. Swagger and attitude. He’s big on attitude. Serious attitude. Bad attitude. Frank’s the Chairman of the Bad.
For people growing up after the wild 1960s as myself, we did not quite understand the explosive and erotic imagination of the song “Strangers in the night”. It is a song that perfected the affluent and free West with its open encounters between men and women in urban night life, a lifestyle never able to appear anywhere else than in Europe and North America:
Strangers in the night exchanging glances
Wond’ring in the night what were the chances
We’d be sharing love before the night was through
The life and artistry of Frank Sinatra paved way for such free life choices.
Next hero from New Jersey took that to an extent never reached before
1926 Irwin Allen Ginsberg was born in Newark, some ten miles west of Hoboken and grew up in nearby Paterson. His family was the opposite of the Sinatra as Allen had not only siblings as his brother Eugene but a mentally ill mother, not a doting Dolly Sinatra.
Allen grew up with a fundamental insecure relationship to Naomi Ginsberg, a Jewish immigrant from Russia. She was a nudist who took her clothes of in public and were sometimes convinced that the whole world were out for her life, usually not including her son Allen but sometimes even him.
Her paranoia, epilepsy and political affiliation to the Communist Party of USA, left strong impressions on Allen. Often she took him to leftist meetings in New York City where she worked at pre-teen age. She also liked the IWW – the anarchist trade union known as the Wobblies, a line of free thinking that made deep impressions on her son.
Through half Russian Jew Allen Ginsberg there is a straight line back to the early 20th century American anarchism, with the revolutionary Russians Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman to the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti and over to the later counter-culture Ginsberg and others founded in 1950s. His mother had arrived 1904 to Ellis Island and grew up in a strong leftist and immigrant environment in the Lower East Side of Manhattan before moving to New Jersey.
Allen Ginsberg’s father, Louis Ginsberg, was a teacher and published poet who also were into his own world of English literature with little time for his children.
In an interview Allen told of his reluctance towards both his parents:
They were old-fashioned delicatessen philosophers. My father would go around the house either reciting Emily Dickinson and Longfellow under his breath or attacking T. S. Eliot for ruining poetry with his ‘obscurantism.’ My mother made up bedtime stories that all went something like: ‘The good king rode forth from his castle, saw the suffering workers and healed them.’ I grew suspicious of both sides.
In the post-humously published dairy, The Book of Martyrdom and Artifice: First Journals and Poems: 1937-1952, Allen Ginsberg tells of his thoughts and activities in middle and high schools in Paterson, New Jersey. The first entries of the precocious 11 year old are about movies and his mother but he soon excelled in political commentary:
Sunday, January 23, 1938. Came back from Newark today. My mother is still in Greystone [Park Psychiatric Hospital, Morris Plains]. I saw Hollywood Hotel and Sgt. Murphy. I just had another quarrel with my brother.
May 22, 1941. I was a good writer so I got $2 a week position beginning September 1941 as Central High School columnist for Paterson Evening News. Will be layout editor of the school paper the Tatler next term.
He was an eager contributor to the press. Here is what he sent to the New York Times at age 15, commenting on the attack on Pearl Harbor three weeks earlier:
I have long believed, in principle, the ideas of Woodrow Wilson and regretted that we did not choose to live with the world when the time came to ‘resolve that our dead shall not have died in vain’ by joining the League of Nations.
I am normally a more or less passive individual. However, I think I am growing cynical.
The letter continues for another four paragraphs and was not published.
His homosexual urges were early felt but hidden. On his notebook he wrote ‘Paula loves Allen’ which referred to Paul Roth, a handsome sporty guy one class above him. Paul did not know of Allen’s desire and would be surprised to know that he himself loved Allen, as well as the other way around.
For many years Allen suffered from having authorized lobotomy of his mother Naomi at a New Jersey hospital in 1947. In the Jewish funeral ritual of saying a “kaddish” over the dead, he told of her in a great poem with the same title Kaddish: For Naomi Ginsberg after her death 1956. Glimpses of his upbringing shine through the mourning lines:
as I walk toward the Lower East Side—where you walked 50 years ago, little girl—from Russia, eating the first poisonous tomatoes of America—frightened on the dock—
then struggling in the crowds of Orchard Street toward what?—toward Newark—
toward candy store, first home-made sodas of the century, hand-churned ice cream in backroom on musty brown floor boards—
Toward education marriage nervous breakdown, operation, teaching school, and learning to be mad, in a dream /…/
By long nites as a child in Paterson apartment, watching over your nervousness—you were fat—your next move—
By that afternoon I stayed home from school to take care of you—once and for all—when I vowed forever that once man disagreed with my opinion of the cosmos, I was lost—
By my later burden—vow to illuminate mankind—this is release of particulars—(mad as you)—(sanity a trick of agreement)—
But you stared out the window on the Broadway Church corner, and spied a mystical assassin from Newark/…/
‘Allen, you don’t understand—it’s—ever since those 3 big sticks up my back—they did something to me in Hospital, they poisoned me, they want to see me dead—3 big sticks, 3 big sticks’— /…/
I left on the next bus to New York—laid my head back in the last seat, depressed—the worst yet to come?—abandoning her, rode in torpor—I was only 12.
Would she hide in her room and come out cheerful for breakfast? Or lock her door and stare thru the window for sidestreet spies? Listen at keyholes for Hitlerian invisible gas? Dream in a chair—or mock me, by—in front of a mirror, alone?
12 riding the bus at nite thru New Jersey, have left Naomi to Parcae in Lakewood’s haunted house—left to my own fate bus—sunk in a seat—all violins broken—my heart sore in my ribs—mind was empty—Would she were safe in her coffin—
Or back at Normal School in Newark, studying up on America in a black skirt—winter on the street without lunch—a penny a pickle—home at night to take care of Elanor in the bedroom—/…/
O Paterson! I got home late that nite. Louis was worried. How could I be so—didn’t I think? I shouldn’t have left her. Mad in Lakewood. Call the Doctor. Phone the home in the pines. Too late./…/
The telephone rang at 2 A.M.—Emergency—she’d gone mad—Naomi hiding under the bed screaming bugs of Mussolini—Help! Louis! Buba! Fascists! Death!—the landlady frightened—old fag attendant screaming back at her—
Terror, that woke the neighbours—old ladies on the second floor recovering from menopause—all those rags between thighs, clean sheets, sorry over lost babies—husbands ashen—children sneering at Yale, or putting oil in hair at CCNY—or trembling in Montclair State Teachers College like Eugene
Allen Ginsberg left New Jersey for New York in 1943 and enrolled at the college at Columbia University on Upper East Side at 17. He had a vague idea of going into law or some career in government.
His early interest in poetry, reading Walt Whitman at age 15, leftist politics and intellectual debate, was never satisfied in Paterson. But it was in New Jersey he met his mentor, the older poet William Carlos Williams (1883- 1963, also from New Jersey), who liberated Ginsberg’s writing into a personal and impressionistic style inspired by everyday life.
He told Ginsberg that his poems were terrible. Why wasn’t he writing about Paterson Williams wondered? Why wasn’t he writing about his life as a gay person? Why was he writing about life in the wild, when he was rarely even in the wild? Williams said to him, ‘Your letters are wonderful. Your letters are alive. Your poems are dead.’
In the epic poems called Paterson, collected in five volumes, Williams included some of the letters from the young aspiring poet.
Ginsberg went back and began to write the poems that made him famous.
With that literary fervour and an odd upbringing to say the least, Ginsberg took Paterson to Manhattan, starting the Second American Renaissance, that of the Beat Generation..
Bruce Springsteen is the most loyal to New Jersey of the three Garden State cultural heroes. He mentions his home state in at least ten songs; “My hometown”, “Jersey Girl”, “Lost in the flood”, “Jungleland”, “State trooper”, “Open all night”, “Jazz musician”, “Wrecking ball”, “Rosalita”, “Atlantic City”, and “Living on the edge of the world”.
Born 1949 in a working class family of Dutch/Irish/Italian heritage in Freehold, some 50 miles south of Hoboken and the Hudson River, he was less connected to New York that Sinatra and Ginsberg. Early he listened to the local and international hero Sinatra as everyone else in New Jersey did. But Bruce actually thought he could do what Frank did, succeed at the very top level.
In the HBO centennial documentary All or nothing at all, shown on Swedish national television on December 12, 2015, one hundred years after Frank Sinatra’s birth in Hoboken, Bruce Springsteen said:
My first recollection of Frank Sinatra was in a bar in the afternoon when my mother and I went out looking for my father. She said, listen to that, he is from New Jersey. What I remember the most was the deep blues in his voice.
His own family was divided over his music ambition. In the live version of “Growing up” (originally on the debut album of Asbury Park, New Jersey, but here on the album Live 1975-1985), Bruce tells how his father yells at him for playing that “damm guitar, never anything else than that damm guitar”.
Douglas Springsteen, sometimes a driver but mostly unemployed and drinking heavily, wanted his son to become a lawyer or a doctor or just plain middle class. But Adéle Springsteen had a softer side and hoped for more artistic ambitions. She bought him his first guitar at age 16 which played at very small local music venues.
Father and son Springsteen would often get into each others’ hair and were too similar in temper; hot, headstrong, frustrated. With such a father, young Bruce took out all his energy in rebellion and rock’ n’ roll.
Springsteen hung around the bars, arcades and amusement scenes at beach towns by the Jersey Shore, such as the Stone Pony club in Asbury Park.
He made his first appearance in New York by mid 1960s at Cafe Wha?, a folk music café in Greenwich Village where Bob Dylan made his first shows a few years before as well as Jimi Hendrix. But Springsteen was a Jersey rocker and the most well-known performer of the Jersey Shore Sound (Drifters, Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Little Steven van Zandt, Bon Jovi).
Springsteen’s first album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J, in 1973 is devoted to his home state as well as his second, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. By then Bruce had started the E Street Band, which was named after the street in Belmar, New Jersey, where the band pianist David Sancious’s mother lived. She let the band play in her garage so in her honour, the band named itself after her address.
The song ”4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” from the second album is set along the beaches and boardwalks along the Atlantic coast of New Jersey. The mystical fortune teller Madame Marie in the song did actually exist. Springsteen wrote about her after her death in 2008:
Back in the day when I was a fixture on the Asbury Park boardwalk, I’d often stop and talk to Madam Marie as she sat on her folding chair outside the Temple of Knowledge. I’d sit across from her on the metal guard rail bordering the beach, and watched as she led the day trippers into the small back room where she would unlock a few of the mysteries of their future. She always told me mine looked pretty good – she was right. The world has lost enough mystery as it is – we need our fortune tellers. We send our condolences out to her family who’ve carried on her tradition. Over here on E Street, we will miss her.
After a move to California, which both Sinatra and Ginsberg did, Springsteen moved back to New Jersey, at a farm outside Colts Neck.
He still visits his local friends as I heard from a close friend who was surprised when the rock star suddenly knocked on the door to the house my friend visited some time ago. Bruce got in, grabbed a beer and everyone acted as if he was any local Jersey man in his 60s. My friend and he talked for while. A hero. Or just any guy.
I never went to New Jersey during my visits to USA. This longwinded essay about the two areas, both starting with New and the three Jersey men, will have to take Southern route for me to intervene.
1975 I left my hometown, Uppsala, a small city with an old university and just an hour north of Stockholm. As an exchange student I stayed a year with a family in Mountain View, Arkansas, way up in the Ozark Mountains.
At Christmas I went to Detroit to see another exchange student who had stayed in my family in Uppsala earlier that year. I did not come up with an idea for a present but the parents in my Arkansas family had heard of some Bruce Springsteen. He was slightly too young for them as we used to listen to Moose Alison, early Dylan and Arlo Guthrie in the nice middle class and artistic family.
But I remember to have brought the legendary album Born to run with me to Detroit. At the time I did not think much of the music, found it too noisy. It was not until I left the US in summer 1976 that I discovered his great music.
While hanging out with two American graduate students, passing through Sweden on their world trip, in the student area Flogsta outside Uppsala and getting stoned I realized what at song writer and performer he was. While I had been away Springsteen had already played at Stockholm Konserthuset in 1975, a concert that his Swedish counterpart, the bohemian musician and writer Ulf Lundell, attended. Like meeting God he said afterwards.
The next years I delved into his books as well as the Beats’, Kerouac, Ginsberg et al and joined the Youth Communists League (KU) and the Left Party Communists (VPK), got tainted Lennon glasses and long hair. By spring 1979 I had led a course on Karl Marx Das Kapital and worked as a dishwasher at the local radical and progressive music establishment Uppsala Musikforum and in schools and hospitals.
After working for 45 consecutive days in a row I had enough money to travel back to USA. The Swedish singer Lundell had mentioned 47nd Street in New York in his song “USA” on the album Törst so I booked a hotel room there.
The next three weeks I spent with people I met on the street and at bars. I knew of course of the bohemian atmosphere around Greenwich Village. At a vegetarian restaurant by Spring Street, that is South of Houston Street, SoHo, I met an interesting woman.
Her name was Cate Miodini and she was a graduate of the women’s Barnard College at Columbia. We started talking about life and plans. She was pregnant but had nowhere to live so she slept in her car, a Swedish SAAB, model 99. Her main purpose was to set up an anthropological version of the early 8th century Anglo-Saxon text Beowulf, as a play out in the woods in upstate New York. But she needed cash and here was a young naive Scandinavian with even less direction in life. I was stingy and made a fool of myself lending her the money and tried to get the back.
So we hung out and I took the steering wheel seat in the SAAB as her tummy was too big for sleeping there. All the time she spoke incessantly about all she had done – played in a film with French director Louis Malle and whatnot – and what she needed to do. A madcap.
She was a great networker as New Yorkers are and introduced me to a nice group of artists in East Village, notably Charles J. Stanley, Il Pittore Euforico as he called himself after an Italian visit and also the name of his art publishing initiative. I visited his loft at 10th Street and 2nd Ave in East Village, but declined his invitations to stay over as he proposed to make me happy with a gay smirk in his eye.
I went uptown one day to Columbia at Upper Westside to listen to Allen Ginsberg chanting his Plutonian Ode, a protest against the experimental and purely laboratory nuclear reactor at the university department of physics. Being an antinuclear activist myself with three Barsebäck marches in Southern Sweden behind me, I attended his gathering of hippies, environmentalists, spiritual groups and potheads. Ginsberg’s voice sounded sleepy over his alma mater.
Outside campus there was the usual layout of pamphlets and books from leftist and alternative organisations. I stopped by the Marxist-Humanists’ little pile of books, mostly by the founder Raya Dunayevskaya, one time Leon Trotsky’s secretary. I loved keeping track of the various groups and ideas of the New Left and had checked all the six local book leftist cafés in Uppsala by the time I left Sweden.
Two kind intellectual looking young men in their late 20s befriended me and after some chat about my living quarters in New York, the driver’s seat in a SAAB, they offered me a space in their basement in Greenwich Village. So I moved in there and joined them for a week or two.
The slightly mad woman, the pregnant car owner and Beowulf theatre producer, was mentioned and I felt sorry for her. The house holders with more experience of New York were reluctant to let such a person into the basement, but being Marxist-Humanists they could not reject a houseless pregnant woman, who also was an academic albeit of the more loose kind. She ate large amounts of vitamins and energy pills that we all thought were drugs at first, but it seemed just to be one of the first organic commercial crazes in the counter- culture.
So we stayed both in the basement where a phone was available for free due to some illegal installations. I called back home and talked for hours with my Uppsala friends at no cost.
Time flew away fast while visiting the music halls CBGB in East Village and Max Kansas City and hanging out with the daughters of the Argentinean writer Luiza Valenzuela, who I stepped into while dancing in the streets.
Through my new friend the artist Charles Stanley in East Village, I got to know of a group of yurts in rural Maine, small one-room wooden houses that resembled Mongolian tents. After a month in New York, I hitchhiked there and surprised the land owner with my unannounced presence.
My travels then went by bus, trains and thumb over Portland, Maine, Tufts University, Springfield and Cambridge, Mass., Toledo Ohio, East Lansing, Michigan and then down south to see the family who had hosted me for a year as exchange student. Then over San Antonio, Texas, over the deserts to San Diego, boarding a flight to Honolulu.
Back to San Francisco and the Bay Area for a while and then the Grey Rabbit bus – a fairly straight version of the Merry Pranksters’ bus which took Neal Cassidy, Ken Keasy and members of the Grateful Dead across USA in 1964. The bus took a week from S.F. to N.Y, while making stops at hot springs in Nevada in the moonlight. Drugs kept drivers awake for the destination and then they went back. To and fro.
I left New York in the fall 1979 as my conscription for a non-military service as a child care minder came up back home in Uppsala. A few years later I listened to Allen Ginsberg again, this time at my old employer and the center of the local alternative culture scene, Uppsala Musikforum.
I had moved to Copenhagen but was back for a few days just to listen to Ginsberg and his partner Peter Orlovsky. The evening was scholarly and spiritual with Tibetan Buddhist chants and homage to William Blake, the 18th century British poet who Allen Ginsberg always referred to.
In Denmark I tried to survive as a freelance journalist writing for Swedish arts, union and alternative magazines with little success. After two visits to India later in the 1980s I felt ready to take on New York again.
I had become enrolled in PhD studies in philosophy at Uppsala University, but had too far out intellectual views for its analytical and logical directions at the department. New School for Social Research, a classical leftist and free spirited academic establishment by Union Square, welcomed me to take a masters degree in fall 1993.
By then I had found what was once called French Theory, that is post-structuralism and semiotics from Paris. 20 years earlier at Columbia in New York, the French theoretical avantgardists such as Michael Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, J-F Lyotard et al visited their counterparts and lectured at the conference Schizo-Culture for an audience that included 2000 of New York’s utmost radical and strung out artists and activists, from Andy Warhol to Kathy Acker and Richard Hell of the new wave punk band Television.
Many of these cultural and theoretical ideas would under the 1980s be labelled as postmodernism. I took a deep bite into it and when in New York 1993, I visited Jim Fleming who as involved in the 1970s around the journal which made the Schizo-Culture conference in 1975, Semiotext(e).
He lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, not far from where I stayed in Brooklyn at Long Island Collage off Flatbush Avenue, right across from Manhattan. Still experimenting with ideas and expressions, Jim showed me around the editorial office of his latest collective arts and publishing initiative, Autonomedia. But that is another story.
I left New York in December 1993 with a few term papers in the history of philosophy on a floppy disc which I published 20 years, see my collection Philosophy papers.
Not until 2001 did I return to the US, this time visiting my sister in Chicago and for an educational technology research project at Stanford University in California.
American English became my second language during my stay in Arkansas 1975-1976. I had read literature in English in Sweden by then, especially Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury, but in Mountain View High School in Arkansas, the challenges were harder with courses in Advanced English Composition and Speech. My English teacher was also the mother in the family I stayed with so there was no place to hide. She was kind and very sensible. I needed that.
Later I have lived a with an English speaking wife from India which added her country to my list of motherlands, after Sweden, Denmark, France and USA. I guess I have a thing for America that goes way back. Not just the impression from Sinatra and his lavish life style, but a family trait taken from my mother, Margareta Sjunnesson.
She left her hometown Linköping in 1949 and stayed abroad for over two years. First in New York, then San Francisco, working as a household help with families. Her approach to life was American, less meek than most Swedes.
I owe this writing to her.
Sinatra. The Man and the Artist by John Lahr 1997
I celebrate myself. The somewhat private life of Allen Ginsberg by Bill Morgan, 2006
Grey Rabbit Bus