Home Is Springsteen’s Promised Land

The locals look, but there’s a zone of privacy they afford the uncommon man in their midst.

Lillian Africano did a double-take, not because she was surprised to see Bruce Springsteen in the video store, but because of his wheels. As a rule, rock stars don’t drive ratty station wagons.

As usual, no one at Video on the Ritz bothered the Boss – though Africano did note what her famous Rumson, N.J., neighbor was renting. (It was A Night to Remember.)

“He’s laid back,” says Meredith McHeffey, 21, a clerk at the Fairhaven store. “He wears the same baggy pants as my boyfriend, as opposed to Geraldo, who comes in with dark glasses and a hat.”

Maybe their respect is out of gratitude that he’s returned. After a fling with Beverly Hills, Springsteen married the girl from the neighborhood, singer Patti Scialfa of Deal, N.J., and has reunited with his boys, the E Street Band, whom he fired in 1988. Their six sold-out dates at the First Union Center and Spectrum, which begin tomorrow, will be the guys’ first in Philly in 11 years.

These days, when you go searching for Bruce Springsteen, you don’t look for Madame Marie’s booth in Asbury Park (shuttered) or clubs like the Stone Pony (a failed swing joint) and the Student Prince (now a go-go bar).

But you might try the Victory Market in Red Bank, where the proprietor has been known to push frozen Italian bread by saying, “Bruce just bought some.”

And you’d have gotten lucky had you attended Jim and Donna Andreen’s wedding last September. Their guests spotted Springsteen at the American Hotel in his hometown, Freehold – escorting his mother to her high school reunion.

A note was slipped, and soon Springsteen was posing for the photograph now displayed in the Howell, N.J., couple’s living room, the bride between her husband in a tuxedo and Springsteen in black.

“I was thinking of cutting my husband out of the photo and sending it to the National Enquirer,” says Donna, 39, a travel agent. “Bruce’s Mystery Wedding.”

For most of the decade, Springsteen, 49, has called New Jersey home again. Though he still owns what one of his songs calls that “bourgeois home in the Hollywood Hills,” the $14 million mansion from his former marriage to actress Julianne Phillips, he’s rearing a family in Rumson, a town of old money and occasional celebrities such as Geraldo Rivera, Jon Bon Jovi and Heather Locklear. When school’s out, the Springsteens – including their children Evan, 9, Jessica Rae, 7, and Sam, 5 – are on their 378-acre horse farm in nearby Colts Neck.

“What you see and what you hear is real, not a pose, not an image-builder to support the working-man ethic that runs through his songs,” says Robert Santelli, a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame official who is writing a book about Springsteen and the Jersey Shore scene.

“The rock-star posturing that others have to enforce and live up to, he’s free of that. As a result, he’s probably a freer man than certainly most rock icons – and he is indeed that, especially in New Jersey.”

It makes you wonder about the burden of celebrity that seems to weigh on other stars.

Anthony DeCurtis, who interviewed Springsteen for Rolling Stone last fall, says it’s all in how artists present themselves.

“If you’re walking around with 20 models trailing after you, that generates a certain kind of energy, and that’s what comes back to you,” DeCurtis says. “If you’re sitting in a restaurant with the wife and kids in a city you’ve grown up with, that also comes back to you. People treat you like you should be there.”

As Springsteen himself said in 1997: “Ninety percent of rock star isolation is invented. . . . To me, I go to the grocery store. It’s not an issue. If somebody on the way there says to me, ‘Hey, I like your music,’ well, if that bothers you, stay home.”

* When Springsteen was growing up at the Shore, “this was the Park Avenue of New Jersey,” says Africano, a travel and romance-novel writer, leading a tour of Springsteen’s neighborhood of meandering stone walls and new construction made to look old. Rumson, half an hour and several tax brackets from Freehold, is a town in which a miniature backhoe picks up garden trimmings on trash day.

Like most properties in the area, Springsteen’s $2.5 million home doesn’t call attention to itself. A half-dozen SUVs are parked in the driveway. Springsteen is off this day, between the Boston and Washington legs of his tour.

A call to the security force on the property doesn’t yield an invitation to chat. “You want me to lose my job?” a guard tells a go-between. The security is necessary because fans have found their way onto the property, emulating Springsteen’s own flight over the Graceland fence in 1975. Elvis’ people put him in a cab.

Africano says that when Springsteen moved in, to discourage unexpected company, he would appear often at a local school, “just so they could look at him.”

He’s managed an almost-normal home life – dressing up to receive Halloween trick-or-treaters, attending functions at the children’s school (the name of which he prefers not to publicize) and driving himself around, such as to the Electric Factory in Center City four years ago, where he backed his old bar-scene buddy Joe Grushecky.

Loyalty and generosity are words heard a lot in Springsteen country.

In April, Springsteen donated a guitar to the Rumson Country Day School auction, and when the bidding wasn’t high enough, he threw in a 30-minute lesson. That brought in $27,000. Since 1995, low-income residents of Monmouth County have received $350,000 for home repairs, unaware that their angel was Springsteen until the Newark Star-Ledger reported on his charity, the Foundation.

The tale that most shows Springsteen’s soul resides with Steve Eitelberg, who owns a clothing store in Deal and who has known the man since he was a shy teenager who couldn’t even make eye contact.

Two and half years ago, Eitelberg’s wife, Lynn, was dying of lung cancer. One morning at the Monmouth County Medical Center, a nurse told him “someone on the phone says he’s Bruce Springsteen.” Springsteen asked if he could visit. He stayed the whole afternoon, telling stories, singing “Secret Garden” – her favorite song – just stroking her arm.

The next afternoon “there he was again in the doorway,” says Eitelberg, 53, over an extra-large cheese pizza in Neptune. Springsteen settled in and started doodling a stick-figure portrait of his family. “This is Bruce, this is me. Let’s put notes here, because I’m Bruce. Let’s put the kids here.”

Lynn motioned. “Oh, you want me to sign it. You want it to be worth 50 cents.”

He returned on a third day, with his guitar, but by then she had sunk into a coma. “He showed up at her funeral and sang ‘Secret Garden’ over her casket for me and my kids,” Eitelberg says.

Since then, on the same day each year, Springsteen has walked into Eitelberg’s shop, and they’ve polished off a few bottles. Last year, Springsteen noticed a set of congas that Eitelberg’s therapist encouraged him to take up after his wife’s death.

“You’re gonna play drums in my band,” Springsteen told him. When he came to pick up clothes for the European leg of the tour in April, he walked into Eitelberg’s office and asked, “You been practicing?”

Eitelberg made his musical debut on Aug. 9 before 20,000 people at the Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford. Calling “my haberdasher” to the stage, Springsteen had him join the band for “Spirit in the Night,” a song nearly as old as their friendship.

“He’s just what his song says,” Eitelberg adds. “He’s a local hero.”

* News researcher Frank Donahue contributed to this article.

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