By Mark Neuling
Field Camera Operator for TechTV

Look back through your life and ask yourself who your mentors were, who helped to mold and influence me? Most of us will have had many of the same ones. It might have been a teacher, coach, clergy, neighbor, relative, or someone at work who took the time to teach and encourage us. And of course there were our parents. Maybe even someone we only met once could have been the catalyst for us to reach beyond our potential, and as corny as it sounds, to change the course of our lives.

After I graduated from college I still had no clue what to do with myself. My brother was at UC Berkeley and my sister was just about to enter college. With two kids still in college and mortgage payments to make there wasn’t a lot of discretionary income for my parents. But for a graduation present they got me my first real camera, a Pentax K1000; I started shooting concert pictures with it. Concerts are hard to photograph; my pictures were awful.

My dad was a great influence on me, but pictures didn’t mean much to him. I have only a handful of pictures from my father’s side of the family. His was a family of educators from austere German and Irish stock. They were teachers and principals - no nonsense professions. Dad taught seventh and eighth grade for 17 years. I think he hated nearly every minute of it. So of course after college I decided to follow in his footsteps and teach too, I got a teaching credential.

In 1981 there were few full-time teaching jobs in the Bay Area. I could only find part-time and substitute teaching positions. “Wait five years and we’ll all be retiring,” one old-timer once told me. When you’re 27 years old the prospect of having to wait five more years for full-time job is not what you want to hear. To supplement my income I was working as a stock clerk at a Sears and Roebuck on nights and weekends. Unloading tires and batteries from trucks paid a lot better than teaching. Heck, it paid a lot better than television did for many years. I could pay my rent, buy camera equipment and go to concerts. Still there wasn’t much direction to my life, and dad was beginning to worry.

Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s musicians were more concerned about the music and not about controlling their image. I’d never even heard of MTV. I’d buy tickets to concerts weeks or even months in advance – getting the best seat that was available. Security back then was only interested in people who might be trying to sneak in liquor bottles. There was no searching of handbags and only cursory body pat-downs. Hold your camera under your coat, hand your ticket to the usher and you were in.

At the smaller nightclubs and venues I could wear my cameras dangling from my neck. No one at the door tried to stop me or ever questioned what I was doing. I was just a fan who wanted some souvenir photos. I’d get in line early to get a seat up close. I’d even use a flash. No one ever seemed to mind. Once, at a Bob Dylan concert an usher saw me with my cameras and actually moved me to an empty seat closer to the stage. Those were innocent times.

© Mark Neuling

Technically I didn’t have a clue as to what I was doing. But I learned that I could push 400 ASA Ektachrome and through sheer trial and error my concert pictures began to get better.

The Sears store that I worked at had a small coffee shop. You could order a greasy cheeseburger or tuna on toast there. It had roaches the size of a quarter and I rarely ate there. Patty ran the coffee shop. Her married name was Irish but she was of Italian decent. Short, with black hair and quick to laugh she was divorced with two young school aged daughters. She literally had pulled herself up by the apron strings. The coffee shop was the one department that nobody ever wanted to manage. They worked her to the bone.

Patty lived in a neighborhood of small, flat-topped frame homes on the other side of the freeway. A neighborhood that was built along the edge of the San Francisco Bay for the GIs returning from the Second World War. It was then and always has been a working class community.

There was an older neighbor couple, Douglas and Adele, who looked after Patty’s girls when they got out of school every day. They had moved out to California from New Jersey around the time their only son had graduated from high school. Douglas was a retired bus driver and Adele still worked at a large property management company in town. Their son had been quit successful in the music business; his name was Bruce Springsteen.

It was no secret that Patty knew the Springsteen’s. While Bruce had been on both the covers of Time and Newsweek he wasn’t yet the icon he’s since become. Eventually I screwed up the courage to show some of my Springsteen pictures to her. Pictures I’d taken at a concert the year before. She was impressed; so much so that she thought his parents might enjoy them as well. So one night after work off we went to the Springsteen’s home.

Patty let herself in. The small living room was dominated by a giant, ebony, grand piano. There were a few small snapshots of the family’s famous son above the mantelpiece. I heard Douglas Springsteen before I saw him. His breathing was labored and heavy. He was a short balding man with thick, sausage-like fingers. I wondered if this is what Bruce Springsteen was going to look like in another 30 years. He didn’t say much. He looked at my pictures and then took me into a small room just off the living room. The diminutive room was too big to be a closet but too tiny to be much of anything else. It was a shrine. Gold and Platinum records hung from the walls. More, still in their cardboard boxes, lay on the floor waiting to be hung. Pictures and scrapbooks from fans lined the shelves. And here I was, another acolyte, bringing my offerings to the altar.

© Mark Neuling

In concerts Bruce Springsteen use to tell a story about the relationship between his father and himself. As a teenager he would be upstairs practicing his guitar and his father would be downstairs yelling at him to turn the volume down. “It was never a Gibson or Fender guitar,” recalled Springsteen, it was always “turn down that god damned guitar.”

Yet as Douglas Springsteen showed me around the awards and industry accolades amassed by his son, I couldn’t help but feel the pride he held for his boy.

About then Mrs. Springsteen arrived home from work. Whereas Mr. Springsteen was quiet and stoic in the nature of his Dutch heritage, Mrs. Springsteen was expressive and verbal. She was the Italian one. She welcomed me into her home as if I were as long lost cousin. Her pride, devotion and love for her boy were obvious. She oohed and ahhed about my pictures.

Eventually we settled on the piano bench in the middle of their living room. From the bench she had pulled a concert program from a Madison Square Garden show that she had attended a few years earlier. As she thumbed through it she pointed out all the members of the band to me. “This is so and so,” she’d say, “he’s married. They’re all married,” she said, “except Bruce.” Spoken like a true mother.

In the middle of the program was a two-page photo of her famous son, guitar over his shoulder in a rock and roll pose. The picture was autographed. Mrs. Springsteen was so excited about it. How nice I thought to myself, her son must have autographed her program. She turned the page towards me and I looked down at the signature. It was John Travolta’s! She had gotten John Travolta to sign the program backstage at the concert. Here you are the mother of a rock and roll giant and yet you’re just as giddy as the school girl who just got the high school quarterback to sign her yearbook.

By then Patty had gathered her girls up and it was time to leave. My time basking in the hospitality of the Springsteen’s was about to end. As we said our good-byes at the door, me with my photos tucked under my arm Douglas Springsteen said something that would alter my life. Motioning to my pictures he said, “You ought to do this for a living.”

With that, Patty, her girls and I disappeared into the inky blackness on that long ago evening.

It would be a couple of more years before I acted on Mr. Springsteen’s advice. Shooting concerts was no way to make a respectable living. I didn’t have the training or the confidence to be a newspaper photographer. But eventually I would go back to college and study television, something I’d had an interest in more than a decade before at the end of high school.

© Mark Neuling

© Mark Neuling

Now I wish there was some way to end this by saying that the story came full circle, but it didn’t. Earlier this year I got to cover the Grammy Awards in New York City. In a way I was shooting concerts again. My producer and I spent many futile hours backstage trying to get some of the nominees to interview with us; Bruce Springsteen being amongst them. Maybe, if the opportunity arose, I would be able to thank the son for the encouragement that the father had offered. We came close, but this business can be a lot like fishing, sometimes the big ones get away.

Douglas Springsteen died several years ago. Mrs. Springsteen long ago moved away from the little house down by the freeway. Some sons reach and touch millions. Some fathers reach and touch only a few. In the end it doesn’t really matter how many lives are changed, just that they were. Thanks Douglas.

© Mark Neuling 2003
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Email info: markneuling@techtvcorp.com

TechTV is the world’s leading cable and satellite television channel covering technology news, information, and entertainment from a consumer, industry, and market perspective 24 hours a day.  Available in more than 75 million households across 70 countries, TechTV is also the world’s largest producer and distributor of programming about technology.
Copyright TechTV 2003 TechTV Inc. All rights reserved.


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