And me I just got tired
Of hangin' in them dusty arcades
bangin' them pleasure machines
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Madame Marie's "Temple of Knowledge"
Long before the cast of "Jersey Shore" turned New Jersey into the butt of a national joke, Bruce Springsteen captured the state's boardwalk culture in the musical snapshot that is "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)," known by most fans simply as "Sandy."
Unlike those enigmatic musicians that fight to protect the autobiographical seeds of their songs, Springsteen has been quite frank about "Sandy"'s connection to his own life. "Then you get 'Sandy,'" Springsteen has said, "That's the guy and he's on the boardwalk, and I guess that was me then, when I was still around Asbury. And there's the girl.... Here it is. This is the beginning of the whole trip that's about to take place."
It's been an amazing trip, of course. Springsteen's won 20 Grammy Awards, two Golden Globes, an Academy Award, and a couple dozen other accolades. He's in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the New Jersey Hall of Fame, the Songwriters Hall of Fame, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Yet, at the start of it all, he was a shaggy kid slinking around New Jersey with a guitar and big dreams. Influenced by artists like Bob Dylan and Van Morrison, he was trying to find his own sound, all the while absorbing the carnival-esque world around him.
Asbury Park is part of the Jersey Shore (geographic location, not reality television series) and part of the New York Metropolitan area. Asbury Park started out with a successful boardwalk that attracted a lot of businesses on the late 1800s, but the area had largely lost its luster by the time Springsteen came out with "Sandy" on their 1973 album The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle
. Riots broke out in the city in 1970 and left a good portion of its architecture in ruins. As a side note, those riots occurred on the 4th of July, and provide another potentially interesting angle of imagination for the song.
It was in that blue collar town of abandoned dreams that the narrator of "Sandy" found himself. It's the same territory tread by the narrator of 1975's Springsteen classic "Born to Run"… a wistful yet dark universe full of "stone-out locals" and "switchblade lovers" and "greasers" floating through the salty seaside air like ghosts. In a spectral world of "dusty arcades" our narrator spends his nights "chasing factory girls" and wishing for something better.
Asbury Park Boardwalk, c 1935 (outside the Berkeley)
Like a great work of literature, the song leaves us wondering where it really goes. Our narrator tries to convince Sandy to leave with him, but she seems more content to dress "like a star in one of those cheap little seaside bars." Our narrator won't accept that life. No, he insists that "for me, this boardwalk life is through."
Yet, in the end, he is pulled back into his lover's arms, where the "pier lights our carnival life forever. Oh, love me tonight, and I promise I'll love you forever." Springsteen leaves us there, with this kid caught in the spider web of frustrated ambition and uncertain prospects. Still, we are left with the notion that the boy's foolishness is but a one night thing. The inner struggle isn't over. There's still hope he'll get out and make something of himself. Or, maybe that's just how the eternal optimist in me likes to see it. Either way, it's a testament to Springsteen's talent that the outcome of that imaginary life wrinkles and rankles my mind so much.
Whether Sandy was an actual person, or just an imaginary amalgamation of different girls, we will never know. What we do know is that the song's Madame Marie, whom "the cops finally busted…for telling fortune better than they do," was indeed a real fortune teller on the Asbury Park boardwalk. Her name was Marie Castello. She died on June 27, 2008, at 93 years of age.
Madame Marie's fortune telling booth was called The Temple of Knowledge and was an Asbury Park fixture for 70 years. Her nickname was "the gypsy queen of the boardwalk." Springsteen started visiting her at the age of 17, one year after his mother bought him his first guitar. She supposedly predicted that Springsteen would become famous, though The Boss later joked that she told all her musician clients the same thing. Either her fortune telling skills were well above par, or she was simply a very charismatic woman, for her client list included names like Ray Charles, Woody Allen, The Rolling Stones, and Elton John.
She certainly left a strong impression on Springsteen. In addition to putting her into the lyrics of "Sandy," he dedicated a July 4, 2008, performance to her. At that show he said, "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 fortunetellers. We send our condolences out to her family who've carried on her tradition. Over here on E Street, we will miss her."
Ocean Avenue, Asbury Park
In recent history, Asbury Park renovated its boardwalk and has been mounting a comeback. Before her death, Madame Marie predicted that it would be a success. The city is still popular with musical acts such as The E Street Band, Bon Jovi, and Patti Smith, and is a proving ground for budding bands, as well as one of the key areas to define the Jersey Shore Sound. Just like the characters of Springsteen's music, you can beat up the city all you want, but you'll never keep it down.
"Sandy" was never released as a single. The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle
did not initially sell well, but won critical acclaim, and later sold well after "Born to Run" exploded onto the scene. Rolling Stone
ranked it as No. 132 on its 500 greatest albums of all time list.
Today, "Sandy" does for the Asbury Park of the early 1970s what Tom Waits did for San Diego and Van Morrison did for Belfast. It captures a place the way a poet's eyes see it and it places that photograph in a protective case so that generations later we can close our eyes and listen and travel back in time. Sadly hopeful, exuberantly melodramatic, "Sandy" is rock and roll at its most tender. All these years later, one can bet, there are still young men wandering the small town boardwalks of the world with this song spinning in their minds, imagining escape and imagining love, and wondering which price will be worse to pay.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.
4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy) Songfacts
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