By In Stuff

Turning 50 and the Boss


“I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear … the last one you’d ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise … then the apocalypse.”

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

A couple of months ago, my wife Margo was cleaning or snooping — after 19 years of marriage it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference — and she came across this old sky blue 59 cent notebook of mine. She had never seen it before and so she opened it up because, yes, 19 years of marriage. Inside, she found what she thought was an entire notebook filled with poems — poems I had written 25 years ago.

Only those weren’t poems. They were songs.

* * *

“Over months, I could feel the story I was aching to tell seep into my lyrics. Slowly, I found words I could stand to sing, always my first, last and only criteria to move ahead.”

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

My back hurts. Well, it isn’t always my back. Sometimes my neck hurts. Sometimes it’s my hip. Sometimes it’s my knee or my ankle or I just have a throbbing headache. It’s just easier to say my back hurts. It’s something my friends instinctively understand … because their backs hurt too.

This isn’t a complaint, by the way. It’s a celebration. I know it sounds like a complaint, especially to younger people. When I was young and heard 50-year-olds gripe about their backs hurting, it sure sounded like kvetching to me. This is because, when you’re young, the alternative to “my back hurts” is simply the opposite: “My back doesn’t hurt.

At some point in life, the alternative changes. And “My back hurts” becomes much better than the new alternative.

* * *

“Music on the radio is a shared fever dream, a collective hallucination, a secret amongst millions and a whisper in the whole country’s ear.”

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

I never intended for anyone to hear the songs I wrote as a young man. They were my secret. They still are. I have no understanding of music beyond what I hear on the radio. I can’t play an instrument, though I occasionally wake up with a hunger to learn. I can’t hold a tune. I once sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” during the seventh inning stretch at a minor-league baseball game. The horrified look of the public relations manager who set that up told the story. He fully expected to be fired for putting paying customers through hell.

These songs I wrote all those years ago, they just poured out of me, uninvited. Normally when you see something a phrase like that (“The songs just poured out of him”) you might expect the songs to be good. Songs poured out of Bob Dylan. Songs poured out of Paul McCartney. Songs poured out of Bruce. After all, can bad songs really just pour out of a person?

Yes. Yes, they can. I always liked the line in Arthur:

“Everyone who drinks is not a poet. Some of us drink because we’re not poets.”

* * *

“(Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny”). Not that it would BE funny, but that would all SEEM funny.”

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

Lost in Traffic.

Keep Me Dancing.

No. I Didn’t.

An Open Floor

Don’t Let Me Go. 

Downtown Utica.

White Carpet.

Fool’s Bluff.

Two Kids.


I’m looking through this notebook now … grimacing … feeling embarrassed … grimacing more … wanting to hide in a tree somewhere… remembering some of the horrifying tunes that went with these words … I can’t believe how many songs I wrote back then.

* * *

“People don’t come to rock shows to learn something. They come to be reminded of something they already know and feel deep down in their gut. That when the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one and one equals three.”

— Born to Run. Bruce Springsteen

* * *

When “Born to Run,” Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, came out last year, I wanted too much from it. Don’t we always want too much from autobiographies of our heroes? One of the basic themes of magic is that you should never explain how the illusion is done. There are numerous reasons for this, but the reason I cling to is that when you explain how the card got to the top of the deck or how the coin vanished, you take just a little bit of wonder out of the world. Autobiographies do that too. You often find that the subject’s genius is reduced to cliches or drug-induced episodes or unappetizing ambition. I once read an autobiography of a successful and brilliant man. He wrote all about the famous women he’d seduced. That kind of ruined the magic.

With Springsteen, of course, it was more than just wanting the book to be good  — I knew it would be good. Bruce wrote Born to Run with the help of my editor, Jon Karp, who is impossibly great. Bruce’s writing combined with Jon’s sense of art, well, the book was certainly going to be terrific. And it is.

But I need more than a terrific book from the Boss. I’m turning 50. And Bruce Springsteen is the one guy I know who seemed to figure it out, the one guy I know who ages but doesn’t age, who has endured all the pain and anguish of life but who still sings Badlands and Dancing in the Dark and Thunder Road like it’s the first time.

What I wanted from the book was nothing less than a guide for growing old and staying young all at the same time.

* * *

“Trust is a fragile thing. It requires allowing others to see as much of ourselves as we have the courage to reveal.”

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

Why did I write all these songs? I wish I could remember. I was living in a tiny apartment in Augusta. It had no air conditioning. I worried about a lot of stuff  — mainly that I would never get out of that apartment in Augusta. I worried that I would never fall in love or, more to the point, no one would ever fall in love with me. I worried that I did not have the talent to do what I wanted to do. I worried that I would not have enough money to pay the rent. I worried that I didn’t have anything worth saying.

Based on these words, I wasn’t wrong.

Walking through downtown

Never felt more lost, never felt more found

People look up, I just stare at the ground

Walking through downtown

Who WAS that kid? What is he doing there in that crummy apartment, dishes piled high, pizza boxes scattered, writing lyrics in a sky blue notebook, singing to himself to make sure the words match the absurd melody in his head? He knows — I can see him — he KNOWS that he will never do anything with these songs, never let anyone else hear them, never try to get someone who can actually play music and sing to perform them. He knows that they will die in that notebook.

Still, he keeps writing them. He’s 25 years old. It was 25 years ago. His back doesn’t hurt.

* * *

“I wasn’t hearing myself so regularly on the radio anymore. What we’d done was getting farther away, receding into rock’s glorious but embalmed past. I didn’t like that. We were far too formidable a unit to go gently into that good night. of rock history.”

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

Fifty. There’s a Web site out there that shows what people accomplished at your age. At 50, it seems, the best anyone could come up with was that Herman Hesse wrote Steppenwolf, Antoine Lavoisier went to the guillotine, Tolstoy considered suicide and Samuel Adams directed the Boston Tea Party. Also, someone named Larry Silverman got a third-degree black belt. It doesn’t exactly fill the heart with endless possibilities.

Fifty. It’s the year you go to on golf’s Senior — oh, excuse me, “Champions” — Tour, the year you get that first letter from AARP, the year you have to stop clicking that “Age 35-49” box. No Major League baseball player has ever been 50. No NFL player has ever been 50. I am older than 13 NBA coaches — one of them I saw play in high school.

Fifty. It’s just a number, George Foreman will tell you. It is that. It’s a pretty big number, though, a golden anniversary, the number of states in America, the speed which Sandra Bullock had to keep the bus going or else it would blow up.

* * *

“We are more than an idea, an aesthetic. We are a philosophy, a collective, with a professional code of honor. It is based on the principle that we bring our best, everything we have, on this night, to remind you of everything you have, your best.”

Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen

* * *

Every time I see Bruce Springsteen play, I wait for Born to Run, wait to see if he and the band still give it their best, everything they have. What could that song even mean to Bruce now after all these years? Death traps? Suicide raps? Last chance power drives? How can he and Nils and the Mighty Max and Little Steven and the rest find anything still living inside that song after they have played it to death, night after night, so many years, so many stops, all over the world?

Only … they do. They find the life. I’ve seen and heard the older Eagles play “Hotel California,” and the older Rolling Stones play “Gimme Shelter,” and the older Robert Plant sing “Whole Lotta Love,” and the older Clapton play “Layla,” and the older McCartney sing “Let It Be.” They performed those songs professionally. It was a thrill to hear in its own way, a bit like watching a great hitter who only recently retired hit home runs on Old Timer’s Day. But the spark was gone. The newness was gone. How could it not be?

And yet, somehow, Bruce and the Band, they find the life. How? Is it in his book?

* * *

“About my voice. First of all, I don’t have much of one. … It’s a journeyman’s instrument and, on its own, it’s never going to take you to higher ground. … But what could I do? It was the only voice I had.”

Born to Run. Bruce Springsteen.

* * *

Friday morning, two days before I turn 50, I hear the alarm go off at 5:50 a.m. Then at 5:59 a.m. Then at 6:08 a.m. This is my wife’s idea of how to wake up. I have never been able to snooze between alarms. My back hurts, of course. Also my teeth. I just had some dental work done. I have to eat soft foods for a while.

The topics of the car ride with the girls to school include the funniest scenes in movie history — with a big nod to Bill Pullman’s turn as the dumbest man on the face of the Earth in “Ruthless People,” — and the enduring philosophical question about whether you are allowed to be frustrated when the car just misses a green light if it was your own lateness that caused us to leave a few minutes late. The dropoff goes as smoothly as these things can go (only two near accidents) and then I’m alone in the car, driving back home, muttering about cars that drive too fast in a school zone.

A song pops into my head. It’s not a song you’ve ever heard, not a song anyone else has ever heard. I start to sing along with my memory.

She walks into the bar, looking for a hero

She says she’s come too far to stop just yet

She’ll dance around the room, like any other night

Smell of sweet perfume playing Russian roulette

I saw her one night, from the little balcony in that little apartment in Augusta. It was the balcony that made me choose the place. It overlooked a courtyard. The rent was $310 a month when I first moved in. It moved up to $340 later.

Her looks begin to fade, like a photo in the sun

But enough beauty stayed so she does not stop

Screams, “I want a hero.” Volunteers appear.

She wouldn’t know what to do, though, if her hero showed up.

I wasn’t in love with her or anything. I barely even saw her through the darkness as she walked through the courtyard. I did hear someone call her name.

I’d tell her that I’m no doctor but I play one on TV

I cry a lot in public, but just for the sympathy

And I would be your hero, but I wouldn’t know where to park

So, why won’t you love me, Melissa in the dark

I remember that night, the humidity, the gnats, the dim lights of the lamp posts in the courtyard, me in an old rocking chair someone had given me, rocking back and forth, furiously writing the song down in that sky blue notebook as if taking dictation. The weird part is the one thing I don’t remember at all is what Melissa looked like.

No, I never wanted to be President, only Secretary of State

But that was many years ago when I thought I could be great

I’d have the only talking dog, but all he does is bark

So, why won’t you love me, Melissa in the dark.?

Strange I should think of that song — or any of those terrible songs — as I close in on 50. Or maybe it isn’t strange at all. When I get home to write this, I pull out the sky blue notebook, a Pen Pal Wireless Theme Tablet with the remainders of a price tag and the oh-so-precious WORDS written on the cover, all capital letters, underlined, just like that. I leaf through it the way a historian might. Who was this absurd boy? What in the world was going on inside him? How did he ever get out of Augusta?

I’d tell her I killed a hundred bad men and I chased a thousand moons

Saturdays I drink whiskey and watch the morning cartoons

I’d write the Great American Novel, but I don’t know how to start

So, why won’t you love me, Melissa in the dark?

Here’s the funny part, the punchline I guess. As I grimace and turn the pages, shaking my head at the aspiration and zeal and silliness of that boy I used to be before my back started hurting, I look for that song, Melissa in the Dark, in the sky blue notebook.

And it isn’t in here.

I guess I never wrote it down.

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59 Responses to Turning 50 and the Boss

  1. Knuckles says:

    lol Bruce Springsteen

  2. Ajnrules says:

    Happy early birthday Joe! I can only wish I could achieve as much as you have by the time I turn 50!

  3. Richard says:

    Happy 50th, Joe! I’m 54, so I will ALWAYS be older than you. (I see bum knees in your future…..)

  4. invitro says:

    The best way to fight feeling bad about getting old is to refuse to accept society’s idolization of youth. Well, maybe not the best way, but it’s one way. Getting lots of exercise is another way. (It’s probably easier if one’s not a left-winger.)

    • Karyn says:

      Jesus, do you have to bring politics into everything?

      • MikeN says:

        Bruce is the one campaigning every election.

        • Marc Schneider says:

          What’s Springsteen’s political activity got to do with invitro’s comment? Mike N, it’s just another irrelevant comment designed to somehow dismiss anything that someone you consider liberal says in criticism. You and Invitro seem to be joined at the hip in this mission to attack anyone to your left politically. You two seem to go out of your way to piss people offIt’s childish and annoying but apparently you two think it’s somehow cool. Instead of trying to make common cause with people on this blog (ie, about getting old) he decided to take a dig that had nothing to do with anything.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Invitro, do you enjoy being a douche? Is this something you just can’t resist?

  5. Steve says:

    Joe, I am only a few days older than you are. January 3.

  6. PhilM says:

    Well, you finally wrote it down, just 25 years . . . later, not too late: it’s never too late.

  7. murr2825 says:

    Happy birthday, Joe! I beat you to 50 by ten years plus and it’s a miracle I got this far. I often use the Mickey Mantle line “if id’a known I’d live this long id’a taken better care of myself.”

    Anyway, take Invitro’s advice (and I can’t believe I’m saying that) and exercise.

    • Darrel says:

      Sure exercise, but is Invitro talking about politics or hockey with the left winger line.

      • invitro says:

        The left arm. You must exercise the left arm, or it will go bad on you when you get old. Assuming you are right-handed. If’n you don’t use it, you lose it!

    • SDG says:

      Yeah. Not sure why a left-winger would exercise less than a conservative, but it’s good advice nonetheless. I’m 34. Nothing hurts yet but I’m starting to feel old. It’s horrifying.

    • BillM says:

      Steffi Graf also said her biggest regret was not taking better care of herself i.e. overtraining, playing too many tourneys, etc. I would assume many pro athletes feel the same way but they of course wouldn’t have made it big without the damn the torpedos attitude to begin with.

  8. BobDD says:

    Bruce and Sandra – both over 50. One of them looks OK, the other more than!

  9. Rob Smith says:

    Pain free and approaching 60. Working out daily and glucosamine & chondroitin really work. Also those foam rollers… way better than stretching. And Metamucil is magic. Sounds horrible, but it’s better than the alternative. They call them life hacks these days. Whatever. They work.

    • ItsSkylineTime says:

      Spot on – foam rollers and metamucil are absolute musts, as hilarious as that is to say. Haven’t tried the glucosamine or chondroitin yet, but I’m guessing when I get back in the gym they won’t be far behind.

    • SDG says:

      Foam rollers apparently work well for Bartolo Colon, who uses them and is still an effective starter who gets attention from more than one club, at age 43. And apparently can still work out harder every day than his young teammates.

  10. mark G says:

    I kind of forgot that “wireless” as appended to a product could mean something different than it does today.

    • Kuz says:

      Mark: Yeah when I first saw that picture of the notebook, I thought “wireless” (Bluetooth) and “tablet” (IPAD) were both intentionally ironic. Then I looked up the Carolina Pad and Paper Co. and they do refer to these tablets as wireless. Also, the Carolina Pad and Paper Co. is in Charlotte, NC where Joe now lives. Intentional irony?
      I won’t even go into wireless=Marconi Instrument=radio.

  11. Carl says:

    Looking on the bright side, wasn’t Satchel Paige in his mid-50s when he pitched (well) for the Athletics in the mid-60s? Also, wasn’t Julio Franco 50 when he last pinch-hit with the Mets?

    If the owner of the A’s or Mets calls, I’m quitting my day job today.

    • Anon says:

      Franco had just turned 49 at the time of his last PA. Yes, both Paige and Minnie Minoso “played’ in their 50’s but both were publicity stunts.

  12. the_slasher14 says:

    “…when the world is at its best, when we are at our best, when life feels fullest, one and one equals three.”

    The thing about Melissa is that to get together with her involved risking that one and one just might equal three because you wanted her so badly, and at 25 that risk was well worth taking because you had forever to recover from it. This is much less true at 50.

    I turn 75 later this month and the things I have learned that matter most to me are: 1) we must sometimes act as if one and one does equal three because life isn’t worth living if we don’t; 2) Melissa is always worth the risk; and 3) as long as you believe #1, you will recover if you strike out with her, so go for it.

    Or to put it succinctly, it’s the game that matters, not the outcome.

  13. shagster says:

    Speaking of misremember, music & birthdays. Was overseas. About same time as Augusta. Heard a birthday song. By the Beatles. It was — in a word — fantastic. Except it wasn’t THAT birthday song. It was entirely different. Maybe a cover of someone else’s? It was still a time when you might hear a bootleg overseas you couldn’t get in US. Have been looking for it ever since. Wishing you a happy birthday. Via that song. Let me know if -when you find it — it’s worth it.

  14. Mike says:

    “No Major League baseball player has ever been 50.”

    Minnie Minoso went 1/8 over three games in 1976 as a 50 year old, and 0 for 2 in 2 games in 1980, as a 54 year-old. In other words, THERE’S STILL HOPE FOR YOU!!!

    Happy birthday, Joe!

    • invitro says:

      I think I want to join an over-50 baseball league when I turn 50. I think those exist. Might have to move to a bigger city, though. 🙁

      • Dr Tom says:

        Google “Roy Hobbs League”, for those over 50. I know some guys who play in one in NE Ohio. Very competitive from what I understand.

    • Aaron says:

      And in 1965 Satchel Paige pitched three innings at age 59. Keep Dreaming Joe (and Happy Birthday)!

  15. Those lyrics really aren’t bad at all. If you worked with a singer-songwriter, I bet they could turn those lyrics into good music. Why not try? I bet plenty of musicians would like to work with your words.

  16. Frank says:

    When my friends were turning 50, I told them to consider the alternative. Never another peep from them about it.

    Happy Birthday, Joe.

    • Frank says:

      Well, that was incompetent of me. Sorry.

      I left out the most important part: My friends were whining about turning 50. They stopped whining after considering the alternative.

      Anyway, now I have another chance to say Happy Birthday, Joe.

  17. Dr. Baseball says:

    “There are numerous reasons for this, but the reason I cling to is that when you explain how the card got to the top of the deck or how the coin vanished, you take just a little bit of wonder out of the world…”

    It is for that very same reason that I never watch “The making of _____” documentaries regarding movies I enjoy. I don’t want to know what is fake.

    (Rocky didn’t really hit him? Or, even if I think it is fake, I can suspend my belief. What ruins the illusion is knowing that Stallone (the actor) missed Carl Weathers (the actor) on purpose. No, in my world, I’d like to think they’re really Rocky and Apollo and they’re really fighting.)

    It is also for this reason that I’ll never take the “behind the scenes” tour of Disney World. I first heard they did this years ago (and I assume they still do). BUT, I don’t want to know how the characters arrive, or how Abraham Lincoln speaks, or how the magic (we are talking about The Magic Kingdom after all) is created.

    I want it all to be magic and remain magic forever.

    There are some things I just don’t need or want to know.

    Happy Birthday Joe. I’m right behind you…I’ll be 49 in a few months.

  18. Lori says:

    I thank God for Springteen’s voice every day. And I thank God I found your blog too, Joe. You have a gift. Thank you for sharing it.

  19. Gene says:

    i’m from Augusta, I used to read you when I was a kid. Where was that apartment, it would really help me picture it…

  20. Brad says:

    Happy birthday Joe. Speaking of football and 50, George Blanda came close, retiring at 48, and he was legit, still playing some back up quarterback and kicking field goals, including a few Chief killers.

  21. Mike Scanlon says:

    Bravo, Joe

  22. Kevin says:

    Good work.

  23. Wes Tovich says:

    Poz is a Warrant fan. Don’t be fooled.

  24. Dr Tom says:

    Yeah, 50 stinks. Check back with me when you hit 60 and tell me how you’re doing then. 😉

  25. […] One of Kansas City’s greatest sports writers shares old school thoughts on his B-Day along with some of the very worst Bruce Springsteen lyrics. Take a look: Turning 50 and the Boss// […]

  26. Matt Vandermast says:

    Happy birthday, Joe!

  27. Bradford says:

    You didn’t mention hockey but Gordie Howe played professional hockey until he was 52.

  28. GothamWiseFool says:

    Stanley Matthews played first-class soccer until he was 50.

  29. STEVEN says:


  30. Lee says:

    Joe I love you and your writing but I have simple explanation for why that song isnt in the notebook, its because that song was written 25 years ago, but these songs in this notebook were written much much more recently, why do I have this crazy theory, but not so crazy, because there is no way 25 years ago, a notepad company was smart enough to call their notepads ‘wireless tablets’ I dont think we even had Tablets then, and Wireless was certainly not a big thing before wi-fi. My theory, stupid as it is, is that this book could only have come out in the last 10 -15 years and you don’t want to admit you wrote these songs that recently!!!

    Yep, I’m a real Sherlock Holmes

    • Sunday Driver says:

      Lee – Nice try, but as Mike noted below, way way back in the old days we used spiral wire bound notebooks all the time in school (I’m almost 60), and it was a hassle tearing the paper out of the notebook, with the little bits of paper coming off, and it was a big leap forward to have a “wireless” tablet of paper…

      Happy birthday Joe – thx for all the great writing.

  31. Richard says:

    Julia Child started her cooking show when she was 50. Ronald Reagan wasn’t elected to public office until he was 55. Laura Ingalls Wilder published her first novel at the age of 65. Harlan Sanders launched his Kentucky Fried Chicken empire when he was 66. Edmond Hoyle started writing down the rules to card games when he was around 70……

  32. Crazy Diamond says:

    Bruce Springsteen sucks.

  33. Mike says:

    Perhaps “wireless” meant the lack of the spiral wire?

  34. MikeN says:

    No mention of Tom Watson? Stop your whining. A decade older than you and he was one overexcited swing from winning the British Open.

  35. Jim says:

    That was NOT an overexcited swing! It was a hard spot on a poorly prepared green, and it killed any vestige of interest I still had in golf.

  36. Chris says:

    Fantastic piece Joe, I’m only 30 but reading this instantly took me back to my first crummy little apartment in Iowa and all of the emotions (positive and negative) that go with those memories.

  37. BillM says:

    This was the first ever live performance of Gimme Shelter (unless they played it at the matinee show earlier that day).

  38. Patrick L Dunn says:

    Beautiful Joe. I’ve got you by a little more than a decade, but you continue to sing my song. I’ve reached the “I’m grateful to be fully mobile” stage with my back, but I wouldn’t trade a minute. Age continues to refine my appreciation of the details of life. What a ride Joe. Thanks for taking us with you.

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