When Bruce Springsteen was getting his start, there were two things about the Jersey Shore that made it an intense incubator for music: There was an after-hours club run by musicians that stayed open until 5 a.m., letting people jam all night, honing their skills and sharpening their ideas. And there was a concert venue on the boardwalk that, with its summer beach crowds and location, drew the biggest bands, such as the Rolling Stones and the Doors, Janis Joplin and the Who, as they traveled from shows in New York to big cities in the south. “It was almost like going to college,” said Robert Santelli, the executive director of the Grammy Museum, like going to college for rock music.
Now a college in the heart of the Jersey Shore, Monmouth University, is positioning itself to become the heart of scholarship about Springsteen, his music, its influences and its impact.
On Tuesday night, the president of Monmouth, Paul Brown, announced that the campus would be the official home for the Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music. The university already has a massive collection of clippings, concert programs, recordings and books that Springsteen donated when the collection threatened to swallow the Asbury Park Public Library, where it had been housed and continued to grow steadily, much of it through donations from fans. But this collaboration will significantly expand its ambition and reach.
Brown announced the new archival center during a ticketed event at a theater on campus that was billed as an intimate conversation with Springsteen about his career.
The new center will also explore the legacies of other icons of American music such as Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Frank Sinatra. “Our curriculum will have to grow — our faculty will have to grow,” Brown said. “In the larger area of humanities and social sciences, this will be a conduit to allow us to do more research and scholarship . . . it will lead to broader conversations about the American music scene.”
“The history of American music has psychological pieces to it, political pieces to it,” Brown said. Springsteen “represents something important in the fabric of our American music scene,” not only because of the power of the music itself but because of the eloquence of the lyrics. “He’s a cerebral person,” Brown said.
The university makes sense as a center for another reason: its location. Springsteen, who’s 67, played at Monmouth nine times, and students there were some of his earliest fans. He lived — as he still does — nearby. And he did something artists didn’t do back then, Santelli said: He got a record contract, and instead of moving to New York, he stayed in Jersey. He suggested a postcard from the boardwalk in Asbury Park as the cover for his first album with Columbia Records.
“The people that were here at the time, that meant the world to us,” Santelli said. He was a Monmouth student himself back then, seeing Springsteen play multiple times, and he taught there in later years. New Jersey was a sort of in-between place, not New York, not Philadelphia, and this gave people a chance to define themselves culturally and musically.
“Many of his early songs are populated by characters straight out of Asbury Park and the boardwalk,” Santelli said, comparing Springsteen’s impact on the area to William Faulkner’s effect on Mississippi. “It was pretty powerful.”
Monmouth now has more than 35,000 items in its collection, such as posters, drafts of lyrics, high school yearbooks and photos. People call and say, “I’ve got a garage full of Springsteen stuff.”
Now, Brown thinks, they’re going to need a lot more space.
After all, as Springsteen told the audience Tuesday night, he’s still writing and recording.
“I think he’s got a lot more music in him,” Santelli said.