Patti Scialfa: Her Own Person

BEST OF NJM: From Stone Pony co-star to cool carpool mom, the E Street Band member embodies the down-to-earth Jersey Girl vibe.

Patti Scialfa in 2008.
Patti Scialfa in 2008.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia.

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the October 2004 issue of New Jersey Monthly.

Back in May, shortly before her new album, 23rd Street Lullaby, was due in stores, Patti Scialfa was at home with her husband in Rumson when the phone rang. A guy from the record company was on the line, but he wasn’t calling about business. He was calling about a piece of Patti’s past, which was sitting at a club outside a house in Long Branch. “Patti, this was where your grandparents lived, right?” he said after describing the house.

At the curb, waiting for the garbage collectors, he told her, is a wooden steamer trunk painted a beautiful shade of blue. He read off the words lettered by hand on the trunk in flowing script: Scialfa, Vincenzo.

“Oh. My. God,” Scialfa said. “Bruce, let’s go!”

Scialfa and Bruce— Springsteen, if you have to ask— arrived and confirmed that the trunk was her grandfather’s, the very trunk he packed his life into when he made the passage from Italy, somehow left at the house after new owners moved in. Under his name, painted in curly white lettering, was US OF AMERICA and the trunk’s course from the Old Country to New Jersey— SICILY, NAPLES, NEWARK— before it finally arrived at the house on Chelsea Avenue in Long Branch. “That blue wooden trunk is being restored as we speak,” Scialfa says. “Then I’ll find a very special place for it.”

In “Chelsea Avenue,” one of the dozen plaintive, searching songs on 23rd Street Lullaby, Scialfa sings: “So let the bells ring and the whistles blow/ Across this soft country that we used to know/ Where every path you take is marked/ And every story in your heart/ All comes running back to you.” The funny thing is, Scialfa wrote the song without her grandparents’ address in mind. “Chelsea” refers to the Manhattan neighborhood that she called home in the 1970s and ’80s. She explains this while seated in the Sony recording studios on the city’s West Side, about twenty blocks from where she once lived. She is razor-thin, her face narrow and fair, her features sharp but delicate. She crosses her legs, clad in skin-tight jeans, and when she leans back, her blazing red hair stands out against the black leather sofa.

“I was writing the song,” she says in her high, raspy voice,” and I wanted it to be Chelsea because I lived there. But when I sang ‘Dow-ow-own in Chelsea,’ I kind of hit a dead end. So I just added ‘Avenue,’ and that’s what the song became. Later, I was looking back at a bunch of old things from my grandparents’ place, and I found the address. Hey, wait a minute! Chelsea Avenue? I mean it was totally subconscious, but it worked out in such a lovely way.”

Nobody is more Jersey Girl than Patti Scialfa. Tom Waits may not have known it when he sang the song of the same name on his 1980 album Heartattack and Vine, but he was singing about a guy in love with a woman much like Scialfa. And when Springsteen covered the song on his 1984 Born in the USA tour—the first time Scialfa performed with him and the E Street Band— he just might have been singing about her.

They had met a year earlier at the Stone Pony, Asbury Park’s famous seaside music dive. Scialfa was living in New York, earning her rent as a waitress. “I worked at R.J. Scotty’s, an Italian restaurant and bar in Chelsea on 9th Avenue, which is no longer there,” she says, “and Chelsea Central on 10th Avenue, but that’s some other restaurant now.” She also sang in clubs, backing musicians such as David Johansen and Southside Johnny Lyons, and performed on the streets down in Greenwich Village with her kindred spirit and fellow Jersey girl Soozie Tyrell. Every weekend Scialfa returned to New Jersey to visit with her family and sing a few songs with friend Bobby Bandiera’s band, Cats on a Smooth Surface, at the Pony. “Bobby learned a couple of those old girl-group songs so I could sit in with him,” Scialfa says. “I was singing stuff like that old Exciters’ tune “Tell Him.” She sings, “I know something about love…” “I remember getting off the stage one night, and I was talking to a few of my friends,” Scialfa says, “and I saw this group of people slowly swarm up to me, like a tide rising toward me, coming up looking over my shoulder. I was getting really self-conscious. And finally, I turn around, and Bruce is standing there. He was such a magnet, he had all of these people around him.”

“Oh, hi,” Scialfa recalls saying, trying to sound casual.

“I just want to tell you that I like the way you sing,” he said.

“It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” she says. “We had a beer together, sat at a table and talked. After that, I would go down every Sunday and sing, and sometimes he would be there. He knew I lived in New York and that I didn’t have a car, so he would offer to drop me off at my mom’s [in Deal]. Sometimes we would go out to the Ink Well in West End and have a hamburger and the chocolate milk with the whipped cream on top. The old Ink Well—I had been going there since I was a teenager.”

She also had been hearing about Springsteen, almost five years her senior, since she was a teenager. “When I was fourteen, and Bruce was eighteen, I think, he was known as the fastest guitar player,” she says. “Not as the best songwriter or performer—no one focused on that in the beginning. It was, ‘He’s fast.’ He always had the best bands, you knew that. And you knew that he was serious. He was the man with the focus and the tremendous dedication to what he was doing.”

A year after she met him, Scialfa toured with him. And four years later, after the now- infamous paparazzi shots of Scialfa and Springsteen on the balcony of a Rome hotel, her relationship with the Boss became public knowledge. It was a messy, complicated situation, owing to Springsteen’s marriage to actress and model Julianne Phillips, although they were separated at the time. But in 1988, after Springsteen’s divorce became final, he and Scialfa married, and the rest is history. They now share their Rumson home with their children, Evan, fourteen, Jessica, twelve, and Sam, ten.

But as well known as she is as Mrs. Bruce Springsteen, with 23rd Street Lullaby Scialfa emerges as very much her own person. The songs, sung in a voice that conjures up Ronnie Spector, Lucinda Williams, and another lesser-known Patty, Patty Griffin, focus almost exclusively on Scialfa’s pre-Bruce days and the whole glorious tumult of finding herself and her identity as an artist and of experiencing the beauty and heartbreak of being in love. Scialfa produced the album—to which Springsteen contributes some guitar and keyboard work—with longtime New York session drummer Steve Jordan. E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren plays on six tracks and Bandiera and Tyrell also sit in on several songs.

Scialfa’s story is the story of countless other Jersey Girls: growing up down the Shore, yearning for something more than her small town had to offer, coming of age in New York City, and ultimately returning to her roots. So what makes a Jersey Girl? A working-class immigrant background, for starters. Scialfa’s father’s side of course, is from Sicily. Her mother, Vivian, was born to William Jerome Morris and his Scottish bride, the former Mary Perit Frew, after the came to New Jersey from Northern Ireland. Her paternal grandfather, Vincenzo, of the trunk, opened a butcher shop in Long Branch shortly after he arrived in the 1920s. When he had saved enough to buy a home, he sent for his wife, Angela, and their children, Minnie, Fran, and Lucy and Joseph—Patti’s father. The house on Chelsea Avenue is where Scialfa spent much of her youth, a traditional Italian home with a grape arbor in the backyard for making wine in the basement and big wooden table in the kitchen. “It had to be wooden so you could make the pasta on it,” Scialfa says “A pile of flour, break the eggs in the middle of it, add the water and the salt. We had all of our family gatherings there, and it was just wonderful.”

Her immediate family lived in Oakhurst, near Monmouth University, when she was born at Monmouth Memorial Hospital (now Monmouth Medical Center), in Long Branch—one of the many things she and her husband have in common, as she would later discover. Her father owned a television-and-electronics store, Scialfa TV. Like her grandfather, her dad was a good businessman. Eventually, he went into real estate, and the family moved down the road to Deal, the years at the grindstone were paying off. “My dad was a very hardworking man. Work, work, work,” Scialfa says, drawing on a Marlboro Light. “Six, six-thirty in the morning, we’d hear him say, ‘Get up! Plenty of time to sleep when you’re dead!’ You were never allowed to lie around in the house. That was a sin. If you were lying on the couch and heard my father’s footsteps, you had to sit up. He had tons of energy and it was contagious.”

But on Sundays, her father would rest. He didn’t go to Mass, Scialfa says, “He went to the Church of Sinatra.” The first thing in the morning every Sunday, the records went on the turntable. “That’s the soundtrack from my youth—Sinatra,” she says. “That music would be on all day long. I never thought, Oh, this isn’t my music. It’s so corny. In Frank Sinatra’s voice you heard all the possibilities. There’s a big world out there, outside of yourself, larger than yourself, larger than the emotions that you’re letting yourself feel. Whether you stay stationary or move through the world, if you stretch yourself, if you open up yourself a little bit more, you can enter that larger world. Sinatra’s music gave me that—a gift.”

Scialfa also received that gift of music from her maternal grandfather, Morris, a songwriter and musician of some note. When her mother and father went to work at the TV shop, they often dropped off the kids to spend the day with that set of grandparents. Morris, who wrote the music-hall standard “A Little of What You Fancy Does You Good” for the popular English singer Marie Lloyd, made room for Patti on the piano bench. “I was seven or eight year old,” Scialfa says, “and I would play piano with him. He would be composing, working out the melodies, and he would say, ‘Which ending do you like—this one? Or this one, when the notes go here?’ My opinion actually mattered to him. This was the era where children were to be seen and not heard, so that was really powerful to me.”

Also in the house were shelves full of books. “My grandmother was a voracious reader— Kubla Khan, Milton’s Paradise Lost. It was this little, little house filled with big things, the promises of another world,” says Scialfa, “My grandfather would quote Oscar Wilde to me and tell me all these great stories about him. This is when I first got the idea that there was this big, emotional world outside.”

Jersey girls who grow up with this awareness eventually find their way to the other side— across the Hudson River. Scialfa’s first forays to the city were illicit. “Senior year at Asbury Park High school—it’s springtime, you’re done with school really,” she recalls. “Two of my girlfriends, Allison Prager and Robin Jefferies, and I would go straight to the art department, not to homeroom, and we’d say to our art teacher. ‘Give us a Magic Marker, we’re going to make a sign and hitchhike to New York.’ He was like, ‘Don’t tell me this! I can’t be any part of this!’ An hour later, there we were, side of the road, with a big piece of cardboard with the words NEW YORK written on it.

“I remember being in the East Village and being so naïve and of course drinking a little wine, because that’s what you do when you skip school,” she continues. “I was thinking, Gee, this is mysterious. This is wonderful. I like the way New York feels. There is something so other going on here.”

After high school Scialfa studied music—jazz vocals—at the University of Miami’s School of Music. She started writing her own songs and made a few demo tapes. During summers in New Jersey, she would head into New York and hand-deliver her demos to the record companies.

After three years in Miami, she had had enough. “I thought, I have to get to New York now. I want to make a record. I can’t make it in Florida, I can’t make it in Jersey. I have to go to New York,” Scialfa says. In 1974 she enrolled at New York University, and a year later fulfilled her mother’s wish that her daughter get a college degree, graduating from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. But she still wanted to break into the music business.

The person who made that seem possible was Springsteen. As much as she appreciated those Sinatra Sundays, his music had a sort of arm’s-length feel to it. Springsteen’s songs were a direct shot to the heart. “When I listened to Sinatra, it was mystical in a way. His songs conjured another world. I had no real connection to it, though it resonated with me,” she says. “When I listened to Bruce’s music, it felt so close to me. After his first record came out, it was like, Great! Somebody from your hometown could make that happen. When you’re a kid and you get your records, it’s like someone dropped them off from a flying saucer. The music industry? How could you get close to it? How could you ever get your name on a record? But when Bruce did it, it didn’t feel impossible to me anymore. You could go to New York, shop your music around, and start entering that world.”

When Scialfa paid her dues by singing in the street with Tyrell, she says, it took a lot of guts to put herself out there, to perform for total strangers. But she summoned all her Jersey Girl powers to pull it off. “When people think of a Jersey Girl, I think they’re thinking of someone who is unpretentious—smart but not pretentious, earthy, street-smart, tough— definitely tough,” she says. “Soozie and I had this joke when we were playing in the streets of New York, and our boyfriends would start flirting with them. Soozie and I would say, ‘Let’s take that girl into the bathroom Jersey-style and teach her not to fool with our man. Let’s get Jersey on that girl! A Jersey Girl has toughness. She’s game, tomboyish, free of spirit, and very human and humble.”

Scialfa runs her fingers through her hair. “I mean, think about the big hair,” she says. “You have to live with that as a Jersey Girl and you can’t be stuck-up if you have that hair. It just naturally goes that way. It’s so humid in Jersey! When I go outside in the summer, my hair is like this,” she says, holding her arms in a big halo around her head. “If you have big hair like that, you live with it. It’s who you are. You’re a Jersey Girl.”

Scialfa’s Jersey Girl toughness and her persistence paid off as she pursued her dream of getting a record deal. Before she met Springsteen, she was landing gigs at downtown clubs, and she ended up singing backup vocals for a number of bands, including the Rolling Stones. Having toured with Springsteen and the E Street Band several times, she produced a solo record, Rumble Doll, in 1993, and then settled into domestic life with Springsteen in Rumson. The couple also has a home in Los Angeles, although Scialfa says they never go there. They may tour the globe, but they’re strictly Jersey.

Sitting in the Sony studio, she pops open the case of her new CD and points to a photograph featured prominently in the jacket art: the New York-New Jersey state line on the tiled walls of the Lincoln Tunnel. The songs of 23rd Street Lullaby are very much about this passage, about her straddling life in New Jersey and life in New York. In “State of Grace,” Scialfa sings, “I left my baby down on a busy street/ Our love followed the course of the sun/ It rose above the city skyline/ And sunk behind the turnpike oil drums” Later in the same song she sings, “Under a river in a cold mud tunnel/ My grandfather’s ghost is still slamming the jack” — a reference to Vincenzo, who helped dig the Holland Tunnel, creating a link to the city for his granddaughter.

“Look at this,” she says, pointing to the image. “Actually, I think they flipped the photo, because I would see it the other way, New York and then New Jersey. It’s about returning to New Jersey… You know, I just got together with Allison and Robin a few nights ago. That’s the reference in “State of Grace.” Its about the passage—leaving your hometown to try and find yourself. And then you go back. You always go back. That’s the resolution. Going back to Jersey.”

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