The guy who gave Bruce Springsteen his deep end from day one finally gets his solo turn.
By Steve Houk
When Garry Tallent and his family moved to Neptune City, New Jersey in 1964, something really big happened.
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Tallent knew no one when he arrived, so it was kinda hard to make connections. But since he had dabbled in music as a kid, beginning with the tuba (yes that’s him on “Wild Billy’s Circus Story”), he could find somewhere to fit in. So he eventually dropped the big horn and picked up a guitar, and hooked up with some scruffy new musician friends, guys like not-quite-Miami Steven Van Zandt, not-yet-Mad-Dog Vini Lopez, not-quite-Southside Johnny Lyon, and a Jersey rat sorta kid from nearby Freehold named Bruce.
Sure, they could jam and have fun and get girls and maybe some scratch on a Saturday night playing a bar, but playing music as a money making career? Really? Garry Tallent knew right from the get go that was where he was headed.
“Everybody was saying, ‘What are you doing to do after high school?’ I’d say, ‘Well, I’m going to play music.’ Even Johnny goes, ‘That’s okay on the weekends. What are you doing to do for a living?’ I said, ‘That’s it.’ He said, ‘Really?’ There was never any doubt in my mind. I would have been happy playing at bars, and that’s what I did for a long time. Just by wanting to do it, I guess opportunities come your way, and you just go with it and take it where it takes you.”
Where it has taken him is a spectacular fifty year music career, most notably travelling the globe as the only bassist ever (realistically anyway) in his old buddy Springsteen‘s world famous E Street Band. But now, at 67, after standing behind and providing the backbone for one of rock and roll’s greatest, he is grabbing the opportunity to do some long-awaited solo work where he is the front man, writing the songs, and singing them live. Tallent released his first solo record Break Time last year, and is now on a world tour that brings him to the Amp at Strathmore on May 14th.
For Tallent, although he’s stood tall on some of the biggest stages in the world, being out front is a whole new ball game, and it makes him appreciate his Boss’ job even more.
“It’s totally different, scary, exciting, new, fresh, so many different things,” Tallent said on a break during the current tour. “When I’m playing bass, I am playing the bass part, and I’m working with Max and Roy within the section. And at the same time I’m improvising things that come to my mind, yet still playing the song so it’s at least recognizable to the general public.”
“But in this case,” Tallent continued, “I’m still at the point where I’m trying to memorize all the words and all the arrangements, so there’s just so much more going on in your head. Instead of trying to figure out new things to do with things that you’ve done for 40 years, you’re finding what to do with things that you still haven’t figured out yet. But it just makes you feel like you can do anything. When you get that machine behind you, you kind of get the feeling that Bruce must feel every night. He had that freedom to just go out there and try things and have the band behind you, and making you look good. You screw up, they make it sound right. But it’s something I never pictured doing since high school.”
Tallent grew up in Detroit with a country western thing goin’ on thanks to his parents, so that DNA seeps in and soaks Break Time with a real C & W vibe that captures the old while also having a feel that is all his.
“Well, it really was my first influence,” Tallent said. “My parents are both from Tennessee and they loved Hank Williams. My father went around singing Ernest Tubb songs around the house, and my mother played a little guitar and would sing all these World War II-Webb Pierce songs, so that was really my first inkling of what music was. Then, of course, the radio in the early 50’s was pretty much the pop standard stuff. Then all of a sudden rock and roll hit right about the time that I was starting to be aware of what else was out there. That just really excited me and stayed with me all this time.”
If the old adage is true that if you please yourself, that’s all that matters, Break Time is a rousing success, being it gave Tallent exactly what he wanted. He is pleased with this first stab at doing his own thing. “It’s a first attempt. It did what I set out to do, and that was just to pay homage to the music that first struck my interest in rock and roll.”
Lucky for Tallent and other legendary side men who are making solo forays later in their careers, the industry has changed enough that they can get a record out without the arduousness of dealing with the same old nagging record company issues.
“It’s just the music business, how it’s changed. You don’t really need a huge record company behind you. You don’t really need a huge budget to make the record. I basically made it in a friend’s studio, in my own home studio. There’s no tour support. There’s really nothing that we had to have in the old days, where people had to have a deal with the big record company. So, the playing field is just evened out. Everybody has their own CD, so I’m really no different than the guy next door, except that I do have some experience being on the road. I think it makes it a little easier for me to deal with the bumps and the hurdles as I go.”
Those bumps and hurdles could also be part of the lofty expectations some fans have when it comes to a Garry Tallent tour, as in, will he play some Bruce, will Bruce show up, all that comes with being associated with such a larger than life rock star as his old pal. Early reports off the road are glowing, as fans are lovingly embracing Tallent’s own songs and his own style.
“I’m not sure of what people’s expectations are, with the record or the tour. I assume that they’re expecting Bruce Jr. So hopefully they’ll come out with an open mind and just be ready to have some fun, because that’s really all I’m after. Just to put a smile on somebody’s face.”
Tallent has wanted to do a solo turn for a while, but you never know when the phone might ring and it’s “him” again, asking if you want to go conquer the world, ya know, go down Thunder Road one more time. And even though one small tour can turn into a couple years out on the road, Tallent relishes the time playing with his lifelong friend.
“Well, (the last River Tour) was supposed to be 22 shows. I said, ‘That’d be great. Let’s do it.’ Then it turned into nine months or ten months, whatever it was. But hey, the E Street Band is something I’ve been involved in for going on, jeez, I don’t even know how many years. Going on 50 years. It’s a huge part of my life, so of course I want to be there. This (solo turn) is really a side project. Though it’s important to me, I don’t think it’s as important to the rest of the world as it is to me.”
And as for his longest running job, what does he think about being the last member standing of the E Street Band, the survivor so to speak? The humble Tallent wants no honor, no title there. He just gives thanks.
“The reason that I’m, whatever you want to call it, the last man standing, is just we’ve lost Clarence, we’ve lost Danny. Somebody said, ‘You should be really proud of that.’ It’s nothing I’m proud of. It’s something I’m thankful for. Yeah. But there’s no pride in that. The band will go on because it’s important to survive. It doesn’t mean that we don’t miss the guys that really did it with us in the early days, every day of our lives.”
Garry Tallent performs Sunday May 14th at Amp by Strathmore, 11810 Grand Park Avenue North Bethesda, MD. For tickets, click here.