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From AJR,   April 1996  issue

Providing Inspiration for The Boss   


By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      

While teaching his class on social issues journalism at Stanford, Dale Maharidge always made a point of reminding his students that they could never know who would read their work or whom they would influence.

Little did he know that he would become his own best example. Maharidge, a former Sacramento Bee reporter, came home one day last fall to find a message on his answering machine from a fan--a big fan.

Bruce Springsteen's assistant was inviting him to a concert, telling him The Boss had been inspired by one of Maharidge's books while writing songs for his new album. The agent wondered if Maharidge would meet Bruce to discuss the book.

"I thought, 'This isn't happening,' " says Maharidge, 39. Even more surprising was the fact that Springsteen's inspiration wasn't Maharidge and photographer Michael Williamson's 1990 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, but their long-out-of-print first book, "Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass."

"That book had always been our baby, but it was old news," says Williamson, 38, now a photographer at the Washington Post. "I only own a few copies myself."

Ironically, the day before Maharidge got the call from Springsteen, he and Williamson had met with friends for brunch to reminisce about that first book, which came out in 1985 to mixed reviews and sold less than 15,000 copies. It was a painful book, full of searing portraits of unemployed steelworkers and modern-day hoboes traveling the country on freight trains. The pair had many memories of crisscrossing the country on assignment for the Sacramento Bee, living among the new homeless during the recession of the early '80s.

"We were young," Maharidge says. "We used the book as a springboard and forgot about it."

Springsteen, however, found it hard to forget. One night, unable to sleep, he came across the book on his shelf and read it cover to cover. "I lay awake that night disturbed by its power and frightened by its implications," Springsteen wrote later. He then drew on characters from the book to write "Youngstown" and "The New Timer," the songs that completed his thirteenth album, "The Ghost of Tom Joad."

Maharidge and William-son met Springsteen at a San Francisco concert a few weeks before the album was released. Neither party discussed payment. "How can you copyright inspiration?" asks Maharidge, whose book is credited alongside John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" in the album's liner notes.

Maharidge was compensated with something more meaningful than money. He says that upon hearing Springsteen's record for the first time, he was moved to tears. "He took all my hundreds and hundreds of words and took it somewhere else..somewhere haunting," he says.

"These mills they built the tanks and bombs/That won this country's wars/We sent our sons to Korea and Vietnam/Now we're wondering what they're dying for," Springsteen sings in "Youngstown," eerily summarizing Maharidge's chapter on the decay of the Ohio steeltown.

Williamson, a longtime Springsteen fan, says he knew the Jersey-born rocker would do the book justice. "It's a living, breathing thing to him," says the photographer, who was on a lecture tour in California as National Press Photographer of the Year when The Boss called. "He's been singing about these things for so long," Williamson says. "He definitely understands the pain and suffering of the working person."

But Springsteen's involvement with the pair didn't end with the last note. The Boss, who has been talking up the book before hushed concertgoers on his solo tour, told Maharidge and Williamson he wanted the book back on the shelf. After a post- concert conversation that lasted into the wee hours, the pair decided to do it.

Preparation for the book's rerelease took Maharidge and Williamson back to sights and people they hadn't seen in more than a decade to write an epilogue. Springsteen wrote a new introduction and chose the cover photo.

The new version of "Journey to Nowhere," released by Hyperion last month, leaves the reader with the sense that the plight of the underclass has become increasingly hopeless since the book's original version. "It was the most fun and the most depressing thing to do," Maharidge says about traveling back to Youngstown, where prisons have replaced the crumbling steel mills since his last visit. "It was so much worse, with so much anger. The anger level was five-, six-, seven-fold."

In many ways, the journey to nowhere has come full-circle for Maharidge and Williamson. The book began when they were in their 20s and teamed on a 1982 story at the Bee. Metro Editor Bill Moore had just come from a bar where he heard about the "new hoboes," middle-class homeless people riding the California rails. He assigned Maharidge, who covered the underclass, the story and gave him permission to take along a photographer and ride the state's freight trains for a month.

The story turned into an extensive series called "Hard Times," then into a never-published piece for Life magazine, and finally into a book. "We sort of got obsessed," Maharidge says. The pair has also produced two other books together, including "And Their Children After Them," an exploration of the children of Alabama sharecroppers that won a Pulitzer for nonfiction.

Williamson says his pairing with Maharidge was ideal since both have an innate sympathy for the world's marginalized. Like Springsteen, Williamson and Maharidge are not unfamiliar with hard times. Maharidge is from a blue-collar family in Cleveland and spent some time doing factory work as a teenager. Williamson says he grew up on the edge of poverty in a series of foster homes, shelters and trailer parks.

"Papers have been very shallow in writing about social issues. We write about the rich all the time," says Maharidge, who is finishing a book on race relations in California. "It's a shocking disparity. You can't cover these types of issues in 12 inches."

Still Maharidge scoffs when his students ask him about his new role as muse to millionaire rock stars. "I'm no Steinbeck and I'm no Springsteen," he says. "I'm just a journalist who happened to get lucky."