After all these years, I thought I had read and heard everything there was to read and hear about the 1970 shootings at Kent State.
I hadn’t. And you haven’t, either, unless you’ve read Bruce, a marvelous new biography of rock ’n’ roll icon Bruce Springsteen.
In the midst of its 475 pages, we discover that one of the students in the crowd on that awful May day was ... Springsteen’s girlfriend.
Pam Bracken was finishing her sophomore year at Kent State when the school earned a permanent spot in American History textbooks. She was close enough to the action to see victims falling.
She was horrified, and to this day tears up whenever she talks about it.
Bracken returned to Kent State in the fall but soon transferred to Monmouth University in New Jersey, primarily to be closer to Springsteen. The two had been hot and heavy throughout the summer of 1970, and she was frustrated when the relationship became long-distance.
Bruce and Pam first hooked up the previous summer at a little club in Asbury Park, N.J., less than 10 miles from her hometown of Little Silver. Although far from a household name at that point, he was already a hero on the Jersey Shore, where he had appeared regularly with various bands.
Pam liked the fact that he didn’t act like a typical rock star. In those days, he didn’t drink, didn’t do drugs, didn’t even swear. Nor did he seem full of himself.
They were an item for more than two years, off and on — the “offs” and “ons” too numerous to count.
“Bruce was and is a wonderful person,” Bracken says by phone from her father’s house in Santa Barbara, Calif. “Even though our relationship was rocky, there were many sweet moments.”
The rocky ones were not mere pebbles.
Unlike the dozens of reverential tomes by writers who analyzed Springsteen from afar, the author of Bruce, Peter Ames Carlin, had the superstar’s full cooperation. But this was not an “authorized” biography, so Carlin was free to paint a complete portrait of the man, warts and all.
Never are Springsteen’s warts more evident than in his dealings with Pamela J. Bracken.
As the author wrote, Springsteen, circa 1970, was “something other than an early adopter of feminist principles.”
One of the most jarring stories involves a confrontation Springsteen had with Bracken shortly after she discovered that he had, shall we say, “provided comfort” to a female acquaintance who had just broken up with a boyfriend. The revelation resulted in a screaming match that culminated with Bruce slapping Bracken in the face.
She ran out the door and down the street. Bruce ran after her, yelling apologies and claiming he only smacked her because he thought that if he didn’t she would become “hysterical.”
Nice logic, Bruce.
That was the chief indiscretion among many during the years she was his main squeeze. Most of the problems involved additional squeezes.
Bruce wanted to have things both ways. Wrote Carlin: “As desperate for the comforts of emotional intimacy as he was terrified by its requirements, Bruce veered between fits of jealousy and barely secret bouts of faithlessness.”
Bracken concurs. “I don’t regret having had the relationship. I just wish I had been stronger to walk away and stay away.”
By Columbus Day 1972 (after Bruce had landed his first record contract), Bracken had had enough. She told Springsteen she just couldn’t take it any more.
Best and worst
From a distance of four decades, Pam assesses her years with Bruce as “the most wonderful time in my life and also the most hellish.
“To date somebody in the music industry is very, very difficult. There’s a thousand girls in the world and they all have an ulterior motive. You didn’t know who really was your friend and who just was trying to get close to you to get close to him.
“I said to him a long time ago that I wish he had decided to become a writer and not a musician so I didn’t have to share him with the rest of the world.”
Perhaps, Ms. Bracken, you are simply unfamiliar with writer groupies?
She laughs and continues. “He was such a great storyteller and he wrote such wonderful stuff. You could just sit there and listen to him for hours, and I think that’s why so many people gravitate to him.
“He is just very engaging, and he can really make you laugh.”
She says Bruce reminded her of her father, who had the same qualities.
Ironically, as the traumatic breakups continued to mount, Bracken’s parents were anything but Springsteen fans. Bruce would call the house asking for Pam, and her mother would tell him to never call again. Her father was so adamant about ending the relationship that it caused a big rift between father and daughter.
“Of course, when my father talks about him now, he’s some fabulous person,” she jokes.
Until Bracken agreed to talk to the author of Bruce, she had never spoken with a writer about her Springsteen days. Your favorite columnist (who got her number from Carlin) is the second — but it wasn’t easy.
Although we ended up talking for nearly an hour one night, she didn’t call back until after my third voice mail. She says her reluctance stemmed from me telling her I wanted to talk about Kent State. She was not at all certain she “wanted to go there in my head again.”
May 4 horror
On May 4, 1970, Bracken was on her way to French class, textbook in hand, when she stopped on the hill overlooking the Commons and watched as the rally turned into a riot.
After catching a snootful of tear gas, she sprinted to a dorm. When she turned around, she saw the guns firing and people falling.
The campus switchboard was overwhelmed, so she couldn’t call her parents or boyfriend. She rounded up three friends and drove her car to a farm owned by the grandmother of one of the friends.
“I didn’t know where else to go, and neither did anybody else. We couldn’t call our families because there were no phones. It was horrible.”
She remembers taking her finals by mail, and then driving back in the summer to pick up the belongings she had left when the students were hustled out of town.
So what attracted a Jersey girl to Kent State? A family friend was enrolled there; Pam visited and felt comfortable.
Until the shootings, “I loved the place. I was in the new dorm — Tri-Towers. It had only been open a year, and in my second year I was in the same dorm, same room.”
Among her good friends at the time: a dorm mate from Akron named Chrissie Hynde.
Hynde had not yet joined a band, much less become famous. The two grew tight.
“She was somewhat bizarre,” Bracken recalls. “I thought she was amazingly beautiful. She had the same look she’s had all these years.
“When she was young, she was just incredibly gorgeous. She had beautiful skin.”
Today Bracken (who declined to send a photo, either ancient or contemporary) lives in Orange County, Calif., and works as an escrow agent, a job she has held for three decades. She never married or had kids.
“I just was a serial dater,” she says with a laugh. “Every relationship, three or four years was my max and then I had to move on to somebody else.
“Some people just aren’t made [for marriage]. It wasn’t like I wasn’t asked. I just didn’t see myself spending my life with somebody.
“I kind of regret not having children. I do have a large family around me, lots of nieces who keep getting married, so that’s fun.”
She hasn’t talked to Springsteen since the late 1980s, when she went backstage after a California concert. Although their meeting was pleasant, the “girlfriend of the moment” was there, she says, along with a slew of other people, so it wasn’t ideal.
Bracken hasn’t read the new book. Why not? Because she realized after her interview with Carlin that the majority of her comments sounded negative, which is not the way she looks back on things.
Asked whether Springsteen is an extremely complex guy, she replies, “Yeah, but basically a really, really good guy.”
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or email@example.com.