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Somewhere In The Swamps Of Jersey, or, The Courtship of Steven Van Zandt

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"I first met Steve when I was sixteen, and I was trying to give back to my community, you know? So they told me I was gonna be tutoring some guy after school, some other dude from the same school, because the poor son of a bitch didn't know how to read or write."

Everyone in the club is high, at the very least on the music, and they all laugh and cheer, and Steve grins and gives a "what are you gonna do" shrug right on cue when Bruce gives one of his stupid giggles and looks over at him with a grin on his face.

 

The place is a mess, and Bruce looks like he hasn't slept in days -- which, Steve figures when he thinks about it, he probably hasn't. He's been stumbling out into daylight, blinking, every few days, or more often out into the nighttime, because he doesn't ever seem quite sure what time it is. He's gone a little crazy since he started working on this latest album; the writing on the wall is that Columbia's losing patience waiting for their investment to finally pay off and Mike is giving him jack shit to work with, though of course Bruce would never admit to any of that out loud. Instead, he just calls Steve one day, asks him to come on by and have a few drinks, "and maybe you can give me a hand with a couple of these songs I been working on?"

There's an edge to his voice that, Bruce being Bruce, he probably doesn't realize is there, and Steve's not surprised when he gets to the house and hears, through the open window, the same handful of notes being picked out over and over again on the piano, is not surprised when it takes a couple of knocks at the door and the hunched-over shape at the piano still doesn't move or stop playing that same sequence. He finally just tries the knob and heads inside, and only saying "Bruce," loudly, and letting the door slam shut, gets him to jump and look up.

"Shit!" he says, and grabs for a few of the papers sitting next to him as he jumps up, all jerky, nervous energy. "Sorry, man. Hey, can I get you anything? I got some beer or something, I think..."

He frowns, looks towards the kitchen, but he's scratching the back of his head and shifting from foot to foot and Steve just assumes that he hasn't gone for groceries in a week at least. "Nah, I'm good," he says, because there was never any question of this just being a social call. "Hey," he offers, because Bruce is looking at the papers now, a baffled expression starting to spread over his face, and Steve knows if he doesn't say something to stop him he'll do something idiotic like set them all on fire, "that what you been working on? How 'bout you let me take a look?"

By now Bruce is looking completely lost, but he shoves the pages into Steve's hands like he's just glad to be rid of them, and watches him hopefully for a few seconds before he seems to remember himself and wanders back over to the piano. "You sure you don't want anything?" he asks, but he's already sitting down and starting to pick once more at that sequence Steve heard out on the porch.

"Nah, I'm good," Steve repeats, and looks down at the papers Bruce has shoved into his hands, his big looping scrawl (too generous for his own good if the amount of paper this is taking up is any indication) spread out over the page, and tries to make sense of it. He gets a few words here and there, but mostly it's a mess. Things have been scratched out and rewritten, and squinting at the lines of the original writing that still shows through, it looks like in some cases the same words have been scratched out and rewritten over and over again. The paper's stained from food and coffee and beer, worn and torn and with a few splotches here and there that could very easily be tears, sweat, or just water. One of them has a minty-smelling stain and some blood on it, and it's probably a sign of just how well Steve knows him that he doesn't even need to wonder, because of course Bruce couldn't put his fucking song down long enough to brush his teeth and shave.

"Bruce," he begins. Bruce jumps again, eyes flying open and looking around like he'd forgotten there was anyone there. Steve tries to figure out how best to say this, because he knows Bruce more than well enough to tell when he's on the verge of losing it completely, and right now Bruce is most definitely on the verge of losing it completely. Each word is careful as he proceeds. "I can't even read this, man."

"Huh?" Bruce blinks at him, eyes liquid and dreamy and terrified. "What are you talking about?"

"I mean -- you're looking bushed there, maybe you should get some sleep first, and then you can walk me through 'em. How does that sound?"

Bruce is already shaking his head, and if he's not too freaked out to recognize the mother-hen thing Steve's got going on and give him shit for it, then he recognizes it and he's just too freaked out to care. He turns back to the piano and starts to pick at that little riff he'd been working on before. "Nah," he says, careless, like it's not the most obvious thing in the world that he's a few days away from just snapping, filling his pockets with rocks and throwing himself off the pier or some shit. "I got work to do, man, I gotta get this shit together." His eyes drift close and his face turns upwards like he's a sunflower, like all it's gonna take is a little sunshine.

So -- what the fuck else is he supposed to do? Steve glances down at the papers again, squints at them a little more, and then finally gives up on doing it this way. Instead, he clears one of the chairs at the kitchen table of a beer can and half-eaten bag of potato chips, pulls it up next to the piano, and sits down and puts the papers in front of Bruce again.

"Okay," he says, and Bruce opens his eyes once again and blinks a little more, like he's already forgotten again what they're doing here. "Why don't you walk me through 'em now?"

He still looks pretty terrible, but at least here by the window he's in the sunlight, and he's smiling this time as he fishes through the sheets of paper and pulls one -- as messy as the rest of them, but it obviously makes sense to Bruce -- out, puts it on top of the piano and starts that same sequence of notes again. "Okay," he says.

He starts up again, and Steve places a hand on Bruce's leg, makes sure he's gonna stay right here, as they start from the beginning.
 

"So I'm like, 'Steve, come on, join my band.' And he's like 'No.'"

There's a few hoots from the crowd, but everyone can tell he's not done, so they're mostly quiet. Sure enough, Bruce continues. "And I'm like, 'Fine, Steve...please
join my band.'" Another pause, some laughs and cheers, and Bruce looks over at him this time, and shakes his head. "And he's like 'No, thanks."

"So finally -- " Bruce pauses, picks out a few notes on his guitar, and Steve responds in kind, plucks the same little sequence in answer. "So finally, what I do is, I get him -- I get him to come over to my house, and I lock him in the basement."

The response to that is a little louder, a few more whoops, but everyone's still waiting; every eye is still on Bruce, and everyone's still listening. "And it's like, 'Look, Steve -- look, I put some magazines down there, and I moved my bed down there for you, but my dad isn't gonna like this, so you'd better make up your mind quick. And if you say no I'm not letting you out.'"

 

It's three AM when Steve finally stumbles into the studio, and Bruce is just sitting there with Jon, headphones on, resting his head on the board and looking like he's about to start crying. He's mumbling to himself, and when Steve comes in Jon gets up with relief obvious on his face.

"Your turn," he mutters, as he passes Steve on the way out.

"Hey, Steve," Bruce says at almost the exact same time. He can't have heard Jon, doesn't wait for Steve to answer, just closes his eyes and gives a little sigh as he straightens up and looks through the window at Danny. "Okay, try it again."

Danny's jaw tightens a little, but he manages not to say anything, which is surprising given it's Danny and all. He runs through it again, and after he's done, there are a few seconds of silence while Bruce considers it, eyes still closed. And then, like fucking clockwork, without even opening his eyes, Bruce just shakes his head. "No," he says, and rubs his face with his hands before adding, "again."

This time it's not just that Danny's face twitches a little. Bruce doesn't notice and Steve rushes into the booth and runs into Danny on the way. For once, he's glad Bruce can't seem to part with the headphones or stop rewinding and playing obsessively; there's no way he's going to say anything that will make things better right now.

"Hey," he says, steering Danny and grateful that Danny's almost as tired as Bruce is, which means he'll let himself be steered. Then he comes up with some BS about how they're all tired, calls out to Bruce that Danny's gonna head home and the two of them can go through this stuff for awhile, and makes sure he gets Danny out the door. And watches him go 'till he's sure he's not gonna come running back in and smash a chair over Bruce's head, not that Steve could entirely blame him if he did.

After -- according to Steve's watch -- another hour's gone by, they've moved on to another bit, and something jumps out at him, one of the guitar lines Bruce has, the main one. "I like that," he says, and when Bruce blinks at him, he sings it out, da-dah-da-dah, dah dah dah -- except oh, Jesus fucking Christ, what's wrong now -- Steve didn't think he could look any worse but he was wrong, because all of a sudden Bruce just fucking crumples, whatever little insane-o energy was left in him is gone like that. He puts his arms on the board and lays his head down on them and Steve would guess he was crying except that he seems too tired for that, even.

"That's not what I'm playing," he finally gets out, not lifting his head from the board. "Shit, Steve, shit, that's not what I'm fuckin' playing, I was bending up to that -- it's supposed to -- " Then all of a sudden he's up, and he's got that spark in his eye, the one that says he's about to do something stupid even taking into account how it's Bruce. "It's all this shit, isn't it, all this shit I've got over it -- okay, okay, so, we'll just have to do it all over again tomorrow and, I can do that, we can -- "

"Jesus, Bruce, sit down," Steve says, and grabs hold of him by the neck, rests his forehead against Bruce's. It's only for a second or two, but it's enough to take all the fight out of him, and when Steve opens his eyes, Bruce looks even more like he's about to cry than he did when Steve came in. Steve hasn't had nearly enough weed to deal with this shit tonight. He doesn't let go of him just yet, though, not completely, just puts a hand around his wrist instead and pulls Bruce with him as he sits down, forces him back down into his own chair. He keeps his hand where it is for now, too, to keep him from jumping up again, to keep him still for once in his goddamned life, to see if maybe the self-involved prick will listen to someone else for once. "I said I fuckin' liked it, you stupid fuck. It sounds great, it's like Spector."

Bruce blinks at him for a couple of seconds, looks for all the world like he thinks this is some kind of trick. "It sounds great?" he repeats.

"That's what I said, isn't it?"

Bruce slumps over again, puts the headphones back on and listens to it through once more. "I can't do this," he says, at the end of it. Until he looks up and looks right at Steve, he wasn't even sure Bruce was talking to him, wasn't sure he still knew he was there. "It's not gonna happen, Steve. Not if..."

There's something in his voice, he's not done talking, and Steve can tell he needs to talk right now more than he needs to hear anything. So for the moment he just keeps his mouth shut, just sits there and watches to make sure he doesn't try to hang himself by his own guitar strings.

"You oughta come with us," he says then, real quick, the most decisive thing he's said all evening. "I mean, since we got so many guitar tracks, we wanna play it like that at a show it's gonna take more than me, and the vocals ain't gonna sound the same -- "

"Yeah, okay." It's that easy, because he just knows, doesn't need to think about it at all. He settles back into his seat, already figuring they'll have to have this discussion -- maybe in combination with a couple of quick, sweet fucks -- another forty times before it sticks with Bruce. That's something settled for now, though, and they go back to work, and it's still dim in here, but your eyes get used to it, and this time of night, it's at least as dark outside anyway.

 

"So what I did was, I just went over there with all my equipment, and a generator to hook everything up to, and I had this big amazing song I was gonna play, to show him exactly what we were gonna do, make sure he knew what he could get in on."

"Except -- " He giggles, looks so amused by the whole thing, and just the right amount of embarrassed, that Steve could believe it himself. "Except I couldn't figure out how to hook it all up, so Steve came out there to try and help me because he heard me outside, messing around and swearing up a storm."

Bruce can't get the grin off his face now, and Steve knows that the reason he won't make eye contact with him is because he's fully aware that they'll both just lose it, just forget what the fuck they were doing with all the stupid laughing. "And I'm like 'no, no, goddamnit, Steve, you gotta go back inside, you're gonna fuck the whole thing up -- ' and he's like 'look, you idiot, you got this hooked up wrong -- '"

Everyone laughs at that, and Steve keeps trying to catch Bruce's eye just because it'd be funny to see him lose his shit completely. "But finally we make it work, and I make him go back inside, and I play my song for him, and he comes out, and he says 'okay, Bruce, okay, you got me'."

He looks over, finally, signals somehow to all of them, and repeats it. "You got me." And then, from zero to sixty in a heartbeat, they all go tearing into "Rosie", with only the quickest of countdowns from Bruce.

 

They're packing up the equipment around him. Bruce puts down his guitar at one point, and Steve takes advantage of it, shoves the thing into a case and takes it outside, sets it down on the curb where everyone else is packed up and waiting for the bus.

"He coming?" Max asks, because apparently even this album hasn't been enough to bring him up to speed with the rest of 'em. Danny laughs darkly and pulls out a joint, takes a puff and hands it to Garry; Max turns his disapproving stare on them. "In public? In broad daylight?" He mostly just sounds appalled. "Come on, guys."

"He's really not ready yet?" Clarence asks, an eyebrow up. Steve rolls his eyes, shakes his head, throws up his hands because, for Christ's sake, there's only so much he can do. "Jesus Christ," Clarence mutters, and throws his case over his shoulder as the bus finally pulls up. "You gonna get him, or should I?" he calls behind him.

"No, I'll do it." Not having spent hours on end playing the same fucking solo over and over, Steve is probably the least inclined of all of them to beat Bruce to death with whatever's at hand in the event that he's left alone with him. All the time he's spent helping them put it together has had an effect, too, made Bruce more likely to listen to him, as much as Bruce will listen to anyone where this album is concerned.

Jon looks up when Steve walks back into the studio, raises his eyebrows at Steve, a look on his face like Steve's the one sitting here letting Bruce keep muttering to himself about this intro. Steve likes the guy plenty, but he doesn't think he can be blamed for giving him the finger over that, before he jerks his thumb towards the exit. "Bus is here," is all he says. "Time to get going. Why don't you work on getting the rest of this cleared up," he asks Landau. "and I'll..." He shrugs, jerks his chin towards Bruce, and Jon seems more than happy to leave him to Steve.

Bruce isn't listening, maybe heard them over the noise on his headphones but probably not, just nods a little, closes his eyes again, and rewinds. Jon's already starting to clear the tapes up, turn equipment off, and Steve allows Bruce one more run-through before he walks over to him and just takes the goddamn headphones off of him and sets them down on the mixing board.

"Hey, what the fuck -- " Bruce turns, has more energy than Steve has seen in him outside of the booth in a good year or so.

"Bus is here," Steve tells him. "You got a tour to do, remember?"

"Oh." Bruce looks at him without answering just yet, and gets this little frown on his face, like he still just doesn't quite get it. "Like, outside?"

"Yes, outside, you asshole." Which is just meant to startle him enough to get him to fucking pay attention, but given the names he's heard everyone muttering throughout this entire process, maybe Bruce is inured to it at this point.

"Oh." A pause. "Great, that's great. Tell them to just gimme another couple of minutes, I just gotta -- "

But it's been long enough at this point. Steve puts a hand on his elbow and hauls him out of his chair, keeps ahold on him and drags him towards the door. His main advantage is surprise; Bruce is a skinny little fuck but he can put up a decent amount of fight when he wants to. "No, Bruce," he says, not giving him a chance to turn back. "You've gotta go."

"Yeah, I know -- " Bruce isn't looking at him; his eyes are still back on the board, and on Jon (who, unless he's mistaken, is trying real hard not to let Bruce catch his eye. "But we got a few -- "

"No, you don't." Steve herds him out the door, and because he's feeling generous, he lets Bruce stand there in the sunlight blinking for a few seconds. The bus is waiting there in the parking lot, engine running, and everyone's waiting.

"My -- " Bruce blinks at the daylight for a second, like he's still not quite used to it, and then down at the case Steve hauled out here earlier. It would seem that part one of their revenge is in not helping Bruce with his shit. "You already got my guitar?"

Because he knows that he's not actually high, just so tired and worn so thin that he sounds like an idiot, Steve does not roll his eyes. Well, maybe a little. "Yes, Bruce," he explains, with all the patience he can manage, which is probably a lot more than the rest of the guys have at this point. "I got your guitar."

"Come on, you assholes!" Danny shouts out an open window. "You waiting for him to kiss you goodbye, Bruce? 'Cause that'd be a little pointless."

"What's that mean?" Bruce asks, blinking at Steve again. He's looking pale, which isn't surprising because he probably hasn't been out in the daylight for longer than it takes to get to and from his car. His eyes have dark circles under them, and -- well, it's probably just easiest to say he looks like shit. That about covers it.

"It means I'm coming with you, Bruce, remember?" Steve says.

Bruce blinks at that, frowns a little, like he's thinking this over or maybe waiting for the punchline. "Wait," he says, finally, "that really happened? I thought maybe I dreamed it or something."

Steve really does roll his eyes this time, but Bruce has got that fucking idiotic smile of his on his face now, the kind that hasn't been on it in months, or at least not for more than a few seconds in the middle of the night when the stars align and something breaks through the clouds and he manages to see what the fuck it is he's got here.

"Bruce?"

"Yeah?" he asks. That huge stupid grin of his is still there. He still looks like shit, but if there are degrees of looking like shit, then he's gone down the scale a little.

"Get your sorry ass on the goddamn bus," Steve tells him. Bruce picks up his guitar and somehow, now, finds the energy to run for it, still smiling like a great big fucking lunatic, and Steve is right behind him.

He does find a second later, to grab him by the neck as he's done so many times before, and this time there's a spark there in Bruce's eyes, like maybe he gets what's going on around him again, finally. Bruce kisses him, or Steve kisses Bruce -- it's too quick, a passing moment in the night, when they're all so fucking tired and happy that they're drunk on it, there's no way of knowing for sure. It'll get lost in a million other moments and a thousand other stories, it's already getting lost in the air as they drag themselves after everyone else, but they're all good enough stories that sifting the real one out again is going to be half the fun.