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Next Bruce? No, First John Eddie

November 25, 1998

TRENTON, N.J. (AP) _ Summer night. Jersey club, $5 cover.

It could be 1982, when John Eddie strutted stages along the shore, when rock ‘n’ roll stardom seemed more destiny than distant possibility.

But this is the summer of 1998, 16 years burning down the road, and the word ``stardom″ has exited from Eddie’s vocabulary. The genial rocker, once a contender for the title of ``the next Bruce Springsteen,″ is pushing 40 _ and sometimes it pushes back, hard.

Eddie wears an acoustic guitar across his chest, and he carries some other baggage: a near-miss at major label success; a near career-ending dose of music business politics; the deaths of two friends, one to a gun-toting bandit.

The singer, in black jeans and T-shirt, signals his band. They launch into one of his newer songs.

``It’s gettin’ kind of old being young at heart,″ Eddie sings, and the words ring painfully true: There is little record industry demand for thirtysomething rockers, even those who boast dedicated cult followings.

Nobody knows this better than Eddie: ``You might as well say I have leprosy, too,″ he observes drily over drinks a few weeks later. The knowledge is not enough to make him surrender.

The music industry goes through scores of John Eddies, tossing them aside like broken guitar strings in its hunt for the next big thing. Music on the cusp of the 21st century is MTV exposure, multiplatinum sales, mass marketing.

John Eddie has none of that; he doesn’t have a record deal, or health insurance, or steady credit, either.

He does have a need to get up and play.

``He’s a real trouper,″ says ex-″Saturday Night Live″ bassist T-Bone Wolk, an Eddie friend. ``He has hung in there. He hasn’t given up.″

And so Eddie did the shore circuit this summer: Joe Pop’s in Ship Bottom, the Osprey in Manasquan, the Tiki Bar in Point Pleasant.

Which raises an obvious question: Why?

``It’s the only thing I really know how to do,″ he explains. ``I’m not looking to be a big rock star anymore. I just want to come out of it looking respectable.″

It’s a modest goal, a middle-aged goal _ not the goal that a transplanted south Jersey teen had back in 1975, when the needle on his turntable first touched down on Springsteen’s ``Born to Run.″

Back then, anything seemed possible.

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MEET THE NEW BOSS?

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Eddie’s career, like a top 40 tune blaring from a convertible on the Garden State Parkway, came with a great hook: He would follow The Boss out of seaside obscurity.

The Virginia native, with his band the Front Street Runners, broke big around Philadelphia in 1980 before migrating to the Jersey shore. By 1982, they owned a regular gig at Asbury Park’s legendary Stone Pony.

That same year, Springsteen jammed with Eddie on-stage at E-Streeter Clarence Clemons’ club.

John Eddie had arrived.

Springsteen made other surprise appearances, conferring his imprimatur on the new kid _ a picture of one such night still hangs on the wall of Eddie’s rented home in Highlands, N.J. And when Springsteen’s ``Born in The USA″ blew up in 1984, record executives eager to duplicate its sales courted Eddie.

``He had kind of a Jersey boy charisma,″ recalls Joe McEwen, who signed Eddie for Springsteen’s label, Columbia Records. ``I thought he had a spark.″

The label replaced the Runners with a heavyweight studio band_ Springsteen guitarist Nils Lofgren, ex-Faces keyboardist Ian McLagan, session player Greg Phillanganes. The resulting 1986 record, recorded in five days, was generally well received; a minor hit single, ``Jungle Boy,″ earned a bit of MTV play.

That summer, Eddie played Giants Stadium for 55,000 people, opening an Amnesty International show for U2 and Sting. Despite the heat, he gleefully took the stage in a leather coat _ a gift from Springsteen.

``I recall him as being real nice,″ says his old publicist, Marilyn Laverty. ``He always seemed kind of boyish _ innocent, naive.″

That naivete led to disaster, when Eddie surrendered creative control on his follow-up album. The label, hunting for a hit, wanted ``a George Michael record″ from a performer who preferred Springsteen and Graham Parker, he says.

Sessions already done with Dwight Yoakam’s producer, Pete Anderson, were jettisoned. Three other producers were summoned. And the album that came out in 1989 _ ``The Hard Cold Truth″ _ was a schizophrenic effort that lacked Eddie’s usual style or sound.

``I have myself to blame as much as other people,″ Eddie reflects now. ``But I wish I had somebody telling me what my strong points were, instead of trying to fit into somebody else’s thing.″

There were other problems: money and songwriting. The label, fearing overexposure, put a moratorium on Eddie’s live shows. But Eddie had always honed his material before an audience.

The East Coast kid was now writing music, alone, in a Los Angeles apartment.

``As I remember it, John was having trouble writing,″ says McEwen. Eddie says he was ``pretending to be a rock ‘n’ roll star ... and completely losing touch with that other part of me.″

No live dates meant no money. A lesson in record company math followed: Eddie recalls a cash advance ``for T-shirt sales on my next tour, two years down the line.

``And somewhere down that line they say, `You didn’t sell enough T-shirts. Where’s our $30,000?‴

But Eddie still had his muse, as John Mellencamp confirmed. Eddie, while recording in Mellencamp’s studio, hung out a bit with the Indiana rocker.

``He pulled me aside and said, `If they don’t make your song `Tough Luck’ a hit, someone should be fired. That’s a hit,‴ Eddie relates.

It wasn’t a hit. And the only person fired was Eddie, dumped by CBS.

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A RAW DEAL

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Signing one record deal is a long shot _ record companies ink perhaps 30 acts out of 10,000 demo tapes a year. But Eddie quickly landed a two-album Elektra Records contract.

Eddie was matched with producer David Briggs, who worked on most of Neil Young’s classic albums. It seemed a match made in heaven.

It became, Eddie says now, anything but: ``The second record was a joy compared to Elektra.″

Fast friends Eddie and Briggs created what the singer considers his finest work. One of Eddie’s pals, a New York cop named Keith Levine, provided background vocals.

By December 1991, the album _ tentatively titled ``Sharing the Same Cell″ _ was finished. Three days after Christmas, Eddie, Levine and a third friend went club-hopping in Manhattan to celebrate.

As the trio drove across 57th Street, Levine spotted a robbery in progress. The off-duty cop intervened; the bandit shot him to death as Eddie looked on in horror.

A week later, still shaken, the singer was told by an Elektra executive that his record was spiked. The times had changed. New Jersey was out, Seattle was in, and Eddie’s album disappeared in a sea of grunge.

The label released him. It never released his record.

``Am I bitter? Yes,″ Eddie says. ``I was bitter about the inhumane way they handled it. I would have liked to take a little bit of respect with me.

``After that, I was in legal limbo for two years.″

The once-promising singer-songwriter’s reputation was ruined. His band fell apart, and his resolve faltered.

``That was the start of my really learning about the business,″ he says. ``I was broke at the time. ... I was a little in shock.″

Once the legal woes were settled, Eddie returned to his music _ but ``it wasn’t a dream anymore, it was a job,″ he says. ``I was like, I don’t have any money. I gotta get money.′

``And I started playing like it was a job, and that killed me. It took me two years to realize it was killing me. ... It twisted my soul into a knot.″

In 1995, producer Briggs, still a big booster, died of lung cancer. Eddie was still playing just to pay the rent. And then everything changed during a $75-a-night acoustic gig in a Pennsylvania bar.

A longtime fan asked about Eddie’s next record. Eddie explained his predicament _ no label, no money _ and the fan put up the cash for an independent album.

``Seven Songs Since My Last Confession″ came out last year, Eddie’s first official release in eight years.

``All of a sudden, I was free,″ Eddie says. ``It wasn’t, `Joe in promotion really likes the song, but can you change the drums a little bit?′ It’s gotten me back to when I was 18, and not expecting anything except playing rock ‘n’ roll.″

The self-deprecating Eddie, after politely discussing the car wrecks in his career, can joke about the ride. As a waitress removes silverware from the table in a Red Bank cafe, he leans over to crack wise: ``The sounds of John Eddie’s future career.″

His prospects seem better. Eddie visited Nashville, Tenn., earlier this year, and may try peddling his songs down there. He’s already working on a new record, produced by his pal, Wolk.

``I’m just trying to figure out where I fit in,″ he says. ``I haven’t accomplished what I want to yet.″

Quitting, he says, is something he refuses to think about: ``I use everything I have inside me to crush that out.″

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ONE NIGHT STAND

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It’s the fall now. A Manhattan club, $15 a ticket.

For one night, Eddie is back in the big leagues, headlining at the venerable Bottom Line. A pair of record company executives sit among the crowd.

Eddie, in a jacket and tie, takes the stage to raucous applause, tearing through an 18-song set. ``Payday,″ a song from the disastrous second album, is magnificent live. He dedicates a rocked-up version of Neil Young’s ``Heart of Gold″ to Briggs, the late producer.

``You’re all my friends!″ a grinning Eddie tells the crowd. That doesn’t include the record guys; neither offers a deal despite the show’s obvious success.

Near the end of the night, smiling and sweaty, Eddie grabs the microphone and announces, ``You don’t make a lot of money, but this is a lot of fun.″

From the tables in front of the stage, it sure sounds like John Eddie is telling the truth.