15 Dec 18
The Mercury News
By Ian Shapira | The Washington Post
Halfway through Bruce Springsteen’s solo act on Broadway, the Boss reminisces about two bar-band rockers he idolized in New Jersey in the 1960s.
Walter and Raymond Cichon were the frontman and lead guitarist of a band called the Motifs. “They were gods,” Springsteen tells the audience.
On Walter: “On stage, he was deadly, and he was aloof and raw and sexual and dangerous.”
On Raymond: “Raymond was my guitar hero.”
But the memories about a pair of little-known musicians takes a sorrowful turn: Walter was killed in 1968 in the Vietnam War, a disclosure that, following such loving tributes, prompted slight gasps in the audience when I saw the show earlier this month.
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On Saturday, “Springsteen on Broadway” ends its 14-month and 236-show run at the Walter Kerr Theatre in New York. Sunday, the Boss’ show launches globally on Netflix, offering the experience at a far more affordable price point to fans who had been unwilling or unable to cough up the hundreds or thousands of dollars for tickets. For Springsteen-philes, not much he says in the 975-seat theater may be new. A great deal of the script is based on his 2016 book, “Born to Run.”
But his stories about the Cichon brothers stick out. Outside of his mother, father and his wife, Patti Scialfa, Springsteen doesn’t speak at length in the performance about many other people, let alone name them. (Some of the omissions are tantalizing: Who was the music big wig who checked out Springsteen’s band in 1971 at a show in Asbury Park only to sleep with Springsteen’s then-girlfriend and leave town?)
But Springsteen does devote about eight minutes of his nearly three-hour show to the Cichons. He winds his way to the brothers by first recounting the time he’d run into the antiwar activist Ron Kovic in 1980 at a hotel in Los Angeles. Kovic, paralyzed in a wheelchair, introduced himself to Springsteen, who, coincidentally, had just read Kovic’s book, “Born on the Fourth of July.” Kovic invited Springsteen to visit a veteran’s center in Venice, California, the next day to meet wounded soldiers. When he arrived, Springsteen says he struggled to relate. His life seemed frivolous compared to theirs:
“It all made me think of my own friends from back home. It was Walter Cichon. Walter Cichon was the greatest rock ‘n’ roll front man on the Jersey Shore in the bar-band ’60s. He was in a group called the Motifs. He was the first real rock star I ever laid my eyes on. He had it in his bones and in his blood and in the way he dressed and carried himself. … In our little area, he showed us by the way that he lived. That you could live your life the way you chose. You could look the way you wanted to look. If you had the courage you could play the music that was in your heart that you wanted and needed to play. You could be who you wanted to be. You could tell anybody who didn’t like it to go (expletive) themselves and still be all right.”
Then, Springsteen tells a hilarious bit about Walter’s brother Raymond:
“Big Ray. Big Ray was this big, tall, kind of sweetly clumsy guy. But he was one of those big guys who just isn’t comfortable with his size. Wherever he is, he’s always either knocking into (expletive) and (expletive)’s falling over. Somewhere inside of Big Ray there was a Little Ray crying to get out. There was not enough space for Raymond wherever he was. But he dressed impeccably with these pastel shirts. Pink. Lime. Lime green. Baby blue. Long pointed collar … Sharkskin pants. Nylon see-through socks. Spit-shine shoes. Slick-back black hair with one little curl that hung down perfectly when he was playing the guitar. Raymond was my guitar hero.”
Walter and Raymond, Springsteen explains, had day jobs. Walter worked in construction, Raymond sold shoes. They weren’t famous. The Motifs never produced any major records or filled arenas. They had one semi-hit song called “Molly.” But he still worshiped them: “The hours I spent standing in front of their band, studying, studying, studying, class in session, night after night, taking it all in, watching Ray’s fingers fly over the fret board.”
These nights, Springsteen says, were “essential to my development as a young musician.” Then, he adds: “I loved them. I loved these men.”
Jean Mikle, a longtime Asbury Park Press reporter who has written two profiles of the Cichon brothers and the Motifs, described Walter’s performance like this: “Slightly menacing and a little bit wild, he was unlike any other frontman on the scene. And his songs … were raw and deeply personal, with bits of The Kinks, The Animals and The Rolling Stones mixed in.”
It’s astonishing to hear one of the world’s greatest rock stars lavish praise on two musicians who never earned a fraction of his fame.
The trajectory of his life couldn’t be more different from the Cichon brothers. Walter was drafted at 21 and went missing in action on March 30, 1968, in the Kontum province of South Vietnam. Though Springsteen doesn’t mention it in the Broadway show, Raymond, also an Army veteran, died in 1980 a week after getting beaten up in Vermont, where he was trying to reconcile with his estranged wife. Instead her relatives allegedly attacked him, according to a 1980 account in the Asbury Park Press. A 2014 article said no charges were brought. Raymond was 36.
Meanwhile, Springsteen, who avoided going to fight in Vietnam, is still performing his signature epic concerts at the age of 69. The Broadway show clocks in around two hours and 40 minutes. Onstage, he wears jeans and a black shirt that is tight enough to show off his jacked arms.
Springsteen wraps up his Cichon stories with a heavy dose of regret. A year after Walter’s death, he describes how he and two bandmates were drafted on the same day.
The trio rode to the Selective Service office one Monday morning, certain they were on their way to their deaths. When they arrived at the draft board, he says, “We did everything we could not to go. We succeeded, all three of us.” (In a conversation last year with Tom Hanks at the Tribeca Film Festival, Springsteen called himself a “stone-cold draft dodger” and recounted telling a draft official, “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t understand what you are saying because I am high on LSD.”)
Now, Springsteen says, when he goes to Washington and “visits” Walter at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall, “I’m glad … that my name for that matter isn’t up on that wall.” He adds: “All those lost years. Somebody’s life. Those missing years … years that should have been lived, lived out. Remains infuriating. To this day I do sometimes wonder who went in my place because somebody did.”
What Springsteen leaves out of the show is that the circumstances surrounding Walter’s death in Vietnam are murky.
The Asbury Park Press has reported that Walter “emerged from a trench” with a grenade and was shot in the head. Fellow soldiers withdrew from the battle under heavy fire, unable to recover the body, the newspaper said.
In July 1975, the family finally held a memorial service (paid for by the Army), where his wife, Carolee, and sons were presented with a flag and his posthumously awarded medals. Carolee later remarried and had two more children but died in 2007 at the age of 59.
In an interview, Walter’s younger son David Cichon, now 51, said he and his older brother Bryan, 52, have been in touch with Vietnam War veterans on Facebook. They are investigating the possibility that, after being shot in the head, their dad actually survived and died while being taken as a prisoner of war to a field hospital or somewhere in Hanoi. David, a supervisor for a Tiffany’s distribution center who lives in New Jersey, and Bryan, a client relationship manager for Bank of America Merrill Lynch in Florida, have been messaging with Vietnam veterans who have been communicating after all these years with their Viet Cong counterparts.
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During their childhood and for the early part of their adulthood, both sons said they knew only that their father had traveled in the same circles as Springsteen. But they had no clue the Boss had held their dad in such high esteem. They finally got the full picture in 2005, when someone forwarded them a YouTube clip of Springsteen playing a new but unreleased song about the Vietnam War called “The Wall” at a concert that year.
“I wrote this song for Walter, Walter Cichon,” Springsteen tells the crowd. “I was in Washington, and I was visiting the Wall and I wrote this for him.”
When David got the link in his email, he felt overwhelmed.
“When he actually says my father’s name, chills went down my spine,” David said. “They were friends! Bruce remembered his name and then visited him at the Wall! It occurred to me that my father had some impact on his life. We had no idea he was such a huge influence.”
For Bryan, the clip felt like a reason to do something big.
“This more than anything made me want to get ahold of Bruce,” he said.
It turned out that one of Bryan’s clients at his bank was the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. It took a couple of years, but he ultimately wound up with the contact information for Springsteen’s longtime management firm.
Bryan passed along the story about his father, and one day in 2008, while he was touring a car museum in Reno, Nevada, he got a call from one of Springsteen’s people.
“Bruce wants to meet you,” Bryan remembers the person saying.
They were told to show up at an upcoming concert in Orlando. After the show, they went backstage and waited outside a door. Finally, Springsteen emerged.
“Bruce opens his door and takes one step and looks at me,” Bryan recalled, “and then says, ‘Whoa whoa, whoa. Standing here, I feel like I am looking at your dad.'”
The men embraced. Springsteen told Bryan, “The last time I saw you, you were this big sitting on your dad’s lap on the day he left for Vietnam.”
“You were there?” Bryan asked.
Then, they fell into a long conversation inside his dressing room. Springsteen gushed about their father and their uncle Raymond, the guitarist.
“He said Dad was this ‘beautiful man’ and that he used to go to dad’s concerts and push his way to the front of the stage and that he’d watch our Uncle Ray to learn the chords and then watch the girls screaming for our dad,” Bryan recalled. “He said, ‘Everything I learned about performing onstage, I learned from going to the Motifs and watching your dad.'”
Before they parted ways, Bryan asked Springsteen for a favor. He asked him if he could finally record “The Wall,” put it in an album and “tell my dad’s story.”
“He looked at me right in the eyes and said, ‘I am going to do that,'” Bryan said.
Sure enough, Springsteen did. In 2014, Springsteen released a new album, “High Hopes.” It featured “The Wall.” And the album’s liner notes told Walter’s story. “He still performs somewhat regularly in my mind, the way he stood, dressed, held the tambourine, the casual cool, the freeness,” Springsteen wrote.
David and Bryan haven’t seen their father’s friend since their visit with him in 2008. Every once in a while, they find clips of Springsteen talking about Walter at random concerts. And ever since the launch of the Broadway show, friends who have shelled out big bucks for tickets have excitedly told them about Springsteen’s homage to the Cichon brothers.
But they haven’t seen it themselves.
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“I know what he says in the show,” David said. “He’s said it directly to me. Besides, he’s probably got a lot of other people to take care of.”
Bryan said he would love to go and express his gratitude to Springsteen in person.
“He did what I asked him to do,” Bryan said. “He put ‘The Wall’ in an album and told my dad’s story. I just want to tell him thanks.”