Joining Bruce's Conga Line
How a Jersey clothing store owner ended up onstage with The Boss
(article dated 8/14/99 by Jay Lustig /Star-Ledger Staff)
Introducing his first encore at The Continental Airlines Arena Monday night, Bruce Springsteen announced he was going to bring a special guest onstage. All over the arena, minds raced. Who could it be? A local hero like Southside Johnny or Jon Bon Jovi? A fellow rock superstar, such as Mick Jagger or Bono? Steve Eitelberg walked out and took his place behind a set of conga drums. Eitelberg, introduced by The Boss as "my haberdasher," played congas on "Spirit in the Night," then disappeared like one of the spirits in the night. Springsteen had been singing about. He joined the band for only that song, and probably never have an opportunity to repeat the experience. But he's not complaining. "It was the thrill of my life," says Eitelberg, 53, a clothing store owner and friend of Springsteen who has never played in a nightclub before, let alone a sold-out arena. "I couldn't believe it. People were asking me for autographs. A lady came up to me and said, Can I take a picture of you with my daughter?"
Eitelberg, who lives in West Long Branch and owns the Steev 19 stores in Deal and Long Branch, has known Springsteen for more than 30 years, since the days when Springsteen was a struggling Shore-area musician. The two have been more like acquaintances than friends for most of that time, with Springsteen sometimes buying clothes from Eitelberg. But they have grown closer in recent years." If he wasn't the king of rock 'n' roll, and he was just a regular Joe,I would still be blessed to have him as a friend," says Eitelberg, who adds that when his late wife, Lynne, became ill with cancer several years ago, "he did some incredible things for her, like having her to the performances here at the Paramount" (his 1996 acoustic shows at Asbury Park's Paramount Theatre). "She was second row center, and he sang to her all night. She was really ill at the time. The last few days she was conscious, on life support, he was in her room, stroking her, singing to her." Lynne passed away in 1997, and since then, says Eitelberg, "on a particular day of the year-I won't say what day-he comes into my (Deal) store and gets drunk with me." The last time that happened, Springsteen, who knew that Eitelberg had taken up conga playing as a hobby over the last few years, made a surprising promise. He looked at me and said, "You know what you're gonna do?" and I said,"What?" He said, "You're gonna play congas with me and my band at the Meadowlands." Eitelberg didn't believe it, but Springsteen put it in writing immediately on a hastily scrawled contract. The next few times the men saw each other, though, Springsteen didn't mention it, so Eitelberg assumed he had been kidding around. Then, one day this March, Springsteen walked into the Deal store and asked Eitelberg had he been practicing. I said, "What?," Eitelberg remembers. He said, "The congas, man, what's wrong with you?" Springsteen said he really wanted Eitelberg to play at one of the Meadowlands shows. "Now I'm flipping," says Eitelberg. I said,"You weren't kidding with me?" He said,"No, I don't say anything I don't mean." Springsteen had originally told Eitelberg he could do whatever song he wanted, but now he said he had decided which one it would be. "You're gonna do 'Spirit in the Night,' so start practicing," Eitelberg remembers Springsteen saying. After the European leg of the tour ended in June, Springsteen visited the store again, and asked again if Eitelberg had been practicing. The haberdasher said he was having a hard time getting his part down. So Springsteen walked into the store's back room, where Eitelberg kept some drums, and showed it to him. Springsteen reiterated the offer when the two saw each other at a party on July 15, the opening night of the 15-show stand (which ended Thursday), but it wasn't until last weekend that Eitelberg was told he would be joining the band Monday night, and that there would be tickets for family members and store employees. Eitelberg rehearsed with the band for the first time at sound check that afternoon, and wasn't nervous when it came time for him to take the stage. Bruce kept saying,"I can't wait to see your knees in front of 20,000 people." I couldn't believe it, but I wasn't nervous. The guys in the band made me feel real comfortable." Springsteen told the crowd he buys all his suits from Eitelberg, a statement the haberdasher found puzzling. "He doesn't wear suits," he says with a laugh. "He buys anything that looks old and used. But he has great taste in clothes. I must say, no matter what's going on (in fashion). He knows Armani and Versace. He's pretty up on it."