Local

Does this bus stop at E Street? Meet the man behind this Springsteen-esque ode to the MBTA

"Baby, we can take the 1!"

Bruce and the bus

This isn’t about a ’69 Chevy with a 396, a Cadillac that’s long and dark, or anything close to a hemi-powered drone.

Chrome-wheeled, fuel-injected doesn’t quite fit either.

But if the Boss himself ever takes the MBTA’s Route 1 Bus because I-93 was jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive, he may find himself belting out a whole new refrain.

Baby, we can take the 1!

So goes the joyful parody of “Born to Run,” the Bruce Springsteen classic, penned by Jef Czekaj, a local children’s book author, illustrator, and now puppeteer of sorts who may have given Boston the snappiest MBTA song since Charlie rode the MTA:

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Come with me, there’s a lot to see / From Harvard to Nubian Square
You can ride in style on a city bus / As long as you pay your fare
The dude right behind you has started to snore
There’s a bottle of Snapple rolling round on the floor
If you want to have some fun, come dance like us
Baby, we can take the 1

Czekaj, a longtime Somerville resident who recently moved to Arlington, told Boston.com the jam is the latest in a long series of videos he began making at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last year.

“When I work on my picture books, I’m really used to working out in public,” he said. “I do a lot of drawing and just brainstorming, like in coffee shops and public libraries. And so when that got shut off, I had a really hard time finding creative space.”

Stuck up at home, Czekaj began making videos with his 8-year-old son after the latter was inspired by a series of “how to draw” videos by children’s author, Mo Willems.

The pair started creating similar videos (Czekaj admits they were “a little weirder” than Willems’ clips) and before long, the Somerville Public Library reached out to him in its search for remote, online programming amid the shutdown, he said.

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“I knew my kid: I couldn’t get him to commit regularly to doing something,” Czekaj said. “So I kind of just started doing it on my own.”

What was born was the half-hour variety show, “Sequestered Storytime,” where Czekaj put himself in front of the camera, read a few of his books, and demonstrated how to make drawings. Eventually, Czekaj, who is also a musician, added musical elements and segments to his episodes.

The library, he noted, was “a-OK with whatever crazy stuff I did, which was awesome.”

“I’d never made puppets. I’d never really made videos before,” said Czekaj. “I’ve been in local bands forever … These videos are like, kind of the thing I was born to do because I can make the music. I can do the goofy puppet voices. I can make the puppets. I can edit videos pretty well.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, it was just good to have something,” he added. “I was like cranking out a half-hour of original video content every two weeks, which was a very intense schedule.”

The characters and puppets draw heavily from some of Czekaj’s favorite performers such as Jim Henson, the puppeteer behind the beloved Muppets, and Pee-wee Herman, the character portrayed by comedian and actor Paul Reubens.

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Czekaj posted many of his segments on social media and, given the locality of his audience, often centered them on tidbits of local history and trivia. Take, for instance, Czekaj’s Guns N’ Roses style song that plays on how the girl “Mary Had a Little Lamb” was based on once lived in Somerville and also the dispute over who actually authored the tale behind the famous nursery rhyme.

In all, Czekaj had made nearly 30 episodes as of last week.

When vaccines and warmer weather allowed for gatherings to re-commence earlier this year, Czekaj even formed a band with a few friends and played his puppet songs live at a couple of gigs, including at the library and Somerville’s Porch Fest.

Over the summer, Czekaj took a break from the weekly shows. Since then, he’s pursued crafting videos for social media that touch on just about whatever sparks his interest.

“I’m like, coming at it from two ways: A. What kind of genre or artists do I want to try to parody and B. what is the subject matter? And so yeah, they don’t necessarily go together,” Czekaj said. (See also: The zany, “In The Combination Pizza Hut & Taco Bell Over The Sea,” a riff on a song from indie royalty Neutral Milk Hotel’s album, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea.”)

“It’s not like oh, obviously a song about taking the bus should be a Bruce Springsteen song,” Czekaj said. “That one actually does kind of make sense though.”

Czekaj said he’s never been a huge fan of the Boss but had been thinking about perhaps the rocker’s best-known song, revisiting its “rousing” spirit and complexity.

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“It’s been fun taking apart the original songs to try to figure out what makes a Bruce Springsteen song sound like a Bruce Springsteen song,” he said. “The guitar tones were really hard to replicate.”

Czekaj’s take on the tune has the anthemic and unmistakable, Beatles-tinged guitar riff, and features a sax solo, another staple of nearly every major Springsteen song. The lyrics are a humorous, if not painfully true, account of what it’s like to ride public transit on a tiny Boston-area street:

A guy named Joe, wearing too much cologne / So strong you might faint
Look out the window and you might see / An SUV in the bike lane
A girl named Gail, trims her nail / Sitting right across the aisle
And as we cross the Charles you can ask yourself / How many Smoots are in a mile?

As for Czekaj’s next stop, he said he plans to keep up the variety show, though likely with less frequent episodes than before so he can focus on his latest picture book.

“I have a ton of ideas left,” he said. “So when I can, I’m just going to keep popping them out.”

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