Born to Run (2016)
IT’S A BAR, YOU IDIOTS
Immediately on my return I heard Steve, Southside and their Sundance Blues Band were booked at the Captain’s Garter in Neptune, New Jersey. I grabbed my guitar and headed straight down to the club to get in on some of the action. The place was packed and we rocked the joint like old times, with the crowd cheering, everyone glued to the stage and the music. It was a great night all around. At the end of the evening, Steve and I headed back to the manager’s office to pick up our money and obviously solidify some future bookings. We’d just turned this guy’s club inside out and we were expecting some kudos and work.
The manager was a very large, completely white-haired, stolid young man in a red lifeguard’s windbreaker. Expressionless, he stood on the far side of his desk and did not offer kudos. We asked what the prospect for future bookings would be and he calmly explained to us that there would be none. He said that yes, the crowd was large and enthusiastic, but no one was drinking. They were too busy listening to the music. He then added, as if we hadn’t noticed, “It’s a bar, you idiots.” They made money by selling liquor. The bartenders made money from tips from selling liquor. No liquor sales meant no money. No money and our little world there on Highway 35 in Neptune stopped spinning. They were not in the concert business and so we, in turn, would not be a part of the bar business at the Captain’s Garter. This was my first meeting with bar manager/lifeguard/navy SEAL Terry Magovern, a man who would work with me as my assistant and become my close friend for twenty-three years. He fired us.
Plan B (Return to the Emerald City)
I still had my room in Tom Potter’s beatnik pad in Asbury. I decided my bar band days at the moment were burning out. I needed to travel light and be able to blow somebody away with just my voice, my guitar and my song. Voice . . . guitar . . . song . . . three tools. My voice was never going to win any prizes. My guitar accompaniment on acoustic was rudimentary, so that left the songs. The songs would have to be fireworks. I decided the world was filled with plenty of good guitar players, many of them my match or better, but how many good songwriters were there? Songwriters with their own voice, their own story to tell, who could draw you into a world they created and sustain your interest in the things that obsessed them. Not many, a handful at best.
Dylan was preeminent amongst these types of writers. Bob Dylan is the father of my country. Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived. The darkness and light were all there, the veil of illusion and deception ripped aside. He put his boot on the stultifying politeness and daily routine that covered corruption and decay. The world he described was all on view, in my little town, and spread out over the television that beamed into our isolated homes, but it went uncommented on and silently tolerated. He inspired me and gave me hope. He asked the questions everyone else was too frightened to ask, especially to a fifteen-year-old: “How does it feel . . . to be on your own?” A seismic gap had opened up between generations and you suddenly felt orphaned, abandoned amid the flow of history, your compass spinning, internally homeless. Bob pointed true north and served as a beacon to assist you in making your way through the new wilderness America had become. He planted a flag, wrote the songs, sang the words that were essential to the times, to the emotional and spiritual survival of so many young Americans at that moment.
I had the opportunity to sing “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” for Bob when he received the Kennedy Center Honors. We were alone together for a brief moment walking down a back stairwell when he thanked me for being there and said, “If there’s anything I can ever do for you . . .” I thought, “Are you kidding me?” and answered, “It’s already been done.” As a young musician, that’s where I wanted to go. I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I lived in. So I knew in 1972 that to do this I would need to write very well and more individually than I had ever written before. I’d saved a few dollars playing here and there since I got back and for the first time in my life I stopped playing with a band and concentrated on songwriting. At night in my bedroom with my guitar and on an old Aeolian spinet piano parked in the rear of the beauty salon, I began to write the music that would comprise Greetings from Asbury Park.
I called Mike Appel. He remembered me and told me to come on up, so I took Lincoln Transit to New York City, met Mike at Wes Farrell’s and played him my new stuff. He said these were songs we could knock down some doors with. He got crazy excited, as only Mike could. The words flew a mile a minute, the hand gestures threatened dismemberment, his face lit up and in thirty seconds he compared me to Dylan, Shakespeare, James Joyce and Bozo the Clown. Mike could raise hard-ons in half a cemetery with his enthusiasm. It was what drew me to him. He could get you excited about yourself. Mike had the carny barker’s and tent preacher’s 110 percent belief in whatever was flying out of his mouth at any given moment. It’s a gift. By the time I left his office, my superstardom had been preordained. All we had to do was get a somebody to listen to a nobody. I kept writing, kept visiting and met Mike’s partner, Jimmy Cretecos, a milder, sweeter version of Mike. We started to work together and make some basic tapes. I visited Jimmy’s spectacular apartment in Tuxedo Park. He had a gorgeous wife and a ritzy place, so it looked to me like these guys had it made. They’d had some bubblegum hits but Mike said they made most of their money writing jingles. I went with Mike to one of his sessions and ended up playing harmonica on a Beech-Nut Gum commercial demo.
In the meantime, we planned and schemed while only one thing stood in the way. Before Mike would consent to use his many talents on my behalf, he explained, he would have to be protected. That meant contracts. I’d never signed a contract in my life, didn’t know shit about them and therefore was extremely suspicious of them. I’d lived off the grid for so long, I was totally ignorant in the ways of the law, musical or any other kind. I knew no lawyers; I’d been paid in only cash my entire life and had never paid a cent of income tax, signed an apartment lease nor filled out any form that might bind me in any way. I had no credit card, no checkbook, just what was jingling in my pocket. I had no college-educated friends. My Asbury Park was an island of misfit, blue-collar provincials. Smart, but not book smart. I’d never gotten to know anyone who’d made an actual record or been signed to a big-time recording contract. I’d never seen a contract of any kind or been in touch with any businessmen. I had no professional resources.
Mike explained each contract, what it would do for me and how we would be protected. Production—that was our recording deal. I was signed to Laurel Canyon Productions, Mike and Jimmy’s company, and they would produce my records and sell them to a major label. Publishing—Mike and Jimmy would publish my music under Laurel Canyon Publishing, in theory working to get other artists to cover my songs. I would receive my writer’s half of the royalties but none of the publishing revenues. Management—like Elvis and the Colonel, Mike’s business model, we would split everything fifty-fifty. The problem would be all the expenses would end up coming out of my half. The whole thing was overreaching and counterproductive on Mike and Jimmy’s part, leading to a lot of damage in the end, but who was I to say?
The bottom line was I liked Mike and I knew he understood what I wanted to do musically. We weren’t aiming for a few successful records and some modest hits. We were aiming for impact, for influence, for the top rung of what recording artists are capable of achieving. We both knew rock music was now a culture shaper. I wanted to collide with the times and create a voice that had musical, social and cultural impact. Mike understood that this was my goal. I was not modest in the assessment of my abilities. Of course I thought I was a phony—that is the way of the artist—but I also thought I was the realest thing you’d ever seen. I had a huge ego, and I’d built up the talent and craft to pursue my ambitions with years of playing experience and study. I had my doubts and I had a sense of humor about the balls I had and the big bite I was trying to take, but damn, that’s where the fun was, and . . . I was a natural. It was in my bones.
In the end, I would’ve signed Mike’s jockey shorts, if he’d presented them to me, to get my foot in the door. I was closer than I’d ever been to the real work I wanted to do. I could feel it. I spent a few nights on my own trying to get through the biz speak, the legalese, of the contracts myself. It was a joke. I sat with Mike’s lawyer, Jules Kurz, who mildly explained the basic provisions of the contracts, but in the end, I just said “fuck it”; I had to get in, and if these meaningless papers were the price, so be it. If I’m a bum, then all this stuff adds up to zero, and if I’m champ, then who cares? I’ll have gotten there and the rest will be sorted out. I didn’t look back until much later, and by then, of course, it was too late. Frightened, slowly, reluctantly, recklessly, contract by contract, I signed, finishing the last one, one evening, on a car hood in a New York City parking lot. Done deal.