Born to Run (2016)
ONWARD AND UPWARD
Our first audition was at Atlantic Records. All I remember is going up to an office and playing for somebody. No interest. The next thing Mike finagled—and I couldn’t believe it—was an audition with John Hammond. John Hammond! The legendary producer who signed Dylan, Aretha, Billie Holiday—a giant in the recording business. I’d just finished reading the Anthony Scaduto Dylan biography and I was going to meet the man who made it happen!
The motor mouth of Mike Appel was a fierce and surgical instrument when put to proper use. Mike could’ve talked Jesus down from the cross, Santa Claus out of Christmas and Pam Anderson out of breast augmentation. He talked us off the street and into the inner sanctum of John Hammond’s office. My man was a managerial genius. To give you an idea about how much the music business has changed, John Hammond, a historical figure in the industry, was receiving complete no-names like us off the streets of New York in his office! I’m sure Mike laid down a hell of a spiel, but still . . . John later told me his trusted secretary and gatekeeper, Mikie Harris, after she spoke to Mike, simply said to him, “I think you ought to see this guy.” The doors to El Dorado opened and in we strode.
I had no acoustic guitar of my own so I borrowed a cheap one with a cracked neck from Vinnie “Skeebots” Manniello, my old Castiles drummer. He had no case, so I had to haul it Midnight Cowboy–style over my shoulder on the bus and through the streets of the city. It’s a hokey feeling, as if you’re showing off and are about to burst into song at any moment. Bare guitar in my hands, Mike and I walked into John Hammond’s office and came face-to-face with the gray crew cut, horn-rimmed glasses, huge smile, gray suit and tie of my music business hero. I would’ve been in a state of complete panic except on the way up in the elevator I’d performed a little mental jujitsu on myself. I thought, “I’ve got nothing so I’ve got nothing to lose. I can only gain should this work out. If it don’t, I still got what I came in with. I’m a free agent. I make my way through the world as myself and I’ll still be that person when I leave no matter the outcome.” By the time I got there I almost believed it. I walked in nervous but confident.
Immediately, as the door opened, my representative, Mike Appel, showed a personal tendency for unnecessary confrontation that would weigh on us as time passed. I figure once the door is open you can stop kicking at it. Not Mike; he walked in swinging. Straightaway, with no discernible self-consciousness and before I’d played a note, he told John Hammond of Columbia Records I was perhaps the second coming of Jesus, Muhammad and Buddha and he’d brought me there to see if Hammond’s discovery of Dylan was a fluke or if he really had ears. I found this an interesting way of introducing and ingratiating ourselves to the man who held our future in his hands. Mike then sat back on the windowsill, pleased as punch he’d had his “no bullshit” say, and handed the ball off to me, an act we would repeat often in the future. John later told me he was poised and ready to hate us, but he just leaned back, slipped his hands together behind his head and, smiling, said, “Play me something.” I sat directly across from him and played “Saint in the City.” When I was done I looked up. That smile was still there and I heard him say, “You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.” One song—that’s what it took. I felt my heart rise up inside me, mysterious particles dancing underneath my skin and faraway stars lighting up my nerve endings.
He went on, “That was wonderful, play me something else.” I played “Growin’ Up,” then something called “If I Was the Priest.” He loved the Catholic imagery, pointed out the lack of clichés and said arrangements needed to be made for me to play for Clive Davis. He told me he’d had his successes and his failures in the acts he’d signed at Columbia and these days, Clive’s say was final. He then asked to see me perform live that night. Mike and I said we’d try to find a club that would accommodate us for a few songs; we shook hands and left his office. We got into the elevator and when we slipped out of CBS’s big Black Rock building and hit the street, hell broke loose.
We’d climbed to the heavens and spoken to the gods, who told us we were spitting thunder and throwing lightning bolts! It was on. It was all on. After the years of waiting, of struggling toward that something I thought might never happen, it had happened. With Skeebots’s junk guitar, the sword we’d just pulled from the stone, now proudly, nakedly slung over my shoulder, we had a celebratory cheeseburger and, floating down the street, jumped into a cab and headed for the Village. I was twenty-two years old.
We started at the Bitter End; no good. The Café au Go Go; nope. My old stomping grounds, Café Wha?; closed. And finally, a basement club on MacDougal Street, the original Gerde’s Folk City. Sam Hood was the current manager, a fellow who’d support me greatly in the future when he’d run Max’s Kansas City on Union Square. He said they had an open-mike night and between eight o’clock and eight thirty I could go on. John Hammond breezed in a little before eight and took his place amongst at best six other patrons, and the show was under way. Playing live was something I knew how to do. I’d tell stories, make jokes and dramatize the songs I was singing. “Saint in the City,” “Growin’ Up,” “If I Was the Priest,” a song called “Arabian Nights,” a few others, and the show was over. John was beaming. I could perform.
Things started to happen . . . slowly. A few weeks after I met John, he ushered me into Clive Davis’s office, where I was warmly welcomed. I played Clive a few songs and with gentle fanfare, I was invited to join the Columbia Records family. John took me into their Fifty-Second Street studio and we made a demo he produced. It was the last days of the fifties-style recording studio system. Everybody wore suits and ties and were adults. The engineer, the assistants, all longtime, old-school recording men. I sang a dozen or more songs into a microphone in the middle of a very antiseptic room. I played piano on a few others. It was all very bare bones; that’s the way John heard me. Listening to those demos today, I don’t know if I’d have chosen that kid to lay all my money down on, but I’m thankful he did.
I was now living on the remainder of my “bureau drawer” savings, a few bucks from Mike and the kindness of strangers. I had a sweet girlfriend who tipped me some eating money once in a while and a gal lightly on the side who owned her own business and drove a fancy sports car. She was fabulously Jewish, a little older than me, and would occasionally sweep me up off the corner of Cookman Avenue to spend a night in her condo apartment high overlooking the beaches of Asbury Park. There we occasionally engaged in what, I’m sure, was some of the worst sex of our lives (if such exists). She held all the aces, which I didn’t mind, and we had a nice, screwed-up semirelationship for a while. The periodic evenings in her solidly middle-class digs took the chill out of street-level living in Asbury, and were comforting and most welcome.
My recording advance had not yet clocked in and these were some very thin times, some of the thinnest. For the first time in my life, I actually went completely broke and had to scavenge a little bit for meals. We couldn’t even come up with the sixty dollars’ rent on Tom’s pad. In extremis one night, I called Mike and told him times were desperate, homelessness was at hand, and he said he could give me thirty-five dollars if I could make it into the city. I drained my bureau drawer of its remaining pennies, counted them one by one and figured I had just enough to borrow my gal’s Dodge Seneca (with its push-button transmission), pump in a few dollars’ gas and have the exact amount for tolls to make it into town. I budgeted myself down to the last cent.
I got the car, threw a few dollars of gas in it and headed for the city. All went well until I hit the Lincoln Tunnel. There in the window of the tollbooth stood the famous “No Pennies” sign. Pennies were all I had. I handed a dollar’s worth, my last dollar, to the attendant, who said, “I can’t take these.” I said, “Ma’am, that’s all the money I have and I don’t have enough gas to get back home if you force me to turn around.” I put myself at her mercy. She said, “Well, you’re going to sit here while I count every one.” And that’s what she made me do. Very meticulously, intentionally slow as molasses, the coins scraping across the hard metal counter in front of her, she counted out one hundred pennies, penny by penny, for the one-dollar Lincoln Tunnel toll. Then, with a poker face, she stuck her hand in the driver’s-side window and said, “I can’t take this, you’ll have to turn around.” Pinched in between her thumb and forefinger was one Canadian penny . . . one. I got out of the Pontiac to a cacophony of horns behind me fed up with our little theater and I began to carefully go over every inch of the inside of that car while she raised holy hell. In 1972 there was no self-respecting car in America without a penny trapped somewhere under its seats. After some very long minutes of mining, I found one, in the rear backseat between the cushions. I stood up, handed it to her amid what now sounded to me like a beautiful, profane opera of barking horns and shouting voices from the pissed-off parade that stretched out behind me. All she said was, “Go ahead . . . but don’t come back here with these pennies again!” Lesson: In the real world, ninety-nine cents will not get you into New York City. You will need the full dollar.
I met Mike, got my thirty-five dollars and went home. My partners still couldn’t make their share of the rent and we would soon be evicted. We snuck out in the middle of the night and I slept on the beach in my sleeping bag with my surfboard and a small kit of all my earthly possessions at my side. A low point. The next day, on my way to Loch Arbour Beach, my favorite local surfing spot, at the north end of Asbury, I passed by an old pal sitting on the roof balcony of a small summer cottage. Big Danny Gallagher’s size was Clarence Clemons plus. He was a giant. He had a blinding shock of red hair and when older wore an Old Testament fiery-red beard that made him look like a character out of Irish folklore. In his youth, he cut quite a fearsome figure and occasionally had the temperament to match. As I passed he told me his brother had just died of a drug overdose. He sat in a trance trying to make sense of it. He asked me what was happening and I told him I’d just been tossed from Potter’s and was now indigent. He immediately invited me to bunk in with him.
It was a little upstairs apartment, just two rooms. The bedroom held Danny’s king-size waterbed, which took up all available space. Then there was a small kitchenette and connected living room, where I took up residence on the floor in my sleeping bag. This is where I lived while I recorded Greetings from Asbury Park. I’d bus to the city; work opening for Dave Van Ronk, Biff Rose or Birtha, one of the first female metal bands at Max’s Kansas City; get paid a few dollars; and make it to the Port Authority just in time for the last bus to Asbury. Sam Hood had hired me at Max’s and I attracted a nice crowd of hipsters: Paul Nelson, the great music writer; Paul Williams, creator of Crawdaddy magazine, the first serious word on rock ’n’ roll; and David Blue, the folksinger and Village legend. He introduced himself to me after my set one night, then squired me around to meet Jackson Browne at the Bitter End (on tour for his first album) and Odetta, the great folksinger, after her late-night set at a local coffeehouse. Jackson let me sit in during his set on David Blue’s word and I played “Wild Billy’s Circus Story.” I was young, traveling light and excited to be in their company.
Greetings from Asbury Park
Up in Blauvelt, New York, in Brooks Arthur’s 914 Studios, we began to record Greetings in an atmosphere of tension. Mike and Jimmy were producing. Mike had his own engineer, Louis Lahav, a former Israeli paratrooper who’d come to America and fallen in with Mike and Jimmy. On the first day of recording my first album, very little recording occurred. Mike was in a running battle with the union engineer from Columbia, who insisted on doing his job and manning the sound board. In several years this would all change and artists would independently choose their producers and engineers of their own volition. Nineteen seventy-three was the dawn of this kind of artistic control, a dawn that had not yet completely broken over the recording industry. The day would devolve into a series of arguments, insults and irate phone calls while I sat around waiting. Mike was his usual ridiculously funny, combative self, putting this poor guy through the wringer. Finally an agreement was reached between the union, record company and Mike and Jimmy’s Laurel Canyon Productions. Louis Lahav would engineer, Mike and Jimmy would produce, I would record and the union engineer would show up, get paid a full salary and sit on the couch reading the newspaper. Peace in the valley! Some version of this went on for my first three albums. The studio was located on Route 303 next to a Greek diner. Here we could get a cheap recording rate; carry on as we pleased out of sight of the nosy record company bigwigs, who might be too curious about how their money was being spent; and eat at the Greek diner, where I found for a muse a waitress who had the finest body I’d seen since my aunt Betty. It was all good.
I’d convinced Mike and Jimmy I needed to record with a band. John Hammond, Clive Davis and Columbia had thought they’d signed a folk singer-songwriter. The stock was way up on singer-songwriters in those days. The charts were full of them, with James Taylor leading the pack. I was signed to Columbia, along with Elliott Murphy, John Prine and Loudon Wainwright, “new Dylan”s all, to compete in acoustic battle at the top of the charts with our contemporaries. What I had over my company in the field was that I’d secretly built up years of rock ’n’ roll experience out of view of the known world and in front of every conceivable audience. I’d already seen the roughest the road had to offer and was ready for more. These long-honed talents would go a ways in distinguishing me from the pack and helping me get my songs heard.
Mike Appel had never seen me play with a full band in front of an audience until after we recorded Greetings, so my own main man was clueless about what I could do. I tried to tell him, “You don’t understand, put me in front of a band and an audience, and I will bury the house.” When we started to tour in support of Greetings I had Mad Dog, Danny Federici, Garry Tallent and Clarence Clemons at my side. Mike was no dummy. He saw our first gig and said, “Hey, you know what you’re doing.” ’Til then, I believe he thought he was just humoring me by letting me use my guys in the studio.
On Greetings I managed to bring in my homeboys Vini Lopez, Davey Sancious and Garry Tallent, with a cameo performance by Steve Van Zandt shaking my Danelectro amp’s reverb unit at the intro to “Lost in the Flood.” Steve was to be on the record but we opted out of electric guitar in my concession to the singer/songwriter I was signed to be. We cut the whole record in three weeks. Most of the songs were twisted autobiographies. “Growin’ Up,” “Does This Bus Stop,” “For You,” “Lost in the Flood” and “Saint in the City” found their seed in people, places, hangouts and incidents I’d seen and things I’d lived. I wrote impressionistically and changed names to protect the guilty. I worked to find something that was identifiably mine.
We turned it in and Clive Davis handed it back saying there were “no hits,” “nothing that could be played on the radio.” I went to the beach and wrote “Spirit in the Night,” came home, busted out my rhyming dictionary and wrote “Blinded by the Light,” two of the best things on the record. I was able to find Clarence, who’d been MIA since that first night in the Prince, and I got his cool saxophone on those last two cuts. It made a big difference. This was the most fully realized version of the sound I had in my head that I would get on my first album. The pre–E Street band did their best to sound studio-worthy while the words flowed like a storm surge, crashing into one another with no regret.
I never wrote completely in that style again. Once the record was released, I heard all the Dylan comparisons, so I steered away from it. But the lyrics and spirit of Greetings came from an unself-conscious place. Your early songs emerge from a moment when you’re writing with no sure prospect of ever being heard. Up until then, it’s been just you and your music. That only happens once.