Born to Run (2016)





In the early days, tours just ran into one another. Nobody was counting. We just played. I was under contract to Columbia for a new album every six months. This schedule was a holdover from the fifties and sixties record business, when singles ruled the charts. Then, artists would put out their hit single with a collection of stomach noises for the rest of the record and call it an album. Then along came Sgt. Pepper and the rules changed overnight. The album was now the gold standard for pop recording achievement. Suddenly, if an artist made one every two or three years, it was considered fine and on schedule. Any more, even one a year, and you were thought to be overexposing yourself. Not in 1973.

We made Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle in the same year while continuing to tour. The Wild, the Innocent took us three months to record at 914 Studios. By now Mike and Jimmy had seen enough of my performing to know it was time to bring the rock ’n’ roll. David Sancious was back on piano to initiate our double keyboard attack; he played beautifully on the album and contributed greatly to our recording and touring team. We drove every day to Blauvelt up from the Shore and back again every night. Richard Blackwell showed and played congas on “New York City Serenade” and Shuffle.” In the end we held marathon sessions around the clock. Clarence and I pitched a tent out back in a small yard and slept there for days while finishing our final overdubs. Toward the end of the mixing process I’d been up for three days with no stimulants. I couldn’t stay awake for one complete playback of a song; I kept nodding off a minute or two into each cut until someone would rustle me awake to approve the rest of the mix.

The opening cut of my second record, “The E Street Shuffle,” is a reflection of a community that was partly imagined and partly real. It was the early seventies: blues, R & B and soul were still heavily influential and heard often along the Jersey Shore. Musically, I based the song on Major Lance’s sixties hit “The Monkey Time,” a dance song. The cast of characters came vaguely from Asbury Park at the turn of the decade. I wanted to describe a neighborhood, a way of life, and I wanted to invent a dance with no exact steps. It was just the dance you did every day and every night to get by.

I’d lived in Asbury Park for the past three years. I watched the town suffer some pretty serious race rioting and slowly begin to close down. The Upstage Club, where I met most of the members of the E Street Band, had long ago shut its doors. The boardwalk was still operating, Madam Marie was still there, but the crowds were sparse. Many of the usual summer vacationers were now passing Asbury Park by for less troubled locations farther south along the coast.

After my eviction from Potter’s apartment above the beauty salon and my short stay at Big Danny Gallagher’s, I moved on and was living with a girlfriend I’d met one sunny fall morning when she was working a concession stand on the north end of the Asbury boardwalk. She was Italian, funny, a beatific tomboy, with just the hint of a lazy eye, and wore a pair of glasses that made me think of the wonders of the library. Our garage apartment was five minutes from Asbury, in Bradley Beach. This is where I wrote “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” a good-bye to my adopted hometown and the life I’d lived there before I recorded. Sandy was a composite of some of the girls I’d known along the Shore. I used the boardwalk and the closing down of the town as a metaphor for the end of a summer romance and the changes I was experiencing in my own life. “Kitty’s Back” was a remnant of some of the jazz-tinged rock I occasionally played with a few of my earlier bands. It was a twisted swing tune, a shuffle, a distorted piece of big band music. In ’73 I had to have songs that could capture audiences who had no idea who I was. As an opening act, I didn’t have much time to make an impact. I wrote several wild, long pieces—“Thundercrack,” “Kitty’s Back,” “Rosalita”—that were the soul children of the lengthy prog pieces I’d written for Steel Mill and were arranged to leave the band and the audience exhausted and gasping for breath. Just when you thought the song was over, you’d be surprised by another section, taking the music higher. It was, in spirit, what I’d taken from the finales of the great soul revues. I’d tried to match their ferocious fervor and when you left the stage after performing one of these, you’d worked to be remembered.

“Wild Billy’s Circus Story” was a black comedy based on my memories of the fairs and the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus that visited Freehold every summer when I was a kid. They’d set up a midway and pitch their tents in a field across from the racetrack not far from my house. I was always curious about what was going on in the dim alleys off the midway. As I walked by, my hand safely enclosed in my mother’s, I felt the musky underbelly to the shining lights and life I’d just seen in the center ring. It all felt frightening, uneasy and secretly sexual. I was happy with my Kewpie doll and cotton candy but that wasn’t what I wanted to see. “Wild Billy” was also a song about the seduction and loneliness of a life outside the margins. At twenty-four, I’d already tasted a good piece of that world and for better or worse, that was the life I wanted to live. “Incident on 57th Street” and “New York City Serenade” were my romantic stories of New York City, a place that had been my getaway from small-town New Jersey since I was sixteen. “Incident” particularly featured a theme I’d return to often in the future: the search for redemption. Over the next twenty years I’d work this one like only a good Catholic boy could.

“Rosalita” was my musical autobiography. It was my “getting out of town” preview for Born to Run, with more humor. As a teenager, I’d had a girlfriend whose mother had threatened to get a court injunction against me to keep me away from her daughter due to my low-rent beginnings and defiant (for my little town) appearance. The daughter was a sweet blonde who I believe was the first gal I had successful intercourse with, one fumbling afternoon at chez mama (though, due to the fog of war, I can’t be absolutely sure). I wrote “Rosalita” as a kiss-off to everybody who counted you out, put you down or decided you weren’t good enough. It was a tall tale from my past that also celebrated my present (“the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance”) and took a peek into the future (“Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny”). Not that it would all BE funny, but that it would all SEEM funny. Probably one of the most useful lines I’ve ever written.

At the time of The Wild, the Innocent, I had no success, so I had no real concerns about where I was going. I was going up, I hoped, or at least out. With a record contract and a touring band, I felt I was better off than most of my friends, who were locked down in the nine-to-five world of responsibility and bills. I was lucky to be doing what I loved most. With the off-to-the-races opening chords of “Rosie,” I geared up my band and hit the road without dread. That would come later.

We put The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle to bed and we were finished. Half asleep, we drove ourselves back to New Jersey. Mike took the tapes and handed them to the record company and we waited for a hopefully enthusiastic response. This record gave me much greater satisfaction than Greetings. I felt it was a true example of what I could do with the recording, playing and arranging of my band. With “Kitty’s Back,” “Rosalita,” “New York City Serenade” and the semiautobio of “Sandy,” I was confident we showed the kind of depth, fun and excitement we could stir on records.

There’s Gonna Be a Showdown

John Hammond was gone, retired. Clive Davis was gone. The great record men, my great supporters, the men who brought me into the company, were vanishing. There was a power void and a variety of new people stepped in to fill the gap.

I was called in to see Charles Koppelman, then head of A & R, to review the album. We played a good piece of the first side and I was immediately informed the album was unreleasable. Mr. Koppelman said the musicianship was simply not up to snuff. He asked me to meet him down at a Columbia studio in a few nights and he’d show me what some “real” musicians could do with these songs. I am sure he meant well but I explained I could not do that. I told him this was my band, I was committed to them, I thought the record sounded great, I was proud of it and wanted it released as is. Mr. Koppelman was blunt in his assessment of my prospects. If I insisted on the recording being released as it was it would most likely go in the trash heap, receive little promotion and, along with me, disappear. What could I do? I liked it the way it was, so I fiercely insisted it remain unmeddled with, and what Mr. Koppelman promised was exactly what happened.

When we toured to promote The Wild, the Innocent, few even knew it had been released. I hit one Texas radio station where I was told a representative from my record company had visited and, while promoting several new Columbia recordings, literally told them to remove mine from airplay, adding, “The songs are too long.” This was a new twist. My own record company trying to get my records off the radio. It was only the beginning. A battle royale broke out between rock ’n’ roll drill sergeant Mike Appel and the new powers that be at CBS. Mike sent all the executives coal in a stocking for Christmas. Ho, ho, ho.

We played a club, Fat City on Long Island. The top echelon of the record company marched in to see an opening act they were thinking of signing, then marched out en masse just as we came on, insult to injury. Mike stood at the door, pen and pad in hand, writing down the names of the traitors as they left, for his hit list and future retribution.

The basic drift was these guys thought we were just going to go away, return to our day jobs, go back to school, disappear into the swamps of Jersey. They didn’t understand they were dealing with men without homes, lives, any practicable skills or talents that could bring a reliable paycheck in the straight world. We had nowhere to go … and we loved music! This was going to be it; we had come to “liberate you, confiscate you …” and all the rest! There was no going back. We had no money and were receiving no record company support. Our salaries per week had increased to fifty dollars, then seventy-five dollars, but our fortunes at the record company had fallen. Our fathers there were gone. There were other promising artists now and if we were a success, we would be a feather in no one’s cap. The men who would’ve taken the credit had vanished. We’d been orphaned.

A Deejay Saved My Life

In the fifties, sixties and seventies, the deejay was still a mysterious and ephemeral figure. As the city slept, there he sat alone, accompanied by only shelves and shelves of the greatest music you’d ever heard. He was your friend. He understood you. You shared the secret of the true things that were really important in your life: the music.

He spoke into your ear either as boisterously as your old Cousin Brucie squalling in off the airwaves of WABC-AM, revving you up for what would surely be the greatest Saturday night of your life; or as confident and quiet as a rock ’n’ roll séance delivered by Richard Neer or Alison Steele of WNEW-FM. They were human bridges to the world that was unfolding inside your head. They chronicled your changes as records came and went, inspiring you to keep listening for that one song that was going to change your life. I heard that song many times. “Hound Dog,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Like a Rolling Stone” all blasting out of the AM dial and encouraging me to tear down the walls of my little town and dream bigger. Or “Astral Weeks,” the record that taught me to trust beauty and to believe in the divine, courtesy of my local FM station.

I always remember driving up the New Jersey Turnpike, and shortly before you reached New York, somewhere out in the industrial wasteland, stood a small concrete building. There in the middle of the stink and marshes hung a brightly lit radio call sign. It was just a relay station, I suppose, but as a young tween I’d first imagined it was the real thing. That all my favorite deejays were crowded into this one cramped shack out here in Nowheresville. There, they were bravely pouring out over the airwaves the sounds New Jersey and your life depended upon. Was it possible? Could this abandoned-looking little frontier fort so far from civilization be the center of your heart’s world? Here I dreamed in the swamps of Jersey were the mighty men and women you knew only by their names and sounds of their voices.

Back when the members of the E Street Band were struggling club-setters just trying to get their foot into the door of the music industry, I had two distinct radio experiences. I spent one afternoon with the Boston Top 40 promo man driving around town trying to get “Blinded by the Light,” my first single, added to Top 40 playlists. It was interesting. The first station we appeared at wouldn’t let us in. At the second, we got in to see the deejay and he popped “Blinded” on for exactly twelve seconds, “Madman drummers bummers …” Zzzzzrrrriiipppp. The needle scratching across the surface of everything I had and loved as it was removed by lightning reflexes and the question, “When’s the new Chicago record coming out?” The rest of the afternoon we drove around, had beers and told dirty jokes. I knew then I was not bound for Top 40. The other experience was as we were playing an empty house gig at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, when in walked David Dye. He was a deejay over at WMMR, Philly’s local FM station. He watched us play to thirty people, approached us and said, “I love your band.” That night we heard Greetings from Asbury Park being spun to music-loving insomniacs as we drove out of town in our tour bus. Eventually I got to know every deejay from every major rock city in America. Ed Sciaky, a great deejay and fan out of Philly whose home I’d occasionally stay at when we played the city of brotherly love. Every Friday night, Kid Leo out of Cleveland marked the end of the workweek with “Born to Run.” I’d often call Richard Neer up in the middle of the night while he was on the air just to shoot the bull. There were many others. The relationships were personal. You hung out and knew their cities. They introduced you at your shows. This was all pre-eighties and pre-pay-for-play promo men who bogged the industry down and perhaps presented me with a few hits that I might otherwise not have had. Then came computer programming of stations and nationalized playlists and it was a different business. But back when we were “almost famous,” these men and women provided much love and valuable support and a well-needed home for us and our music.

Adios, Perro Loco

Madman drummers bummers …

During the tour for The Wild, the Innocent, one thing became clear: we needed a steadier hand at the drums. Vini was a beautiful drummer in his own wigged-out way. He was all about his own style. You can hear it clearly on the first two albums. We actually developed out of the jam band tradition of the Upstage Club. We all had grown up playing very busily. On our first two records Vini was all over the place but he knew how to make it work. His hyperactive drumming was connected to Vini’s hyperactive self, and the combination of the thick recorded sound of the kit by Louis Lahav and Vini’s playing style made for very eccentric but excitingly unique rhythm tracks.

Vini could be the warmest, most soulful guy in the world one minute, truly kind, and then go completely postal within seconds. As time passed this wore on some of the band members who bore the brunt of the Mad Dog’s wrath. Danny had taken his lumps. Steve Appel, Mike’s younger brother, who helped out on the road, took a pop in the eye, and so did countless strangers who’d stumbled across the Dog’s intemperate side. Going out with Vini was risky business. One night we headed to a second-floor beach bar. As I was climbing the stairs to the entrance I saw a body tumbling by me on its way back to floor one. It was Vini. He was being thrown out before we even managed to get in! The accompaniment of Big Danny stepping in at the right moment and altering someone’s attitude occasionally saved us from trouble. Vini showed up at a gig one night all bruised and scratched up. He had his enemies, and someone had found out Vini rode his bike home down the boardwalk to Bradley after the gig every night at three thirty a.m. Some vengeful soul had stretched a thin wire from the railing across the boards right at bicycle tire level. Mad Dog hit it at speed and got launched head over handlebars into an ass full of splinters, cuts and bruises.

Then … he took it one step too far. One afternoon he managed to drive Clarence Clemons around the bend. C went off, strangling the hell out of Vini’s skinny neck, holding him down on the floor and smashing a heavy stereo speaker inches from his head in an attempt to bring the enlightenment. Vini got up, ran out of the house and made a beeline to my garage apartment in Bradley Beach. He looked like he’d just escaped a hanging but had spent a few moments too long dangling, eyes popping, legs shaking, at the end of the rope. He showed me huge red welts around his neck, screamed that Clarence had tried to murder him and uttered the immortal ultimatum, “Brucie, it’s him or me.” Not the best way to sum up your grievances on E Street, but it was my band, my town, I was mayor, judge, jury and sheriff, so I calmed him down and told him I’d look into it.

Discussions were held, grievances aired. The fellows had had enough trouble, Mike too. Vini always felt he was let go because he’d been too outspoken about the way our business was being handled. He may have been right about that but everyone had their own reasons for wanting Vini to depart. For me, it all came down to the fact that my music was changing and I needed someone with a more sophisticated palate, with clearer and better time, for the new music I was writing. I loved Vini and still do. He’s a great guy, distinctive drummer and singer, and loyal true-blue friend. We’d been through a lot; Vini’d thrown me plenty of hard-core support, he was tough ’n’ ready and it was hard separating from someone I’d cared about and had so many adventures with. His drumming graces my first two albums with a beautiful soul and eccentricity that perfectly fit the eclectic spirit of those songs. He was a part of the E Street Band through its toughest times, when it was truly a folk band up from the streets of Asbury Park and filled with musicians whose styles had developed straight out of the musical community we were born into.