Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
It was a winter’s night in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I stood on the street in front of our gig, Joe’s Place, hopping side to side, trying to stay warm. I was reading a review of our second album; the owner had taped it to the club’s front window in hopes of luring in some breathing customers. Then two men walked up on my left. One was writer Dave Marsh, the other was the review’s twenty-seven-year-old author, Jon Landau. He sidled over to me and asked, “Whaddaya think?” Whaddaya think . . . those were the first and probably most recent of the ten billion words Jon and I have thrown each other’s way over a lifetime of ruminating, navel-gazing, philosophizing, analyzing and making music. Whaddaya think? Those words have bracketed our friendship for forty years.
The heart of rock will always remain a primal world of action. The music revives itself over and over again in that form, primitive rockabilly, punk, hard soul and early rap. Integrating the world of thought and reflection with the world of primitive action is not a necessary skill for making great rock ’n’ roll. Many of the music’s most glorious moments feel as though they were birthed in an explosion of raw talent and creative instinct (some of them even were!). But . . . if you want to burn bright, hard and long, you will need to depend upon more than your initial instincts. You will need to develop some craft and a creative intelligence that will lead you farther when things get dicey. That’s what’ll help you make crucial sense and powerful music as time passes, giving you the skills that may also keep you alive, creatively and physically. The failure of so many of rock’s artists to outlive their expiration date of a few years, make more than a few great albums and avoid water treading, or worse, I felt was due to the misfit nature of those drawn to the profession. These were strong, addictive personalities, fired by compulsion, narcissism, license, passion and an inbred entitlement, all slammed over a world of fear, hunger and insecurity. That’s a Molotov cocktail of confusion that can leave you unable to make, or resistant to making, the leap of consciousness a life in the field demands. After first contact knocks you on your ass, you’d better have a plan, for some preparedness and personal development will be required if you expect to hang around any longer than your fifteen minutes.
Now, some guys’ five minutes are worth other guys’ fifty years, and while burning out in one brilliant supernova will send record sales through the roof, leave you living fast, dying young, leaving a beautiful corpse, there is something to be said for living. Personally, I like my gods old, grizzled and here. I’ll take Dylan; the pirate raiding party of the Stones; the hope-I-get-very-old-before-I-die, present live power of the Who; a fat, still-mesmerizing-until-his-death Brando—they all suit me over the alternative. I would’ve liked to have seen that last Michael Jackson show, a seventy-year-old Elvis reinventing and relishing in his talents, where Jimi Hendrix might’ve next taken the electric guitar, Keith Moon, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and all the others whose untimely deaths and lost talents stole something from the music I love, living on, enjoying the blessings of their gifts and their audience’s regard. Aging is scary but fascinating, and great talent morphs in strange and often enlightening ways. Plus, to those you’ve received so much from, so much joy, knowledge and inspiration, you wish life, happiness and peace. These aren’t easy to come by.
Youth and death have always been an intoxicating combination for the myth makers left amongst the living. And dangerous, even violent, self-loathing has long been an essential ingredient in the fires of transformation. When the “new self” burns to life, the twins of great control and recklessness are immutably linked. It’s what makes life interesting. The high tension between these two forces often makes a performer fascinating and fun to watch, but also a white-cross highway marker. Here, many who’ve come this way have burned out hard or died. The rock death cult is well loved and chronicled in literature and music, but in practice, there ain’t much in it for the singer and his song, except a good life unlived, lovers and children left behind, and a six-foot-deep hole in the ground. The exit in a blaze of glory is bullshit.
Now, if you’re not one of the handful of musical revolutionaries—and I was not—you naturally set your sights on something different. In a transient field, I was suited for the long haul. I had years of study behind me; I was physically built to endure and by disposition was not an edge dweller. I was interested in what I might accomplish over a lifetime of music making, so assumption number one is you are going to keep breathing. In my business, the above case studies prove, no matter who you are, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
Enter the king (Small “k”)
Jon Landau was the first person I met who had a language for discussing these ideas and the life of the mind. He had the rabid fan’s pure love of music and musicians while retaining his critic’s ability to step back and analyze the very thing he loved. In Jon, one impulse did not dampen the other. He was a natural, and together we shared a belief in the bedrock values of musicianship, skill, the joy of hard work and the methodical application of one’s talents. These things had resulted in some of our favorite records. Muscle Shoals, Motown and the Beatles’ early recordings showed how revolutionary music could flow from a down-home but disciplined studio approach. That was our plan and who we were.
Jon and I related both as conspiratorial music fans and as young men in search of something. Jon would serve me as a friend and mentor, someone who’d been exposed to and held information I felt would augment my creativity and deepen the truth seeking I was trying to make a part of my music. We also had that instant chemical connection that says, “I know you.” Jon was better educated than most of my homeboys. I was interested in doing my job better and being great. Not good . . . great. Whatever that took, I was in. Now, if you don’t have the raw talent, you can’t will yourself there. But if you have the talent, then will, ambition and the determination to expose yourself to new thoughts, counterargument, new influences, will strengthen and fortify your work, driving you closer to home.
In the early days of our relationship, I remember visiting Jon’s apartment in New York. We talked music and played records for hours. It was the same kind of intense connection I had with Steve . . . but different. In 1974, I was a young and developing musician. I was interested in forefathers, artist brothers in arms, people who’d thought like this who’d come before me. Jon knew who and where they were, in books, in films and in music. It was all very casual, just friends talking and throwing around ideas about the things that inspired them, moved them, late-night conversations about the things that opened up your world and made you hunger for life. I was moving off my first two records and already developing a new voice. I’d begun to pare down my lyrical style. When we began to work on Born to Run together, Jon followed suit with the music. He was a very astute arranger and editor who was particularly excellent at shaping the bottom of the record, the bass and drums. He guarded against overplaying and guided our record toward a more streamlined sound. I was ready to give up some eclecticness and looseness, some of the street party, for a tighter punch to the gut. We simplified the basic tracks so we could stack up dense layers of sound without lapsing into sonic chaos. It made Born to Run simultaneously steeped in rock history and modern. We made dense, dramatic rock ’n’ roll. Born to Run is his greatest production work on one of my greatest records.
Above and beyond production, Jon was the latest in a long line of fans, friends and freaks who subbed as a papa figure. It was a lifetime project, finding someone to pick up the slack for my MIA old man. It was a big and unfair burden to lay on anyone, but that didn’t stop me. Somebody had to do it. I think Jon needed something himself at that point. He was coming off a debilitating illness, a long hospital stay and a painful divorce. I was a good comrade, perhaps the physical embodiment of some part of his rock ’n’ roll dream, and I aided his own development in subtle ways. He’d already produced the MC5’s Back in the USA; I presented Jon with a venue to continue the hands-on application of his own talents, and those talents in turn made me a more effective and probing songwriter and musician.
My writing was focusing itself around identity issues—who am I, who are we, what and where is home, what constitutes manhood, adulthood, what are your freedoms and your responsibilities. I was interested in what it meant to be an American, one small participant in current history at a time when the future seemed as hazy and shape-shifting as that thin line on the horizon. Can a rock ’n’ roll artist help sculpt that line, shade its direction? How much? With influences as varied and seemingly polarized as Woody Guthrie and Elvis, Top 40 radio and Bob Dylan, along with a thousand nights of bar playing behind me, I was curious to press on in search of what I could do and where I belonged.
Alongside my wife Patti, my band and a few close friends, I’ve shared my mind with Jon more than anyone else. When it’s a good match, along the way, your heart ends up thrown in too. There is a love and respect at the center of everything we do together. It’s not just business, it’s personal. When you came to work with me, I had to be assured you’d bring your heart. Heart sealed the deal. That’s why the E Street Band plays steamroller strong and undiminished, forty years in, night after night. We are more than an idea, an aesthetic. We are a philosophy, a collective, with a professional code of honor. It is based on the principle that we bring our best, everything we have, on this night, to remind you of everything you have, your best. That it’s a privilege to exchange smiles, soul and heart directly with the people in front of you. That it’s an honor and great fun to join in concert with those whom you’ve invested so much of yourself in and they in you, your fans, the stars above, this moment, and apply your trade humbly (or not so!) as a piece of a long, spirited chain you’re thankful to be a small link in.
In our quest, Jon became the Clark to my Lewis. In the future we would travel together through more than a little wilderness. He had befriended and counseled me when it felt like I was teetering a little too close to the edge of my favorite abyss. Prior to Jon, I knew no one who’d spent three minutes in an analyst’s office. I grew up around a lot of very ill people, secretive, susceptive to serious depression, and disturbing, unpredictable behavior. I knew it was a significant piece of my own mental makeup. In New Jersey, in my crowd, the psychiatric profession might as well not have existed. When I looked down and saw bottom, Jon assisted me toward help that would refocus and alter the course of my life. I owe a great debt to my friend for his kindness, generosity and love. He’s done a pretty nice job of management too. We’re still here after many years. When Jon and I discuss our future course of action, he’s always been guided by two things—my well-being and happiness (then the tour gross!). These first two were the answers I was long looking for in the receding mists of Freehold, New Jersey. They are the incredibly complicated and simple answers of parenthood, of friendship. The only ones.
The day naturally came when that changed too. I no longer needed a surrogate dad or a mentor, just a friend and partner. Jon really no longer needed any single embodiment of his rock ’n’ roll fantasy and he began to successfully manage a variety of other artists. Adulthood, or something awfully like it, arrived. For a while, in these years of transition, there was tension and some misunderstanding between Jon and me; coded conversations, anxious phone calls, anger lying just beneath the surface, and frustration. It’s not easy moving forward together; people get set in their ways, their perceptions cut in stone. Most don’t make it. Twenty years after we’d started, I’d changed. So had Jon. That was the idea. For a short while, it seemed we were victims of our own good promise. Then it all eventually came to a head and we sorted through it in our quiet way, sitting one sunny Los Angeles day, talking in my backyard. “Whaddaya think?”
We’d navigated the treacherous part of the river, the part Mike and I couldn’t make, where the current changes and the landscape will never be the same. So, breaking into the open I looked behind me in our boat and I still had my Clark. Up front, he still had Lewis. We still had our own musical country to chart, many miles of frontier to travel, and music to make. It’s too late to stop now.