Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
On August 25, 1975, all the aces came up, the sevens rolled round and an endless river of noise and silver poured forth from the mouth of the one-armed bandit of rock ’n’ roll—JACKPOT! Bingo! Bull’s-eye! We had a HIT! I was exhilarated but also extremely wary. A conceptual optimist but personal pessimist, I believed that along with the jackpot would come its terrible twin . . . trouble, as in bad gris-gris, a Gypsy’s curse, the malocchio, the “evil eye” down on ya. I was right. It was going to be a lot for a twenty-five-year-old to handle.
My first challenge was Time and Newsweek calling to put me on the cover of their magazines. I hesitated, because, back then, popular entertainers, particularly rock ’n’ rollers, were not on the covers of what were considered serious news publications. The media culture of the midseventies was vastly different than that of today. First, nobody called it “media.” There was no Internet, no Entertainment Tonight, no happy talk news, no E! network, no MTV, no TMZ, no cable, no satellite TV. There were newspapers, and on network television at seven p.m. there were old men in suits reporting the events of the day. That was it. There were tabloids, but they didn’t give a damn about rock ’n’ roll punks. They wanted to know what kind of adult craziness Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were up to, they were interested in who Frank Sinatra was screwing. Time and Newsweek were prestigious magazines, but the first taste of future pop culture (and the demise of their influence) was beginning to bubble up. Modern “media” and all its attendant roar, screech and babble were just around the corner.
I had a choice. No interview, no cover. Interview, cover . . . two of ’em. Though I was young, I’d had my season in obscurity. I knew well the near misses, the disappointments, the many miles covered and the small tastes of near discovery that went sour. THIS WAS NO TIME TO BUCKLE! I was reticent and would remain so, but I needed to find out what I had. Forty years later I did not want to be sitting in my rocking chair on a sunny afternoon with the woulda, shoulda, coulda blues. All I could think of was my dad covered in a cloak of cigarette smoke lamenting, “I could’ve taken that job with the phone company but I would’ve had to travel . . . ,” so instead, it was lights-out, the blues, beer and resenting his own family for what he thought he might’ve accomplished. Dead meat.
I worried, but in the end my ego, ambition and fear of not taking my shot outweighed my insecurity. I called Mike . . . “Send in the press.”
When the big noise came down, I was lounging in a deck chair at the Sunset Marquis hotel. The Marquis was an infamous LA crash house for wayward rockers. As the covers hit the stands, we were out west to perform at the Roxy nightclub on the Sunset Strip. These shows were to be the center of our West Coast campaign after the raucous war we’d waged back east at New York’s Bottom Line. The Bottom Line was the gig that finally put us on the map as big-time contenders. For five nights, two shows a night, we left everything we had on the tiny stage at 15 West Fourth Street. For us, they were groundbreaking appearances, the band pushing its limits as I cakewalked across the skinny tabletops, leaving that burn in the air of something happening. Yes, we had our naysayers, and if our show couldn’t convince you, you were going to remain unconvinced for a while, but inside the band and on the street, you could feel the whole thing taking off.
The Bottom Line shows seriously raised the bar. We got born again there. When we left, something new had taken hold of our band. As “Born to Run” had defined us on record, these shows defined us as a live act intent on shaking you by the collar, waking you up, and all-or-nothing performances.
In LA, the first sight I saw was a madly grinning Steve Van Zandt rushing around the pool like he was late on his Middletown, New Jersey, paper route. He was distributing Time and Newsweek magazines with my mug on ’em to any sin city sun worshipper he could get within tossing distance of. He handed two to me. “Isn’t this great!” I looked at them and thought, “Oh my God,” and immediately retired to my room. I was not comfortable, but what could a poor boy do? As says Hyman Roth in The Godfather Part II, “This is the business we’ve chosen!” Sure, I’d nurtured my ambivalence; it made me happy, gave me plausible deniability and granted me the illusion of staying one step removed from my ravenous ambitions. But . . . this was the course I had striven toward relentlessly . . . STARDOM . . . not a Wednesday, Friday and Saturday gig at the local gin joint, not a musical weekend warrior, not a college kid’s down-low secret hero . . . STARDOM! THE IMPACT, THE HITS, THE FAME, THE MONEY, THE WOMEN, THE RECOGNITION, AND THE FREEDOM to live as I pleased, to take it to the limit or wherever all of this was leading me.
I’d fixed it good so I couldn’t go back, only forward, so that’s where we went. I was just going to have to be good enough, as good as I promised, as good as I thought I was, for all this to make sense. For all the new rumble out in the world, inside of me was where the real show was going on, and it was fireworks. Up, down, inside, out, the mood swings flooded over me as I flew from one pole to the other like a manic-depressive trapeze artist. The only things that kept me from launching into the ozone layer were my band and the shows we played. The shows were real, always . . . my friends were real, always . . . the audience was real, always. I was not alone. I was carrying a lot of weight, but I was not alone. The men I’d chosen to travel with were at my side. Their comfort, their partnership, was invaluable. No matter how weird it got out there, on the bandstand, when I turned around, I saw home. These were people who understood me and knew who I was.
The shows in LA went well. Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro came down and a few days later Marty screened Mean Streets for the band, opening with a short of his, The Big Shave. I’d met Jack Nicholson, another Jersey native, brought up in the town adjoining Asbury Park, Neptune City. After the show we hung in a little bar above the Roxy and I asked him how he handled the success. He said by the time it came his way, he was ready for it. I wasn’t sure that was me, but I’d soon find out. We were momentarily to leave for overseas and a series of shows that would deeply test just how ready we were.
The Beatles, the Stones, the Animals, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, Jeff Beck, Clapton, Hendrix, the Who—we were heading for the isle of our heroes. The British House of the Second Coming, where the first generation of American blues and rock ’n’ roll had shipwrecked on a distant shore, been understood, thoroughly digested and recast as something wondrous. Rock’s second generation of Beat groups had pulled off a Herculean task. They’d reinvented some of the greatest music that had ever been made. They’d infused the old forms with youth, pop smarts and hits that soared up the charts. They’d introduced generations of kids like me to the music of some of the most talented Americans who’d ever picked up a harmonica, guitar or pen. I’d heard my first dose of Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and Arthur Alexander through these groups. “House of the Rising Sun,” an old folk song, was turned into a growling modern blues of personal destruction by the Animals. The Rolling Stones breathed punk life into Chuck Berry’s greatest hits as the Beatles covered early R & B with love and fresh style. I still feel I owe all of these groups, these young Englishmen, an enormous debt of gratitude for valuing and leading me to these artists, who by 1964 were largely unheard in most American households.
In England lived the reasons we were here. The cities of London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle rang synonymous with the names of our favorite British Beat heroes. These were mystical destinations, yet here we were, coming in for a landing at Heathrow Airport, new representatives of the musical mother country with a chance to return some small part of the favor . . . if we could.
Upon reaching our hotel, I receive copies of Melody Maker and the New Musical Express, England’s two premier music publications. I’m big on the front page of both, raved about in one and torn to shreds in the other. Let’s get it on. We’re playing the Hammersmith Odeon, a theater-sized venue in the heart of London. As we pull up to the outside, the brightly lit marquis reads, “FINALLY!! LONDON IS READY FOR BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN.” Reflecting, this is not exactly the tone I’d have preferred been struck. It feels, perhaps, a little too . . . presumptuous? Once inside I am greeted by a sea of posters on every available flat surface and in every seat proclaiming me THE NEXT FUCKING BIG THING! The kiss of death! It’s usually better to let the audience decide that one. I’m frightened and I’m pissed, really pissed. I am embarrassed for myself and offended for my fans. This is not the way it works. I know how it works. I’ve done it. Play and shut up. My business is SHOW business and that is the business of SHOWING . . . not TELLING. You don’t TELL people anything, you SHOW them, and let them decide. That’s how I got here, by SHOWING people. You try to tell people what to think and you end up a little Madison Avenue mind fascist. Hey, mister rock star, get the fuck out of my mind and into my feet, into my heart. That’s how the job gets done. That’s how you introduce yourself.
I’ve got to fix it. I tear through the theater, simultaneously reaming out Mike Appel while ripping down every poster and disposing of every flyer I can get my hands on. I need a clean environment to work in. I need to reclaim the theater for my fans, for me and for my band. By showtime, I’m fucked. I’m pathetically wrecked and nervous. At twenty-five, I am still a provincial young man. I have never been overseas in my life. As I’ve said before, I know I’m good but I’m also a poser. That’s artistic balance! In the second half of the twentieth century, “authenticity” would be what you made of it, a hall of mirrors. Put on the work shirt, young man. No big deal. As you get older, it won’t concern you. It’s just the lay of the land. In your youth, however, you are easy prey for the many tricks of the mind. At this moment, I know my mind is not at its most centered. I can tell because I’m afraid, and that’s not my style; I don’t need to be, but I am. Abject fear is not the state of mind you want to take the stage in, but . . .
It’s SHOWtime. We go on. The audience seems reticent, the room feels uneasy. That’s my responsibility. You’ve got to let the audience feel that they’re coolly within your hands. That’s how you help them feel safe and free enough to let themselves go, to find whatever they’ve come looking for and be whoever they’ve come here to be. On this night, my problem is that during the performance I am in and out of myself for a while in a most unpleasant way. Inside, multiple personalities are fighting to take turns at the microphone while I’m struggling to reach the “fuck it” point, that wonderful and necessary place where you set fire to your insecurities, put your head down and just go. Right now, I can feel myself caring too much, thinking too much about . . . what I’m thinking about. My good friend Peter Wolf, the great front man from the J. Geils Band, once said, “The strangest thing you can do onstage is think about what you’re doing.” He was right, and I am doing the strangest thing you can do onstage RIGHT NOW! It’s like one moment, your life feels threatened: your little house of cards, the performance “self” you’ve built so carefully, so meticulously, your mask, your costume, your disguise, your dream self, is in danger of coming apart, of tumbling down. The next, you’re towering, soaring, deeply immersed in your “true” self, riding the music your band is making high above the assembled. These two selves are often only a hair’s width apart. That’s what makes it interesting. That’s why people pay the money and that’s why they call it LIVE. Each and every performance for the rest of your life will hold some trace of this arc, along with the potential for catastrophic failure or transcendent success. Most evenings you grab on to the common ground somewhere between the endurable upper and lower regions of this arc . . . but when the graph is excessively steep . . . hold on. It feels like anything can happen, and not in a comforting way.
Everyone knows some version of this in their life, whether on a big or small scale, along with the need to work it out. It’s just that most wouldn’t prefer to do it in front of thousands, but . . . This is the house of my vocation, the strange place I go to have this conversation with myself. Of course, you have your strategies, so . . . I resort to my will. In performance, when called upon, oh doubting audience member, when you think it’s over, when the vultures are circling and our blood is being smelled, tasted, my will, my band’s concerted will, our insistent commitment to do-or-die, will come back hard to kick your ass and try to resurrect the day. I learned from the best, my mother. She willed we would be a family and we were. She willed we would not disintegrate and we did not. She willed we would walk with respect through the streets of our town, and we did.
We’re nearing the end of the set, and now, back on Earth, I feel the heat building in my body, the audience gathering around me and the band stepping up, readying itself to deliver what we came three thousand miles across the Atlantic for. I’m pushing hard, maybe too hard, then it’s over. A tough night. I am disappointed in myself for ceding too much to my internal conflicts. After an awkward stop at the record company’s “victory” party, I drag myself, alone, back to my hotel room and eat what the British had the balls to refer to as a cheeseburger. On the edge of my bed, underneath a cloud of black crows, I promise myself I will never be joined onstage to such a degree by my infidel again. I tell myself there is always plenty of time to listen to my own voice, to its often sage advice, just not once I’ve counted my band in. That’s no time for reading the wallpaper inside my fabulously fertile and forever doubting mind. On the Shore, mecca to the bar- and show-band elite, rabid disciples of the James Browns, the Sam Moores, the hard-core soul showmen who brought it every time they hit the stage, we come from where “professionalism” is not a dirty word. One . . . two . . . three . . . four . . . Motherfucker! That’s the time for action, for living, for manifesting life, for BRINGING IT! . . . NOT for dipping into the black recesses to pick the lint out of your belly button. So I told myself.
You can see all of this on the E Street Band’s Hammersmith Odeon, London ’75 film that accompanies the Born to Run box set, except you won’t. You will not see anything except the band perform a tough but excellent set. You will see us enter the stage armed with a set list I still dare any young band to match and pump out a Jersey stew of rock and punk soul. It was an evening that introduced us to our English fans and began the long and lovely forty-year relationship we’ve had with them. At the time, I found the evening so disconcerting that I never viewed the concert film until 2004, thirty years later! When I did, I found out it had been filmed quite well and was a great document of the band performing in all its disco-suited, leather-jacketed, knit-hatted midseventies glory. Most of what I’d experienced that night was a movie playing exclusively inside my own head. My body and heart knew what to do and went ahead and did it anyway. I’d trained well. All those unfriendly gigs and rough houses, a decade’s worth of firemen’s fairs, carnivals, drive-ins, supermarket openings, and hole-in-the-walls where nobody gave a shit about you, came back to lift us up in our hour of darkness. We’d been there many times before—not quite like the Hammersmith, but enough to have prepared ourselves.
That night I lay in bed in a foreign land feeling rather foreign to myself. That sleepless, disconcerting “What just happened?” feeling kept kicking around my head. I lay awake thinking, “Whoa . . . this is a little more than I bargained for.” Of course, this was exactly what I’d bargained for, I just wasn’t savvy enough to know it. Looking back, as ugly, nerve-racking and unpleasant as it was, without the over-the-top hype, and all its attendant noise, around that one single gig, it might have taken a good little band from Jersey countless trips overseas to have the same impact or to simply get noticed. All we had to do was live up to it . . . and wasn’t that on me? Whatever happened, our first night at the Hammersmith Odeon became one of our “legendary” performances, but it was also the moment I learned that unless you are very aggressive, very proactive about what you want, what you’ve created can be co-opted and taken from you, whatever the results. It’s nothing personal. You will simply be stripped bare, for better or worse, at the altar of the great marketing gods, who have a dynamic and an agenda guided by the DNA of commerce.
Way at the top of the music business food chain in that big conference room in the sky (or in my case, somewhere in Japan), at the end of the day they don’t ask the man on top, “How many good records have we made this year?” They ask him, “HOW MANY RECORDS HAVE WE SOLD?!” His fate and often yours will depend upon his answer. Don’t get me wrong; record companies, including big corporate ones, are filled with people who love music, who are fans, who want to be a part of it all and whose talents led them to the business side. They will be your invaluable collaborators and most musicians I know don’t have any problem with someone helping sell their records. But if you don’t negotiate the terms of an agreed-upon partnership, your talents will be harnessed and guided in the direction others feel is best. No harm intended, though great harm . . . or stardom! . . . or both! . . . may occur. These days the Internet has changed much of the playing field, but not all of it. The dynamic between creativity and commerce remains a convoluted waltz. If you want to fly by your own lights, reach the audience you feel your talents deserve and build a work life on what you’ve learned, value and can do, be wary. In the early days, my record company harbored no ill intentions. They were a victim of their own jolly business planning and excitement, working at the mercy of the mighty gods of commerce, just doing their job, while I was learning mine . . . real fast.
With London behind us, things calmed down a bit. We went to Sweden, where it was dead winter and permanent midnight. Crushed together on tiny cots in minuscule hotel rooms, we hit the streets, where, in a Stockholm nightclub, we saw a live sex show, stark-naked Scandinavians on a tiny stage bringing their all. We sat, cackling schoolboys in the back row. It was funny, weird and kind of scary. Come morning, sophisticates and international gourmets, we found what I think was the only McDonald’s then in Europe, and it was on to Amsterdam, where we played a beautiful opera house and stared, slack-jawed rubes, into the windows of the red-light district (“I ain’t going in . . . !”). Then it was back to London for another crack at the Odeon, this time with the boogeymen in my head held at bay. There we played a blaze of a show that left us feeling there might be a place for us there amongst our hallowed young forefathers after all. It was freeing and left a sweet taste in our mouths as we headed back home.
Home . . . for a real cheeseburger. “I’m so glad I’m livin’ in the USA.” Thank you, Chuck Berry. We left feeling a little less than triumphant and a good deal better than washouts. We were a bit like the wagon train that’d come under assault but had made it through the incomprehensible West, losing only a few scalps along the rutted trail. Still, it shook me. Those four shows were our 1975 European tour. We wouldn’t return for five years, until I was sure we’d grown up a little, carried more confidence, had a couple more albums’ worth of strong material under our belts and felt ready to conquer the language/cultural barrier and our European brethren once and for all.
Born to Run lifted us into another league. We were a new young force to be reckoned with and were removed financially from the red column and placed firmly in the black (hypothetically). We’d landed, a success, for now. It had taken four of the five years of my original Laurel Canyon agreements to get us there. Ironically, just as we hit the big time, I had only one year left in my contractual obligations to Laurel Canyon and Mike Appel. I hadn’t even thought about it, but Mike had.