Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
By 1975, we’d struck gold. Mike, seriously interested in protecting his investment and our relationship, all through Europe had been carrying around a new set of agreements. He wanted to meet, explain their benefits and persuade me to sign them. We were both aware our circumstances had profoundly changed. I was no longer the clueless, starving young musician from the outlands. I held some serious power now . . . and great control. That being said, I was just looking for a straight-up deal so we could carry on our highly enjoyable and fruitful partnership. The first money had rolled in, half a million bucks, and it’d been deposited by the record company straight into Mike’s accounts according to the terms of the contracts I’d signed. I received no independent funds or royalties of my own. It all came through Mike, filtered through those Laurel Canyon production, publishing and management agreements I’d signed so many hazy years ago. They stipulated he paid the artist.
Haltingly, we met briefly overseas. It all proved too confusing and added to the stress of an already difficult trip, so we agreed to wait until we returned to the USA to sort things through. Once at home we met in a restaurant, where Mike extolled the improvements of our new deal. It was better than the old deal but now that it was time to tally up, I wanted to know how I’d be treated under our old contracts before I signed anything new. I had simple expectations: conventional management, production and publishing percentages. Let’s dole out the cash and move on down the road. We were on top! The hard part was over. The problem was that was not what I had signed. Initially, I’d been too intimidated by the idea of the contracts to take them seriously. Now it was reckoning time, and if we were holding to them, I needed to thoroughly understand their terms before I could confidently enter into any new agreements with Mike. It seemed like common sense.
I asked for a lawyer. Mike and his attorney found me one. I figured he was a setup, but I wanted to see what would happen anyway. We met in a New York City restaurant and he focused on the improved terms of the new agreements while steering away from the repercussions of the old one. I knew it was the old ones that would determine the final financial results of Mike’s and my past five years of work together so I wanted to know what they said. He futzed me. I left knowing I was probing the dark underbelly of Mike’s and my relationship. The rules of engagement were very different here than they were in the studio or on the road, where I knew the ropes, knew exactly what was expected of me and it was my world. Here, I’d slipped into the last tent, the one down the end of the midway, where the business of music sits at the head of the table. To his right is a bespectacled, green-visored accountant, hunched over, tapping away at his adding machine, each tap a nail in your coffin. To his left, music, with a “Wha . . . happa—?!” look on its face, is bound, gagged and gaffer-taped to a chair. The irony is that I myself had much to do with the pitching and existence of this tent here in the corner of my personal little carnival. Mike shouldn’t have been so overreaching, but my young fears, insecurities and refusal to accept responsibility for my own actions also brought much of this into being. Oh well.
I needed advice. Someone independent of Mike’s influence. During the making of Born to Run my friendship with Jon Landau had grown. I knew Jon was not above the politics of his own emotions or interests. Who is? But Jon had never talked down or diminished Mike’s accomplishments. He had never proposed himself in any role other than friend and producer. I knew there was no one else whose intellect and sense of fairness I trusted more, so I gave him a call. Through Jon I was introduced to Michael Mayer, attorney at law. Mike Mayer was a stockily built guy with corkscrew hair and a “kick their ass” confidence. After his review of the agreements, I walked into his office, where he cheerfully informed me that these were the worst contracts he’d seen since Frankie Lymon’s. He told me the Lenape Indians (our Jersey tribe) got a better deal when they sold Manhattan for twenty-four dollars than I’d get if I was held to these provisions. I heard . . . slave! . . . rip-off! . . . conflict of interest! . . . I was prepared for that. I thought the contracts were bullshit anyway, a mere formality, and all that really mattered was what Mike was going to say, what he was going to do.
After these unpleasant revelations I had a meeting with Mike over our new contracts in a little bar in New York City. The storytelling went on and on, late into the evening. I wouldn’t sign and we both got to laughing so hard; we ordered drink after drink. Mike laid out his sob story, the time we spent, the sacrifices, blah, blah, blah. Mike was always endlessly entertaining, so I enjoyed listening to him yob on, like a Sunday evening used-car salesman who hadn’t met his quota, trying to get me to sign. But by now, I was used to his shenanigans and scams. He had bought his partner Jimmy’s half of my contract from Jules Kurz (supposedly for a dollar!) after Jules took it as collateral on a loan Jimmy needed. He was expert at dodging creditors left and right and had a small pocketful of nefarious skills he gleefully employed as necessary.
Case in point: When I signed to Columbia, Mike wanted to immediately insure me for one million dollars. He told me he’d made a huge investment in me, and what would become of him if I died? I said no. At twenty-two I was not comfortable with someone standing to make a quick mil off of my demise. As usual, Mike kept hammering at it. He tried to sweeten the deal by having some of the money go to my parents. “Look, your poor mother and father will stand to make all this cash and they won’t have to pay me a dime. I’M FOOTING THE BILL!” No. “Don’t you think you owe it to me?” No. Finally, Mike brought in a closer, some insurance company hotshot who guaranteed Mike he’d seal the deal, and together we were shut up in a small room at Columbia Records. I listened to this guy dressed in his suit and tie lay out their pitch for hours as Mike stood waiting outside. He had nothing new. It was the same old con: Mike’s investment, Mom and Pop, free money, no cost to me . . . I just had to die! I told him I was superstitious and I didn’t want a million-dollar bounty hanging over my head. After a long afternoon of the hard sell, his jacket off, sleeves rolled, tie undone, sweat on his brow, he looked me in the eye and said, “Kid, I’ve got a wife and family. If I make this sale, it’s going to mean a huge commission for me. How about it?” M-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-ke!
Mike came in; looked at his hit man, whom he’d just set loose on me for hours; sussed out where all this was going; realized he’d taken his swings, struck out, spun on a dime; and said, “Hey, asshole, leave the kid alone. Get the fuck outta here!” That’s my guy.
Here at the bar, Mike was starting over again . . . the accomplishments, John Hammond, Time, Newsweek, a million-selling record . . . I loved Mike—I still do—and despite the recent contract revelations, I wanted us to continue to work together. It’d been crazy but fun and we’d made it to the top. Toward the end of a very drunken evening, I stopped Mike in the middle of his po-faced soliloquy. “ENOUGH, GIVE ME THE PEN!” I downed another shot of Jack Daniel’s and with five more years of my life spread out before me on the table, I moved to sign on the first dotted line. I wasn’t joking. I was going to sign . . . again. Maybe it was just to get the whole fucking business thing, where I was extremely uncomfortable with my ignorance, off my back. I told myself I didn’t really give a fuck about the money anyway. I already had what I needed: a band, a roof over my head, food, a car, a guitar, music, a record deal, the beginnings of an audience. Hell, I was alone, only twenty-five, way out of my league in this area, and I was sick of the complicated, confusing adult world of these FUCKING PAPERS! Let’s get this shit out of the way and JUST LET ME PLAY!
High on many shots of whiskey, I pressed pen to paper. I felt a hand grab mine. A voice said, “No, not like this.” It was Mike. Those papers would never be signed and Mike’s and my relationship would soon be in ruins.
The Last Meet
One final morning Mike and I got together again at my house in Atlantic Highlands. Tension was starting to rise over our unfinished business. As the light from Sandy Hook Bay streamed in through my scenic front window, we sat down to straighten it all out for the last time. It was just him and me. By now I knew the full extent of our early contracts, but what were they compared to us? . . . The music, the audience, what we’d been through, our feelings for each other . . . I started, “Mike, I know the contracts are bad but that’s all right. We can fix it, they’re just paper. We can tear ’em up and start something new. We have X amount of dollars for five years of work. Let’s split it and move on. Just tell me how much is mine and how much is yours.” I was looking for a fair and rational answer. Instead, Mike replied, “Well . . . that depends. If you sign with me for five more years, a significant amount of it will be yours. If you don’t . . . probably very little.” I knew when Mike uttered the words, “that depends,” we were in real trouble. Five more years of my life against a fair shake for the five previous years of work was not an equation I’d picked up the guitar, built a life and forged a future, no matter how insignificant, to make. Mike left.
In the following days we negotiated a little further and were almost successful. Many of the new contract’s terms would be retroactively applied to the early contracts and the old agreements would be invalid. I was proud, relieved, and thought we’d worked out something reasonable. Shortly thereafter I received a phone call from Mike explaining his father had counseled him that he’d be giving up the candy store (the half mil in the bank) with no guarantee of future success. I tried to explain to Mike that he’d be giving up the Tootsie Roll jar and keeping the candy store, but it was a no go. Dad had spoken and it seemed like that was that. I hung up the phone, redialed, and said, “Send in the lawyers.”
It later dawned on me that I might have stumbled upon a crack in Mike’s faith in me. What timing! It would’ve gone against everything I’d known and felt about him since the day we met. There was no truer believer than Mike Appel, but we were in a very fickle business where one-hit wonders abound and half a million dollars is the kind of money guys like us may never see again. I knew Mike’s mind, and the control of that sum would be a lot for him to give up. Nothing is pretty easy to share, but something . . . that’s tricky, particularly your first and possibly only something.
Many nights I lay awake wondering, what did the money and the contracts mean? What did they quantify, symbolize? It seemed, for Mike and me, they meant something bigger than our relationship, all we’d done and might do together. More than our past, present and future. Mike’s grasping insecurity and intemperance, perhaps along with my own willful ignorance, my private insistence on the meaninglessness of all those papers, had let them come between us. We’d destroyed the joy, affection and promise we’d taken and had felt in each other.
What were the contracts for me? . . . Control? Power? Self-determination? “Sandy, he ain’t my boss no more”? An insistence on business conforming to my personal worldview? Maybe so. For Mike, was it the same? . . . Power, control, validation in his father’s eyes, ownership of our success and personal confirmation of how he saw our relationship? Many, if not most, sharp old-school managers had a Machiavellian streak. Mike’s idol was Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker. I loved Elvis and it was a fun conceit for the two of us, but I wasn’t going to be Elvis. Those days were gone. I was intentionally trying to not be Elvis. I was motivated by powerful, internal forces to determine the arc of my work and the life I was going to lead. I’d let you help me, I’d need your help, but I needed the certainty of being firmly in control. That was the point, beyond the exhilaration, the thrill of feeling my own talents rise up inside of me; that’s what all the years of struggle were for and that was the mountain Mike’s “that depends” had just pushed up against. On this, I was primally unmovable.
I’d bowed to power in ways significant and trivial throughout my life. We all have. I’d been bullied. It had often shamed me and made me angry, but okay, in any other field, on any other day, I’d eat it, make my peace, do my best and move on. But in music, I’d promised myself that if I could, I’d try to make things a little different. I’d try to lead my life as I chose, and over the past half decade, without parents, much real support or financial reward, I’d done that. I belonged to me. That’s the way it was going to be.
Mike’s mistake was he fundamentally misunderstood me. He’d voiced what he believed my options to be in the language of power. Now, one of negotiation’s dance partners is always power, but civility and compromise must have their place on the dance floor also. At that moment, Mike’s words went beyond negotiation and became a not-too-thinly-veiled threat. Amongst friends, that’s not nice. We would fight, hard.
In the end, it wasn’t all about the contracts. During our previous tour, something began to be clear to me. Mike’s ability to “represent” me the way I wished, to be my public voice, was rough at best. Mike was a fighter. That was his temperament. It was what he was good at: raw survival, “by any means necessary.” We’d reached a point with Born to Run where there was no one left to fight. We’d won! Everyone just wanted to play on our team.
What I needed now was a facilitator, someone who could represent my interests confidently, calmly, and then get things done. Offstage, I didn’t like drama. Between the madhouse of the early E Street Band and the silent, unyielding intensity of my father’s emotional life, I’d had enough. I wanted people around me who would do their best to create the conditions where I could work peacefully and do my best, uninterrupted by countless self-created tempests in a teapot. Meaningless distraction drains you of the energy you should be placing into more serious things or using to simply enjoy the rewards of your labor. Mike knew nothing about the “middle way.” Jon had a lighter, more sophisticated touch that brought with it its own quiet authority. It was more in tune with the confidence with which I now saw myself and wanted to project. Jon wasn’t a businessman. He’d had no managerial experience and after Mike, I interviewed a variety of the best people in management for the position. They were all perfectly fine professional businessmen, but that was never going to be enough for me. I needed disciples. This would prove an Achilles’ heel and in the future, after some costly enmeshments, I’d let it go. But not before it would end several longtime relationships, cost me dearly and come close to weakening our band. ’Til then, I needed to feel the deep emotional hold of sworn travelers to make me feel secure, safe, and prepared to do my job in the pop wilderness. I didn’t have normal nine-to-five relationships with the people who worked for me or with my work. A moderate in most other aspects of my life, here I was extreme. At work you were on my time all the time. Jon was already too grown up for a lot of this, but his heart, dedication and love for what I did brought him into the realm. In return all that was expected of me by my apostles was everything I had. I could handle that . . . for a while.