Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
LIVING WITH THE LAW
I wanted to return to the studio and I wanted Jon to produce. Once the deal went down, Mike, of course, wouldn’t have it. Standoff. Here come the judge.
We lost many of our early motions. Mike’s power, underwritten by the agreements, proved very effective in stopping my career in its tracks. I found out that agreements mean you agreed to something! Whether you read it, ate it for breakfast or papered the walls of your rumpus room with it . . . you’d AGREED! Then came the depositions.
Discovery, or depositions, is the legal process in which the opposing sides of an argument get together in a little room with a court stenographer and their lawyers and each take turns trying to make spaghetti out of the other guy’s story, in search of the answers you (or your opponent) need to make your case. It is neither pleasant nor pretty. It is meant to be embarrassing, psychically unsettling and a small wake-up call as to how your ass is going to be filleted once you step into the witness stand and start spouting your bullshit, truth or not. Let us not forget, it is called the adversarial system, and anyone who’s been deposed for anything from mass financial fraud to running a red light will tell you, it lives up to its name. By now, I’d already blown more than one hundred grand on a losing game plan and we were just getting started. In my first meeting with my new attorneys, Peter Parcher regaled me with the merits of my case: “No upstanding judge or jury in the land will hold up these slave papers . . . greed . . . for fucking Christ, you’re signed as an employee! Greed . . . greed . . . ridiculous terms . . . egregious conflict of interest . . . ,” yadda, yadda, yadda. I’d heard it all before but it was still music to my ears. After forty minutes or so, I was feeling pretty good, so I excitedly asked, “Well hell then, Mr. Parcher, what kind of a case does Mike have?” He turned on a dime. “Mike? . . . He’s got a great case . . . HE’S GOT YOUR NAME ON THE PAPER!” . . . Oh.
Peter Parcher and his colleague Peter Herbert determined that the biggest obstacle to getting Mike to settle the case was Mike’s disbelief that our relationship was truly over. It would be my job to convince him of that and it would take getting ugly. I’d been deposed previously with my last attorneys. Mr. Parcher had read the transcripts and told me it had been a pathetic disaster. It was all ambivalence, gray area, indecision, fairness and NO FIGHT! Peter took me in a corner and told me, “You, my friend, are not the judge. The judge is the judge. You are not the jury; the jury is the jury. You will tell your story to the best of your ability, as he will tell his. The judge and jury will decide who favor shall fall upon. That is not your job.”
I’d always had a problem with that. My father spoke so little, I had to provide all the voices, all the points of view of our non-conversations. As well as defending myself, I had to internally argue my old man’s case against me. I twisted and turned myself inside out trying to understand what I’d done wrong and what I might do to right it. I didn’t know enough to realize the impossibility of what I was wrestling with. Besides, it was the only way I could manage some control over the confounding emotional temper of our home. Consequently, as I moved on in life, this MO often left me with too much empathy for my opponents. No matter how far you took it, I was always trying to understand where you were coming from, see your point of view, walk in your shoes. I later told my children, compassion is a wonderful virtue but don’t waste it on those undeserving. If someone has their boot on your neck, kick them in the balls, then discuss. My surfeit of empathy was great for songwriting but often very bad for living or lawsuits.
So, my first day of being deposed under the tutelage of the two Peters, I did not play nice. My answers were profane, part theater, part truly felt anger bordering on the violent. I wasn’t mad about the money; it was not owning or controlling any of the music I’d written that infuriated me. That was the fuel I used to set myself on fire. I let it fly and it went on for days, shouting, banging on the table, pushing back my chair and planting my fist into a file cabinet. I worked hard for the Oscar. Finally the depositions were called for misbehavior by Leonard Marx, Mike’s attorney. We all had to take the subway downtown to court, where I was politely spanked and ordered by the judge to tone down my act. The deposition transcripts make for fun and fascinating bedtime reading and appear verbatim along with Mike’s side of the story in Mike’s book Down Thunder Road.
Like Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . .” Mostly, the worst of times . . . and it went on for years. I was renting a 160-acre farm on Telegraph Hill Road in Holmdel, New Jersey, for $700 a month. I’d hop in my white C10 pickup, which my girl had christened “Super Truck,” and head on down to the Stone Pony to sit in, play for the locals, flirt with the waitresses and drown my sorrows in too much blackberry brandy. I had a lot of fun in that C10. I stuffed a half couch, a cooler filled with ice and a small hibachi grill in its bed. I’d take my date and we’d head to the last of the drive-ins. I’d pull in backward, and we’d hop on the couch, drink beer and grill burgers during a late-night double feature. That summer I saw Warren Oates in the fabulous Born to Kill at that drive-in, had time on my hands and did a little more than a reasonable amount of drinking and bar-hopping just to relieve the stress. There were some nights when I left my tire tracks on more than a few lawns in Deal on my way home from the Pony.
It all became tiring and depressing, but I took comfort in knowing I could lose all but one thing: myself. No lawsuit, no court decision, no judge, no legal outcome could take what I treasured most. That was the craft and inner life I’d built since I was a teenager, founded on the music I could make with my heart, head and hands. That was mine forever and could not be won from me. I’d think, “If I lose and have nothing when this is over, you can still drop me with my guitar by parachute anywhere in America; I’ll walk to the nearest roadhouse, find a pickup band and light up your night. Just because I can.”
All good things must come to an end. Slowly, sadly, Mike became convinced it was all over. A settlement was reached, separation papers were drawn up and one quiet night in a dimmed midtown office building, Mike and I finalized our divorce. At the end of a long conference table I sat there, doing what you will do, should you ever be lucky enough to wander into a profession where you have even minor success at your passion. I was doing the very thing that got me into the whole fucking mess in the first place . . . signing more papers I hadn’t, and would never, read, in order to get to do the thing I desired most, the thing I needed to do, make music and play. The money was gone but the music was primarily mine and I could choose my career path unobstructed.
That done, I walked to the elevator and into a negative image of the ride Mike and I took down from the top floor of Black Rock on the day we were discovered. With my head slowly clearing of the sludge the lawsuit and its troubles had brought, I walked out into the New York night. I would have some dealings with Mike in the future, some good, some cheesy, but once the war was over and time—a good deal of it—passed, the fondness and connection remained. We had been someplace special together, someplace unique, a place where we had to depend upon each other and nothing else, where things that meant something were at stake. We had come to cross purposes—this is the world—but I could never hate Mike; I can only love him. His motor mouth walked me into John Hammond’s office. From Asbury Park to New York City and Columbia Records, that’s a long walk. When it was toughest, he made it work. He was a hard guy, straight out of the New York/New Jersey mold. It couldn’t get tough enough for him. He drew energy from it and reveled in it. He had trouble when it got easier. Some people are just that way; they don’t know how to stop fighting.
Along with Jon and Steve, Mike was my musical brother in arms. He knew everything about the great groups, the fabulous hit records, every important nuance of the great singers’ voices, the great guitarists’ riffs, the heart and soul that were in our favorite music. When we talked, he could finish my sentences. He was a fan, with all the beauty and import that word carries for me. Mike was funny, cynical, dreamy and profane, and when you were with him, you were always laughing.
Eventually, for seed money for more kite dreams, Mike sold me back every piece of my music he ever owned. It was another one of his big mistakes, good for me, bad for my pal. Those songs were going to be money in the bank for a long time. Mike, to a fault, was always about . . . now! next! I’m one of the few artists from those days who owns everything he ever created. All my records are mine. All my songs are mine. It’s rare and it’s a good feeling.
Mike was a cross of Willy Loman and Starbuck. He was a salesman in the classic and most tragic sense. He was a rainmaker. And despite all the hurt and pain of our last years together . . . he’d made it rain.
I thought of my grandfather, Sing Sing alumnus Anthony Zerilli (“You will risk and you will pay”). I risked and I paid, but I won too. I’d tried anonymity and it did not please me. My talents, my ego, my desires were too great. As I walked along, the excited, exhausted chatter of my partners in battle, Jon, Peter and Peter, floated somewhere behind me. I was filled with the light, the exhilaration of being set free, the power of having fought hard for something I felt was rightly mine. I felt a sadness at the decimation of a good friendship, but Mike and I would see each other again. Right now, I felt the shadow of a future, two years postponed, upon me. The time was here to finally turn all this into something.