Born to Run (2016)
BORN TO RUN
The River would be my first album where love, marriage and family would cautiously move to center stage. “Roulette,” a portrait of a family man caught in the shadow of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, was the first song we cut. The MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) concerts at Madison Square Garden had been our entrance into the public political arena and “Roulette” was written and recorded shortly after those shows. Next a road-tested “The Ties That Bind” got the Bob Clearmountain treatment. We were in a new studio, the Power Station, where Studio A had a beautiful high-ceilinged wooden room that was going to let the noise of our band free. Bob was a new part of our team, knew how to capture the room’s best, and though we’d soon realize we weren’t quite ready for him, he engineered and mixed The River’s early incarnation. “Ties” was another rocker focused on “real world” commitments. “You walk cool but darlin’ can you walk the line …” I held my doubts.
After the tightly controlled recorded sound of Darkness, I wanted this record to have the roughness and spontaneity of our live show. I wanted more trash in our sound. This was right in Steve Van Zandt’s wheelhouse and he joined me in the production along with Jon and Chuck Plotkin. With Steve’s encouragement, I began to steer the record into a rawer direction. This was the album where the E Street Band hit its stride, striking the perfect balance between a garage band and the professionalism required to make good records.
It was 1979 and state-of-the-art production values were still heavily influenced by the late-seventies mainstream sounds of Southern California. Their techniques consisted of an enormous amount of separation between the instruments, an often stultifying attention to detail and very little echo or live room resonance. Most studios, in those days, were completely padded to give the engineer the utmost control over each individual instrument. The Eagles, Linda Ronstadt and many other groups had a lot of success with this sound, and it had its merits, but it just didn’t suit our East Coast sensibilities. We wanted open room mikes, smashing drums (the snare sound on Elvis’s “Hound Dog” was my Holy Grail), crashing cymbals, instruments bleeding into one another and a voice sounding like it was fighting out from the middle of a brawling house party. We wanted the sound of less control. This was how many of our favorite records from the early days of rock ’n’ roll had been recorded. You miked the band and the room. You heard the band and the room. The sonic characteristics of the room were essential in the quality and personality of your recording. The room brought the messiness, the realness, the can’t-get-out-of-each-other’s-way togetherness of musicians in search of “that sound.”
We’d stumbled upon this by accident at the end of Darkness. The Record Plant had been tearing apart Studio A to rebuild it. We went in to cut the song “Darkness on the Edge of Town” when the room was still four bare concrete walls. That’s it! That resonance, that aggression from the drums, was exactly what we’d been searching for during all our early days of “Stiiiiiiiiiiiick” mania. At the Power Station, we set mikes high above the band to capture as much ambient sound as we could, and we hoped to be able to dial in or out as much of it as we liked. We’d be half successful.
Now, after the unrelenting seriousness of Darkness, I wanted more flexibility in the emotional range of the songs I chose. Along with “gravitas,” our shows were always filled with fun, and I wanted to make sure, this time around, that didn’t get lost. After some time recording, we prepared a single album and handed it in to the record company. It consisted of side one: “The Ties That Bind,” “Cindy,” “Hungry Heart,” “Stolen Car,” “Be True.” Side two: “The River,” “You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch),” “The Price You Pay,” “I Wanna Marry You” and “Loose Ends.” Everything, in one form or another, with the exception of “Cindy,” appeared on the final version of The River or later on Tracks, our collection of “outtakes” released in November of 1998. That first version of The River was completely engineered and mixed by Bob Clearmountain. It sounded beautiful, but as I spent time listening to it, I felt that it just wasn’t enough. Our records were infrequent and by now I’d set up my audience to expect more than business as usual. Each record was a statement of purpose. I wanted playfulness, good times, but also an underlying philosophical seriousness, a code of living, fusing it all together and making it more than just a collection of my ten latest songs. (Though, that worked out pretty well for the Beatles.)
I wouldn’t suggest this approach for everyone. Needless to say, it has its pretensions, but I was still defining myself and was inspired by artists who created self-aware, self-contained worlds on their albums, and then invited their fans to discover them. Van Morrison, Bob Dylan, the Band, Marvin Gaye, Hank Williams, Frank Sinatra—all made records that had collective power. I wanted a record thematically coherent enough to hold together as a body of work while not so single-minded as to be damned by the term “concept album.” I wanted something that could come only from my voice, that was informed by the internal and external geography of my own experience. The single album of The River I’d just turned in didn’t quite get us there, so, back into the studio we went.
Another year went by as I watched the seasons change from my New York City hotel room overlooking Central Park South. Down in the Wollman Rink I saw people ice-skate, stop, sun themselves on the Great Lawn of Central Park and start ice-skating again. In the studio, not sure of where the record was going, I took out my shotgun again. I’d simply record everything I was writing. When our recording budget ran dry, I took the Francis Ford Coppola route, busting the piggy bank and spending everything I had. The results were I went broke while recording a lot of good music, the two records of The River being only a slice (check out disc two of Tracks, and there’s more still waiting in the vault). Finally, it became obvious I was working on at least a double record. It would be the only way I could reconcile the two worlds I wanted to present to my fans. The River got its emotional depth from its ballads—“Point Blank,” “Independence Day,” “The River” and “Stolen Car” were all narrative-driven story songs—but the album got its energy from its bar band music, songs like “Cadillac Ranch,” “Out in the Street” and “Ramrod.” Then there was the music that bled across the lines: “Ties That Bind,” “Two Hearts” and “Hungry Heart.” All of this blended together into a logical extension of the characters I’d studied on Darkness on the Edge of Town.
Finally, the commitments of home, blood and marriage ran through the album as I tried to understand where these things might fit in my own life. My records are always the sound of someone trying to understand where to place his mind and heart. I imagine a life, I try it on, then see how it fits. I walk in someone else’s shoes, down the sunny and dark roads I’m compelled to follow but may not want to end up living on. It’s one foot in the light, one foot in the darkness, in pursuit of the next day.
The song “The River” was a breakthrough for my writing. The influence of country music proved prescient as one night in my hotel room I started singing Hank Williams’s “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It,” and “Well, I went upon the mountain, I looked down in the sea” somehow led to “I’m going down to the river …” I drove home to New Jersey and sat at a small oak table in my bedroom watching the dawn sky draw blue out of black and I imagined my story. It was just a guy in a bar talking to the stranger on the next stool. I based the song on the crash of the construction industry in late-seventies New Jersey, the recession and hard times that fell on my sister Virginia and her family. I watched my brother-in-law lose his good-paying job and work hard to survive without complaint. When my sister first heard it, she came backstage, gave me a hug and said, “That’s my life.” That’s still the best review I ever got. My beautiful sister, tough and unbowed, K-Mart employee, wife and mother of three, holding fast and living the life that I ran away from with everything I had.
The River crystallized my concerns and committed me to a style of writing I’d further explore in greater depth and detail on Nebraska. The album closes with a title stolen from a Roy Acuff song. In “Wreck on the Highway,” my character confronts death and an adult life where time is finite. On a rainy night he witnesses a fatal accident. He drives home, and lying awake next to his lover, he realizes you have a limited number of opportunities to love someone, to do your work, to be a part of something, to parent your children, to do something good.
We finished recording and went to Los Angeles to mix the record at Chuck Plotkin’s Clover Studios. We mixed and we mixed and we mixed, and then we mixed some more. We’d wanted to create a sound that was less controlled and we’d had, as ex-president George W. would say, catastrophic success! It was a mess. Bob Clearmountain, with neither the time nor the patience to endure our navel-gazing, had gracefully bowed out … years ago. Now everything we’d recorded was bleeding into everything else (those ceiling mikes worked!) and our team, including the steadfast and talented Neil Dorfsman, who’d recorded and engineered everything but “Ties That Bind” and “Drive All Night,” didn’t quite have a clue about how to rein it all in to achieve a reasonable-sounding mix. As usual, I wanted everything, intelligibility and blazing noise. We spent months mixing the twenty songs we’d chosen and then one night, I invited my old partner Jimmy Iovine, now a successful producer working at A&M Studios, to check it out and give his approval. Jimmy sat expressionless for the eighty minutes of the record. Then, as the final notes of “Wreck on the Highway” drifted out the window onto Santa Monica Boulevard, he looked at me and deadpanned, “When’re you going to record the vocals?”
Jimmy was subtly telling me you couldn’t hear a fucking thing. The vocals were all but buried beneath what we thought was our masterwork of garage noise and were nearly unintelligible. Sitting there hearing them anew through Jimmy’s unbiased ears, I had to admit most of the mixes sucked. I cried … really. Mixmaster Chuck Plotkin was doing his mightiest around the clock but once again, WE DID NOT KNOW HOW TO MIX WHAT WE’D RECORDED! Charlie was one of the sickest men I’d ever met when it came to obsessive-compulsive work habits. Some of our mixes remained on the board for three, four days, even a week, as we fussed, mussed and murdered one another in a vain attempt to capture all worlds. We had mixes with three-digit take numbers. We were violently frustrated and puzzled, cursing our brethren, releasing records and touring like normal folk and finally beseeching God himself. Why us, Lord, why? In the end, Charlie’s second or third pass through our carousel of twenty tunes brought victory of sorts. We’d done it. Of course, I recollected that Bob Clearmountain had mixed “Hungry Heart,” our soon-to-be top five (and only) smash, in thirty seconds, but we could never have worked with Bob. HE WAS TOO FUCKING FAST! We needed to ruminate, contemplate, intellectualize and mentally masturbate ourselves into a paralytic frenzy. We had to punish ourselves until we’d done it … OUR WAY! And in those days, on E Street, our way was only one way … THE HARD WAY! Like Smith Barney, we made our money the old-fashioned way, we earned it, and then we burned it, throwing it away on countless upon countless fruitless hours in a huge, wandering technical circle jerk.
I later realized we weren’t making a record, we were on an odyssey, toiling in the vineyards of pop, searching for complicated answers to mystifying questions. Pop may not have been the best place for me to look for those answers, or it may have been perfect. It had long ago become the way I channeled just about any and all information I received from living on planet Earth. Either way, that’s how I used my music and my talents from the very beginning. As a salve, a balm, a tool to tease out the clues to the unknowable in my life. It was the fundamental why and wherefore of my picking up the guitar. Yes, the girls. Yes, the success. But answers, or rather those clues, that’s what kept waking me in the middle of the night to roll over and disappear into the sound hole of my six-string cipher (kept at the foot of my bed) while the rest of the world slept. I’m glad I’ve been handsomely paid for my efforts but I truly would’ve done it for free. Because I had to. It was the only way I found momentary release and the purpose I was looking for. So, for me, there weren’t going to be any shortcuts. It’s a lot to lay on a piece of wood with six steel strings and a couple of cheap pickups attached, but such was the “sword” of my deliverance.
Bob’s near-mystical talents would come in very handy, very shortly, as we lumbered toward Born in the USA. But for the time being, I’d need to content myself sunning away my studio tan by the pool at the Sunset Marquis, as other bands recorded, hit the road and came back to record anew. I watched jaws drop when I told my fellow travelers I was still working on the same record as a year previous, no end in sight. Oh, the road, the road. How I longed for anything but another night in the studio. From Clover’s small lounge, I’d stare out onto the traffic cruising Santa Monica Boulevard and dream of a life where one might actually live. I wanted to be free, unburdened of my obsession with writing and recording my dreams of people seizing life while refraining from doing so myself.
Finally, I surrendered to the inevitability of doing it the slow way, sort of. The road, its freedoms and life itself would have to wait. I was a studio mole, squinting in the dawn’s sunlight after another night’s fruitless or fruitful search. It was all right. I realized for now I needed to work like the tortoise, not the hare. Bob’s shiny, beautiful glassy spaces and compressed power would’ve cut off some of the record’s amateurish rough edges. The River wanted and needed them. It wasn’t supposed to sound too good, just ragged and right. Our process was both perversely disciplined and indulgent. It broke me financially and almost spiritually, but in the end, and as I hear it today, we got the right sound for that record.
For an album cover, of course, after many false starts, not-quite-right photo sessions (too slick, too studied, too flattering, too … ?) I chose another Frank Stefanko portrait from our Darkness shoot, scrawled some B-movie title type on top, and miraculously, we were done … just in time. In the last weeks of recording, Jon informed me that almost a decade after being signed to Columbia, several million-selling albums and extensive touring, I had but twenty thousand dollars to my name. The clock had run out. Time to make some money.
And hopefully have some fun. There was a short breather after the record was finished and I hung around in LA for a while trying to relax and come down from what had been another torturous, mind-bending experience. I casually saw a few local women, lightly slipping around on my gal from back home. My pal Jimmy Iovine was living a life surrounded by Playboy Bunnies and would soon marry the wonderful Miss Vicki, lawyer, author, entrepreneur and to this day Patti’s and my beloved friend. A few of the girls, all of them quite sweet, invited me to the Playboy Mansion, but I didn’t like the trade-off. I had something that I thought meant something and I wanted to protect it. For me, it wasn’t the sex, it wasn’t the drugs … it was the ROCK ’N’ ROLL! I’d stayed in New Jersey, I didn’t hang out, I wasn’t a get-your-picture-taken-coming-out-of-the-hippest-nightclub scenester. That other shit was all the stuff I thought ruined it for my old heroes! It made you feel distant from them. It took you out of it. I didn’t really think I was that different from my fans except for some hard work, luck and natural ability at my gig. They didn’t get to go to the Playboy Mansion, so why should I? Those I mentioned it to, however, said, “You could’ve gone to the Playboy Mansion and you didn’t? What the fuck is wrong with you?” My attitude was, who cares what’s going on at the Playboy Mansion?! That’s not where the shit’s going down. That’s not real … I deemed it all too frivolous for the stakes I was playing for. And so, I talked myself out of a perfectly good time, as over the long course of my life it has been my wont to do. I had my principles, I wasn’t wrong and I knew just what I was doing, but still, a part of me always wished on occasion I hadn’t followed them so severely! Oh, the road not taken.
In truth, offstage I never really had the ease or ability to enjoy myself very freely. Don’t get me wrong. I had high spirits for days and a happiness, the bright brother of my depression, that was straight out of the Zerilli fountain of youth, but abandon … not so much. Sobriety became a religion of sorts to me and I mistrusted those who treated the lack thereof as something to rally around and celebrate. For whatever reason, I carried the short stick up my ass with a certain amount of pride. Maybe I’d worked too hard for stability and needed it more than free license. The dumb and destructive shit I saw done in the name of people trying to “let it all hang out,” to be “free,” was legion. I remember my pals and me chasing a friend down a mountainside one ten-degree Virginia morning as he ran half-naked and screaming underneath the spell of some bad acid he’d taken during our night camping out. I was embarrassed by his exposure. I was much too reserved and secretive to throw it all out there like that. I was never gonna get a first-class ticket to see God the easy way on the Tim Leary clown train.
Still, I have to admit I looked at oblivion with an untrustworthy but longing eye. I half admired what I perceived to be my friend’s foolish courage. I was always proud but also embarrassed by being so in control. Somewhere I intuited that if I crossed that line it would bring more pain than relief. This was just the shape of my soul. I never cared for any kind of out-of-control “stonedness” around me. It brought back too many memories of unpredictable and quietly volatile evenings at home. Evenings of never knowing where I stood. I could never be completely at ease, or relaxed, as a young man in my own home. Later I promised myself, never again. As I ventured into the world, if that was going on and it wasn’t my scene, I’d leave, and if it was my scene, I was understanding, but beyond a point, you’d leave.
I set boundaries within the band. I didn’t get in your business unless I saw it was damaging what we were trying to accomplish or hurting you. I believe those boundaries are one of the reasons that forty-four years later, most of us are alive, standing shoulder to shoulder onstage, content and happy to be there.
Still, my overweening need for control limited the amount of simple pleasure I’d allow myself. It was just an unfortunate part of my DNA. Work? Give me a shovel and I’ll dig straight through to China before the sun comes up. That was the upside of being a control freak, a bottomless well of anxious energy that, when channeled correctly, was a mighty force. It served me well. When the crowd files back out of the theater, you, my friend, will be exhausted, hop in your Rolls, drive over to the Playboy “manse” and have a late-night toot and psych session with Dr. Leary, Hef and Misses June, July and August. I’ll be digging my hole under a bloody moon. But, come the morning, that fucking hole is DUG! … And I’m sleeping like a baby—a troubled baby, but a baby.
This is why drinking was good for me. I never drank for the pleasures of alcohol. As the great singer and my road buddy Bobby King once said to me upon my request for his choice of poison at a tour stop hotel bar, “I don’t like none of it, so I’ll drink any of it.” My feelings exactly, and as a lightweight, four or five shots in me and I’d be the life of the party, groping and flirting with anyone in sight before coming to my senses, filled with the morning’s regrets and a guilt I so single-mindedly pursued. Once high, I couldn’t do something to embarrass myself quick enough. Still, being able to go there after so many young years of caution meant something to me. It gave me an ass-backward confidence that I could handle it and not turn into my dad. I could be foolish and embarrassing but never intentionally punishing or cruel, and I had a lot of fun. Those who suffered my boorish behavior were usually my close compadres, so I was amongst friends. It unleashed a certain happiness in me: the furniture went out the door, the rug got rolled up, the music was blasted and there was dancing, dancing, dancing.
The one thing I did learn was that we all need a little of our madness. Man cannot live by sobriety alone. We all need help somewhere along the way to relieve us of our daily burdens. It’s why intoxicants have been pursued since the beginning of time. Today I’d simply advise you to choose your methods and materials carefully or not at all, depending upon one’s tolerance, and watch the body parts!
I used to see my rock heroes enjoying their great fortunes and say, “Damn, I can’t wait ’til I get there.” Then, when I got there, the shoe only occasionally fit. So much of the raw, dangerous but beautiful hedonism, the exultant materialism, of rock ’n’ roll felt naked and without purpose for me. I have since come a long way, live high on the hog, yacht around the Mediterranean (who doesn’t?) and private-plane myself between dental appointments. But I’ve still never regularly quite had the mojo to freely let the “bon temps rouler.” Except … onstage. There, strangely enough, exposed in front of thousands, I’ve always felt perfectly safe, to just let it all go. That’s why at our shows you can’t get rid of me. My pal Bonnie Raitt, upon visiting me backstage, used to smilingly shake her head at me and say, “The boy has it in him, and it’s got to come out.” So there, with you, I’m near free and it’s party ’til the lights go out. I don’t know why, but I’ve never gotten anywhere near as far or as high as when I count the band in and feel what seems like all life itself and a small flash of eternity pulsing through me. It’s the way I’m built. I’ve long ago resigned myself to the fact that all of us can’t be the Rolling Stones, God bless ’em … even if we can.