Born to Run (2016)

BOOK TWO

BORN TO RUN

FORTY-SEVEN

BUONA FORTUNA, FRATELLO MIO

Halfway through recording the biggest record of my life, Steve Van Zandt left the band. I’ve always felt a combination of personal frustration, internal politics and unhappiness with some of my decisions led to Steve’s departure. That along with my closeness to Jon Landau left my friend feeling distant from his pal and the direction my work’d taken me. Though I would have never gotten where I am without the E Street Band, it is ultimately my stage. By thirty-two, Steve needed to take his own long-deserved shot at the title, fronting his group and playing and singing his own songs. Steve is one of the best songwriters, guitarists and bandleaders I’ve ever known and the timing must’ve felt to him like now or never. Looking back, I think Steve would agree it didn’t have to be that way. We could’ve done it all, but we weren’t the same people then that we are today. I was still very protective over my right to self-determination and proprietary over my career. I would listen, but I didn’t consider what we were engaged in a “partnership,” and Steve, back then, was an everything-or-nothing kind of guy. That’s always been my pal’s blessing and his curse . . . mostly his curse. The night he left, he visited me in my New York City hotel room. A very difficult discussion about our friendship, his position in the band, past grievances and our future together was had. There were certain things we could not agree upon. We were still pretty young and without the perspective time can bring to smooth out the rough spots. We had no overview to help us see the beauty and full value of our long friendship. What we did have was a lot of passion, transferred emotion and misunderstanding.

That evening Steve asked for a fuller role in our creative relationship, but I’d intentionally set limits on people’s roles within the group. The E Street Band is so filled with talent, no one gets to use but a small percentage of their abilities at any one time, so naturally, there was some frustration felt by everyone, Jon included. But this was how I shaped my work, kept my hands on the reins and my ship tight. I was an easygoing guy but I had hard boundaries dictated by both my creative instincts and my psychological strengths and frailties. Steve’s frustrations were intensified by his sizable ego (join the club!), his underutilized talents and our lengthy friendship. He was extremely dedicated to me and our band, and probably felt some guilt and confusion from his own ambition and desire to move to the front.

In the teen clubs of our youth, we’d been not only friends but friendly competitors. It was good. But as we began to work together, this was probably something that neither of us was completely comfortable with or up front about. Steve had given himself completely to his role at my side and had long been an ambivalent front man. One night at the Inkwell, when Southside Johnny was originally signed to a record deal (before Steve joined the E Street Band), I questioned Steve about why he simply didn’t perform and record the great songs he’d written for Southside, himself. (Don’t worry, Southside, you did good.) Since we were young, I’d watched Steve masterfully front his own bands. That evening, he said it just wasn’t completely “him,” and a big and wonderful part of Steve’s personality (and my good fortune) was his vision of himself in a premier but supportive role as my musical lieutenant.

But now, Steve’s move to the center mike would be complicated further by those very years he’d spent at my side in the E Street Band. It’s hard for an audience to accept you in a new role, to hear you without the veil of the established popular image that comes with being a part of a successful group. I understood Steve’s position. He wanted more influence in our work. But I’d gently played him and Jon off each other for a purpose. It was why they were both there. I wanted the tension of two complementarily conflicting points of view. It bred a little intended professional friction in the studio and perhaps some unintended personal friction outside of it, but that was the way I needed it. We were all big boys, very dedicated, and I figured everyone could handle it. They did. But this, along with the intentional gray area I kept the band in, created a purgatory I was happy with but, perhaps, confused and unsettled some of my bandmates. Each band member and every fan probably has their own definition of who and what we are (and for most, we’re probably just Bruce Springsteen . . . and the E Street Band), but at the end of the day, I get, and got, to officially decide. From the day I walked alone (and very aware of what I was doing) into John Hammond’s office, that’d been the setup.

These questions, along with the maelstrom of emotions they brought forth, were at the heart of Steve’s and my estrangement and his absence from the band during the eighties and nineties. I loved and deeply love Steve. As we parted that night, he paused for a moment at the door. Filled with concern over the loss of my friend and right-hand man, I said that despite where we were headed, I was still the best friend he had, we were still each other’s great friends, and I hoped we would not let that go. We didn’t.