Born to Run (2016)
When I’m on tour, I’ll often carry with me a collection of my unfinished music. I’ll bring a few unfinished projects along that I’ll pop on in the wee wee hours after the show and listen to. I’m looking to see if there’s something there whispering in my ear. I still had a nice set of songs from my production work with Brendan and night after night, they’d call to me, looking for a home. This coincided with Tom Morello’s joining the band and suggesting we dust off “High Hopes,” a song by LA group the Havalinas that we’d covered in the nineties. “I could really jam on that,” he said. As we gathered in Australia at our first rehearsal for the Wrecking Ball tour’s resumption, I had an arrangement that I thought might work. This was going to be Tom’s first stint subbing for Steve, who was busy with his acting commitments, so I wanted him to be able to put his imprint on the show. He did that. The arrangement caught fire live and we decided to cut it in a Sydney studio along with a favorite song of mine by the Australian group the Saints, “Just Like Fire Would.” With the inclusion of these songs and studio recordings we made of “American Skin” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” a real album began to take shape. I then recorded Tom onto some of our Brendan O’Brien tracks and things really began to spark. Tom proved to be a fabulous and fascinating substitute for Steve, melding into the band seamlessly while greatly increasing our sonic palette.
Before resuming the tour, however, I had some business to take care of. For at least the past five years I had noticed the fingers in my left hand growing successively weaker with each tour. On a long solo my hand and fingers could fatigue almost to failure. I’d found a variety of ways to get around this so the audience wouldn’t notice and my playing didn’t suffer, but by the start of our Wrecking Ball tour it was becoming a problem I could no longer ignore.
Probably since my forties, some physical problem had come along with every tour. One tour it’s your knee, then it’s your back, then it’s tendinitis in your elbows from all the hard strumming. These maladies appear and disappear quite frequently over the latter part of your work life and are rarely critical. I’d just find a way to manage them and continue on. However, the paralysis of my guitar-playing hand was something else. That was accompanied by a numbness and tingling down my left arm, and I noticed in the weight room that I was now significantly weaker on the left side of my body.
I consulted a variety of physicians, had the MRIs done and found out I had some cervical disc problems on the left side of my neck, pinching and numbing the nerves that controlled my left side from the shoulder down. I found a great surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and we set a date. The surgery went like this: they knock you out; cut an incision into your throat; tie your vocal cords off to one side; get in there with a wrench, screwdriver and some titanium; they take a chunk of bone out of your hip and go about building you a few new disks. It worked! Because all of this takes place around the vocal cords your voice is gone for a couple of nerve-racking months. Also you get to wear one of those whiplash collars for about two months. But sure enough, right on the doc’s timeline, three months in I was ready to work again. With my new discs and rehabilitated voice, we headed Down Under with just one instruction: no crowd surfing! But there is no fool like an old fool, so the first night I dove right on in. Everything was fine.
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About my voice. First of all, I don’t have much of one. I have a bar-man’s power, range and durability, but I don’t have a lot of tonal beauty or finesse. Five sets a night, no problem. Three and a half full-on hours, can do. Need for warm-up, light to none. My voice gets the job done. But it’s a journeyman’s instrument and on its own, it’s never going to take you to higher ground. I need all my skills to get by and to communicate deeply. For me to sell you what you’re buying, I’ve got to write, arrange, play, perform and, yes, sing to the best of my ability. I am a sum of all my parts. I learned early this is not something to fret about. Every performer has his or her weak link. Part of getting there is knowing what to do with what you have and knowing what to do with what you DON’T have. As Clint Eastwood said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Then forget about them and walk on.
I was teased endlessly in the Castiles and dismissed as a vocalist. For a long time that was fine with me. George Theiss was a great singer and I was perfectly content to work on my guitar skills. I always saw myself primarily as a lead guitarist anyway.
Then I got to where I could carry a melody and, to my ear, sound half decent. At some point in the Castiles, George and I began to share more of the vocal duties. Once that band folded and I moved onto my next band, Earth, I became a full-fledged playing-and-singing front man. I was still earning my keep as one of the few guitarists in the area who could half-ass Clapton and Hendrix, but I was singing everything too. Then I began to write acoustically and I would spend my off nights singing solo, accompanied by just my twelve-string Ovation guitar, in the local coffee houses. I wrote a lot and got used to depending on my voice, along with the quality of my songs and playing, to carry the show. I thought I was getting pretty good. Then when George, my short-lived New York producer, invited me to his apartment, he had that two-track tape recorder. One afternoon he said, “Let’s record some of your songs.” As I was performing for the tape, I was thinking, “Damn, I’m good!” Then I heard it back. It sounded like a cat with its tail on fire. It was out of tune, amateurish, dumb and unknowing. The sound that came back off that tape killed what little confidence I had in myself and my vocals. It was truly demoralizing.
But what could I do? It was the only voice I had. And I decided after the Castiles I would never depend on another lead singer again. It was not independent enough for me. So I learned as I’ve mentioned that the sound in your head has little to do with how you actually sound. Just the way you think you look better than you do, until the iPhone photo your Auntie Jane takes cold-slaps you in the face. Tape performs this same function for your voice. It’s a dead-on bullshit detector. You can’t kid yourself once you’ve heard yourself on tape. That, my friend, IS the way you sound. You can only live with it.
So I figured if I didn’t have a voice, I was going to really need to learn to write, perform and use what voice I had to its fullest ability. I was going to have to learn all the tricks, singing from your chest, singing from your abdomen, singing from your throat, great phrasing, timing and dynamics. I noted a lot of singers had a very limited instrument but could sound convincing. I studied everyone I loved who sounded real to me, whose voices excited me and touched my heart. Soul, blues, Motown, rock, folk; I listened and I learned. I learned the most important thing was how believable you could sound. How deeply you could inhabit your song. If it came from your heart, then there was some ineffable element “X” that made the way you technically sounded secondary. There are many good, even great, voices out there tied to people who will never sound convincing or exciting. They are all over TV talent shows and in lounges in Holiday Inns all across America. They can carry a tune, sound tonally impeccable, they can hit all the high notes, but they cannot capture the full emotional content of a song. They cannot sing deeply.
If you were lucky enough to be born with an instrument and the instinctive knowledge to know what to do with it, you are blessed indeed. Even after all my success I sit here in envy of Rod Stewart, Bob Seger, Sam Moore and many other greats who can sing magnificently and know what to do with it. My vocal imperfections made me work harder on my writing, my band leading, my performing and my singing. I learned to excel at those elements of my craft in a way I might otherwise never had if I had a more perfect instrument. My ability to power through three-hour-plus shows for forty years (itself a display of my manic insecurity that I’d never be enough) with a thoroughbred’s endurance came from realizing I had to bring it all to take you where I wanted us to go. Your blessings and your curses often come in the same package. Think of all the eccentric voices in rock who’ve made historic records and keep singing. Then build up your supportive skills because you never know what’s going to come out of your heart and find its way out of your mouth.
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With the reconstituted E Street Band playing at its peak, we decided to take it to a few places we hadn’t toured. We did a ten-day run in South America, where we hadn’t visited since the Amnesty tour, then South Africa, where we had never played. We ended up with a return trip to Australia, building on the success we’d had the previous year Down Under. This time we had Steve and Tom along, kicking off each night’s show with our Aussie favorites, “Highway to Hell,” “Friday on My Mind,” and “Stayin’ Alive” complete with an all-female string section. Finally one last stop in New Zealand and we headed back home for a short US leg, then took down the tent on the most successful, well-attended and popular tour the E Street Band had ever done.