Portland author Peter Ames Carlin had stalked pop music giants before. Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys allowed Carlin into his strange but creative world for a 2006 biography. And while his next subject, Paul McCartney, never agreed to an interview, Carlin found new stories to spin in the heavily trodden Beatles myth.
Three years ago, Carlin turned his research talents to a performer whose work remains influential and relevant after nearly five decades in the music business: Bruce Springsteen.
While other aging rockers have hit the tribal casino circuit or play to half-filled arenas with moldering song catalogs, Springsteen at 63 continues to generate music that inspires and challenges and agitates. His working-class-hero narratives still resonate (no small feat given his nine-figure net worth) and he's emerged as an incisive political voice—witness President Obama's choice of Springsteen to headline his re-election campaign events.
As with McCartney's, Springsteen's life had already been well covered in bios and profiles. And Springsteen had refused for the past 25 years to cooperate with countless biographers who came seeking access.
But Carlin, 49, worked his way through the protective layers around Springsteen, who eventually nodded approval to members of the E Street Band and his family to talk to Carlin. Last fall, Springsteen and Carlin sat down over pizza, beer and tequila in one of Springsteen's Freehold, N.J., haunts and began a series of interviews that stretched over nine months.
Carlin, a former senior writer for People and TV critic at The Oregonian, didn't allow that extraordinary access to soften his journalistic edge. His new book, Bruce (Touchstone, $28), looks at Springsteen as a musical and cultural force, and as a complicated, often flawed character. Carlin's reporting breaks new ground in revealing secrets of Springsteen's troubled childhood that still echo in his work.
One of the themes of this revelatory book is Springsteen's battle with depression—often not named or diagnosed as such until later in his life—that led to personal and artistic crises, not to mention his manic drive as a meticulous song master and difficult and sometimes cold boss to his band.
In this excerpt from Bruce, the collision of Springsteen's psyche and creativity reverberates in the recording of the landmark 1975 Born to Run album and its epic title song.
In 1973, Springsteen had released two critically acclaimed albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. But the albums didn't sell fast enough to satisfy his label, Columbia Records, where there was much disagreement over whether Springsteen would ever fulfill his promise as a rock star.
By the next year, Springsteen was under intense pressure to come up with a top-selling album—and a hit single.
From Bruce by Peter Ames Carlin. Copyright Â© 2012 by Peter Ames Carlin. Reprinted by permission of Touchstone Books. All rights reserved.
Recently broken up with Diane Lozito [Springsteen's girlfriend and the inspiration for his song "Rosalita"], Bruce reclined on the bed in the small house he'd rented in the West End region of Long Branch, New Jersey. Notebook folded open, guitar in hand, he strummed idly, his line cast into the depths of consciousness, waiting for an idea to present itself. A chord progression, a snatch of melody, some kind of visual image, whatever. Then three words fell onto his tongue: born to run.
The title of a half-remembered B‑movie? Airbrushed words blazing across the flank of a '64 Chevy he spied on the Ocean-Kingsley circuit in Asbury? Bruce had no idea. It didn't really matter anyway. "I liked it because it suggested a cinematic drama I thought would work with the music I was hearing in my head," he wrote in the late nineties. He came up with chords, the verse reminiscent of the Beach Boys' Brian Wilson-composed love/lust/car drama "Don't Worry Baby," and tried to imagine where the song would go from there. Like Wilson (working with lyricist Roger Christian), Bruce's highways led to bigger ideas and more urgent feelings: "The cars only interested me as vehicles for writing my songs."
In Bruce's consciousness, the street racing scene defied the social and economic strictures that kept the underprivileged, the young, and the outsiders from becoming who they were meant to be. "Escape was the idea," he said to Eve Zibart in 1978. It connected everything, from Chuck Berry's "School Days" to Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again." "The song is a release. It's an expression of the humdrum, the daily existence that you break out of."
Bruce dismissed his alter egos and stood alone at the center of the screen, climbing into the car and feeling the wheel vibrating in his own palms.
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream / At
night we stop and tremble in heat / With murder in our dreams...
From there it all came pouring out: the surfers shivering in the breakers; the cars rumbling down Highway 9 to identical towns farther down the Shore, the metal-flake hot rods turning slow circles on the Asbury Park circuit. "Like animals pacing in a black, dark cage, senses on overload," he wrote. "They're gonna end this night in a senseless fight / and then watch the world explode."
Everyone, everywhere, all souped up with no place to go.
It's a death trap! A suicide rap! We gotta get out while we're young / 'Cause tramps like us, baby...
Then it all comes back to the three words, and the governing realization that spurred the composition of the song and everything that would follow.
...we were born to run.
It would take him months to get the words just so and even longer to capture the gleaming sound already playing in his ears. But he'd found the heart of the song, the chords and melody ringing so true that he could already sense that he'd tapped into something powerful. "This was the turning point," he wrote later. "It proved to be the key to my songwriting for the rest of the record."
When they had a finished mix of the "Born to Run" single in the early summer of 1974, Mike Appel [Springsteen's then-manager] invited Columbia president Bruce Lundvall to the studio. Lundvall sat quietly as the tape rolled. When the final notes faded, he looked over at Bruce. "You just made a hit record," he said. To Lundvall's surprise, Bruce shrugged it off. "He didn't believe me," the executive says. "But I told him it was a smash and sent him back to make the rest of the album."
You might think that sweeping praise from the top executive in his record company would have eased the make-or-break burden that Bruce lugged with him. You would be wrong. Because whenever he listened to the first two albums, all Bruce could hear were the things he wished he'd done differently. The overstuffed lyrics, the stilted sound, the distance between what he needed to say and what came out of the speakers. "He wanted to write as directly as the great songwriters did," Appel says. "We kept talking about it: balance, balance, balance."
Which sounded a lot easier than it turned out to be for Bruce, who spent hours laboring over every syllable in his notebook, along with every note that came from every instrument and every nuance of every sonic texture. Everything, he decreed, had to serve a distinct purpose. "He kept coming back with different sets of lyrics," Appel says. "Something like five versions of 'Born to Run' alone. 'How's this one, Mike? What do you think of these ones now?' Finally, I told him to go and pick out his favorites himself—I was done."
"You think there's a right way, which is a fallacy," Bruce said to Rolling Stone's Joe Levy three decades later. But, he continued, if you're young and screwed up enough, losing yourself in work can be far more appealing than being aware of, and directly confronting, your own dysfunction. "It was the only way I knew how to work," Bruce said. "It was fun, but it was exhausting. I think intentionally exhausting."
When videographer Barry Rebo drove up to the 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt to shoot the recording sessions in January 1975, he found Bruce, Appel, and the band looking as sad and translucent as ghosts. A year since they started work on the "Born to Run" single and first attempted a skeletal version of "Jungleland," they had a total of one song finished. With trained professionals Roy Bittan [on piano] and [drummer] Max Weinberg on board, Rebo expected the recording to flow more smoothly than before. Instead the overnight session became an endless series of false starts, faltering equipment, off-kilter takes, and increasingly dispirited attempts to rally for another try.
Anyone glancing up to the studio window could spy a piano tuner working frantically to adjust the studio's perpetually out-of-key piano. When the tuner warned Appel that the instrument had structural problems and would never hold a tuning for more than thirty minutes or so, Appel nodded but shook off the man's $10-an-hour offer to be present and ready to work all night. They simply did not have the cash to pay for it.
Back in the studio at eleven, Bruce, the band, and their production team knuckled down for another run at "Jungleland." With Bruce clad in a T‑shirt and bomber jacket in the vocal booth, he counted off the song and then closed his eyes to sing the first verse. They got only halfway into the second verse before Appel called a halt through the control room intercom, explaining that the instruments had fallen out of sync in one verse. When they got through an entire take, Appel punched the button on his microphone. "All right, that was a great take as far as we're concerned!" he crowed. "What do you wanna do, Bruce?" Springsteen shrugged. "Do another one," he said. "Do it this time with—"
Appel, back on his microphone, didn't seem to hear. "What a great take. Isn't it great to have one under the belt?"
Another try. Bruce in his booth, eyes shut, dancing and swinging his arms as he sang, swept up in the music. Then the skronk of the control room intercom button. "Bad take!" engineer Louis Lahav barked. "Why?" Appel asked. "Rushed." Bruce sighed, and they started again, getting all the way through to the end. Everyone agreed that one came out near perfectly—except for Bruce, whose forehead puckered as he contemplated a four-beat piano transition from the first section into the sax solo in the middle. "You think them chords are making it in the middle?" he asked. As Appel contemplated the need to revise the design of the song yet again, Bruce led the band in a sloppy but cheerful attempt at Cole Porter's "Anything Goes."
More tries at "Jungleland," more breakdowns. Between takes, Bittan sat at the piano looking confused, searching for new chord inversions that might sound better in the song. But why did these ones suddenly sound so wrong? In the control room, a gloomy Appel muttered the obvious: "It's out of tune again. Should we tell Bruce?"
"What I saw in these sessions is that he could not get any momentum going because of these interruptions," says Jon Landau, a Rolling Stone music critic who had dabbled in record production. Speaking to Roy Bittan, also no stranger to recording sessions, Landau discovered they shared the same frustrations. "I remember [Bittan] saying, 'What the fuck are we doing in this place?'"
Something needed to change. And so Bruce picked up the telephone and made another call to the man whose words had already changed his career for the better. Bruce had seen his new album's future, and its name was Jon Landau.
Landau's first contribution to Born to Run had been on his mind ever since he took a close listen to Springsteen's first two records: get the musician and his band the hell out of the perpetually flawed 914 Sound Studios. "Do something about this!" Landau beseeched his friend. "You're a world-class artist, you deserve a world-class studio!" When the recording sessions picked up again in March, the operation moved to the Record Plant in midtown Manhattan. And although Appel still wasn't convinced they needed another expert in the studio, Bruce's word still reigned, and Appel slid over to make room for the album's third coproducer: Jon Landau.
The resulting tension appealed to Bruce, who had learned the benefit of being the pivot point between two opposing forces as a boy living with two sets of parents at his grandparents' house. So while Landau and Appel struggled for his ear, Bruce could take rich advantage of his partners' strengths, turning to Landau for structural and narrative advice, while relying on Appel's mastery of detail to make certain every note sounded exactly right.
Appel also recalls fighting to convince Bruce and Landau to back down in their struggle to include "Linda Let Me Be the One" and "Lonely Night in the Park" on the finished album. "I said, 'You really think those shitty songs can stand next to 'Backstreets' and 'Thunder Road'? That's what you think? Fuck that!'" Appel proved just as stubborn, and correct, when he fought to keep "The Heist," subsequently renamed "Meeting Across the River," on the finished album. Musically, the song's piano, standup bass, and muted trumpet seem closer to the romantic street poetry on "New York City Serenade" and "Incident on 57th Street" than to the chrome-detailed rock 'n' roll they were crafting for the new record. But this time the music and lyrics had been honed to the barest essentials, all crafted to underscore one man's last, desperate shot at redemption.
And like a novel, the chapters—or songs, in this case—had to dovetail, contrast, and ultimately enhance one another. So while "Thunder Road" might sound perfect in its full-band arrangement, it might better suit the album in a completely different context, with a completely different sound and message. At one point, Bruce tore the fully-wrought song down to its foundation, rebuilding it as a brooding acoustic guitar piece with a completely new melody, stripped-down chord changes, some different words, and the climactic "I'm pullin' out of here to win" exhaled like a sigh of defeat.
The process felt slow, grim, and tortuous. When bassist Garry Tallent's wife visited a session one evening, she wound up spending eight hours watching Bruce try to coach the band through an eight-bar instrumental passage in one song. "When she left, she said, 'Don't ever take me to a recording session again!'" Tallent remembers. The guys in the band, of course, had no options. "All we could do was hold on. Smoke a lot of pot and try to stay calm," said Clarence Clemons, the E Street Band's saxophone player, who spent sixteen hours playing and replaying every note of his "Jungleland" solo in order to satisfy Bruce's bat-eared attention to sonic detail.
When the sessions finally ended, Bruce described the era as an endless loop of unplayable parts, unfixable mistakes, and unmixable recordings. The experience, he told the New York Times' John Rockwell in late 1975, was "like a total wipeout. It was a devastating thing, the hardest thing I ever did." The fact that Bruce actively resisted help from more experienced hands, particularly when it came to mixing final versions of the songs, only made it more difficult. For all that he required absolute control over every aspect of the album, holding that much authority also multiplied his psychic burden. The closer he clutched the thing to his chest, the less of it he could see, or comprehend.
Finally escaping the Record Plant struck the entire band as an enormous relief, but the emotional respite didn't last long.
[In July 1975] Appel showed up at the band's hotel in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, with an acetate pressing of the master recording of Born to Run. Appel placed the disc on the inexpensive portable record player Bruce took on the road and let it spin. When the last notes of "Jungleland" faded out, the band whooped, applauded, and reached out to slap hands. Stephen Appel, still serving as road manager, noticed that his big brother's eyes glistened with tears. Relief seemed to blow in through the open window, except for Bruce, who sat with his face clenched, staring into the carpet. "I dunno," he said darkly. "I'd do things differently." Beard abristle, he jumped to his feet, snatched the acetate from the turntable, and stalked out to the hotel courtyard, where he flung it into the swimming pool.
What was wrong? How about everything. The sax parts sounded like a bad Bruce Springsteen imitation. (That's when Clemons stalked out of the room.) The piano drowned out the guitars. The mix had the clarity of a shit storm. All this time, all that work, and this was the best they could do? And in conclusion: "Fuck!" Bruce swan dived into the gloom. Did he understand that an acetate never sounds as good as the finished album? Did he take a moment to consider that the portable stereo he'd just been listening to, with its plastic speakers, tin tonearm, and Easy-Bake Oven design, might not even be capable of reproducing the dense, intricate recordings they had made? Apparently not.
Bruce was too busy declaring the entire project a waste of time. A cruel satire of rock 'n' roll. Overheated dogshit. Appel dialed Landau, told him what had happened, and handed the phone to Bruce. "I was saying, look, you can't and will not be able to put every thought, every idea, and every creative impulse onto one record." Landau insisted Bruce should take all of his new ideas and put them in his notebook for the next record. "There is going to be a next record, believe me," he swore.
"I was being crazier than him, see?" Appel says. "Now he had to be the voice of reason." Bruce, then-girlfriend Karen Darvin, and the two Appels all piled into Mike's car and headed for the turnpike back to the city. They were maybe halfway home when Bruce started to laugh. Quietly at first, then uproariously. "He thought it was hilarious that Mike was so crazy," Stephen Appel says. "Suddenly he was in a great place. Both Mike and Jon had said exactly the right things to him. I never saw Bruce happier than on that car ride." By the time they got back to New York, Bruce shrugged off the last six torturous hours with a wave of the hand. "Then again," he said, "let's just let it ride."
Born to Run would be released in exactly a month.