Born to (Almost Not) Run

Submitted on the occasion of the publication of Craig Statham's new book SPRINGSTEEN Saint in the City:1949-1974 ( in paperback)

By John Garrett Andrews

photo ©Mark Andrews

As Bruce and band head into the final tour dates of 2013 and prepare for new dates down under in 2014, Craig Statham has released a fascinating chronicle of the very first years of Bruce Springsteen's rock career. It's not known to a large percentage of Bruce's fans that he was already a major star in New Jersey and on down the east coast by the end of the 60's, but Craig's book details an early career that would be enough of a career for many who aspire to the rock 'n' roll experience.

For many fans Bruce Springsteen came on the radar in 1984 with the release of Born in the USA. Suddenly he was on the cover of the Daily News and New York Post in the same week and filling The Meadowlands with his anti-war hit and later on MTV with his big video single "Dancing in the Dark".

For an older crowd it was "Born to Run", which came out back in the mid 70's, first as a cassette single serviced to college radio stations and then as a hit record and album, that put the boss on the map nationally for the first time and put his face on the covers of Time and Newsweek.

Before that, it was the excitement of two albums from a local hero with a great live show that galvanized a smaller but rabid fan base. The first two albums - Greetings from Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle -- together sold way less than 100,000 copies in their first couple of years in print but have provided several stalwarts of his live show for a subsequent 40 years. "Spirit in the Night", "Kitty's Back", "Rosalita (Come out Tonight)", "4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)", "Blinded by the Light", "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City", "E Street Shuffle" and a number of others have remained favorites of leader, band and audience through his entire career.

But even before that, Bruce had put in more than half a decade, playing to adoring fans in teen clubs, coffee houses, college campuses and bars, starting in New Jersey and eventually up and down the east coast, around parts of the mid west and out to California.

This period has been featured somewhat in books by well-known journalists like Dave Marsh and most recently by Peter Carlin in his book BRUCE. But it's been covered much more extensively in 2 other recent books, one by an insider, former roadie and sideman Albie Tellone (Upstage, Springsteen and Me) and one by an extreme outsider, a young Scotsman, musician and Bruce fan named Craig Statham.

Craig's brand new book, SPRINGSTEEN Saint in the City: 1949-1974 plows through the early days, chronicling more thoroughly than has ever to my knowledge been done the day-to-day musical life of Bruce from the high school bands up until the middle of 1974, when, with two albums under his belt and very little sales to show for it, contrasted with a stellar reputation for live shows every where he went, Bruce grappled with the need for a serious breakthrough.

This is the moment when I helped kick the can down the road. How I inadvertently did it requires a bit of explanation of what put me in the right place at the right time to play a role I was unaware of even having played until just this past winter when I got contacted by Craig.


I'm 5 years younger than Bruce, just enough younger that when my family moved down to Holmdel in Monmouth County, New Jersey from Berkeley Heights in Union County, New Jersey in the summer of 1966, around my 12th birthday, 17-year old Bruce was already a local legend, playing lead guitar in The Castiles, a band which featured current radio hits from the British Invasion to the Doors.

The first night I heard Bruce, at Le Teendezvous, an under-18 club, he sang and played "Eleanor Rigby", the Vanilla Fudge version, "We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet" by the Blues Magoos, and "Break on Through" and "The End" by The Doors. My own seventh grade band -- called at the time The Rebel Kind after the Lee Hazelwood song of that title (as covered by Dino, Desi and Billy!) -- immediately worked up the same four numbers. We were lucky enough to have a visit from Bruce's keyboard player Bobby Alfano to one of our rehearsals. He did his best to show us how it was all done on a beat-up piano in our bass player's garage But given that we had no organist, all we could do was stare in wonder as Bobby laid out the changes for his keyboard parts for "Ain't Got Nothin' Yet" and his version of Paul Revere and the Raider's "Just Like Me".

In fact many local bands at the time drew on the same combination of musical stylings and performed an overlapping repertoire of Stones, Yardbirds, Rascals, Animals, Who and later Canned Heat, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Hendrix, Cream, Iron Butterfly and eventually Zeppelin. We all covered some of whatever any of the other three to five-piece professional guitar-plus-organ bands were putting out.

Bruce took it all several steps further of course. Once out of high school, it was pretty clear he was going all the way. And the Jersey Shore music scene was his personal sandbox. There was always a strong market for whatever music Bruce and a few hairy guys (and gals) thought was worth playing at the time. Bruce was pretty much in charge from about '67 through early '72. Bruce and his bands -- Castiles, Earth, Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom and others -- road the crest of the local music wave. By the start of the 70's Bruce was well into a professional career as both performer and writer.

After seeing Bruce with the Castiles at Le Teendezvous in late 1967, I didn't see him again until the first time he came to Providence RI after the release of his first album, sometime in the late winter of 1973. I had my own bands and gigs during that period. Bruce was the constant background noise. I kept hearing about his great gigs, his guitar playing, his story-telling, his rabid audience and possible apocryphal stories about how his manager/soundman Tinker West would sabotage the PA system during the sets of bands opening for him to make sure Bruce was the star of the evening.

The night the Middletown police closed down his show at the Clearwater Swim Club, my friends and I were stuck cruising a stretch of highway in front of the entrance, noting all the cop cars and fearing lest we be pulled over and busted on some grounds. So I missed that one! But for a full account of the evening I enjoyed page 90-92 of Craig's book!

The night my band-- called at that time The Hygh Society, following spelling rules established by The Byrds -- did its big gig at the Off Broad Street Coffee House, another Bruce stronghold, Bruce was holding forth across town at another venue. During our set, I heard someone shout out "This is lame. Let's go see Earth, man!" I can't blame them. At age 13, I had to pitch up Steppenwolf's "Born to Be Wild" from key of E to key of A in order to hit the low notes. I must not have sounded too "wild" to the older crowd. However, this was also the night VIc, the lead singer in Something Blue, was the club DJ and spinning all four sides of the just released Beatles White Album so a pretty good crowd hung in.

While Bruce plugged along, I was too caught up in my own bands, solo acts, sixties causes, teen romances and upper middle-class private day-school plans for college to notice what was up with the local guitar hero who was already known by his first name. (For all the details of that period consult Albie's book and Craig's book.) Then one day, soon after my arrival at Brown University in the fall of "72, rumor hit that Jersey's own rock star had unplugged and had recorded and would soon release an album of Dylan-inspired music called Greetings from Asbury Park. Since along the way I had also unplugged, -- influenced also by Dylan but even more so by Cat Stevens, James Taylor, The Incredible String Band. Pentangle and a host of other unplugged troubadour of the late 60's and early '70s -- the news that Bruce was moving in that direction instantly interested me.

So in March of 1973 I got to Bruce's first post album-release Rhode Island show, which was opening for Transformer era Lou Reed, at the Palace Concert Theater in Providence. I was knocked-out by what I saw that night, which was not the "New Dylan" but an artist who displayed a fantastic blend of influences, soaked up during 6 years of playing a million gigs, listening to a million records and attending many of the pivotal live shows of the era. Bruce put it all together in a 40-minute opening act set which blew the doors off the theater, wiped the floor with Lou Reed's heroin-fueled hippy hard-rock band and covered the style gamut from acoustic Dylan to Ray Charles to James Brown to Beach Boys to Van Morrison, The Band and Dylan at his electric best and featuring lead guitar playing that would do Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix proud.

I was astounded and went on to attend his next four or five area shows, mounted in various college gyms and auditoriums and one meeting hall at a "Motor Lodge". I did everything I could to get close to Bruce and the band, including hanging around the side of the stage, chatting up Clarence at the bar, sneaking around a motel hallway only to catch a glimpse of Bruce wrestling with one of his band-mates on a motel bed while the rest of the members looked on laughing. That was the night -- as Craig chronicles in his book and to which I am a first hand witness - roadies Mike Batlin and Doug Sutphin (great guys by the way, but a little unlucky that night) drove the gear to Portsmouth, New Hampshire instead of Portsmouth, Rhode Island and thus didn't turn up at the Bristol Motor Lodge until around 10PM. But the Bruce fans waited patiently for a show that had run less than hour when a Portsmouth policeman strolled on stage, walked up to Bruce, slapped his leather glove on his palm and announced "Show's over!".

All this early activity climaxed with a show he did at my college, Brown University, in the spring of 1974 and this is where I come directly into the story of Bruce Springsteen's career. When I heard that Brown's concert committee had booked Bruce, I immediately went to the editors of Fresh Fruit the weekly entertainment supplement of The Brown Daily Herald and asked for the assignment of interviewing him the night of the show.

Bruce was slated to perform at midnight, after a 9 PM concert by McCoy Tyner in the same space. I got to hang around back stage all afternoon, watching Bruce interact with band members, tossing out a few questions, picking up on the few stories he told anyone listening about his day and about his recent travels. He was in great spirits and seemed to be enjoying being there. He was truly a man who lived in his music. I asked him how he liked Providence. He told me he seldom took note of where he was or where he was headed. He loved to perform and told me later that after a gig was the best he felt all day. It could be anywhere: he didn't care.

That night Bruce put on a phenomenal show to a packed house. The difference for me this time was that some of the reserve he exhibited in early shows, where he would come on like the shy Dylan of the early 60's for the first few numbers and work his way up to the un-bottled frenzy of the Ike and Tina review, was all but gone. This time, after a beautifully drawn-out New York City Serenade, he moved quickly all the way to "11" -- right from opening chords of a sped-up, turned-up, electrified version of "Spirits in the Night" through to a climactic "Rosalita" well over two hours later and on to an encore of Twist and Shout, complete with a faux heart-attack in Clarence Clemon's arms as he shouted "I must'a eaten too many Cheeseburgers!". (During my interview Bruce commented "I'm the original all-American junk food kid.")

By the end of this exciting show, I was too overwhelmingly in the "fan" camp to think straight and almost forgot about doing the interview. My buddy Peter in the concert committee had to snap me out of it and tell me "get back stage and interview Springsteen, man." At that I ran back stage and up to the dressing room, only to realize I had forgotten my portable cassette recorder. I scrambled for a pencil and some lined paper and sat down in a room already occupied by Bruce and a writer named Tom Miller who was stringing for Oui Magazine. I settled in and, listening to Tom, managed to calm down and muster the professionalism to join in on the questioning.

As it turned out, Tom and I were a good pair to field this assignment together. I knew a lot about Bruce and his band-mates and, as a musician, I could pursue the musical line of questioning. Tom knew little about Bruce but was an adult reporter who was well prepared and more tuned-in to the music industry at that time. (Tom is now a successful travel writer.)

I was most intrigued by recent changes in the band line-up with the addition of David Sancious on electric and acoustic piano and Ernie "Boom" Carter on drums. Bruce talked that night about his confidence that he could always put a good band together with a seeming awareness that his band line-up was in a period of transition.

The band's built to be flexible. That way if everybody leaves tomorrow or everybody stays, it will work out. I know how to put together a good band. You can get mediocre guys, but you have the right arrangements and you know what to do with them, you'll have a good band. You see, I'm lucky. I know how to put together a good band plus I have great musicians right now -- great piano player, great sax player, everybody's good.... Now Clarence and I are like that (crosses his fingers); we breathe the same thing. His music and my music are ideally suited. Davey is very jazz oriented. He will, I'm sure, have his own band in years to come. This band is great for what I'm doing right now, but for the next album I'm going to need a lot more instruments.

Fresh Fruit, the Brown Daily Herald, May 1, 1974

It was also in this interview that he mentioned for the first time his interest in creating an album that featured an overall tone, clearly a harbinger of the Born to Run album which came out well over a year later. Here's some of what he said on the subject that night:

The new stuff, it's not actually a concept thing. It's just like you get a puzzle and you put it down on the floor and it slowly comes together. I get batches, many different songs, many different melodies, lyrics, and start putting them all together. Not on the first and second albums so much. But this is the way the new one is manifesting itself. Songs around a feeling, a mood. That's what it looks like so far.

Fresh Fruit, the Brown Daily Herald, May 1, 1974

But, most notably it was a night when he was completely forthcoming about his dissatisfaction with the level of support he was getting from his record label Columbia. I remember it was Tom who asked him how he felt about his relationship with Columbia Records since Clive Davis' departure.

Oh yeah, big difference. Of course I don't know how Clive would have turned out as time went on. Anyway, Clive and I got along. He came down -- he still came down after he got ousted to see how we were doing. He was interested. Now I'm a pain in the ass to them is all and, you know, they want to make somebody else famous. I don't know who the hell it is, this month or next month, somebody. What it is is different musical policies. They want to stick their fingers in my pie. I don't need it. I do mine -- let me alone. Just let me make my music and leave me alone. They're bugging me for a single. I don't know, maybe they mean well but I doubt it. I don't really want to get into it when somebody ain't here to defend themselves.

Fresh Fruit, the Brown Daily Herald, May 1, 1974.

These three sections of our interview inform the background of a pivotal point made in Craig Statham's recent book about the importance of this moment to Bruce's career. For it was getting record label support for this next phase of his recording career and solidifying the line-up he would take there with him that was the central struggle of the next year of Bruce's life.

Through the interview I struggled to take good notes. But luckily, just after we were finished, Tom revealed to me that he had a tape recorder hidden in his shoulder bag and had the whole encounter safely in-hand. In fact, in return for a ride down to the Biltmore Hotel, he handed me the cassette, along with his card and just asked me to copy it and send the original along to him in a week or two, which I did. Tom Miller, you saved my neck. Tom never wrote a piece on Bruce for Oui, but he contributed greatly to my interview and provided a historical document in one of the handful of recorded interviews with Bruce in this early period.

I wrote a long glowing introduction and put the best of my afternoon notes and the 2:30 AM taped interview into an article that ran the following week. I only ever got one comment on it. It was from a fellow student who mentioned they wished the article had been longer. It felt like a criticism at the time. And so I took my personal fan-dom back to my dorm room and planned my own next moves.

I had set aside thoughts about this interview for close to thirty years when writer Craig Statham contacted me last winter to do an interview for his book-in-progress on Bruce's early years. He turned me on to the fact that my article had been quoted off and on over the decades as the famously obscure interview Bruce did with a college reporter in which he unloaded on his record label and caused them to take note.

How did Columbia Records find out about this interview by a nobody in a college newspaper? Well, there was another important person in the audience that night at Brown. It was student James Segelstein, the son of CBS Records' then current president Irwin Segelstein. He was a Bruce fan and loved the show. When he saw my article, he called his Dad and advised him that his budding star was unhappy and he better look into it. James says now that his father assured him there were already plans for a big publicity campaign for the boss's next album. Frankly I think Irwin was just trying to placate his son. Other sources corroborate that Bruce's future at the label was not so certain. Also, at this point there was no album and no songs.

At the time Columbia was having success with Billy Joel and Craig Statham reports that some of the A&R were all for pulling what little support they were giving to Bruce and channeling it to rising star Joel. After all Clive Davis, the main beneficiary of a potential Springsteen success, was no longer at the label. Bruce's then manager Mike Appel has said that after Segelstein talked to his son, he called Mike and had a heated conversation about the content of Bruce's comments to Tom and myself. This led to a lunch meeting between Mike, Bruce and Segelstein that was a "Come to Jesus" confrontation of Segelstein by Appel over whether Columbia was going to support Bruce in the manner he deserved. Mike threatened that if Columbia didn't come through Bruce would tell a similar tail in an upcoming interview with Rolling Stone and really make the label look bad. But at the time, all that was promised by the label was that they would pay for the recording of Bruce's next single and it better be good. That single was of course "Born to Run".

"Born to Run" began circulating to college radio a year before the rest of the album came out and succeeded largely because a) it's brilliant rock "n" roll, b) Columbia and Mike Appel worked it to those radio stations and c) Bruce continued to tour relentlessly. Although Columbia went on to pay for the recording of the album, the band and Bruce were still broke and had to go out on mini tours throughout the recording period in order to keep paying rent. It was during this period that Max Weinberg, Roy Bittan and Steve Van Zandt joined the band and Bruce honed the core E Street line-up that survived up until the deaths of Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons in the last few years. It's also the period when John Landau, owner of the famous "I saw rock 'n' roll future" quote became Bruce's co-producer and eventually replaced Mike as manager.

As for my own career in 1974, by this time I had decided to leave the Halls of Ivy and, after playing a bunch of my own solo gigs in Rhode island, armed with a bunch of songs I wrote while "high on Bruce Juice", I headed back to New Jersey to try and re-invent myself as a fellow traveler of The Boss. I re-teamed with an old band-mate who took on the job of managing me, I auditioned a group of local guys who turned out to be damn good and by end of summer I was gigging around Jersey and down the east coast with my own band of marauders under my middle name GARRETT. Armed with a glowing review in Variety for a gig we played at Max's Kansas City, one of Bruce's launching points of a barely a year earlier, our crack booker did his best to get this comparatively greener and five-years younger "junior boss" on the road to success. But after a "semester" of touring and being broke, fearing I had impregnated my girlfriend and narrowly averting disaster due to an ill-considered heist of the furniture warehouse that had given me a perfectly nice minimum wage day-job, I decided to call it quits and head back to complete my Theater Arts and American Literature major at Brown. Enough working class hero for me!

However, I didn't give up on the music thing. In fact, I discovered that Little Rhody could be my own New Jersey and I went on to form two bands that got reasonably popular on the Rhode Island and Boston scene. The first, Johnny and the Luncheonettes, covered a bunch of 40's R&B by the likes of Louis Jordan and Wynonie Harris and did some imitation of the vocal stylings of Lambert, Hendricks and Ross and Dan Hicks courtesy of the two strong female vocalists that rounded out our front line.

Then Punk and New Wave hit and we all -- including Bruce -- had to somewhat re-tool. In my case I paired up with my bass player in a songwriting duo and invented an Ivy League version of the "latest thing" with a band called The Mundanes. We were a typical group of collegiate intellectual overachievers with a penchant for striped ties, button-down shirts and penny loafers. We sweated them up and kicked them off in the course of a bunch of frenzied originals about living in a world of privileged 20-somethings in recessionary times. Sound familiar? People say we captured it pretty well. One Mundane, John Linnell, went on to form They Might Be Giants and has created a fantastic, somewhat more intellectually ambivalent version of Bruce's rock dream that has lasted over 30 years.

I always knew I lacked the working-class roots Bruce had available to help him stake his claim to the rock version of the hero's journey. For some reason our biggest stars all have them. But my Dad was an electrical engineer, a senior executive at Bell Labs and valedictorian of his engineering class at Penn Sate. My Mom was an actress with a drama school background who was only radio and TV in the 40's and directed and acted in local theater companies. We kids got sent to an up and coming local private day school called The Ranney School -- where Bruce later sent his kids. Somehow I felt that I had come from too much privilege to be granted a rock 'n' roll success. Failure seemed almost pre-destined. At the end of my twenties, I moved on to another career.

But thinking back to when I saw the four lads from Liverpool on TV and then the scruffy Rolling Stones, Animals and Kinks and then later saw the young Bruce Springsteen, long-hair covering his face, work shirt over his skinny frame, leaning over a microphone in a dark room singing a slow dirge-like rendition of "Eleanor Rigby", I know that playing music was what I really wanted to do with my life too. Sadly the rock star dream didn't come true for me, although I have enjoyed playing in bands my whole adult life. In the end you have to do it because you love it, not to chase after someone else's fame.

Bruce, you're one of the best. I put you up there with Elvis and the Fabs and Mick and Keith and Eric B. and Ray and Elvis C and maybe even Hank, which is where any of us would like to be. Thanks for the inspiration. And Craig, thanks for the really thorough recounting of Bruce's early career. Albie, thanks for opening up about the tough but fun times you lived around Bruce way back when. For those of us who watched and lived nearby, it's a fantastic memory trip back to a faraway time and place. For those who still hang some of their dreams on Bruce, these books will just screw'em up worse for a while. But it feels so good going in.