In the vexatious and litigious world that often surrounds the music industry, few cases are more notorious than the 1976 lawsuit between Bruce Springsteen and his former manager and producer, Mike Appel. The contracts that Springsteen had signed when starting out gave him a poor deal on royalties, but more shockingly took away the publishing rights to his own songs. Springsteen had been young and naive; he had also believed mistakenly that the legal document of a contract was less important than what might be agreed informally and accepted on trust. Finding this was an error was hugely expensive in many ways, not least in an injunction that prevented Bruce from entering a recording studio with new producer Jon Landau while the lawsuit progressed. Eventually in May 1977 the case was settled out of court, and while Springsteen regained his creative freedom in production and publishing, he lost his innocence and someone he had thought to be a friend. These days the two men are said to be reconciled, or to have found an accommodation. Appel described when he and Springsteen met for lunch after the extended estrangement and “it was like there had never, ever been any problems between us whatsoever”; but the reality may be rather different and certainly more complex.
A few days ago (15th September) Mike Appel addressed a symposium on Bruce Springsteen gathered at Monmouth University, West Long Branch, New Jersey. His anecdotes and recollections of the early days were amusing enough – some familiar tales (the story behind securing the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week), and others less so, and they bear repetition. But his comments on Springsteen’s character and creative output since 1977 suggest more than a little ongoing resentment and disrespect. “Nice to be among kindred spirits for a change” Appel said at the start of his talk, but he may have misinterpreted the welcoming applause for support and assumed he would be met with uncritical acceptance. He has a book to sell (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: A rock and roll manifesto), and it seems this is his chance to put his side of the story and he wasn’t about to admit he had got anything wrong 35 years ago. In fairness, Appel acknowledges the enormous contribution of Springsteen, his commitment to performance, and his integrity in being committed to music and avoiding the worst excesses of commercial involvement and sponsorship, compared to many contemporary “hucksters” and “bankers with guitars”. The comment that Bruce had not been writing songs with a prime motivation to make money and become wealthy, but for the sheer love of his craft, although fundamentally true, began to sound more than a little like self-justification coming from Appel.
The background to the breakup of the Springsteen/Appel partnership was recalled in Appel’s account of the heavily pressured and endless recording sessions around Born to Run, and in what Appel referred to obliquely as “all the subterfuge” that was going on and the high price that “each was paying and would pay individually.” Bruce himself has spoken about the agony of creating the Born to Run album (particularly on the ‘Wings for Wheels’ DVD), as have other members of the E Street Band, with the endless takes and remixing to find the perfect sound. Appel referenced the “tedious, strained, many times completely unproductive or counter-productive, emotionally upsetting, juvenile recording sessions.” And he wondered what might have been concocted “in a more pleasant atmosphere.”
There were some apparently throw away lines – Appel commented that Bruce is not obstinate for the sake of being obstinate “most of the time”, but there were clearly some underlying feelings running here. In the Q&A session following his talk he was asked who is the most stubborn, Mike Appel or Bruce Springsteen? Appel said “I actually think I am; I have more Irish in me than he does”, but this was far from being a mea culpa moment. Asked if he had regrets, or if there were things he wished he had done differently Appel was defiant: “No; I wish there were a few things he did differently!” He repeated the familiar story about how he had wanted Bruce to tour with a circus tent and he regretted Bruce wanted none of it; and he is still convinced it would have been the right thing to do: “It would have been – should have been – a great event in his career, but there were other people that thought it was too silly (…) that’s one of my regrets, that we were not able to do that.”
It is well documented that Appel did not want Springsteen to do the album that would become Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Appel referred to this issue and his preference at the time for Bruce instead to release a live album, giving him enough time to “write commensurate songs to those that were on ‘Born to Run’.” Appel is dismissive of Darkness, claiming that Springsteen himself has said if there was one record he could take back it would be that one. This seems a ludicrous claim; in 2010 Springsteen released The Promise collection that included the ‘lost sessions’ of 1977/78 that could have been on Darkness. There were more than 40 songs that had been written, but only one album was released, although Springsteen is unequivocal: “I still believe it’s the right one.”
It could have been a different record, continued Appel, and added that he “can’t judge Bruce Springsteen’s other records because I wasn’t a part of that.” No one would argue that Born to Run is not an outstanding record and in many ways the defining album of Springsteen’s career, but it is churlish and petty to suggest – as Appel seemed to be – that everything has been downhill since. At this point Appel spoke – astonishingly – as if addressing Bruce directly and continued: “there are a couple [of songs] on Darkness that are OK…but there is not quite the lyrical excitement – the graphic lyrics and imagery isn’t quite there. So for me, if you were trying to copy Born to Run, you didn’t make it. If you were trying to go some other way, then OK, that’s your focus, who am I to say anything about it?” But it was already said; for Appel, Springsteen’s genius ended with Born to Run; he cannot see past the end of their professional relationship. That is sad on a personal level, but to dismiss the creative output of everything that Springsteen has gone on to achieve because it isn’t Born to Run is both hugely arrogant and extraordinarily misguided. In the sleeve notes to The Promise Springsteen wrote about how he hoped aged 27 he had written something “that would continue to fill me with purpose and meaning in the years to come”; looking back over the years Darkness has done that for him and he acknowledged that he owed “the choices we made then and that young man” respect. It is unfortunate that after all these years Mike Appel still seems unable to acknowledge the same.