ALLENTOWN, Pa. — On a July evening in 1975, a rising musician who had critics fawning but hadn’t yet captured the fancy of the general public was at a Kutztown, Pa., hotel during a two-night stand at the state college.
His manager appeared at the hotel room door, carrying a fresh test copy of the just-completed album the singer had labored over for an agonizing year and a half. The artist gathered his band and dropped the acetate disc on a portable record player he carried with him on the road to hear the fruits of his labor, believing it would be the breakthrough his career needed.
The singer was so dissatisfied with what he heard that he snatched the disc from the turntable, stalked out to the hotel courtyard and flung it into the swimming pool. He then piled his management team into a car for a drive back to New York to scrap the project.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” almost died in Kutztown.
That’s the vivid story told in “Bruce,” a new authorized biography of Springsteen, who went on to become one of the top-selling, most honored and most influential artists of all time, with 23 gold or platinum discs, 20 Grammy Awards, 120 million albums sold worldwide and legions of fanatical fans.
“Born to Run” was perhaps the most important record in Springsteen’s career, containing his career-defining title track. It sold 6 million copies and, 38 years later, remains his biggest-selling studio disc besides 1984’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
Author Peter Ames Carlin, who also has written biographies of Paul McCartney and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, wrote “Bruce” with Springsteen’s cooperation. Carlin sat for interviews with the singer, his family, his management and his band members. His book includes what likely is the last major interview with Springsteen saxophonist Clarence Clemons, who died in 2011.
The story of the Kutztown incident involving “Born to Run” is key to illustrating Springsteen’s life and career, Carlin said in an email interview.
“You’re always looking for the big themes in an artist’s life, but those usually emerge through the quotidian details of ordinary life,” he said.
Springsteen’s then-manager, Mike Appel, who in a telephone interview largely confirmed the book’s account, put it this way:
“It was just one of those moments,” Appel said. “His fear of letting go got the best of him. It was the background for the greatest album of all time. It was a momentous moment, and it happened right there.”
Springsteen grew up and started his musical career in Freehold, N.J., two hours east of Allentown and less than 20 miles inland from the beach, so it’s no surprise the vast majority of his early shows were at venues along the Jersey Shore and in New York City.
But as Springsteen’s reputation as a performer grew, he branched out to playing Pennsylvania shows. The online Springsteen fan database Killing Floor at http://www.brucespringsteen.it has him playing in the state as early as October 1972 at West Chester State College, where he’s credited with a homecoming show.
Springsteen also played several legendary series of shows at the Main Point, a now-closed club in Bryn Mawr, Delaware County — the first in January 1973, around the time of the release date of his debut album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.”
One connection that brought Springsteen to frequent shows in the Lehigh Valley area in the years after that was a member of his then-management team, Bob Spitz. Spitz, who was with Springsteen until 1978, is a Reading, Pa., native who graduated from Reading High School in 1967 and Albright College in Reading in 1971.
David Johnson, Kutztown University’s assistant director of university relations, who previously worked for Albright College, said Spitz was commencement speaker for Albright in May 2012, and “talked about finding venues for (Springsteen) to play in so they could get his name out there.”
Springsteen made his first recorded appearance in the Lehigh Valley area at what was then Kutztown State College, opening for Stevie Wonder in the 2,500-seat Keystone Hall as part of the school’s Black Cultures Weekend on March 29, 1973.
But Spitz said “it was an unfortunate pairing.”
“We did the Stevie Wonder date as a favor to our agent, Sam McKeith, at the William Morris Agency, who was also Stevie’s agent (and friend),” Spitz said. “But the two acts were largely incompatible. And, as always, Bruce was dissatisfied with being an opening act because audiences tend to walk around and talk during the opening acts and he felt as if he wasn’t connecting with the kids.”
After Springsteen released his second album, “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” in September 1973, he played two sold-out shows April 29, 1974, at Northampton’s Roxy Theater that were promoted and sponsored by former radio station WSAN-FM, according to the fan database.
He also played Ursinus College in Collegeville, Montgomery County, in April of that year and Bucks County Community College in Newtown in May.
The singer played Albright College in Reading on Oct. 5, 1974, in what the student newspaper described as a sold-out, 2 1/2-hour show in the 2,000-seat Bollman Center. It quoted Springsteen as saying it was one of his longest shows to date.
Spitz said he was not at Springsteen’s next Kutztown shows, the ones at the center of the story in Carlin’s book. Appel, the Springsteen manager who produced the single “Born to Run” and who the book says brought the “Born to Run” acetate to Springsteen, was at the shows.
Springsteen played one last Lehigh Valley show before those Kutztown shows, on Nov. 15, 1974, at Lafayette College in Easton. There, according to the online database, Springsteen’s set included two new, unreleased songs that would wind up on the “Born to Run” album: “She’s the One” and “Jungleland.”
The story of how music industry people and critics fell in love with Springsteen far before the general public is well known.
Springsteen’s first two albums, while critically acclaimed, sold modestly, with neither breaking into the Top 50 on the albums charts nor producing any singles that even charted.
Carlin’s book says Springsteen was worried about his future and believed his third album, “Born to Run,” needed to be the one that would break through.
The sessions for the album started in January 1974, and by that summer, Carlin writes, only the title track was finished. Columbia Records President Bruce Lundvill told Springsteen and Appel they had a hit record.
“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,” Carlin writes. “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 book says recording sessions stalled as Springsteen obsessed over details of the songs, “laboring over every syllable in his notebook,” and recording sessions “became an endless series of false starts.” Springsteen even changed studios, but “the process felt slow, grim and tortuous,” the book says.
Making the record ended up taking 18 months — the process was even to blame for the cancellation of a scheduled February 1975 show at Moravian College to fit in another studio session, according to the online database.
After the recording was finished, the process of mixing the tracks — blending together and enhancing the performances into the final recordings — bogged down just as quickly, Carlin writes. He writes that it dragged on until the dawn of July 20, 1975 — just hours before Springsteen was to kick off the tour to promote the album in Providence, R.I.
“Bruce would spend hours and hours looking for something wrong,” Appel said.
Being Springsteen’s manager, he said, “You had to be a psychologist, you had to be everything.”
As he started the tour, the album went into production.
Carlin writes that it was the first day of Springsteen’s two-day stand at Kutztown when Appel showed up at the band’s hotel with the acetate pressing of “Born to Run” and gathered the band to listen as he played the disc on the portable record player.
Which hotel it was is lost to history. The book doesn’t name it, and Appel said he didn’t stay there, and doesn’t remember.
But Appel says Steven Van Zandt, Springsteen’s longtime confidant and guitarist, had just joined Springsteen’s E Street Band — it might have been his first show — and was there. So was the rest of the band and Appel’s brother, Stephen, then serving as Springsteen’s road manager, Appel said.
Carlin writes that when the last notes of the final song, “Jungleland,” faded out, “the band whooped, applauded and reached out to slap hands.” He writes that Stephen Appel “noticed that his big brother’s eyes glistened with tears.”
“Relief seemed to blow in through the open window,” Carlin writes.
But Carlin writes that Springsteen grumbled, “I dunno. I’d do things differently,” then “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.”
Over a two-page passage, Carlin writes that Springsteen declared “the entire project a waste of time. A cruel satire of rock ‘n’ roll.” Even after a call from Springsteen’s then friend and producer (and later manager) Jon Landau, the singer remained unconvinced.
Finally, the book says, Appel shook his head and said, “Let’s scrap the whole thing.” He told Springsteen he’d break the news to Columbia Records’ Lundvall the next morning, release the single “Born to Run” as a stopgap, then rerecord the songs.
The book says Springsteen, his girlfriend and the Appel brothers all piled into Mike Appel’s car and started on the two-hour drive back to New York City to scrap the project.
It says they were halfway there when, after apparently cooling off during the drive, Springsteen started to laugh, and by the time they got to New York had “shrugged off the last six torturous hours with the wave of the hand.”
“Then again,” the book quotes Springsteen as saying, “let’s just let it ride.”
Appel’s account in the phone call differs somewhat. He said Springsteen, indeed, criticized virtually everything about the album, saying he “wasn’t excited about anything we did except (the song) ‘Born to Run.’ “
Appel says saxophonist Clarence Clemons left the room when Springsteen insulted his playing. The rest of the band followed, Appel said.
But Appel said he remembers the songs as being on a tape, not an acetate — but Springsteen did toss it in the pool.
The biggest difference in Appel’s account was that there was no car trip to New York. Appel says Springsteen backed down in that hotel room.
“I’m in the room, and I’m standing there and Bruce says this,” Appel said.
Frustrated, he said he told Springsteen, “If you really feel that, just tell Columbia Records they’ll have to scrap the album and we’ll start over. All you have to do is write eight or nine more songs as good as ‘Jungleland’ or ‘Thunder Road.’
“And when I said it, I actually meant it. Bruce had been around me a few years, and he realized that. He got that sense that I was nuts to even think of the monumental task of doing ‘Born to Run’ in the first place. Bruce Springsteen felt Mike Appel was crazier than him.”
According to Appel, Springsteen replied, “I guess it is done, isn’t it?”
“Bruce was The Boss,” Appel said, referring to Springsteen’s nickname. “But it was so frightening what I actually said, that he threw in the towel. That’s how ‘Born to Run’ actually was finished.”
“Born to Run” was released exactly a month later.
The book doesn’t say whether the incident took place before or after Springsteen’s July 25, 1975, concert at Kutztown, but Appel remembers it as happening after the afternoon sound check but before the show.
“It was such an enormous psychic load, it was untenable,” Appel said of Springsteen’s reaction to the first listen of “Born to Run.” “He couldn’t possibly digest it.
“And then he went out and played a great show. The albatross that was ‘Born to Run’ actually was lifted.”
The online database says Springsteen played three of the album’s eight songs — “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” “She’s The One” and the title song — in a 13-song set that night. On the second night at Kutztown, he added a fourth “Born to Run” song, “Thunder Road,” to a 16-song set.
The Kutztown shows were the last time Springsteen played in the Lehigh Valley area.
“Born to Run” hit No.3 on the Billboard chart and the title song gave Springsteen his first charting single. The media frenzy precipitated by the disc peaked with Springsteen simultaneously appearing on the cover of Time and Newsweek magazines on Oct. 27, 1975.
By the time Springsteen started the second leg of his tour for the album in 1976, Springsteen had graduated to playing the nearly 20,000-capacity Spectrum in Philadelphia.
Matt Santos, Kutztown University’s director of university relations, says tracking down firsthand accounts of the shows nearly 38 years later is difficult. The show’s promoter, Ed Miller, the college alumni association director at the time, has died.
Santos said few people who worked at the school then remain; none remembers details of it.
Spitz, for one, is skeptical about the story in Carlin’s book.
“I highly doubt its authenticity,” Spitz said in an email. “From what I’ve learned, the ‘Kutztown/Born to Run’ story has no merit to it. As far as I know, Bruce was anything but unhappy with ‘Born to Run’ and never would have left an acetate anywhere it might have been found by strangers.”
Spitz is no fan of Carlin’s book, either.
“I can also tell you this: I have never spoken or written publicly about Bruce in 35 years because of a confidentiality I felt was owed to him. But he asked me to talk to Peter Carlin, who I also happened to know.”
But Spitz said that when he started to read the book, he believed he was misquoted in the first words attributed to him, so he never finished.
Carlin said in an email that the Kutztown incident was described in previous accounts of Springsteen’s work on “Born to Run,” and that he confirmed it in separate interviews with Mike and Steven Appel and Jon Landau.
Springsteen’s publicist, Rebecca Shapiro at Shore Fire Media in New York, did not respond to an email seeking comment. Springsteen is touring abroad and efforts to reach him for an interview were unsuccessful.
Carlin said the story is important to understanding Springsteen.
“The swampy heat of a late summer afternoon in Pennsylvania; the crackle of the needle on the acetate, the sweaty anxiety of a young musician who’s convinced his entire existence hangs on the balance,” Carlin said.
“He’s terrified, furious at the distance between his fantasies and reality and so, splash, there goes the acetate into the pool. That’s a real window into Bruce’s journey and thus, a key stop on the biographer’s highway.”
ABOUT THE BOOK:
Author: Peter Ames Carlin,
Publisher: Simon & Schuster