“When a promise is broken,” Bruce Springsteen has sung, “you go on living, though it steals something from down in your soul.” That line from “The Promise,” a song that became a live favorite but never made it onto an album, is believed to refer to the notorious split between Springsteen and Mike Appel, the fast-talking hypester who landed Springsteen the audition with John Hammond that scored him his first record deal.
Down Thunder Road reopens the baggage that’s now well behind Springsteen (who’ll be playing the Worcester Centrum next weekend, August 13 and 14). It returns to the days when Appel was responsible for much of the “next Bob Dylan” hype -- which haunted Springsteen as much as it helped him. Ever since Bruce began to be canonized, biographers have charged Appel with taking advantage of the artist, who was then a naive 23-year-old, and of breaking his promise of loyalty and friendship.
In this new book, Appel gets a chance to tell his side of the story through Marc Eliot (also author of the Phil Ochs biography, Death of a Rebel). Unfortunately, he comes off as the same overaggressive, opportunistic schmuck he’s been portrayed as in the past. What makes the book worth looking at is that it’s the first really unreverential look we’ve had at Springsteen, a man most often portrayed by biographers as a rock-and-roll saint.
Eliot purports to cover the entirety of Springsteen’s career, but the material before and after the Appel relationship is perfunctory and equally well covered in any number of other Bruce bios. Since Eliot was unable to interview anyone in the current Springsteen camp, he probably should have stuck with the Appel material. As it is, he’s forced to rely on information from previously published interviews and comments made by Springsteen during concerts.
The book comes to life after Appel meets Springsteen, in 1972. Eliot offers more gritty details, for instance, than does Dave Marsh in recounting the lean and mean days before Born To Run, when the E Streeters were having trouble paying the rent and Clarence Clemons was just barely coming up with his alimony payments. It’s a true grunt’s-eye view of the daily operation of a band, away from the romance of the stage and the artistic struggles. Eliot also includes stories about Appel’s wheeling and dealing as he tried to arrange Springsteen appearances at the 1973 Super Bowl and the 1976 Summer Olympics. The strangest proposal of all was for a national tour in a huge circus tent. It’s clear that Appel knew he had an artist of Elvis proportions on his hands, and he was eager to play Colonel Tom Parker.
Along the way, Appel tries to vindicate himself against charges that he was exploiting his star for his personal gain (Appel owned 100 percent of Springsteen’s publishing rights). He claims Springsteen understood the terms of their partnership. And he argues that he would still be working with Springsteen had Jon Landau not come along.
Landau was working as a rock journalist in Boston in 1974 when he first saw Springsteen perform; he penned the now infamous line for the Real Paper, “I’ve seen rock and roll future [sic] and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Under heavy pressure from CBS to release an album with commercial potential and, by his own accounts, at a creative dead end with Appel, Springsteen invited Landau to co-produce what would become his masterpiece, Born To Run.