Why Springsteen never made another album like ‘Born to Run,’ and other questions only Mike Appel can answer
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Interview'I said to myself, what's wrong with Israel? Why haven't you gone there?'

Why Springsteen never made another album like ‘Born to Run,’ and other questions only Mike Appel can answer

The Boss largely stopped pushing music's boundaries after his epic third album, which happened to be around the time he fell out, spectacularly, with his original manager. Coincidence?

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Mike Appel, New York, June 2016 (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)
Mike Appel, New York, June 2016 (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

NEW YORK — Almost 10 years ago now, I interviewed Suki Lahav, an Israeli musician, actress and author who, for a few magical months in 1974-5, played violin in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. I was intrigued about what it must have been like to work with Springsteen then, as he was climbing toward fame in the period between his most musically and lyrically inventive second and third albums. And here was Suki, living around the corner from me in Jerusalem, willing and able to talk about it.

Springsteen’s manager way back in those early days of his career was a certain Mike Appel, who was central to securing his Columbia Records recording contract, but who then had a spectacular falling-out with the artist. This developed into a bitter legal tussle that left Springsteen barred from recording in much of 1976-77, the immediate aftermath of the album that made him, 1975’s “Born to Run.”

Appel and Springsteen have since been reconciled, kinda, and I wrote to Appel a while back asking whether he’d have time for an interview next time I was in the New York area, and sent him my Suki Lahav piece as proof of my Boss bona fides. Any friend of Suki’s, he graciously replied, is a friend of mine.

There then followed a protracted period during which I would contact Appel ahead of a trip to to the States, we would agree tentatively to get together, but at the last minute it wouldn’t pan out, usually because something messed up at my end. But last month, we finally managed to make it work.

Read: Was Springsteen’s Israeli violinist ‘The One’?

We arranged to meet at a large, bustling midtown Manhattan hotel, where Appel steered me to a Starbucks in the lobby for a quick coffee and we then sat in the noisy reception for an hour before he had to dash off. (He said it was to meet Lady Gaga’s father to discuss a musical he is writing — Appel, that is, not Lady Gaga’s father — which features a number he thinks only she can sing.)

Bruce Springsteen and Suki Lahav, on stage together in Philadelphia in 1974 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)
Bruce Springsteen and Suki Lahav, on stage together in Philadelphia in 1974 (photo credit: YouTube screenshot)

Why did I so want to speak to Mike Appel?

Well, because for a middle-aged ex-Brit, I’m curiously moved by Springsteen’s music. (Or perhaps not so curiously, since so many people are.) Because Appel is a quarter Jewish — by virtue of his father’s father. And because, connect to Springsteen’s music though I still do, I don’t think he ever made records as good as those two early epics “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” and (especially) “Born to Run.”

And I thought that Appel, whose period as manager was severed at just that time, might a) agree with me, and b) explain why it was that Springsteen abandoned the gloriously careening lyrics and epic song construction of, say, “New York City Serenade,” “Thunder Road” (clip below) and “Jungleland” for the so much more predictable, disciplined, conventional music that followed. Springsteen is a phenomenal musician, and arguably the best live performer in the world, leading a band that is apparently capable of playing almost any song Springsteen, or an audience member, happen to suggest. With shows routinely clocking in at close to four hours, at which he nonetheless leaves crowds begging for more, Springsteen is single-handedly redefining the rock concert. But he’s long since stopped redefining rock music.

I also wanted to ask Appel why it is that Springsteen has never played in Israel.

Queens-born Appel, a vital, lively, 73, proved an utterly candid interviewee. I’d ask him a question and he’d be off, telling it the way he remembered it, sidetracking, digressing, laughing. He’d often stare into the distance as he answered, his memory scooting back down the decades. But there were very few pauses and there seemed to be very little held back. Mike Appel managed Springsteen from the gut, believing totally in his artist, and he speaks from the gut about him to this day.

To say that this is a rambling conversation is an understatement, but I hope you’ll take the journey, all you aging Springsteen fans out there. “We’re gonna get to that place where we really wanna go.” It just might take a while.

Mike Appel and David Horovitz, New York, June 2016 (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)
Mike Appel and David Horovitz, New York, June 2016 (David Horovitz / Times of Israel)

The Times of Israel. I’m so glad this finally worked out... The truth is I’m no different to tens of millions of people around the world who love Bruce Springsteen’s music. I bought Born to Run when I was 14. And I just loved it. And I was interested to meet with you because I don’t think he ever equaled that third album, and you were obviously pretty central to that period of his life, and I wanted to ask you a few things about it, and him, and you.

So, first of all, the songs on that album, are almost operatic in ambition — epic.

Mike Appel: Yes, absolutely.

And I would argue that he never really did that again. There are some amazing songs since, but much more formulaic. That post-Born to Run transition from wild poetry and drama to much more conventional songwriting was a bit of a loss, I think. I’m not saying that you were the difference, but you weren’t in the picture anymore after that. What’s your sense of how his career evolved from that point?

You always have to look at Bruce as wanting to be a star. And he is a star. His wish was granted. Not that he didn’t earn every bit of it — because nobody puts on 4-hour shows, the kind of 4-hour shows that he puts on, to this day, all around the world. There’s nobody quite like him.

He’s sixty-six years old, right? It’s ridiculous.

It’s not like he’s up there like a Bob Dylan-type, where he’s scowling at the audience and you know he’s angry about everything. When you look at Bruce, you know there’s joy

Absolutely ridiculous. But it is what he’s all about. He loves to be at center stage. That’s what he said to me the last time we had lunch. He said, Mike, where am I on Saturday night, anywhere in the world? I said, somewhere at center stage, Bruce. That’s right. And that’s his commitment to his audience, to his fans. And he goes out there and he delivers, over and over. I could never do that. The monotony — to me, as an onlooker: How can you get up there every night, and do it over and over and over and over, and try to find maybe some nuances or some new ways of delivering this or that song? Or try a new song or a new arrangement on this song? After 40 years of doing that, you would say to yourself, God, how the hell can you find joy anymore? But he…

He obviously does.

He obviously does, number one. And he’s genuine in it. It’s not like he’s up there like a Bob Dylan-type, where he’s scowling at the audience and you know he’s angry about everything. (Laughs.) When you look at Bruce, you know there’s a great joy and euphoria.

When he walks on stage, he struts on stage, everybody says, oh, he is the Boss. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 80,000 people or 100,000 people. He’s the Boss. This is what we all came for. We used to always say, you know, the E Street Band, as great as they are and as great as Bruce touts them to be, if Bruce didn’t show up and only the E Street Band showed up, there’d be maybe a couple of hundred people. When Bruce shows up without the E Street Band, it’s 100,000 people. So, there is no question about who they’re coming to see. And there never has been, either.

Bruce Springsteen performs with The E Street Band at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris on July 11, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND GUAY)
Bruce Springsteen performs with The E Street Band at the AccorHotels Arena in Paris on July 11, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / BERTRAND GUAY)

Also, he’s a wiry character. I mean he’s strong, he stays in shape, he’s disciplined. Underscore the word disciplined because that’s his greatest characteristic, that discipline. It’s endemic to his personality. He cannot be swayed very often off of his disciplines. Whether it be drinking, or whatever undisciplined behavior leads you into, he has disciplines that cover all those possibilities.

Let’s go back to the question about how and why his music evolved in the way it did. You said: because he wanted to be a star. So…

That (ambition) was always subliminal. That was pushed off during my tenure because what he first came to me with was these poetic songs that were lyrically so graphic and wonderful and joyful and funny.

Wild, and poetic.

Yes. That was what struck me. Somebody else might have just written him off as, who cares? But I was really stunned and taken aback by it. I wanted to sign him, and we wanted to do those kinds of songs because they were special. We thought, Jeez, he’s not really Bob Dylan. He’s different from Bob Dylan. And then of course you see him live and then you say, if there were any thoughts that he might be Bob Dylan, this is where it totally ends.

I took my daughter to see Bob Dylan a few summers ago in Israel and it was as bad as I warned her that it was going to be.

(Laughs.) “This is not going to be such a great experience.” Right. Has he written some extraordinary songs? You bet.

Absolutely.

He’s the father of modern-day lyricists, whether you’re thinking of Joni Mitchell or Jackson Browne or Paul Simon. Without Bob Dylan, I don’t think the lyrical content of all those artists would have been what it was. He was there, setting a tone for all musicians to follow. I remember the first time I heard “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” and in the lyrics Dylan keeps going on and on with this girl: If you’re looking for someone to love you… He’s setting you up for the normal kind of delivery, lyrically, for the chorus. But then he says, “Well, it ain’t me babe, it ain’t me you’re looking for.” (Laughs.) I said, who is this guy who wrote this song?

Elvis Presley in concert in 1958 (AP photo)
Elvis Presley in concert in 1958 (AP photo)

But to get back to Bruce, and if he had aspirations to be, let’s use a name, Elvis Presley, if that was his idol, somehow, if he wanted to be that big… That stardom is what he wanted. Deep down, that’s what he wanted.

You have to want it, and you have to want it badly, to put up with all the hell that goes with being a star. There is a lot of hell that goes with it. Your life is not your own anymore. It’s not so easy to be a star and be friendly to everybody, and be what everybody expects you to be on the one day that they’re at your concert. Not easy.

But, in any case, that was always there. Yet, here he is coming with these songs that are Dylanesque, if you will. We recorded the first album (1973’s Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.) with Dylan more in mind than Elvis, for sure. And then we did the second album (The Wild, the Innocent…), and then it kind of grew. Artistically it grew. Musically it grew. But we still had not given in to Elvis Presley, to any Elvis Presley leanings.

Then he says to me, when we’re coming home from Richmond, Virginia, one night — he’s in the back seat of the car; I’m driving. He says, hey Mike, you know what I want to do? I wanna utilize Phil Spector’s production values in music, with my lyrics. I said, Well, if you look at the number of words on a Phil Spector recording, there’s maybe 30 words in the whole song. You have 130, on every song. So, for you to pare down your lyrics to the point where you can actually be doing musical production values, something’s gotta give here. I don’t know how you’re going to do that.

Next thing I know, he says, I’ve got a new song. I was doing the sound at Swarthmore College. And it was an outdoor concert. And he and the band played Born to Run for the first time. He asked me what I felt. I said, well, I could understand the guitar, but I really couldn’t hear what we were going to do with it, or anything like that yet. He said, alright, well, let’s take it to the studio and see how it turns out.

Then he turns to me and says, do you know how Phil Spector made his records – what techniques he used to make the Wall of Sound? I said, yes, I do. I said, do you remember Jimmy Cretecos? Jimmy used to be my partner. He was my partner through the second album, but not the third album.

Jimmy, I said, used to be very close with a kid who was starring in Hair at the time, Robin MacNamara. And Robin MacNamara had a record deal with Jeff Barry. And Jeff Barry of course, wrote Da Doo Ron Ron and so many of the Phil Spector recordings and hits. So Jeff was very familiar with the techniques that Phil used. He was at a million sessions. In the control room a thousand times. Out in the studio with other musicians. And he learned how Phil made his Wall of Sound. I said, Jimmy imparted all of that information to me because Jimmy got it from Jeff. He’s oh, that’s great. So then we started utilizing these techniques.

When we got into the record just a little bit, especially once we got Clarence (Clemons’) saxophones on, you got that “Ahhhhhh, dada-dada-da” (Appel hums the percussive intro of Born to Run), you got that Da Doo Ron Ron sound right away. And he said, oh jeez, yeah. It is starting to sort of work.

Then I said to myself, what about all his lyrics? We haven’t concentrated on any lyrics yet. I haven’t heard him sing a word. I don’t even know how the song goes anymore. But I’m hearing the music. And he’s just directing the band out there in the studio.

I said, why don’t you give me kind of a rough vocal, see how these lyrics are ever going to work? It doesn’t have to be a final take. We’ll do it a hundred times. Just do it, so I’ll have a notion. So he does. He goes through the whole damn song and it’s not that many words. It’s okay. It works somehow. It’s like Phil Spector meets Bruce Springsteen.

We had a great engineer, Louis Lahav.

Israeli. Suki’s husband.

He was great… So, we’re going through the record and one night I remember distinctly the bleating of the horns and the power of the entire track disappeared. It was very late, like 4 in the morning, and I’d been up since 8 a.m. And I said, stop, stop, stop. So Louis stops the machines. I said, why am I not liking this track anymore? What is happening? So Bruce answers. Bruce rats out Louis. He says, Louis is turning up the reverb and he’s washing the saxophones out. I said, is that what you’re doing? There was no guts, no grit, no impact. I said, turn the reverb completely off. Now we’ll start again. And the minute I heard it again, I said, thank god. Once that happened, we were on our way again.

He wanted to have hit songs on the radio. He didn’t want to be some obscure, poetic character strumming his guitar in the forest

So you did manage to produce a record that was true to all of the wild poetry — more disciplined than the first two albums, but still, it had that operatic sensibility.

Yes, it did.

And that did set him on the way to Elvis-style stardom.

Yes, it did.

And yet he never really made another record as epic.

No. And by epic you have to include the definition of how important the lyrics were, up through that third album. After that, the lyrics became more plain, more direct. Not that he never had a great line afterwards… Like Brilliant Disguise.

But the lyrics were more disciplined and the song structures were much more disciplined.

Absolutely.

Because?

Because (of Springsteen’s subsequent and still manager) Jon Landau, as well as Bruce… Deep down, Bruce needs to be coaxed. But if whatever you’re trying to coax out of him is in him anyway, then you’re going to hit paydirt. Because he’s going to do what he wants to do anyway in the end. And that’s what he wanted to do, what he wanted to be: He wanted to have hit songs on the radio. He didn’t want to be some obscure, poetic character strumming his guitar in the forest. He really wanted to be center stage, be a star. That’s what he wanted, and that’s what he got.

And he couldn’t have done it with more records like Born to Run, as ambitious as Born to Run? Or is there just no other record to make like that?

It’s like the Beatles never did another Sgt. Pepper.

Yeah, but the Beatles evolved.

Right.

Whereas Springsteen evolved to Born to Run and just maybe you could say evolved further with (his next album) Darkness. But I don’t think he pushed the boundaries of music, in the way that Born to Run did, ever again.

No, he never did that. He never was as interesting, musically, as little songs like Meeting Across the River, Jungleland (from the Born to Run album). You know the saxophone solo in Jungleland? Bruce Springsteen literally wrote it. Clarence was just the guy that blew the notes. Bruce directed every single note. As I did with Bruce on his guitar solo on Backstreets.

I said I’ve got a guy I want you to listen to. I put on Ricky Nelson’s Hello, Mary Lou. Now, there’s a guy by the name of James Burton on Hello Mary Lou, who is an extraordinary American rock guitar player from deep in the south, from Louisiana. I said, wait until you hear this guitar solo. This is what we’re going to try to do, even though we’ll never emulate him because the changes were all different. He listens to it. He says, the guy’s absolutely great. I know what you mean. Yeah, that would be great.

So we have his amplifier right there in the middle of the office and we start going through it, playing the track of Backstreets, and he’s playing against it. I said, oh, that’s it, that’s it, great. Don’t stop. Don’t stop. Oh, no, no, no. You changed it. Until he gets it absolutely dead on. And that was the solo. And the beauty of it was, it was constructed. It wasn’t just off the top of your head.

Look, sometimes you can do something off the top of your head and it’s extraordinary. You get lucky. Or if that’s your particular ability. Clapton and Page, sometimes they just get it so right, off the top of their head. But, not everybody.

Bruce has to work a little harder at his guitar solos to make them special. But he’s capable of making them special.

What you’re saying is he would not have become the global phenomenon he became if he’d carried on trying to make records like Born to Run?

I would think so. Because it’s very hard to write absolutely extraordinary songs, lyrically, and make them pop hits, make them broad-based…

The breakthrough commercially was really Born in the USA? I mean the global breakthrough? And that’s, really, a long way from Born to Run.

It really is.

E Street Shuffle

Of course, the band wasn’t the same after Born To Run. The personnel changed. (Pianist) David Sancious left (during the Born to Run album sessions)…

I get a hold of Davy (when I heard he was leaving): Davy, come to the office. You and (drummer Ernest) Boom Carter (who was also leaving). Come to the office. (I asked him:) Where did this come from? You’re sure you want to do this? That makes sense to you? (Sancious says:) Oh yeah, I want to do my own thing. He wants to do an album. I said, okay, I’ll be in touch.

I let them go out of the office. And then when they were out of the office, I called (the Epic record label executive who had offered Sancious the album deal). I asked him, what are you doing, cannibalizing a Columbia recording artist for your own personal signings? You know nothing. F*ck you. It’s not happening, buddy. It’s not happening.

Then I call John Hammond (the legendary Columbia boss who signed Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen and Springsteen). John Hammond says, Mike, I always told you that the guys at Epic (a Columbia subsidiary) were younger and hipper. I said, I don’t care if they’re younger and hipper. I don’t want anything to destroy my image of Bruce Springsteen’s name going around on that red (Columbia) label forever. Bessie Smith, Bruce Springsteen. That’s what it is, okay. That can’t change.

Taking an extraordinary musician out of Bruce Springsteen’s band… Nobody listened.

David Sancious (sitting, center) and the E Street Band as pictured on the back cover of 1973's The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle
David Sancious (sitting, center) and the E Street Band as pictured on the back cover of 1973’s The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle

Then I went back to Bruce. I said Bruce, this is not some pick-up musician like Chuck Berry uses. Davy’s an artist. Think of all the little great riffs he’s played. Even on some of your simplest songs, he adds magic. You can’t just go and buy that. You can’t hire that. (Bruce says:) Mike, he wants to leave. What do you want me to do? I said, I want you to tell him that he’s doing a stupid thing. And I will also do that.

I had to go walk up to Central Park that day, and just be by myself, because I was in such a state. Every time I go through it again, it just bothers me. Because that guy was genius, so brilliant. To lose him was just (terrible).

And Bruce didn’t try and talk him out of it?

No.

And he left.

And he left. And then Bruce says, all right, now we gotta go ahead and get some new musicians. And I said (sarcastically), won’t that be great? Won’t that be a wonderful thing? I start taking ads out. We start lining up people. And Bruce says, Why don’t you come and watch? I said, all right, I’ll come.

I come there and he starts giving every poor drummer, every poor keyboardist, an hour. I said, I’d have got rid of this guy in five minutes. What are you doing playing with them (for so long)? You can’t get blood from a stone. Can’t you hear that they’re no good? Bruce is, we’re going to be here for a while, Mike. I said, I’m not. And I left.

Then he said, I’ve got it down to six guys. Then we go down to two keyboardists and two drummers. Max (Weinberg) and Roy (Bittan), obviously, were two of those four. I said, well, you’ve been through Davy Sancious. We’re never going to get that. That’s off the table. I said, Roy Bittan’s not Davy Sancious. However, he knows how to play everything from Happy Birthday to Jerry Lee Lewis. He knows how to do every single thing on piano you could possibly imagine. I said, maybe, because you’re such a wild guy on stage, I’m thinking, both albums and live, he may be better for you. Because he knows everything. If you want to suddenly break into this song, that song, like you do…

He’ll be there.

He’ll be there.

And he never seems to drop a note. I’m watching this guy. He’s killing it. He’s so adept at playing that piano. Every song. Every rock song. Every other kind of song. He has the American song book in his psyche. So, he may be the guy.

The E Street Bank, a classic line-up with Max Weinberg at second left, and Roy Bittan at fourth left (Courtesy)
The E Street Bank, a line-up with Max Weinberg at second left, and Roy Bittan at fourth left (Courtesy)

Then we got around to Max. I said this other drummer, he’s a little more busy. Too busy, maybe. I said, you’re going to need somebody who’s rock solid. We’re going to go do Born to Run type songs, you’re going to need really rock solid drummers. That’s how we finally ended up getting Max.

And David Sancious made some records, but he disappeared, basically?

That was his mistake.

Bruce is less, also, for not having him, for not having his magic in his songs. He’s an extension of Bruce’s cool lyrics.

Bruce could have talked him out of it?

Bruce didn’t want to talk him out of it. Bruce is a guy like, if you’re not for me…

Then I don’t want you?

Right. He can’t take it. That’s why he needs guys like me, because we love him absolutely, with absolute devotion.

Jon Landau loves him with absolute devotion?

Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen and Mike Appel, in November 2009 (Courtesy)
Jon Landau, Bruce Springsteen and Mike Appel, in November 2009 (Courtesy)

(Laughs.) You’d have to ask Jon that. Jon had a lot of success. But I think he deserved it. It’s not easy working with Bruce. (Landau) soldiered through an awful lot of difficult times and all sorts of problems that arose that are not publicly known. He managed to get through all that and come out on top. My hat’s off to him. The guy’s not some wussy guy. The guy’s a hard-working guy. He’s in it for the long run. He didn’t give up.

He told me some stories which I knew Bruce was certainly capable of. Oh boy. Oh boy, Jon, you had your hands full. My hat’s off to you. I really have good feelings about Jon. He put in all the time. Look at how long he’s been there, for God’s sake.

Sum up Bruce for me. You spoke before about his self-discipline. But he’s got a gift, that’s for sure.

I think Jon Landau mentioned that when he saw Bruce, he couldn’t believe that the guy wrote these lyrics, sometimes very serious lyrics, like in “For You,” and then he’s this Chaplinesque kind of character on stage. You say, Jeez, how do you get Charlie Chaplin and Bob Dylan in the same body? And then you have James Dean. And then you have Chuck Berry. How do you have that in one guy? You don’t! You never do. This guy is real different. This guy’s a real amalgam of a bunch of wonderful artists.

When he first “died” (onstage) at the end of Jungleland, and went down prostrate on the floor, I thought I’d die. I’m sitting there, looking at him, saying, he takes it that seriously that he goes right down and dies on stage. Hello! What rock artist has done this? Nobody. Ever. He’s the first one.

And I said, well, we are different, there’s no question about that. We are different birds! We just have to keep going forward. No holding back.

Bruce Springsteen and Mike Appel, in November 2009 (Courtesy)
Bruce Springsteen and Mike Appel, in November 2009 (Courtesy)

He’s touched by God? He’s got some God-given talent.

Absolutely. He had enough God-given talents to do what he had to do — follow through and not quit on himself and never doubt himself. And he’s always managed to do that. He’s always been a force to reckon with because of that. He believes in himself.

And he doesn’t care if he does something where it loses money or something like that. Take his stand on sponsorship. If he’s worth $300 or $400 million today, he’d be worth $800 million or a billion dollars if he took sponsorship money. But he didn’t. He’s just, I don’t want to have to answer to anybody. I’m Bruce Springsteen. I’ve earned the right to be my own boss. And so he never made a deal with a sponsor. Think of the Stones. They can’t wait to get to Budweiser and make a deal. He’s like, I don’t want to talk to you guys. Totally different, So money isn’t the only thing.

He’s obviously not in it for the money, not at this stage. He’s obviously not playing four-hour concerts half the days of the year for the money.

No, he doesn’t need that. How much money can you spend, Bruce? He’s doing it because he wants to do it. He wants to be there. And I love the fact that he loves it. I could never do it. It’s too much to ask of one person to go out there and be all things to all men and women and children for all time.

I don’t think he wants to be that.

(Laughs.) Don’t try to outguess him. Don’t speak for Bruce.

Better Days

What’s your relationship with Springsteen like now? I mean obviously you had some difficult periods.

He just called me a few days ago because he’s doing his memoirs. He forgot certain things. I didn’t even know it was him. Usually I recognize him right away. But I didn’t recognize his voice. (He said,) ‘It’s Bruce!’ Oh, oh, ok. To what do I owe the honor?

He says, who was the disc jockey in Philadelphia… blah, blah? What was the radio station…? So we had to go through that whole process.

I said, where are you? He said, well I’m in Barcelona. I said, how is it over there? He says it’s pouring rain. So I said, you had nothing better to do than call me?

So yeah, no, it’s fine.

A nice relationship.

Oh yeah, for many, many years now.

Mike Appel's Down Thunder Road
Mike Appel’s Down Thunder Road

Tell me a little bit about yourself. You write (in Down Thunder Road: The Making of Bruce Springsteen) that you are one quarter Jewish, three quarters Irish?

Yes, my father was a half Jew. My mother was Irish Catholic. And the Jews in my family were very lapsed as far as religion goes.

That’s okay. I’ll forgive you, Mike. Don’t feel bad.(Appel laughs and laughs.) I’m from a line of rabbis, but that’s okay.

(Still laughing.) In other lives, I was a rabbi. I believe in reincarnation.

I’m a mystic. I’ve given up all religion. I studied it. I studied the lives of Jesus and Moses, what I could get on Moses. Not much on Moses, hard to get stuff on him. But apparently, according to the mystics, he was an Egyptian prince, not Jewish, not Hebrew. Even though he helped the Hebrews. He was their leader, to some extent. But that’s because his mother, who was an Egyptian princess, made sure that he learned the magic, just like Jesus did.

Sorry to go on…

Wherever you want to take me…

(Laughing) You started!

But now let’s come back to you. So your father, what was his name?

Thomas Franklin Appel. His father was completely Jewish. His mother was a Roman Catholic, and he was brought up Roman Catholic.

And your Jewish grandfather, what was his story?

Well, he came from a family of clothiers, right here in New York, and they had that for many years. Then they closed up shop and he moved to Florida.

He’s conquered the damn world. Why not knock off Israel while you’re at it?

And what was his name?

Arthur Appel. I saw very little of him when I was a kid. My bandmates and I went to Florida in 1960. We took a bus down there. He was in Hollywood, Florida. I had a cab take me to his house. I knock on the front door. The first thing out of his mouth is No Solicitors. Grandpa, it’s Michael. He was stunned.

To make a long story short, he took us all over the place – to the grapefruit plantation, oranges, he took us everywhere. He was terrific. But that was about the closest I ever got to my grandfather, because he was living down there.

And the fact that you’ve got a little bit of a Jewish thing, and Jon Landau is Jewish: Was it ever discussed with Springsteen?

Never. It’s as though we were all agnostics or atheists.

And Bruce’s attitude to Jewish causes? He does Holocaust Foundation things for Spielberg, say. But he hasn’t come to Israel.

I know.

So, tell me about that.

Well, the thing is this, he should’ve. And I don’t know why he hasn’t. I’m absolutely baffled by it. Not because we were having this meeting, but I was saying to myself the other day, somebody was either going to Israel or playing in Israel, something about Israel, whether it was Roger Waters and his stupid…

Miami Steve (Springsteen’s guitarist Steven Van Zandt) waded into a row, just a few weeks ago on Twitter, where somebody was saying something nasty about “rogue” Israel and Miami Steve waded in and said, it’s not a one solution fits all, Israel’s one of the only US allies in the region, it’s more complicated. lt was very wise, what he wrote. That might have been why you thought of that.

Read: On Israel, Springsteen’s guitarist outriffs Ken Livingstone

Maybe that pricked up my ears. I don’t know.

Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on March 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images via JTA)
Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen and (Springsteen’s wife) Patti Scialfa of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform at the Los Angeles Sports Arena on March 15, 2016. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images via JTA)

But I absolutely said to myself, for god’s sakes, what’s wrong with Israel? Why haven’t you gone there? If it has anything to do with the terrorist potentials, who more than Israel (can deal with that)? The fact that these guys got into that (Sarona) restaurant (killing four Israelis in a June terrorist attack in Tel Aviv) or whatever that was there, I said to myself, boy, that’s one of the (few) times I saw somebody got past those (security) guys. Those (security) guys, it’s like they have radar for it. They can smell it.

Well, 10 years ago we had a whole wave of major attacks. In the last few years, it’s been rarer. So you think it’s probably, what, a logistics thing that’s kept him from coming?

Maybe.

I know they’ve tried to bring him, the Israeli promoters.

How could they not? I mean, how could they not? They can’t have missed Bruce! It can’t be anything remotely like that. So you have to say, why hasn’t he done it? I mean it’s another country for him to conquer. He’s conquered the damn world. Why not knock off Israel while you’re at it?

So, it baffles me. I don’t know why. I really don’t know why. I can’t presume things and say, well I would have done this or I would’ve done that. You don’t know what you would’ve done, Mike, because you don’t know why he’s not doing it.

Now in the years since you directly worked with him, give us a couple of musicians who you’ve produced or worked with who we should listen to, who we should know more about.

Well, I’ve written a musical: Stage Door Johnny. It’s like what Bruce says. Where am I Saturday night at 8 o’clock. Well, you’re on center stage somewhere in the world. Stage door Johnny: You don’t want to be a stage door Johnny in your own life, you want to be center stage; you don’t want to be waiting in the wings of your life. This is your moment. Find out what the hell it is you love and follow that road with abandon. Stay the course, no matter what the difficulties, which is what I’m doing right now. I am staying the course. I’m doing what I think I’m born to do.

So, you’re working on that now?

I’ve written it. I’ve already written the entire script. I have produced the entire soundtrack album. I’m in the final stages of putting some female vocals on the female songs. I’m going to see one of the girls at one o’clock this afternoon, so I’m going to finish this up in grand style.

I have a song called Romano Mussolini’s All Star Band – the first time I’ve ever been able to use names like Heinrich Himmler, the Waffen SS, in a song. About three or four years ago, I came across an article: Romano Mussolini, youngest son of Benito Mussolini, died (in 2006). He was a jazz musician. I said, jeez, a jazz musician — the youngest son of, Benito Mussolini, that scoundrel?

Romano Mussolini’s All Star Band! He played with Chet Baker, Oscar Peterson. He played in the best clubs. He’s like the time period of The Talented Mr. Ripley with Matt Damon — that late-40s, early-50s bebop jazz kind of time period, musically speaking. I said, oh, am I going to have fun with this. And then I read that Hitler would visit Benito; Heinrich Himmler would come with Hitler and the Waffen SS would be there. Right in the same house was Romano Mussolini. And Romano Mussolini would be playing boogie woogie, and Heinrich Himmler couldn’t stand that…

Degenerate music?

Absolutely. Degenerate music, played by, written by lesser human beings — blacks and stuff like that. So, he hated it… I said, this is perfect. Perfect. These guys are just falling right into my lap here.

So that’s in this musical somewhere?

Lady Gaga wowing the crowds in Ft. Lauderdale. (photo credit: Kevin Mazur)
Lady Gaga onstage in Ft. Lauderdale. (Kevin Mazur)

Yeah. I even have opera singers singing. That’s the biggest (song). It’s 6 or 7 minutes long and that isn’t going to be a pop hit. Actually, today, after this, I have to go and pick up my CDs at a studio in town that duplicates them for me. And I’m going over to Lady Gaga’s father (Joe Germanotta) and I’m giving it to him. Romano Mussolini’s All Star Band. (I’ll tell him:) There’s only one woman on earth that can possibly do this song. It’s your daughter. Because it’s so off the wall, Joe. So, we’ll see what happens.

And personally, your life?

I’m still married to the same woman I’ve been all these years. Joanna.

How long have you been married?

Oh, Jesus, I think it’s 48 years.

And you have kids?

Yeah, I have two kids. My son works actually on Staten Island where I live. My daughter I’m going to see this Thursday. I’m gonna fly down to Atlanta, Georgia to see her. She’s a chef in a private school in Atlanta, and my son works with a big construction firm here in New York City. He’s waiting for me to get off my ass here and make this a success, so I’m working diligently, trying to do just that.

Human touch

I was listening to some of the interviews you did last year to mark the 40th anniversary of Born to Run. In one of those interviews you said that Bruce never denigrates anybody.

That’s correct.

That’s really quite something.

We all have a purpose in life and my purpose wasn’t to stay with Bruce Springsteen forever

He is the epitome of what my mother said: You never have to push another person down to be buoyant. You don’t have to do that. You never have to do that unless you don’t feel adequate. I always remember my mother saying that. She died very young.

So he’s a fine person all the way through?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

And you had some really hard tussles, legal tussles with him.

Oh, sure I did. No. Both of us are hard-headed. Both of us are stubborn and when provoked, both of us can be nasty and tough and very difficult to deal with. It took a guy like me to stop him. Stop his career. The same guy that was pushing this way now is pushing that way. Everybody was very young and dumb, and the lawyers were rapacious, as they usually are.

Jon Landau (YouTube screenshot)
Jon Landau (YouTube screenshot)

It’s the usual greed of attorneys, and things like that and people like that, that are fanning the flames of discontent. It shouldn’t be there. But it is and it happened and it went down and it was what it was.

We all have a purpose in life and my purpose wasn’t to stay with Bruce Springsteen forever. I think it was Jon Landau’s purpose, or a good portion of his purpose in life, to be with Bruce and to guide him and to make him aware of the craft of writing pop mainstream songs. That was going to be their focus, and by god, they did that.

If he’d stayed with you, it would have been different? His career?

Yes, it would’ve been different. It would have had to be different. I mean my head isn’t Jon Landau’s head. My head isn’t Bruce Springsteen’s head.

I’m talking about the music. The music would’ve been different?

I said, those are the worst two songs I’ve ever heard in my entire life. They are not going on this album. I mean, over my dead body

I think the music would’ve been different because even when we recorded (the album) Born to Run, Bruce came to me with two songs, both he and Jon came to me. They had a song called, Linda, Let Me Be the One and (another one called) Lonely Night in the Park. And I said, those are the worst two songs I’ve ever heard in my entire life. They are not going on this album. I mean, over my dead body.

Because they were what?

They were poor examples of trying to do a pop song. They can’t be on this album.

Because they were more formulaic? Less creative and wild?

Absolutely.

So if he’d stayed with you, he would have made better music and he would’ve had less success?

He may very well have had less success, but I’m not a guy that is oblivious to pop songs. Remember, I come from that world and my attitude was there’s always a way to make great music. Aretha Franklin made great music and she wasn’t wildly poetic. I can still dance to her songs and still move to her songs. I can move to a hundred great songs that aren’t early Bruce Springsteen or Born to Run Bruce Springsteen. And they made hits and they were good. The lyrics were cool. I mean, listen to Goffin and King. Gerry Goffin was a great lyricist. A lot of the Carole King songs are good. Pop songs. Not bad.

So you’re saying if he’d stayed with you he could’ve made better music and had as much success?

Maybe we all should work together again and see what might have happened

I think so. I think so. I think so. Because he has it within him to do it for sure. He can do it. Bruce can do it.

And there are the later songs like Brilliant Disguise

Now there’s a perfect example where, hey…

You would have been fine with that one?

I had no problem with that one. And then he had that other little song, If I Should Fall Behind. I love that song. That’s a great one, Bruce. It’s not that you’re writing graphic, killer, wildly poetic lyrics. But you’re writing lyrics that touch everybody’s heart.

But you never will work together again, you think?

Oh, I don’t know. I think I need some big success to catch up. In other words…

If you got yourself on the map again…

Yes, if I put myself on the map again, then you’re sort of, hey, that would be an interesting thing, maybe we all should work together again and see what might have happened. That would be a cool thing to do. But again, you’ve got to wait and see what the future holds.

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