Bruce Springsteen, 'Born To Run,' And The Lawsuit That Almost Ruined His Career
By | May 23, 2023
With the 1975 album Born to Run, Bruce Springsteen looked like the new king of rock 'n roll -- "Thunder Road," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" and the title track would become classic rock anthems -- but a lawsuit threatened deny him the throne.
Springsteen was hailed as the voice of a generation on the covers of Newsweek and Time magazines, but instead of capitalizing on his success and hitting the studio to record another album he put on a suit and went to court. He spent much of 1976 and 1977 -- important years in rock music that should have been important years for Bruce -- in a courtroom fighting for his professional life in a lawsuit against Laurel Canyon, Ltd., owned by his manager and publisher Mike Appel.
Springsteen just wanted to play music for the people
What began as a partnership based on getting Springsteen’s voice to the masses ended in bitterness, and a three year wait before The Boss took the world to the Darkness on the Edge of Town. Not as much about money as it was about trust and the ability of an artist to create, Springsteen’s lawsuit against his manager and producer was propped up with bitter feelings that lasted long after the suit was resolved.
In the beginning Mike Appel believed in Springsteen’s voice
It’s worth noting that before the venom of the court room, Mike Appel knew that Bruce Springsteen was one of the most important voices of his generation. This was in 1971 when Springsteen was playing clubs in New Jersey for paltry sums. Tinker West, a surfboard manufacturer who was Springsteen’s manager at the time, told the singer-songwriter to meet with Appel to see whether he could make something happen.
The two met up that year and Appel told him to keep playing and to write some more songs. Springsteen spent the next couple of years in California building an underground fan base, and when Bruce returned to the east coast Appel thought he was ready for the big time. In 1972, Springsteen was signed to Columbia records as well as a management and publishing deal with Appel.
Bruce’s initial contract was a mess
Springsteen’s first two records didn’t set the world on fire. Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle sold about 200,000 copies a piece -- not bad numbers, but not great either. It’s with 1975’s Born to Run that the negative factors of Springsteen’s early contract become apparent.
Signed on the hood of a car in a New Jersey parking lot, Springsteen’s contract allotted him 18¢ per album sold. Appel made a minimum royalty of 40¢ per record. On top of that, the contract called for Springsteen to record 10 albums for CBS (the parent company of Columbia at the time) but it only called for Springsteen to record five for Appel’s Laurel Canyon management and production company.
Born to Run hit number 3 on the Billboard Hot 200 album chart and sold six million copies in America alone. That’s a staggering amount of sales for someone who until 1975 was working hand to mouth as a musician. At the time Springsteen didn’t care about money and he says that no matter how bad his initial contract was, it got him in the room with Columbia and it got him on the radio. However, it also made him broke. He was keeping less than ten percent of his income and being charged for things that he didn’t even know he was paying for. Springsteen writes in 2016 biography:
The irony is that I myself had much to do with the pitching and existence of this tent here in the corner of my personal little carnival. Mike shouldn’t have been so overreaching, but my young fears and refusal to accept responsibility for my own actions also brought much of this into being.
Springsteen’s friendship with Jon Landau rubbed Appel the wrong way
In the early ‘70s, Jon Landau was a writer and editor for Rolling Stone who knew that Springsteen was the future of rock n roll; he wrote as much in a review of one of the E Street Band’s live shows. Landau and Springsteen became genuine friends in this era, and when Springsteen and Appel ran into a creative roadblock during the Born to Run sessions Landau was called in to co-produce. He quit his job as records editor of Rolling Stone and helped his friend finish the album.
Appel resented the ease with which Landau and Springsteen worked with one another. Following the success of Born to Run, Appel suggested that he and Springsteen renegotiate their contract, but Springsteen said that he wanted to take things on a day to day basis. Appel’s attorney, Leonard Marks, claims:
When things started looking up, Appel offered to renegotiate the contracts with Springsteen – including giving him half the stock of all Laurel Canyon companies. Springsteen said he didn’t want to deal with a written contract but wanted to work it out with Appel on a day-to-day basis with a verbal agreement based on trust. Appel had an audit done by Mason & Company and then sent Springsteen a letter saying that ‘the books are open’ and inviting another outside audit by Springsteen.
Appel moved quickly to stop Springsteen making another album with Landau’s involvement
Up until this point, things were just contentious between Springsteen and Appel, but when The Boss said that he wanted to work with Landau on his fourth album Appel went nuclear and tried to block Springsteen from working with the person that he felt could best translate his artistic voice.
And in fact, the proof was in the album's performance. Critics and aficionados had been talking Springsteen up for years, sometimes calling him the next Bob Dylan -- but Bruce's first two albums, made without Landau, had underperformed. Landau had been a catalyst of some sort. It wasn’t the contract negotiations or the disproportionate amount of money that Appel was making that got under Springsteen’s skin, it was someone telling him what he could and couldn’t do as an artist.
On July 27th, 1976, Springsteen filed a huge lawsuit against Appel. Springsteen’s lawyer at the time wrote in an affidavit:
[Appel] conducted Springsteen’s business in a slipshod, wasteful and neglectful manner; that he failed to maintain adequate and complete books and records relating to Springsteen’s activities; and that enormous amounts of expenses and cash disbursements are charged to Springsteen which are in large measure unsubstantiated… My audit reveals a classic case of the unconscionable exploitation of an unsophisticated and unrepresented performer by his manager for the manager’s primary economic benefit.
Two days after Springsteen filed suit against Appel for fraud, undue influence, and breach of trust, Appel responded by seeking a permanent injunction in New York State Supreme Court barring Springsteen and Landau from entering the recording studio together. He stated that only he and Springsteen would make a “winning combination.”
Springsteen couldn’t record, but he could go on the road
Momentum is everything when you’re a rising star, and this lawsuit came at the worst possible time for Springsteen. Almost a year after the success of Born to Run, he wanted to get back into the studio and follow it up with another blazing set of hits but he didn’t want to do it with Appel. Rather than sit around until the courts resolved the matter he took the E Street Band on tour that criss-crossed the States, Canada, and Europe that lasted well into 1977.
Even when Springsteen was on tour he couldn’t escape Appel, who followed the Boss with a series of new agreements throughout Europe. Springsteen refused to sign without a new lawyer looking them over, but Appel was relentless. The shows are remembered as being some of the most raucous and heart pounding performances that the band ever put on, but Springsteen says that he was thinking of hanging things up during that tour. He said:
One night in Detroit, I didn’t want to go onstage. At that moment I could see how people get into drinking or into drugs, because the one thing you want to do is be distracted in a big way… I felt like I had lost a certain control of myself. There was all the publicity and the backlash. I felt the thing I wanted most in my life — my music — was being swept away and I didn’t know if I could do anything about it. I remember during that period someone wrote, ‘If Bruce Springsteen didn’t exist rock critics would invent him.’ That bothered me a lot, being perceived as an invention, a ship passing by. I’d been playing for 10 years. I knew where I came from every inch of the way.
Bitterness only increased in Springsteen’s court battle
When he wasn’t on tour with the E Street Band, Springsteen was in a court in New York fighting for his life. During the case he argued for the necessity of Landau to be in the studio, saying:
Landau has brought to the studio higher qualities which have given tremendous stride to my creative development. Specifically, with respect to the writing of musical compositions, I enter the studio with virtually millions of scattered ideas to which Landau, through his unique ability to communicate with me . . . has been able to provide the focus and direction necessary to shape my thoughts into finished musical compositions. Landau’s ability to communicate with me stems from the simple fact that I trust him.
Springsteen said on the other hand, Appel was someone who was simply interested in what the singer could do for his bank account. The singer noted that the only thing he really cared about was being able to record and release music.
Things didn't look good for Springsteen
For much of the case it looked like things were going to swing towards Appel, but once Springsteen switched representation and won a motion to submit an amended answer to a question about the percentage that Appel took from him (20% instead of 50%, but Appel never showed Springsteen statements). It’s believed that if the case went to trial that Springsteen would have won. Instead, the parties came to an agreement and parted ways.
Appel gave up publishing rights on most of Springsteen’s music in exchange for $800,000, and he took a cut in production points from six to two.
Darkness on the Edge of Town showed a new Springteen
Once the settlement was reached with Appel, Springsteen was free to enter the studio with Landau, and that’s exactly what happened three days later on June 1, 1977. He spent the rest of that year and a few months in ’78 holed up with Landau, the E. Street Band and engineer Jimmy Iovine in Atlantic Studios and The Record Plant in New York City.
Springsteen wrote at least 70 songs during the Darkness sessions, 52 of which Iovine says were completed with 18 of them totally scrapped. Upon the album’s release it was heralded as a more mature and darker album that Born To Run. The relentless cry for freedom of his earlier albums were replaced with a sadness and insular nature born out of the year he spent fighting one of his oldest confidants.
Springsteen was writing the entire time he was in court
With nearly 100 songs to choose from, it’s clear that Springsteen wasn’t burnt out following the lawsuit, but his optimism was gone, and so was the joy of rock 'n roll. Released June 2, 1978, two years and nine months after Born To Run, Darkness On The Edge Of Town is a great album, but it's a downer. "Thunder Road" and "Born to Run" were both songs about taking your shot and getting out -- Darkness On The Edge Of Town's songs are about being trapped and, perhaps, accepting it.
Springsteen and Appel patched things up
After such a contentious court case it makes sense that Springsteen and Appel went their separate ways, but Appel wasn’t shunned by his former friend. In his biography, Springsteen says compares their relationship to a divorce, he says that their partnership had just run out of steam. He writes:
A settlement was reached, separation papers were drawn up and one quiet night in a dimmed midtown office building, Mike and I finalized our divorce… I would have some dealings with Mike in the future, some good, some cheesy, but once the war was over and time — a good deal of it – passed, the fondness and connection remained… We had come to cross purposes — this is the world — but I can never hate Mike; I can only love him.