When Bruce Springsteen won an Academy Award last year for “Streets of Philadelphia”, he thanked a lot of people. Mike Appel was not one of them. And, without Mike Appel, the world would never have heard of Bruce Springsteen. Mike Appel was Bruce Springsteen’s first Personal Manager. He took care of the business, so Bruce could take care of the music. And, when success finally came Bruce’s way, Mike Appel was dumped.
Mike Appel along with Marc Eliot, has written a truly fascinating behind the scenes look at rock management and his years with Bruce Springsteen, titled ” Down Thunder Road, The Making of Bruce Springsteen” (Simon and Schuster Books).
We spoke with Mike Appel about his experiences with “The Boss” — Mr. Bruce Springsteen.
Q – How did you know that Bruce Springsteen was gonna be a star? What did you see in him that other people missed?
A – I was ignorant, if you will, of a lot of Dylan’s work and Van Morrison’s work at the time. So, I looked at Springsteen as wholly original, not realizing that one could definitely draw an analogy between him and Dylan, him and Van Morrison. However, with that said, Springsteen truly was an original. His lyrics are far different than the kind of lyrics that Bob Dylan writes. Bruce is of course a much more dynamic performer than Van Morrison could ever possible hope to be, although Van Morrison has a very identifiable voice to say the least. And I know Van personally as well. I know the nature of the beast. Springsteen’s lyrics were the thing that captured me the most. They were the most brilliant, most graphic. Words that you would never expect to be together in a sentence would be together in a sentence. Just exciting lyrics. Lyrics that just sort of hit you right in the face and you really couldn’t get away from it. So, I thought I’m a lyrically driven person. I’m a reader. The intellect comes before the body sometimes. Not that I don’t love The Rolling Stones as must as The Beatles. The Beatles were great melody writers. The Rolling Stones actually became great lyric writers and they always had a great groove. So they were a great marriage between the two. Springsteen as far as I’m concerned, never really reached a point where the music was satisfying to me, except perhaps on “Born to Run”. There’s a few cuts on the first two albums that weren’t bad. Thereafter there was just a couple of cuts where I thought the music was o.k. and the lyrics were not o.k. whereby the lyrics were always o.k. on the first three albums. The lyrics were always killer in my estimation. How other people would miss it? I guess you have to be attuned to what Springsteen was all about. I believe that people are born into the world with certain things they are going to do for each other and interact with each other in certain ways. So therefore, I thought I had a bit of purpose in Springsteen’s life and he in mine. I was of course very much in sync with him immediately. I can’t say I was the only one. Clive Davis, Columbia Records, and the late, great John Hammond Sr. all heard exactly what I heard. All were bowled over just like me. Mike Appel wasn’t some strategy guy from another planet. My partner and other people who worked in my organization at the time all hear it together, and all were knocked out. Other people felt we were rude to encroach upon Bob Dylan’s turf. When we first came to Columbia Records, people there were wearing all sorts of airs that they had gotten from their close association with Bob Dylan. I was attuned to Springsteen, in sync with him and others just weren’t. I don’t know why they weren’t. It’s always been an enigma to me. Everybody should’ve gotten it first time around.
Q – Why did it take so long for your story to be published?
A – The answer is pretty simple. I had opportunities to do it 10, 15 years ago but they were all kinds of trivial story lines. It was just nonsense. Marc Eliot was the first person who came to me with a substantive reason to begin the book. That basically was that Bob Dylan’s father, John Lennon’s father, and even Bruce Springsteen’s father were all substituted with managers. Brian Epstein, Col. Tom Parker, and, Mike Appel in Bruce Springsteen’s case. Therefore, we all turned out to be surrogate fathers. The problems these fathers had with their sons we in turn inherited. This became the basis for why I really felt we should do a book.
Springsteen’s problems with his Dad are obviously well known to everyone, yourself, I’m sure. So I thought this is a good reason to begin a book on my life with Springsteen.
Q – Do you know if Bruce has commented either publicly or privately about your book?
A – I’d been with Bruce privately myself before the book came out. His attitude and I’m sure he was somewhat prepped by Jon Landau (Springsteen’s current manager) was to leave me entirely at liberty to write whatever I pleased, although they were hoping of course there would be nothing derogatory in there for either of them to read at a later date. However, Bruce Springsteen didn’t try to coerce me one way or the other, privately or publicly. I think the only time that I know of that he commented about the book was on “A Current Affair” where he admitted he knew the book was out and that he had not read it.
Q – Springsteen is very concerned about what is said of him, isn’t that correct?
A – He does care very much about what is said about him. He’s very sensitive to the press. That’s why Landau and Marsh (Dave Marsh – Springsteen biographer) had such power over him. He truly curried favor with the press. I mean this is natural. Actors, actresses, all artists want to be favored by the press. They like nice things written about themselves. Bruce is no different than anyone else in that regard.
Q – Would I be correct in saying that Rolling Stone magazine bears the largest share of the blame for slanting the press coverage against you?
A – Of course, Rolling Stone was the last magazine to even get on board regarding Springsteen’s talents as an artist and a performer. It wasn’t until Jon Landau finally got involved being a Senior Editor with Rolling Stone already and him collaring Dave Marsh and bringing Marsh to a concert out in Westbury, Long Island where finally Dave Marsh saw the excitement surrounding Bruce Springsteen at that time. Of course Dave Marsh did see the light and was completely flabbergasted and finally jumped on board. Later on, when the break-up occurred it must be remembered that the manager now, Jon Landau was represented by an attorney, Mike Meyer over at Atlantic Records. I think what happened was that Mike felt that if he could break Springsteen’s contract with Mike Appel by making it seem that Mike Appel’s contracts with Springsteen were unconscionable, Springsteen would become a free agent and could be signed to Atlantic Records. Mike Meyer would then be a hero with Atlantic Records. Jon Landau could be the manager, and Producer. Dave Marsh could write all the biographies favorable to Springsteen and Landau. Springsteen didn’t get out of his contracts, therefore was unable to sign with Atlantic Records. However, Dave Marsh did write a very biased book on Springsteen, “Born to Run”. It was the most biased book against Mike Appel ever written. I could understand Dave’s blindness to some extent because he was caught up in all the fervor. It was actually easy to manipulate Dave into thinking Mike Appel was the bad guy, not that Dave was some jerk, but, if I had to make a case against Mike Appel, I could make a case against Mike Appel being there to defend himself. Rolling Stone in this case was the primary source of and foundation of bad press for Mike Appel. The reasons were obvious. Obviously being best friends with Dave Marsh and co-writers for Rolling Stone had great influence over Rolling Stone. When the break-up occurred and Landau would be the heir-apparent to Mike Appel, obviously Rolling Stone took Jon Landau’s side in the litigation, in spite of the outcome of the actual trial.
Q – Springsteen is talking about Jon Landau and says “He just made me aware that I could do better, that I could be better than I was.” You were bringing in his albums on time and on budget. You were making sure that all the band members were being paid. Didn’t Bruce see that?
A – Bruce did see that. He knew all those things as absolute fact. I think Landau’s greatest plus if I’m totally objective about it was that he came into our lives when Bruce was in a creative slump. Somehow being a new face on the scene, he acted for a short while as a catalyst and I mean just for a short while. He sort of got Bruce rolling again and starting to create again. Then of course he was ground up in the meat grinder just like all the rest of us were. He became just like everybody else, having no more of that new kid on the block power and excitement to him after maybe a month of being on the scene with us. He had to go to the studio and stay there late at night and be up the next day with Bruce. It was a real grind and Landau wasn’t used to that kind of life. So therefore he found it very, very difficult to keep up quite frankly.
Q – Without you, would Landau have been able to sustain Bruce’s career? By the time he got on board you had already built the foundation. Couldn’t we say that he had an easier time than you did initially?
A – It’s unequivocally true that when Landau arrived on the scene we had sold a couple of hundred thousand albums at that time. “Born to Run” had been completely produced without his help. Bruce had already written ” Jungleland” and some others off of that third album. We were known heavily around the U.S. at least the Northeast and some sporadic places elsewhere as a bunch of comers and as somebody to watch. Landau was very lucky to enter our world at the time he did which was just before lift-off. I’m not saying he did nothing, but he was extremely fortunate to miss the first three years and be there for the last six months before take-off. So he was lucky in that regard.
Q – In your book, Leonard Marks states that for five years you made absolutely nothing on Springsteen. How then did you pay the bills?
A – (Laughs). Well, when he says nothing, he means nothing substantial and that’s absolutely a fact of life. Everyone, myself included and the band members were drawing salaries anywhere from $200 a week in ’72, ’73, ‘74 to $350 a week in ’75, ’76 before we finally had bigger monies and could pay people differently. I think there was one royalty check that came in for $18,000. We put it in the bank, and ended up spending it on equipment for the band. So, he’s right. There was absolutely no taking of profits, ’cause there was no money to take. There was just enough really to live on and pay for your “roadies”, your repairs, your new equipment, and to promote the artist in certain areas. There was no other money. That’s what Leonard Marks means. He doesn’t mean that there was absolutely no money and we made nothing, zero. We made some money every week we played. But, it all went to keeping everybody afloat. Nobody was getting rich that’s for sure.
Q – Your co-author Marc Elliot writes, “One thing Appel didn’t do which many other rock managers did and still do was to put his name on Springsteen’s songs as one of the composers in order to cut himself in on the writer’s piece of the publishing pie. Col. Parker and Brian Epstein didn’t to that. What rock managers did that and are doing that today?
A – There were managers that purportedly did this in the early stages of rock ‘n roll. Perhaps even Col. Parker had pieces of the publishing. But, I don’t know anything about Col. Tom Parker having any writer royalties or Brian Epstein having any writer royalties. Where this really comes from I don’t know. I guess if you go through every writer-artists-manager relationship that ever existed you’re gonna find some of that somewhere. It certainly wasn’t a problem with me. It certainly wasn’t a problem with Col. Tom Parker as I understand it or Brian Epstein. They may have owned pieces of the publishing. A lot of times Marc would have his own substantiation for these things. I can’t remember right now off the top of my head without speaking to Marc where he got this idea. I would probably take it on faith that it is true. I don’t think it’s true in Epstein’s or Col. Tom Parker’s case, and certainly not my own.
Q – You used the William Morris Agency as the booking agency for Bruce. You got on well with an agent there named Peter Golden. Were you happy with the job the Morris people did for Bruce? Couldn’t I.C.M. or Premier Talent have done a better job for Bruce? They were more rock oriented.
A – Peter Golden was the West Coast agent at the William Morris Agency that was handling Bruce Springsteen. However, Sam McKeith was the Number One Agent at the William Morris Agency that promoted Springsteen and all the major deals that Springsteen was offered came through his office. Sam McKeith was the guy who signed Bruce. However, Peter Golden did not miss Bruce when he was presented with Bruce’s tapes. He really loved him as well and worked very hard to see that Bruce was promoted properly on the West Coast in those early years. Premier Talent at the time was Heavy Metal with Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath and all those other British bands. Springsteen was somewhat eclectic and left of center of their mainstream signings. Therefore, Frank Barsalona never gave us a tumble. I.C.M. passed. Forget the agent. He’s deceased. He had passed on the artist even though once Bruce hit, he wanted the artist. That was too little, too late. It was the William Morris Agency thank goodness that stuck their neck out and got us the Bookings that sort of saved our necks, and Sam McKeith was the agent that saved our necks.
Q – You were talking about your early days as a musician and you wrote, “You wanted to make a record, you made it. You sold it to a small label. They put it out and you were in the music business.” Does that music business still exist today?
A – (Laughs). Today’s business is so far from the late 50’s, early 60’s record business, it really isn’t funny. It’s become so corporate. Record companies used to live and die on an individual savvy, a musical savvy. Of course there’s always promotion and money spent on an artist that goes into making successful recording artists. But there were a great deal of individuals at the time that themselves were musicians or had been musicians or singers. None of that exists at all today. There are very few musician owned record companies today. There are some independents where the owners perhaps may have been musicians, or singers, or performers in their past. It’s so rare. Out of 100 record companies, maybe 2 or 3, tops. With all the majors there’s no such thing. You’re dealing with lawyers, accountants, business representatives, all corporate types who know really little or nothing about music. The musical environment, the artistic environment really doesn’t exist anymore. All you have is the musician and his coterie of musicians’ friends and band members if there are such and themselves, and their managers or producers. That’s the musician, artist environment. Then when the artist actually walks into SONY, it’s a completely corporate environment. It’s certainly nothing like the past when one individual could make a decision and that would be it. Today it’s made by committees.
Q – You write, “A victim of in-house power struggles and little promotion, Springsteen’s career almost broke at the gate as ‘Greetings’ proved a commercial disaster.” Why do record companies sign an artist and then sit back and do nothing to promote the album/CD.?
A – Well, it’s like any other business where there’s a flux of executives. You may be signed by Clive Davis in August. Then if Clive Davis is ousted for whatever reason, your power base has eroded completely. The new boss comes in and says if I promote Bruce Springsteen real hard, all the accolades and glory will go to Clive Davis not me ’cause all I’m doing is following Clive Davis’ lead. If I drop Bruce Springsteen and sign somebody else and make that person a star, I get all the glory. I get the promotion. It’s a windfall to me and nobody else. So from that statement you get a picture of what really happened at CBS and with Springsteen. To really answer your question beyond that, record cos. are signing lots of artists. They’re releasing lots of artists all at the same time. They know full well that there’s a certain number of them that are just gonna go down the tubes. Those that stick make up for all the losers. The cost of promoting any pop artist today is so astronomical that the record co. really has to feel they’ve got three or four hits in that first album so they can sell five or six million copies. This is not gonna be a growth project where the artist blossoms under the auspices of the label’s good will and good nature. It’s gotta be on the first record. Your first three records have to exist on your first record. You really have to be grown-up by the time you come to the label in the first place. It’s a telescoping of an artist’s life and career so to speak. It’s stupid, but then again it’s the nature of the beast. We all are who we are.
Q – You say, “Rock stardom is notoriously brief. The average run at the top for an act is usually a year, two at the most.” Isn’t that what’s wrong with the business today? That has to change, right?
A – Well, you know you live in a junk food society. You take pictures with a camera then you get rid of the camera. You know, disposable cameras. Well, everything is like that. Something that’s “hot” today, three weeks from today is boring. That’s the society we live in. All art is a reflection of the times within which it lives and blossoms. The music business is no different. It’s a direct reflection on us and the way we are. Does that have to change? I guess so. We have to change. When we change, that’ll change, but not before. It’s just the way it is.
Q – You point out that record cos. always make you sign for more albums than you can possibly deliver in the allotted time. Then later when and if they agree to cut your recording obligations in half they’re going to get something for it. Like what? Publishing? Merchandising? What did Bruce give up?
A – Record cos. are notorious for saying two albums a year for five years or ten albums. Now, there’s no artist on the face of the earth that does that. What happens is once an artist hits, the artist’s manager and or lawyer goes running to the record co. and asks for a big advance and a change in royalty rates and all sorts of accelerations. The record co. is usually amendable to that because what they’re gonna do is stretch out the contract. They know the artist can’t do ten albums in five years. That’s ridiculous. So they got all sorts of other little goodies. Half publishing and merchandising deals are really not part of that negotiation because usually publishing and merchandising deals are initially cut when an artist is signed to a record label not after the artist becomes a success. What happens is the record co. gives an artist a bigger royalty rate and a big chunk of cash because the record co. knows they’re going to have to give it to the artist anyway. They’re just giving the artist his own money early. Then they’re going to get a longer term contract. They’re gonna say we got a deal with you for seven albums. Well, that could take an artist 15 years or longer. The record co. is after an agreement that’s conterminous with the number of albums they can get an artist to agree on. No greatest hits package or “live” albums will count towards that recording commitment. They know they’re locking the artist up for a long time that is their purpose. Those are the kinds of things that go on. Bruce didn’t give up anything. After the break-up of Bruce and I, as far as I know, Bruce gave us seven or eight albums. You know how long it takes Bruce to do albums. So, they have Bruce ‘til this minute.
Q – After Bruce appeared on both Time and Newsweek in the same week in 1975, you had a lot of big name artists calling you asking you to manage them. Fleetwood Mac called. John Cougar Mellencamp called. The Knack called. You turned them all down. Why?
A – I could’ve handled other major artists once Springsteen became a success. But, if you knew how ensconced I was in his creative and business life you would know there really was no time to do anything else. I couldn’t stop being Springsteen’s Producer, manager one day and then suddenly work in Fleetwood Mac or John Cougar Mellencamp. There was just no way I could possibly do that. I couldn’t switch gears. I was just so focused on Springsteen and what that was all about that I couldn’t really focus on anything else. I just couldn’t do it psychologically, emotionally, artistically. Businesswise I probably would’ve done a half-ass job. Springsteen was a full-time job and that was it.
Q – You were constantly pushing, promoting Bruce, to the record co. to the press. Did anyone at anytime ever come up to you and say, “Mike, great job”?
A – Well, actually during the famous Bottom Line performance of Springsteen in the summer of ’75 I was sitting with Lou Reed and Clive Davis. Clive was no longer the president of Columbia Records. He was with Arista Records. He did put his hand right on my knee and said, “You did it. You did do it. You finally did it.” Clive was one of the only guys that actually ever said that to me. I did however, have a very good meeting with Walter Yetnikoff who’s no longer with CBS as well. When we did finally get Bruce on the covers of “Time” and “Newsweek”, he did respond with a very nice, cordial letter to me. So there were a couple of people that said “Nice work”. It’s like you work so hard for something so long, it finally happens, you’re a little bit startled. When I saw the covers of Newsweek and Time myself, I was startled by the enormity of that situation. Being so young to have engineered that, it was startling to me. It’s all upon you, this tremendous success. All the things you’ve been working for, for so long are so attainable. You have all sorts of choices that didn’t exist six months ago. It was quite an experience. There weren’t a lot of people that said, “Great work”. But, even Jerry Weintraub (Karate Kid film producer) congratulated me and was gonna introduce me to Col. Tom Parker. It never occurred actually. Even my old boss Wes Farrell congratulated me. So I can’t say no one congratulated me. But, there isn’t as many as you might think. It’s kind of a lonely thing, (laughs), the success, when it finally comes. There isn’t as much camaraderie as you might think in the industry.
Q – You think that Bruce’s recent music is too simplistic and devoid of the unique art form he once possessed. So you don’t like his newer material?
A – There are several songs that are post Mike Appel that Springsteen has written that Mike Appel likes musically and lyrically, although lyrically not as much as his earlier things. I just feel that he and Landau made a conscious effort to try and simplify his lyric writing and try to write what they thought were somewhat commercial, mainstream songs. When they did that they never ended up with another “Meeting Across, The River.” They never ended up with another ‘ Jungle Land’ or ‘Born to Run’. Nothing ever came close to these things. As far as I’m concerned Springsteen peaked in 1975 and never reached that artist peak again. He reached a commercial peak, which was bigger than ‘Born to Run’ which was the “Born in the U.S.A.” album. But as far as I was concerned there was just no way he ever out did those early recordings because they were unique lyrically and musically. He never ended up with that kind of musical mix ever again.
Q – Are you still actively involved in the music business?
A – I would say at the moment, no. Whether, or not I’m going to go back into it. I don’t know. Whether or not I’m going to go back into it in a different way, that is to say as a publisher, producer, or manager, I don’t know. Whether or not I would try to get financing to acquire some entity — a record co., music publishing co. or studio complex I don’t know either. I’m on the cusp of deciding whether or not to come back in the record business. I’m a different person than I was back when I started out. I gained a lot of knowledge, in other areas. I’m not sure how they would play in today’s musical mix. I don’t know if it’s part of my life’s purpose to continue on in the record business at this time or not. I’ve procrastinated though for some time on this. But, it’s come to a point where I am going to make a decision very, very shortly.