There are two big things about Bruce I took from his accessible, cozy autobiography. The first: The Boss is a businessman. He’s all about the contracts, the rights, the residuals. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Given what Bruce admits, the label sticks. He is the bandleader. Always. Everybody else is an employee; their work and compensation are defined by written contracts. Bruce and his manager dictated all the thousands of things that made up a Springsteen tour: dates and locations, the players, the rehearsal schedule, transportation, hotels, meals. The songs are his. The set list is his. The profits? His. He tells of one band member (Mr. Springsteen is discreet and doesn’t identify him) who, mid-tour, demanded a raise. Bruce asked for proof there was one comparable musician who made more. End of conversation.
Bruce doesn’t say what he pays his band but leaves the impression he is no Scrooge. He seems to care deeply about the people who work for him. Many have been friends since before the day when his mother paid for his first guitar. For those who are no longer his employees, friendships remain. Bruce successfully mixes business and personal relationships as very few have (and as very few should dare try).
He views each album as a product with features designed for what he believes is his audience. Each new product, with a few exceptions, has to be highly marketable to that specific audience. The product is market tested with fans. Some would call these ‘focus groups.’ Bruce calls them ‘concerts.’ The product also has to gain favor with the wizards who work the knobs on the sound boards. Success for each product is a function of sales. Sales are a function of how many fans are having fun.
Grand and storied enterprises have thrived for decades on shakier ground.
Sometime around 2001, Bruce concluded that he and his long-time producer Jon Landau had lost their ability to predict what sound would sell. “The art of production had simply moved its center, and our ideas and techniques were no longer current, ear-friendly, exciting or competent,” he writes. Enter Brendan O’Brien, producer for the highly successful Rage Against the Machine and Pearl Jam. Bruce hired O’Brien to produce The Rising, an album that was a remarkable commercial and critical success, a rare late-career spike that must have left Pete Townshend aching with envy.
Bruce deserves credit for being open about business, particularly the dangers of establishing boundaries with old friends who have become your employees. Very few of his musical colleagues have dared to be so frank; they would better serve their more enterprising fans if they did. Many drawn to careers in the performing arts bring naive assumptions about money. Bruce rightly senses that if any money isn’t nailed down, it’ll walk away. He reveals some of his focus on profits when he tells of his partnership with life-long friend, producer and advisor Jon Landau: “When Jon and I discuss our future course of action, he’s always been guided by two things: my well-being and happiness (then the tour gross!).”
Takeaway number two: even millionaire superstar rockers get bent heads. Late in life, Bruce picked up a lumbering case of depression that was as threatening as a child with a chain saw. He regularly sees a psychiatrist and takes meds daily. If symptoms worsen, the meds get altered. He acknowledges a battle that disables so many. Score one in the fight to get people with mental illness off the living room couch and into treatment. Score another for Bruce’s wife, Patti Scialfa who sometimes oversees his treatment. If the book were named for her, the title might have been “Born to Stand and Fight.”
Sample grab of insightful text: “Taxi driver, assembly line worker, autoworker, jail guard, bus driver, truck driver — these are just a few of the many jobs my pop worked during his life. My sisters and I grew up in blue-collar neighborhoods, somewhat integrated, filled with factory workers, cops, firemen, long-distance truck drivers. I never saw a man leave a house in a jacket and tie unless it was Sunday or he was in trouble. If you came knocking at our door with a suit on, you were immediately under suspicion. You wanted something.”
TL; DR *– Bruce’s writing is engaging. His story is inspiring. He focuses on how much of his success comes from his role as a benevolent taskmaster who runs a tight ship. His late-life battle with age and mental illness have been mostly successful, in large part, because he and his wife both married well. However, I didn’t learn anything that I thought might make my writing better.
* Too Long; Didn’t Read