Bruce’s Backing Band

From Momma Springsteen to Jon Landau, looking at Malcolm Gladwell’s theories of success in Outliers through the prism of Bruce Springsteen

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“It wasn’t an excuse. It was a fact. He’d (Chris Langan) had to make his way alone, and no one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever make it alone.” – from Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell.

Chris Langan is considered to be one of the smartest men in America. Whereas Einstein had an IQ of 150, Langan’s was 195. But unless you’ve read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, you probably haven’t heard of Langan. Langan grew up incredibly poor, mostly in Montana. He tried twice to attend college, but in both instances, failed to finish. So instead of living the life of an esteemed academic, he toiled away in obscurity- an example of what happens when the opportunities to succeed aren’t there.

Successful musicians are outliers. With this in mind, I want to look at Gladwell’s theories presented in Outliers through the prism of Bruce Springsteen, which could be partly attributed to the fact that I just finished the new Springsteen biography by Peter Ames Carlin (which is fantastic.)

We all know Bruce Springsteen by now. We know how successful he is, we know he got his start on the Jersey Shore, we know he’s the “Born in the U.S.A.” guy. The list could go on and on. The point is we know who Bruce Springsteen is. But here’s the thing, without some help along the way, there is a better chance Springsteen would be playing covers at the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey (a place frequented by bands playing covers of Springsteen,) than there would be of Springsteen playing sold out stadium shows all over the world.

Adele Springsteen. Springsteen grew up in a working class family in Freehold, New Jersey. Like most young teenagers, he struggled to latch on to something. Springsteen was awkward and quiet. His father worked all day and then spent his nights sitting alone in the kitchen with the lights off, smoking cigarettes. However, Springsteen’s mother, Adele, was lively and vibrant and brought music into the family’s home. Her love of music was picked up by a young Bruce, who fell in love with the groups of the early sixties and eventually the Beatles. For Christmas in 1964, Adele took out a small loan and as a present, got her son his first guitar. It cost $60.

Gordon “Tex” Vinyard. Springsteen took to his new guitar like I take to a new box of Cinnamon Life- with vigor! Springsteen got hooked up with the young Freehold band, the Castiles, when its singer was attempting to court Springsteen’s younger sister. The band started practicing at one of their parents’ houses- a duplex. Naturally the neighbors weren’t overly thrilled with this. The Vinyards were a couple in their thirties and didn’t have any children. When Mr. Vinyard, a fella who went by the name of Tex, approached the band to ask them to turn down the music- something about what they were doing connected with him. Maybe he was just looking for a hobby, maybe he was bored or maybe he was looking to introduce the presence of children into a marriage that wouldn’t allow it. Tex Vinyard became the Castiles manager, in addition to their main source of transportation to and from gigs. The Vinyard’s living room became the Castiles’ rehearsal space. High school bands come and go, regardless of the era. I myself was in about 10. But with Vinyard’s guidance, the Castiles became tighter and more professional than their peers. When the band eventually broke up, Vinyard’s tutelage left the members better prepared for finding new gigs- especially Springsteen.

Vini Lopez. Lopez by description alone was the Jersey Shore’s answer to Led Zeppelin’ John Bonham. He was wild, animalistic and frequently a combustible wild card. He was also a hell of a drummer and fixture in the Asbury Park music scene in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Like most musicians during that time period, he spent a lot of time at the Upstage Club. It was at the Upstage Club were Lopez met a young Bruce Springsteen, who had rambled in, looking to jam with anyone who would have him. Lopez had been looking to start a band and when he saw Springsteen and heard him play, knew any band he was going to start had to include Springsteen. The two would play together for the better part of the next decade, playing in the bands Earth, Child, Steel Mill and eventually early incarnations of the E Street Band. Lopez was the one who introduced Springsteen to Helper no. 4, Tinker West.

Carl “Tinker” West. West moved to Asbury in 1968, where he was looking to launch east coast operations for his surfboard company, Challenger Surfboard Company, which he had started in California three years earlier. A genius with electronics, West also dabbled in building amps and speakers. The fact that Asbury was more a tourist scene than a scene scene was a bummer to West, who had come from the fertile lands of the Haight/Asbury in San Francisco. Through Lopez, West found Springsteen and in Springsteen, West found a hobby. West made a pretty simple agreement with Springsteen, Lopez and the other members of the band- I’ll build you amps and provide you with rehearsal space and you play your asses off. Not much gray area. The band moved into the back of the Challenger factory just outside of Asbury and essentially enlisted in upcoming band boot camp. West laid it out for them- “If I gotta work, you’ve got to work. So if I’m out there sanding a surfboard, I better be hearing you guys make music in here.” Settling on the name Steel Mill, the band tightened their sound and with West managing them, made it all the way over to the West Coast to play shows. They developed a fierce, but scattered following along the east coast and in turn, Springsteen started both making a name for himself and really honing his craft. It’s with Steel Mill that his stage persona- the working man’s spokesman and revivalist, started to emerge. His songwriting improved as well as he benefited greatly from having literally nothing to do but write songs, play songs, record songs and repeat. Steel Mill gradually ran out of gas and gave way to a Springsteen solo career, with many of the same musicians still in the fold. West was still involved too, but had given up his managerial duties. Ever dedicated to the cause though, he was determined to find someone to take his place.

Mike Appel. When West set out to find Springsteen a new manager, a friend pointed him in the direction of Appel, a young songwriter for CBS (he wrote songs for the Partridge Family,) who was looking to branch out into producing and managing. Much like West, Appel was completely taken by Springsteen and overwhelmed by his potential and talent. After an audition at the CBS offices in New York City, Appel and Springsteen reached an agreement where Appel would become Springsteen’s new manager. Appel guided Springsteen through the early seventies up until the mid-eighties, when money and publishing rights derailed their relationship. But up until that point, Appel’s impassioned fighting and persistent managing of Springsteen’s career lead to his first record deal and eventual fame and popularity brought on by the Born to Run album.

Jon Landau. Part of the reason Born to Run was so successful was the inclusion of Landau into Springsteen’s inner circle. Landau had been a music writer for a few papers in Boston when Springsteen first met him in the mid-seventies. Springsteen was a review hawk and upon meeting the young and talented Landau, was immediately wondering why he felt the way he did (not great) about the production of Springsteen’s first two albums. When Springsteen returned to Boston a few months later, Landau was there again and his review of the show became one of the better pieces of music criticism ever- including the infamous line: “I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” Landau joined the production team for Born to Run and has yet to leave thirty years later. When Appel left, Landau became Springsteen’s manager, overseeing everything Springsteen related there is. While it’s tough to say which one of these helpers ended up being the most important, you could make an argument that it was Landau.

Now there’s a good chance that without all of these people doing what they did, Bruce Springsteen still could have become the Bruce Springsteen we know today. But it’s doubtful. Springsteen was driven, he had ambition and he had talent- but as Gladwell so frequently argues in Outliers, in most cases, talent is not enough. We need help. No one does it on their own.

Without his mother taking out that loan (and not telling his dad about it) Springsteen wouldn’t have gotten a guitar when he did and without Tex taking him and the Castiles under his wing, Springsteen wouldn’t have learned what it’s like to be in a real band, to play real gigs and to play real songs. And all that experience he gained with the Castiles is what then led Springsteen to go looking for people to play with at the Upstage Club, where he met Lopez, who introduced him to West. West provided something that dooms so many bands- rehearsal space. His boot camp enabled Springsteen to make the leap from bar band savant to promising young musician. Then West, upon disagreeing with Springsteen about his future and dissolving their relationship, sought out Appel, who was able to provide the management Springsteen needed to really make a name for himself. Appel also legitimized Springsteen’s touring, touring that led him to Boston and Jon Landau.

Outliers is about advantages and it’s about opportunity. This is prevalent in business, sports and academics, but it’s especially prevalent in music. You can play and write as many great songs as humanely possible- but unless you have a stage to play them on, a studio to record them in, and people to play them with, the greatest doesn’t matter. For every Bruce Springsteen, there’s roughly 100 guys and gals like him- just without the fame, the fortune and success. The difference between Springsteen and them isn’t just talent- it’s the people and situations that he encountered along the way.

Yes Mr. Gladwell, it’s the outliers.

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