NEW YORK — It's more than a decade since John Hammond Sr. of Columbia Records signed Bob Dylan to a recording contract. Since then, Hammond has signed a number of other successes and, by his own admission, a number of "stiffs." Now he has signed Bruce Springsteen, 23, of Ashbury Park, New Jersey, and Hammond says: "He's much further along, much more developed than Bobby was when he came to me."
Much about Springsteen reminds people of Dylan — the slept-in appearance, foggy manner, the twang, the lyrics and the phrasing of his songs. It seems only natural that Hammond should have signed him. But to Bruce ". . . it was just plain weird.
"I mean a couple of weeks ago I had just finished reading Dylan's biography and now I find myself sitting in Hammond's office with my beat-up guitar, and like the whole thing I've been reading about is about to happen to me. But what Mike was doing was even weirder."
Mike is Mike Appel, who with Jim Cretecos manages and produces Bruce. Appel and Cretecos' previous teamwork includes the creation of a couple of gold singles for the Partridge Family. For Springsteen, the managerial strategy is to ". . . start at the top and work down."
"Mike is a funny guy," said Bruce. "He's like a real hyper, and he gets into the whole thing like playing the role. So I'm sitting in the corner with my old beat-up guitar, when all of a sudden Mike jumps up and starts hyping John Hammond. I couldn't believe it. I had to start laughing. John Hammond told me later that he was ready to hate me. But he asked me to do a song, so I did 'It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City.' "
Despite the hype, Hammond signed him and Bruce moved from his free wheelin' stage into phase two — exploitation. It worked like this:
A member of the press would get a phone call from the publicity department at Columbia and be told he would receive an advance copy of a record by a new artist (not unusual), and after he had a chance to listen to it, President Clive Davis would appreciate a call to get his reaction (highly unusual).
Meanwhile, visitors to the CBS Building encountered publicity personnel and suited executives alike greeting people with the question, "Hi . . . have you heard Bruce Springsteen yet?"
Bruce Springsteen is admittedly surprised by all the attention, but is showing no signs of stress. "Well, shit man, you know, what do I care, I'll do anything once. If it works it works. But I don't wanna be concerned with too much of what's going on with promotion. That don't seem so important to me, but it's important to Mike. I trust whatever he does. Anyway it never seemed like I had it that bad before," he laughed.
"I'll admit it seems a little weird the way these record company dudes operate. Seems like one dude says 'hey everybody's signing up geniuses this month. Genius is going to be good for business, we better lock one up fast.' But as I say, I'll do anything. I mean I have nothing else to do. I have nothing else to do at all."
Bruce was 13 when his hometown cousin in Freehold, New Jersey, showed him how to make the same music on the guitar that the Beachboys, the Shirells, Gary (US) Bonds, the Chiffons, and his other favorites were making on the radio. That was enough to alter his fantasy of becoming a baseball player to a fantasy of becoming a rock & roll star.
The new fantasy stuck, and long after his cousin had gone on to a non-musical career at Freehold Raceway, Bruce continued to do nothing but play music.
"Well, actually, I did work as a gardener once, but that didn't last too long, even though I guess it was the only real job I ever had. I did go to college once, too. Ocean County Community College. But one day I got called into the nuttiedoctor's office, and remember this was before a lot of people were getting weird . . . . The shrink asked me what was the matter. So I told him nothing could possibly be the matter getting to hang around a fine place like that campus. But then he told me that students had been complaining about me. That's what the dude said. Well I figured there was no use hanging around there so I split."
Bruce's musical career has not been interrupted since. A brief army physical cleared him of military duty, "for reasons of weirdness," and left him free to play bars and weddings, fronting for various groups, the most successful being a "Humble Pie-type band" called Steel Mill, which stayed together for a couple of years building a reputation in New Jersey, and the least successful being Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom, which featured everybody he knew who could play an instrument.
Dr. Zoom died after only a couple of booms, which left Bruce to form the (ten-piece) Bruce Springsteen Band, which was more successful, but not by much. At 21, Bruce unplugged and set out on a solo acoustic career.
His present band of brilliant unknowns was put together here and there at bars Bruce was playing. And now, by his own account, they're living high off the hog. "When our band goes into a Holiday Inn we step up in the world. The beds are nice. They got color TV. I love those places. When we go there we know we're gonna eat good and have a good time. I can't understand why those places get such a bum rap."
Bruce's only national exposure so far came via recording of his live performance broadcast over 53 FM stations as part of the debut of the King Biscuit Flower Hour.
His recent week's appearance at Max's Kansas City, however, created quite the scene in the Big Apple. The house was packed by the time he walked on stage each night. People were crammed on each other's laps. His sets ran close to an hour followed by an impatient demand for an encore, which, because of time, and because he was playing second bill to Biff Rose, he could not fullfill.
Onstage, he projected a dirty sexual energy that rivaled the best of the established stars with whom he has been compared (Robbie Robertson, Richie Havens, Van Morrison), coupled with a loose, cavalier attitude.
A number of distinguished guests not previously known to venture so far downtown showed up at Max's, including Mrs. Ted Kennedy. "Yeah they told me Mrs. Kennedy was out there," Bruce said. "But I found that hard to believe. I mean, I had to ask myself, what would she be out there for?"