The Israeli roots of Bruce Springsteen's 'Born to Run'

Israeli studio engineer recalls being in the trenches with the Boss when he recorded his rock & roll masterpiece ‘Born to Run,’ released 45 years ago

LAHAV AND Bruce Springsteen during the recording of ‘Born to Run,’ in 1974. (photo credit: Courtesy)
LAHAV AND Bruce Springsteen during the recording of ‘Born to Run,’ in 1974.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run may have Jersey grease fueling its romantic rumblings, but there’s also some Israeli blood, sweat and tears pumping through the album’s iconic songs – thanks to Louis Lahav.
In his tender 20s, the veteran Kfar Saba-based producer found himself at a pivotal point in rock & roll history as the house recording engineer at 914 Studios in Blauvelt, New York, about 20 miles outside of New York City.
It was there in 1974 that Springsteen, fearful of losing his contract with Columbia Records after releasing two sterling – but poorly-selling – albums, arrived to record a song that would make or break his career.
“Everyone knew what was at stake with Bruce’s next album and it all centered on the title song ‘Born to Run,’ Lahav told The Jerusalem Post this week, marking the 45th anniversary of the release of the album, which is regularly slotted among the top 10 best of the rock era.
“We worked for six months just on the song, back and forth with different arrangements, overdubs. Bruce kept rewriting the lyrics. I was there late at night with him when everyone else had conked out and gone home. I stuck with him, I had been a paratrooper in the army and had this boundless energy, so Bruce always used to kid me about it.”
The painstaking process was the result of Springsteen’s intent to create an album that, in his words, would combine Roy Orbison’s voice, Bob Dylan’s lyrics and Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” production, a vision that would confound those involved and prolong the recording process as they continually revised their efforts. Springsteen expressed anger and frustration over making the album, telling one interviewer that he heard “sounds in [his] head” that he couldn’t explain to the others in the studio.
Over the course of the marathon 18-month sessions that created the landmark album, Springsteen’s world underwent tremors: He replaced his drummer, lost his gifted piano player David Sancious to a solo career, reunited with his longtime Jersey shore bandleader Steve Van Zandt, gained a musical ear in champion of his music – rock critic Jon Landau – and eventually switched studios to complete the album.
Lahav was a constant during that upheaval and the pressure of trying to create something “great,” which often resulted in creative conflicts, usually pitting manager and producer Mike Appel on one side and newcomer Landau on the other.
“I was the innocent bystander, just trying to do my job,” said the 71-year-old Lahav. “Bruce had a vision and he was driven, it was evident. He had taken a huge step forward in his songwriting and arranging. We were all aware that the musical direction was changing toward this big sound, and we worked together as a team to create it, even amid the conflicts.”
“We only had 16 tracks to work with and they were packed, because he had had so much going on in the songs. I had to ping-pong between tracks all the time to get everything in. Clarence Clemons’s sax solo on “Born to Run” was recorded in different parts and I had to edit them to make it a whole solo. It was a really long voyage on that song.”
In comparison, the other songs later emerged relatively quickly, and when Springsteen and his newly revamped band, including new drummer Max Weinberg and pianist Roy Bittan, went back in the studio, Lahav was there to record the basic rhythm tracks for such classics as “Thunder Road” and “Backstreets.”
And it was a family affair as well. Lahav’s violin-playing wife at the time, Suki, joined Springsteen’s touring band for a few months and performed on Born To Run’s closing epic “Jungleland.”
BY THEN, Lahav was firmly ensconced as a trusted member of Springsteen’s inner sanctum, having also manned the boards on his first two albums, 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey and 1974’s The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, both recorded at 914.
In the middle of the recording Born to Run, Landau convinced Springsteen to abandon the more basic studio for the state-of-the-art facilities of New York City’s Record Plant. Lahav followed them, along with his assistant Jimmy Iovine (who went on to become a music mega-mogul) who eventually took over the engineering helm.
“Landau told Bruce that he needed a bigger sound that the Record Plant could provide. But my theory is that it all stems from the song “New York City Serenade” on The Wild and the Innocent. It’s my favorite song I ever did with him, and there’s a great piano introduction [by David Sancious] that in my opinion has an amazing sound. But you can hear the piano pedal squeaking, and Jon was upset about that,” said Lahav with a laugh.
“At one point at the Record Plant, they kept trying to remix “Born to Run” – the record company told them to bring up the vocals, make it more radio accessible – but Jimmy couldn’t get it right. They couldn’t find the magic, it took months, and they eventually kept my mix.
In the midst of the off-again, on-again recording process, Lahav was recruited to serve as road manager/driver/money collector for shows during the six-month period after “Born to Run” was sent to radio stations but prior to the release of the album that would put Springsteen on the cover of both Time and Newsweek and propel him toward superstardom.
“It was extremely demanding being on the road, herding them around and getting them up in the morning. I had to arrange all the hotels, and I’d be walking around with tons of cash in my pockets, but it was great. It was like a cult,” he recalled.
The operation had already grown beyond the pack-them-in-the-station-wagon phase and we were playing arenas and universities to maybe 5,000 people. We all knew something big was going to happen,” he recalled.
He passed that well-placed hunch on to Weinberg when the drummer joined the band.
“Louie was the first person I really got to know as I entered the world of the E Street Band in August of 1974,” Weinberg told the Post last week.
“Whether as recording engineer, road manager, driver, resident philosopher – a true jack-of-all-trades – Louie called me aside during our first rehearsal after I got the drumming job and said he was happy for me as he truly believed Bruce was going to be the biggest star in the world. That took a while but Louie’s prediction was spot on. Louie’s warmth, deep soulfulness, and big spirited intelligence are major elements of what I remember from my first days with the E Street Band.”
Lahav said he was most close to Weinberg and Clemons, but that the entire band, especially Springsteen, took it upon as their mission to provide the young Israeli with a musical education.
“They taught me all about rock history – ‘Have you heard this?’ ‘You need to learn about them.’ It was a musical boot camp on the sources of American rock, soul and R&B,” he said.
LAHAV’S PATH to E Street began in his teens in Jaffa, after arriving in Israel from his native Bolivia at age 12. Learning to play guitar, he spent his teens in a musical theater orchestra in the late 1960s ahead of his IDF induction. After his service, he flew to New York where his father lived and enrolled at NYU, but within a few months, he had switched to studying recording technology at the Institute of Audio Research.
“I knew I wanted to enter the recording studio world, so I made a contact at Ampex, which made recording equipment, and told them I wanted to open a studio in Israel but I needed some experience and asked for their advice,” he said.
“They introduced me to Brooks Arthur, who at that time worked as engineer or producer with Neil Diamond, Janis Ian and Van Morrison, and he took me under his wing. We developed an amazing chemistry and I became his assistant at 914, which he owned.”
Within a few months, he had become house engineer and was recording James Taylor and Blood Sweat and Tears. When Springsteen first arrived to record Greetings in 1973, Lahav was immediately smitten.
“Right from the start, I knew there was something special about him and that he was going to go far,” said Lahav.
However, upon the release of the landmark album in 1975, just as Springsteen began to receive the accolades that Lahav always knew was coming, a family tragedy forced the Lahavs to return to Israel. They divorced in 1977.
Since then, he’s enjoyed a long, storied career, producing the cream of Israeli musical talent – from Arik Einstein and Kaveret to David Broza, Shlomo Artzi and Keren Peles. On the day he was interviewed, Lahav was taking a break from recording a duet between Broza and Miri Masika.
“I reduced my time in the studio the last few years, and was focusing on doing sound for big live shows, but now there are no shows, so it’s back in the studio,” he said.
He looks back on his work with Springsteen, specifically “Born to Run,” with a mixture of pride and wonder.
“It’s music that’s still alive and will be played for a long time to come,” he said. “The single ‘Born To Run’ is definitely one of the best things I’ve ever been associated with.”
As to his former employer, they’re still in touch. Lahav was Springsteen’s personal guest last year at a performance of Springsteen on Broadway. When asked if he brought up the idea of Springsteen performing in Israel, Lahav laughed and said, “Are you kidding? I would never presume to ask him something like that.”
Sometimes your boss remains your boss, even 45 years later.