Bruce Springsteen's backstage battle -- Claims from former roadies are stinging the singer

While the reticent Bruce Springsteen has been even more reclusive of late (his only musical foray since 1988’s Tunnel of Love and Amnesty International tours was a benefit concert in L.A. last November), he hasn’t exactly been dormant. Holed up in L.A. with his wife, Patti Scialfa, and their year-old son, Evan James, Springsteen has recorded at least 40 tracks for a new, as-yet-untitled record for Columbia, his 10th all told. The 42-year-old is also trying to put behind him a nagging flash from the past — an ugly lawsuit filed by two former roadies. While the gist of the recently settled case has been reported, details from court papers show that even by the standards of rock disputes, the Springsteen battle was remarkably nasty.

To recap: Michael Batlan, 38, who worked as Bruce’s guitar technician, and Douglas Sutphin, 36, a drum technician, primarily claimed that the Boss owed them overtime pay, unlawfully fined them, and failed to observe federal and state labor laws during their 10-year tenures. Batlan also claimed Springsteen breached an oral contract to pay him ”slightly less” than what he paid the band. Denying all charges, Springsteen said he had fulfilled his responsibilities to the roadies ”three times, four times, 10 times over.”

If the case had gone to trial and the roadies had won, their claims for overtime could have forced major changes in the rock concert business. (Rock crews do not earn an hourly wage, and this case could have set a precedent.) As it turned out, the suit was more notable for its down-and-dirty tactics, with each side calling the other a liar. For the roadies, that meant taking aim at Springsteen’s blue-collar, true-to-his-roots image. ”Bruce is not what he appears to be,” said Batlan, who tried to paint the Boss as a former friend gone fatheaded on fame and money. The roadies’ attorneys used the pretrial discovery process for a wide-ranging fishing expedition, going so far in one deposition as to ask Springsteen if he had beaten his girlfriends.

The Boss responded by portraying Batlan and Sutphin as drug users who had jeopardized one of his tours by smuggling pot into Japan. He charged Batlan with bootlegging demo tapes, and characterized the pair as incompetents kept on for sentimental reasons. ”They were the last two local guys,” he said.

Attacks on character came from both sides. In one deposition the roadies’ lawyers asked the star if he had ever heard of Woody Guthrie — the folksinger whose Depression-era songs about the downtrodden Springsteen has recorded. The Boss exploded. ”I don’t mean to be rude,” an exasperated Springsteen said, ”but to equate Mike and Doug with beleaguered factory workers from the ’30s or migrant laborers — two guys that are making $50,000 a year and walked out with almost a quarter of a million dollars between them — is, excuse my English, f— ing ridiculous.”

Perhaps Judge Florence Peskoe concurred. The undisclosed settlement was reached just days before the case was to go to trial, when Judge Peskoe announced she was prepared to throw out a portion of the roadies’ claims.

Bruce is back in Los Angeles, trying to finish the album for release sometime next year. Ironically, given the claims that he’s left his roots, this will be the first album Springsteen has made since he dismantled his old E-Street Band.