Friday, March 11, 2016

BEAVERS, TOADS, AND THE BIG BOSS MAN( A warm August night, 1978)

A warm August night with Bruce Springsteen

But tonight there is someone I can write of the way I used to write, without reservations of any kind. Last Thursday, at the Harvard Square theatre, I saw my rock’n'roll past flash before my eyes. And I saw something else: I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time."

Jon Landau-The Real Paper May 22, 1974.

This quote, specifically the highlighted portion, is credited with pushing a relatively unknown Bruce Springsteen into the limelight. The quote was part of an article written by Rolling Stone music critic Jon Landau after seeing a Springsteen performance at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge Mass. Landau had been writing for the magazine since its inception in 1967, and earlier in the article laments the loss of the passionate obsession for music that fueled his early years. 
To quote: "Today I listen to music with a certain measure of detachment. I’m a professional and I make my living commenting on it. There are months when I hate it, going through the routine just as a shoe salesman goes through his"

Seeing Springsteen perform changed all that for Landau, and in 1975 he replaced Mike Appel as Springsteen's manager, and co-producer on his third album, Born to Run.

With all due respect to Jon Landau, I'm sorry but Bruce Springsteen is my business. Nice article and all but he was a year late to the Springsteen dance. I had already discovered Bruce in June of 1973 when he and his E Street Band were the opening act for Chicago (the group not the play) at Veteran's Memorial Coliseum in New Haven. Admittedly my discovery wasn't as wide ranging or influential, consisting mainly of my close friends, but  I feel strongly that we were the seedlings that later blossomed into the "hard core group of east coast fanatics" that Time Magazine referenced in their 1975 cover story on Bruce.
In any event my own passion for "horn bands" had me seated in Veteran's Memorial Coliseum in June of 1973 for Chicago's performance, along with opening act, Bruce Springsteen. Typical for most opening acts, the crowd was disinterested at best, and later interviews revealed that Springsteen was most likely just as disinterested. He never wanted to play big arenas, the experience of touring with Chicago soured him to the point that even after the success of Born to Run in 1975, he refused to play big arena shows until 1978. The music coming from the stage that night certainly wasn't big arena ready but there was something intriguing that grabbed my interest. Jazzy piano and organ, a scruffy bearded white guy fronting the band, a football lineman sized black man alongside him playing saxophone, certainly not typical of most 1973 bands. Sounded a little like Van Morrison, a little like Dylan, but mostly like nothing I had ever heard before. I can't really say I was blown away, the distraction of a noisy crowd along with a faulty sound system made it difficult to fully enjoy the performance.
   The next day I was wandering the aisles of Cutler’s Records in New Haven, if a Bruce Springsteen album existed, this was the place to find it. The memory is still vivid 43 years later, getting that album in my hand, Greetings from Asbury Park, cleverly formatted to mimic a postcard from the shores of New Jersey. Inside, and on the back cover, every inch of available space covered with the sprawling stream of consciousness poetry that marked Springsteen's early writing style. Before listening to a note of music  I was immersed in the lyrics:

I was the king of the alley, Mama, I could talk some trash
I was the prince of the paupers, crowned downtown at the beggar's bash
I was the pimp's main prophet, I kept everything cool
Just a backstreet gambler with the luck to lose
And when the heat came down it was left on the ground
The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street
Showin' me a hand I knew even the cops couldn't beat
I felt his hot breath on my neck as I dove into the heat
It's so hard to be a saint when you're just a boy out on the street

The music behind the poetry made it clear that this was no Van Morrison or Dylan clone. The influences were there, but the music, a keyboard and sax driven blend of rhythm and blues, folk, and rock was uniquely Springsteen's, crafted in the bars and beaches along the Jersey Shore where Bruce had grown up.  Prior to Landau's article and up through the release of  Springsteen's second album in 1974, it felt like we were  members of an exclusive club who knew  something unique in the world of music was happening on the shores of Jersey. In today's market it might be labeled "indie Bruce”.

   The next time I saw Springsteen in concert, he was again the opening act, this time on a bill that included one hit wonders "The Chambers Brothers" (Time Has Come Today) and headliner Leslie West, whose claim to fame was lead guitarist in the short lived rock band Mountain (Mississippi Queen). The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has yet to open their doors for either group.

     Landau's review followed the release of Springsteen's second, and in my opinion best album "The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle" a collection of 7 songs that clearly defined Springsteen's style. He was not the next new "Dylan" as some articles had claimed; Dylan wasn't creating songs that were almost symphonic in nature and operatic vocally. In retrospect this was very sophisticated songwriting for someone who had yet to reach his 24th birthday. The critics loved him but the albums were hastily and poorly recorded, never attaining the kind of sales the quality of the music deserved.

   His fan base continued to expand mainly through his reputation as a live performer, word of mouth creating something of a legend around his shows culminating in Landau's glowing review.

Shockingly , slightly more than a year after that review, and two months after the release of his third album "Born to Run"  Springsteen was featured simultaneously on the covers of both Time and Newsweek October 27, 1975 editions. This would be the first time a rock star had been awarded both covers in the same week, a significant event in the pre internet world.
While the publicity surrounding the dual covers introduced Bruce to a wider audience, the fact that a relative unknown appeared on both covers in the same week created a negative backlash. The Time article written by Jay Cocks was written from a fan's perspective, a glowing narrative suggesting that Springsteen would be the next “distinctive voice of a generation" in rock. The Newsweek article, written by Maureen Orth, took a slightly different approach, suggesting that Springsteen might be an industry created hype, part of the "star maker machinery"referenced in Joni Mitchell's song Free Man in Paris.
   Unfortunately for Springsteen, a forced three year hiatus followed this rush of publicity. Hungry for a record deal, Bruce had  naively signed a contract that gave his first manager Mike Appel rights to all his music, it took three years and an ugly court battle with Appel to finally have those rights restored.
     His fourth album Darkness on the Edge of Town was released three years after "Born to Run" in the spring on 1978. On August 25th of that year, Bruce and his E Street Band stormed back into the same Veteran's Memorial Coliseum where I had first seen them perform five years earlier. Bruce had finally relented to big arena shows, the demand for tickets too great to continue in smaller venues.  It was rumored that during sound checks Bruce would go sit in every corner of the arena to make sure the sound was clear. 
Any similarity to the band I had seen five years earlier had vanished. The band that wasn't arena ready in 1973 rattled every corner of the coliseum with crystal clear adrenaline pumping, LOUD!!  rock that at times threatened to literally levitate the building. The makeup of the band was basically the same other than personnel changes on drums and piano, but the tenor of the show was completely different. From the opening notes of Elvis Presley's Good Rockin Tonight, this was a full out rock and roll show, a band on a mission to dispel any  hype rumors that still  existed.  Further evidence that this would not be a typical night of music occurred when after 12 songs and 90 minutes, Bruce and the band put down their instruments to acknowledge the frenzied audience, usually the  prelude to  an encore. Instead Bruce stepped to the mic to inform us that the band would be taking a short break, then return to play another whole set. This was bar band stuff in an arena setting, and true to his word, we were treated to a second set plus encores covering two more hours and 13 additional songs. It was exhilarating, exhausting, emotionally draining, it was Landau's words from that 1974 article coming to life. It really was like hearing music for the very first time. We walked out into the warm summer night, ears ringing, voices hoarse from screaming "Bruuuuuuceeeeeeee", walking with the crowds of people exiting the arena who all had the same look of pure joy on their face.

Still on an adrenaline high from what we had just witnessed, and in full "future of rock and roll" mode we headed down the street to Toad’s Place, where Springsteen sound-alike Beaver Brown Band was playing.  There were rumors floating around the coliseum during the show that Bruce might join the band for a few songs, which seemed impossible given what we had just witnessed, but it was Saturday night, Beaver Brown put on a good show, and after 3 hours on a heart pumping thrill ride, sleep wasn't an option. 
Once inside Toad's I managed to work my way up to the front of the stage, never dreaming that Bruce would really show up. A few minutes later, a gawking crowd gathered in the window that stretched across the front of the club as a giant tour bus   pulled into view. The lights dimmed and just like that, a grinning from ear to ear Bruce Springsteen walked onstage, right in front of me. He looked like a man who was about to play his opening set of the night to an audience he needed to impress,  instead of  someone who had just poured his heart out on a stage in front of 20,000 people. He was joined by saxophonist Clarence "Big Man" Clemons and of course an equally grinning John Cafferty and The Beaver Brown Band.
If I reached up, I could have strummed Bruce's guitar for him as he and the band played a three-song set that included two  older rock standards, “Double Shot of My Baby's Love” by the Swinging Medallions, and  “You Can't Sit Down” by The Dovells, plus his own classic “Rosalita.” Even after his 3 hour energy draining show earlier that night, Bruce was playing and singing with the same fire and passion for the relatively small crowd  of maybe 300 people as he had  earlier in  front of 20,000. I was close enough to see the veins bulging in his neck as he played.
And a funny thing happened: suddenly, Bruce wasn't so iconic, or mythic. He was a guy in a bar with a band, playing his ass off, playing literally as if his life depended on this performance, right here on this night.
And I could see it up close that for Bruce, the crowd, the venue, or the people he was playing with didn't matter. All that mattered was the music,

What resonates now 40 years and 100 plus Springsteen concerts later is the knowledge that the true essence of Bruce Springsteen was revealed that night in 1978. Yes he has gone on to become one of the biggest stars of our generation, respected by the icons he idolized like McCartney and Jagger, while inspiring  hundreds of current musicians who list Bruce as an influence, Tom Morello, Eddie Vedder, Glen Hansard and Marcus Mumford to name a few. 

In the hundreds of concerts I have attended, Bruce has never delivered anything less than he did that night in 1978.  If anything, as he has aged and perhaps sensing his mortality, Bruce seems intent on leaving a lasting memory everywhere he performs. The shows still log in at 3 hours plus, but now he seems focused on pleasing each audience in some kind of specific and meaningful way. Bruce played Auckland New Zealand in March of 2014, shortly after 16 year old native Lorde had a huge hit with the song Royals. He opened the show with an acoustic cover of her song to a stunned and ecstatic crowd.

Magical moments like this happen every night in every city, thrilling older fans and creating thousands of news ones, often children of the old timers who are anxious to share the magic of Bruce with their kids.

It's clear that if Bruce had failed to achieve the level of stardom he desperately sought, he would still be performing as he did that night, in a small club or bar, veins bulging in his neck, leaving it all on the stage in the name of music. In interviews he has always said that there was no fall back plan, he was not going to be installing aluminum siding.
Like his song from the 1980 album The River says "He's a rocker baby he's a rocker.

 Bruce has gone through several changes in personnel and style since 1973. Most long time Springsteen fans will say that the best version of Bruce is and always will be Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. For me, I prefer Bruce alone with his guitar and keyboards, as he appeared during the Ghost of Tom Joad tour in 1995, and again ten years later on the Devils and Dust tour.

But my absolute favorite version of Bruce is the 2006 Seeger Sessions Band Tour, an opinion that places me in a distinct minority among Bruce fans. In retrospect, this 17 member band, heavy on fiddle, banjo, accordion, stand-up bass and pedal steel guitar was a forerunner to the Americana music that groups like Mumford and Sons and The Lumineers made popular a few years later. 

 It's been a 40 plus year ride for Bruce and I, but that warm summer night in 1978, will always stand out as the highlight of the journey.



  1. I love this! How amazing it must have been to see him like that at Toads Place. Not going to lie, I'm just a bit jealous��

  2. It was an incredible night but I was 26, if that happened today I would be asleep by the encore :).


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