Before I was old enough to have to sign up for a draft card (18 years old, for you young’uns out there) I had already seen The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Doors, Bob Dylan’s first electric tour with The Band (when they were still called The Hawks or The Crackers), Cream, Janis Joplin & the Full Tilt Boogie Band, Sly & the Family Stone, The Dave Clark 5, The Animals, The Turtles, Paul Revere & the Raiders, The Standells, The Who (in 1969, which just happened to be THE BEST live show I have witnessed in my 61 years on the planet) and literally dozens of others, including little-remembered but great down-the-bill acts like Every Mother’s Son, The Left Banke and Cat Mother & the All Night Newsboys.
I saw all of those shows for free, courtesy of my sainted Italian father, whose nighttime job after days at the Columbia Gas of Ohio warehouse was with Central Ticket Office, an early forerunner of what Ticketmaster would become.
My father died in April of 1970, two months short of my high school graduation and oddly, so did live rock & roll.
Oh, there was certainly the occasional great show: The Cincinnati Pop Festival June 13th, 1970 – one week after said graduation – where I saw Mott The Hoople for the first time, The Stooges for the second time, plus Alice Cooper (when they were still a rock band, before all the golf-pro showbiz bullshit), Mountain and Traffic; Brownsville Station whenever they played Valley Dale Ballroom or the old Columbus Agora; Aerosmith (bottom-billed BENEATH Robin Trower!) reintroducing sex into rock & roll whilst opening for Mott The Hoople in ’73 at Mershon Auditorium. But as the months and then years went on I increasingly saw boring, pallid, xerox-of-xerox copies of the greatness I’d witnessed in the 1960’s: your Edgar Winter Groups, your Leon Russells, your Styxes, your Montroses, your Kansai. Let’s face facts: I had seen Bob Dylan in his 1966 prime. I had watched Jim Morrison declaim immaculate rock poetry and witnessed Jimi Hendrix reinvent the electric guitar right in front of my astonished teenage eyes, and now I was supposed to take fucking REO Speedwagon seriously? Please. I was supposed to tolerate Yes? No.
In 1976 I was 24 years old, the Perfect Age For Being Burnt-Out On Rock & Roll. And then I saw Bruce Springsteen live.
April 5th, 1976 I saw Bruce Springsteen & the E Street band live for the first time at the Ohio Theater here in Columbus, Ohio. I was already a fan of Springsteen. I’d bought Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, Innocent & the E Street Shuffle when they were released back in 1973 and – in one of the excesses of my youth – borrowed a buddy’s car in 1974 (I didn’t have a driver’s license or a car of my own until 1979, but that’s a whole other blog for a whole ‘nother time) and drove to the outskirts of Cleveland, Ohio, to tape “Born To Run” off of a WMMS radio broadcast. (‘MMS deejay Kid Leo had an advance tape of “Born To Run” MONTHS before the single was officially released by Columbia and would play it to open the weekend every Friday afternoon at either 4:55 or 5:05 pm. I drove to Cleveland, waited until I was within range of WMMS, then sat in the car with my newly-acquired Panasonic portable cassette recorder in my lap until “Born To Run” played, taped the song, and drove home. It never even occurred to me to check if anybody I wanted to see was playing in Cleveland that night, or to stay overnight. I drove there, taped the song, and came home. I had a mission.) (Note to all you Arcade Fire kids from your Drunk Uncle Ricki: There was no internet, Spotify, Rhapsody, Dropbox or YouTube in 1976. If I wanted to hear “Born To Run” I HAD TO TAPE IT OFF THE RADIO WITH A PORTABLE CASSETTE RECORDER IN MY LAP.)
Like I said, I liked Springsteen, but truthfully I was probably a bigger fan of a singer/songwriter named Elliott Murphy, who I also discovered in 1973. (Both Springsteen & Murphy were part of the “New Dylan” cult/hype/club of the early 1970’s. I was a pretty big fan of “New Dylans” back in the day – John Prine, Loudon Wainwright III and David Blue among them, plus Steve Forbert and Willie Nile later on in the 70’s.) Truth be told, I was probably a bigger fan of New Dylans than of Bob Dylan himself, who I still think has made far more bad records than good records in his career, and maybe only 5 GREAT records.) (Again, that’s a whole other blog for a whole ‘nother time.)
(Ricki, get to the fuckin’ point.) (Alright, alright, alright!)
By that April evening in 1976 I had already been reading about how great a live performer Bruce Springsteen was for more than two years. Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Creem, Phonograph Record Magazine, the New Musical Express, etc. had all extolled the virtues & raptures of The Live Springsteen Experience. I admit, I was pretty jaded by that point. I had been seeing live rock shows for 10 or 11 years by then, had witnessed the above-mentioned Dylan, Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, Clapton in their 1960’s primes. In early 1976, however, Mott The Hoople and the New York Dolls had both broken up, Elliott Murphy had already recorded for (and been dropped by) TWO major labels, punk was a distant fuzzy rumor in the rock press and I was running perilously short of Rock & Roll Heroes. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out what Bruce Springsteen was going to do at that point to show me something I hadn’t already seen.
Springsteen opened the show alone at center stage, belting out a slowed-down, ballad version of “Thunder Road” under a single blue spotlight with only Roy Bittan playing piano behind him. People, rock & roll performers did not open their shows with ballads under blue spotlights in 1976. Kiss had already been invented. Pyrotechnic flashpots, excruciatingly long guitar showcases & drum soloes were the order of the day. I loved Aerosmith at that point, but holy shit, this one skinny guy with a blue denim cabbie cap and a scraggly beard was holding that entire theater transfixed with just his voice, his lyrics and one piano. And then, just as Springsteen wailed a harmonica solo to close the song, the rest of the E Street Band walked onstage in near-total darkness and Max Weinberg SLAMMED into the opening drum riff to “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” as Springsteen went into this wild, totally weird all-arms-and-legs dervish dance at center stage. The band dropped into the song one by one: Gary Tallent on bass, Miami Steve Van Zandt on guitar, Bittan and Danny Federici on keyboards, Clarence Clemons on sax, building the tension unmercifully until Bruce grabbed the mic to sing “Tear drops on the city, Bad Scooter searchin’ for his groove” and we were off and running.
As the E Streeters tore through the song, it was like a three-ring circus onstage, you didn’t know WHERE to look, WHO to watch. Springsteen was dressed-down in jeans, t-shirt, some beat-to-shit hooded sweatshirt & high-top Converse sneakers, flanked by Van Zandt and Clemons in three-piece suits and fedoras. People, rock & roll bands did not play shows in three-piece suits and fedoras in 1976. And not just ANY three-piece suits: these were iridescent, colors-not-naturally-appearing-in-nature three-piece suits. I swear Clemons’ was bright orange and Van Zandt sported a powder-blue number not ordinarily glimpsed outside of a New Jersey high-school senior prom. Bittan and Federici were in some combination of dark jackets & ties and even Weinberg was wearing a long-sleeved shirt with a collar in the days when Joey Kramer of Aerosmith routinely took the stage in leather shorts, a tank-top and not much else. Beards and bell-bottoms abounded. It WAS 1976, after all.
Bruce and the boys simmered through a superlative rendition of “Spirit In The Night” and I started to realize: all the live hype I’d been reading about Springsteen & the E Street Band wasn’t so much about what they DID, it was about what they WERE. I’d heard those first three songs literally hundreds of times since I bought Springsteen’s first three records (Born To Run had been released in August of 1975) and the live versions of the tunes were SO MUCH BETTER than their album counterparts I started to wonder why recording studios had ever been invented.
By the time that thought had fully formulated in my mind, Max Weinberg had kicked into the Bo Diddley Beat that opens “She’s The One.” Only somehow he had minimized the already tribally-rudimentary Diddley beat from a primal seven notes down into FIVE notes. I don’t know how long that intro went on (this was WAY before the band started using “Mona,” “Not Fade Away,” or “Gloria” as preludes), but I do know it had beaten its way into my heart like a fever and the entire audience had been mesmerized/brainwashed/brutalized into clapping those five notes over & over & over. There was a moment after Bruce had started intoning, “With her killer graces and her secret places that no boy can fill,” but well before the chorus explosion that I glanced over at Clarence Clemons at his stage left position in almost total darkness.
Clemons was shaking six or eight maracas in front of his saxophone mic AS IF HIS FUCKING LIFE DEPENDED ON IT! Clemons and the maracas were totally inaudible, there was no way you could hear them over the drums, keyboards & guitar, but he was playing his heart out on those shakers as if the song could not continue for one second without his contribution. And that was when it hit me: very simply, very clearly, very jarringly – The E Street Band CARED about what they did. They cared about playing rock & roll music to the exclusion of every other single thing on the planet. All of the jag-off bands I had been watching since 1970 or so had become silly little play-acting children in my eyes, charlatans out to make a quick buck from the rubes in the cheap seats.
By verse two when Springsteen & Van Zandt were singing, “But there’s this angel in her eyes that tells such desperate lies and all you want to do is believe her” in an Everly Brothers-style close harmony, a further revelation struck me: this isn’t just rock & roll music, this is soul music, this is blues, this is country, this is every American music I had ever heard. This was the swagger of Elvis Presley and the wild-man mania of Little Richard & Jerry Lee Lewis crossed with the intellect of Bob Dylan paired with the arms-across-shoulders camaraderie of The Beatles & all the rest of The British Invasion, all of it shot through with the operatic swoon of Roy Orbison, the knee-drop brilliance of a James Brown live show and the grandeur of Phil Spector’s Wall Of Sound Ronettes and Righteous Brothers 7-inch 45 rpm singles.
But it was more than all that: it was the promise and the essence of every teenage garage band that never made it out of the garage or the teenage rec rooms or any further than the local Battle Of The Bands. Right at that moment, all of a sudden, I was the Perfect Age For Rock & Roll again.
By time Clarence Clemons laid down the maracas and blew the entire song wide open and into the stratosphere with an absolutely breathtaking sax solo as Springsteen & Van Zandt yelled/sang, “WWWOOOOHHH, SHE’S THE ONE!” in tandem at the center mic, my brain – and the brains of every member of that audience – were exploding. As the song smashed to a halt the crowd rose as one into a standing ovation, a standing ovation FIVE SONGS into the set. Dear readers, in 1976 rock & roll audiences were still somewhat discerning, bands didn’t get a Standing O just for dragging their sequined, overpaid, hallowed asses onto a stage, the bands had to EARN that kudo.
And then, before anybody could sit back down the E Street Band swooped into “Born To Run” and nailed the crowd to the back wall of the Ohio Theater with that future rock & roll anthem. It really was quite brilliant. And amazingly, the show just kept getting better & better. There was a killer cover of Manfred Mann’s “Pretty Flamingo” (with an absolutely perfect shaggy dog Springsteen story that deserves and will someday probably get a blog all its own); there was “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” and “The E Street Shuffle”; and at the close of the set “Backstreets,” “Jungleland,” and ”Rosalita” got played ALL IN A ROW. And then there was an encore that brilliantly paired a heartbreaking “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” with the all-out, take-no-prisoners rock & roll attack of the Mitch Ryder Detroit medley that remains a staple of E Street Band encores to this day.
It was April 5th, 1976, when Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band gave rock & roll back to me.
And then the Darkness On The Edge Of Town tour in 1978 was even better.
I was The Perfect Age For Rock & Roll.
(Obviously this segment of The Perfect Age of Rock & Roll got completely out of hand,
we will conclude with Part Three - Punk-rock & Beyond - next time out.)
(This installment of The Perfect Age For Rock & Roll is dedicated to Chris Clinton, my Irish brother in the rock & roll, whom I met when he wound up next to my friends & I in an all-night Bruce Springsteen tickets camp-out line at Buzzard's Nest Records on Morse Road in 1984, and remains my friend to this day. This is for you, Chris.
It is further dedicated to my dear friend Jodie, who just DID NOT GET what I was on about with this Springsteen guy back in 1976, but who subsequently became a True Believer in The Church of The Holy E Street Band.)