Before today I hadn’t mentioned the words Bruce or Springsteen anywhere on this blog. But you know, this article about The Boss probably won’t be my last. That’s because I’m a big fan of Bruce’s. I’m not one of his fanatical followers, not one of the myriad folks who own every recording he has ever issued and have attended Springsteen concerts in the dozens and above. But big enough. I consider Springsteen to be a huge talent. For decades he has been a superb singer, songwriter and guitarist, and an in-concert performer blessed with off-the-charts charisma and energy. On January 16, he and The E Street Band will be hitting the road for the umpteenth time. When I read recently about their upcoming tour, my mind wandered back to the first time I saw Bruce on stage.
Springsteen got his start in the late 1960s. By 1973 he had developed a fairly big fan base in a few locales, such as the New Jersey Shore communities and the greater Philadelphia area. Part of this was due to his relentless gigging around the USA. Back then if you toured enough you were bound to catch on somewhere, especially if some radio stations played your tunes. But overall he and his E Street Band still were little known. For the most part he played in small venues until finally breaking through nationally in 1975. Global superstardom would follow some years later.
I moved to Philadelphia in February 1974 and soon started hearing Bruce on WMMR, the city’s premier rock station at that time. They played tracks from his first two albums, both of which came out in 1973: Greetings From Asbury Park followed by The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. It didn’t take me long to become a Bruce devotee. I bought both albums and especially liked what was on The Wild. Who wouldn’t have? The songs, every one Bruce-penned, are fabulous. They are literate and intriguing stories put to wonderful melodies. Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), Incident On 57th Street, Kittie’s Back . . . man, the seven songs on the record sound as good today as they did all those years ago. There was no question in my mind that Springsteen carried the goods. I wanted to see him in person.
In July 1974, Bruce and The E Street Band played six shows in Manhattan at The Bottom Line. Three nights of music, two shows per night. Long gone, The Bottom Line was a magnificent small club in Greenwich Village, magnificent not because of its décor but because of its wide-ranging musical menu. I was there with my brother Richard at one of the early shows. Richie wasn’t as ardent a rock lover as I was, but somehow I had convinced him to come along. I suppose I’d known about Bruce’s Bottom Line gigs via announcements on WMMR. I can’t imagine how else I’d have heard.
How much of the show do I remember? Well, to put things in perspective, I’m probably exaggerating on the high side when I say that I recall about 0.0001% of my adult life. Pathetic and depressing, but true. And yet I do have some memories of that summer evening nearly 42 years ago. I can picture Richie and me seated at a table. We were 20 or 30 feet from the stage. I remember the start of the show. The house and stage lights went dark, and then one spotlight illuminated a small section of stage. Springsteen stood in that focused light, a big floppy hat tilted on his head. And he began to sing Incident On 57th Street. Quietly.
Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night/With bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat up old Buick, but dressed just like dynamite/He tried sellin’ his heart to the hard girls over on Easy Street/But they said “Johnny, it falls apart so easily, and you know hearts these days are cheap.”
The E Street Band whispered behind Bruce. And as the vocals gradually intensified, the band followed Bruce’s lead nimbly and powerfully. For this song, The Bottom Line, just like that, was transformed into a tough part of town where sorrow and longing prevailed. The reports that I’d heard in Philadelphia were true — that Springsteen, on stage, enveloped a song like few others, tapped into a cache of emotions that were invisible to most vocalists, and that The E Street Band was scarily good. I knew that I was at what would be the best concert I’d ever attended.
Bruce and the boys danced through maybe 10 or 11 more songs before leaving the stage, and they never let go of the audience’s gut. The concert was an exhilarating and spellbinding ride, a trip to rock and roll heaven. The only other tune that I specifically recall being played is Rosalita. It was rollicking and wild. Delirious. Amazing. There was nothing that Bruce, Clarence Clemons, David Sancious, Garry Tallent and the other E Streeters couldn’t do.
Richie was as stunned as I was. I don’t think he’d had any idea what the night held in store for him. To this day I rank Bruce and band at The Bottom Line as one of the ultimate shots of live music in my life. It gave me shivers. It made me shake my head in disbelief. It sent me out into the streets with a buzz that still echoes.
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