Listen To This Eddie is a bi-weekly column that examines the important people and events in the classic rock canon and how they continue to impact the world of popular music.
Outside of the Grateful Dead, there are very few fanbases out there that inspire the same kind of obsessive devotion to live recording accumulation than Bruce Springsteen. The Boss himself clued into this fact several years back and teamed up with the concert cataloging site Nugs.net to officially release professional quality recordings of his shows for fans to purchase. A bulk of the material is from his more recent outings, but there are also a few choice selections from earlier in his career as well.
Earlier this month, the Springsteen-adoring world was left flabbergasted when news hit that the New Jersey rocker had managed to dig up two separate soundboard recordings from the first two shows of his 1977 North American tour. This was a major development for collectors, as the only documents that exist from this particular run were made by fans with tape recorders standing out in the crowd. These two shows, the first in Albany, New York on February 7, the second in Rochester, New York the very next night were captured by Chas Gerber, who was employed as Bruce’s soundman at the time, and was prescient enough to throw a couple cassettes into the mixing console and pressed record while the Boss tore it down with the E Street Band.
“I kept my tapes,” Gerber told Backstreets, the Springsteen-centric publication. “I never gave copies to anyone.” He always meant to transfer them to digital, but just didn’t get around to it, and hardly anyone knew they existed until they finally ended up back in the hands of Springsteen’s camp a few years back. As Jamie Howarth, the person charged with enhancing the fidelity of Gerber’s recordings said despite the fact the shows were recorded in mono, “The fidelity is surprising… the guy captured the drama.”
He certainly did. Both shows run just a hair under two-hours long. They are largely intact, minus a couple of trims here and there to compensate for tape flips made by Gerber as he was recording. These aren’t the three, three-and-a-half or four-hour long marathons that would become Springsteen’s bread and butter in the years to come. Instead, they are concise — relatively speaking — showcases of Springsteen near the very end of the Born To Run promotion cycle. Backed by the mighty E Street Band, in these recordings you’ll hear the sound of a man playing as if his very life depended on it. In large part, it’s because it did.
In 1976, Springsteen was embroiled in a dispute with his manager Mike Appel. Appel had been after his client for a while to sign a new contract with him, but the singer wasn’t having it. The terms of their original deal were badly one-sided against him and the new terms weren’t much better. “Mike’s idol was Elvis’s manager, Colonel Tom Parker,” Springsteen noted in his autobiography Born To Run. “I loved Elvis and it was a fun conceit for the two of us, but I wasn’t going to be Elvis. Those days were gone. I was intentionally trying to not be Elvis. I was motivated by powerful, internal forces to determine the arc of my work and the life I was going to lead.”
Eventually, the dispute between the two men grew past the point of an amicable solution and so the lawyers were called in. On September 15, a judge ruled that until the matter was settled, Bruce was prohibited from making any further recordings under the terms of his deal with Columbia Records. For someone who lived for his art, the blow was tremendous. On an existential level, he was also pushed into a position where he needed to come up with money to pay for lawyers, pay for his band, pay to eat, oh, and pay the back taxes he didn’t even realized he owed. “Some enterprising young man at the IRS must have seen those Time and Newsweek covers and said, ‘Who is this guy?’” he wrote. “Bang!.. Meet your uncle Sam.”
With the bills mounting, Bruce did the only thing he could think to do: He went on tour. The first leg kicked off on September 26, 1976 at the Arizona Veterans Memorial Coliseum. It lasted for just a little over a month, filled out by 21-dates that saw Springsteen play his first arena shows ever with back-to-back performances at the Spectrum in Philadelphia. After a short break for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, the band picked it up again, beginning with these two shows in upstate New York in February. Springsteen, The E Street Band, and the added Miami Horns section, criss-crossed the US and Canada for the next two months, finally wrapping the entire thing up with a blowout performance on March 25 in Boston.
Though it wasn’t clear to the thousands and thousands of people who turned out to see him during this run, Bruce was in a pretty bad spot mentally. His depression got so bad, that for the first, and thus far only time in his entire life, just a few nights into the second leg of the tour, he contemplated not going on with a show. He just didn’t know if he could work up whatever it took to work up to go out and face the crowd. “One night in Detroit, I didn’t want to go onstage,” he told LA Times writer Robert Hilburn. “At that moment I could see how people get into drinking or into drugs, because the one thing you want to do is be distracted in a big way.”
“I felt like I had lost a certain control of myself. There was all the publicity and the backlash. I felt the thing I wanted most in my life — my music — was being swept away and I didn’t know if I could do anything about it. I remember during that period someone wrote, ‘If Bruce Springsteen didn’t exist rock critics would invent him.’ That bothered me a lot, being perceived as an invention, a ship passing by. I’d been playing for 10 years. I knew where I came from every inch of the way.”
Despite his personal misgivings, the shows went on, and as evidenced by these new recordings, they were spectacular performances. For the most part, the setlist between both the Albany show and the Rochester show remains pretty much the same, kicking off with the mournful wailer “Something In The Night” and ending in the triumphant “Born To Run.” The moments of true transcendence can be found not in the more well known hits like “Thunder Road” or “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” however, but in the deepest of deep cuts.
Four songs into the show, the E Street band erupts into a torrent of simmering sax lines, twinkling marimba notes, reverb-drenched guitars, and splashy cymbal work. Bruce doesn’t say anything for three full minutes while the music rises and falls around him like a living, breathing organism. Eventually, the sound fades almost into nothing. “I grew up in this small town, was about 10,000 people. Was about 20 miles, 20 miles in from the shore,” he begins. He tells the audience about his family, his mother, a secretary who worked for a lawyer downtown. More importantly, he tells them about his father Doug, a figure who looms larger in his psyche than any and all others. “Professor” Roy Bittain’s graceful piano accents his words, while Gary Tallent’s bass adds just the faintest idea of a melody underneath.
“My pop he used to, as long as I can remember he used to sit in the kitchen with all the lights out. He’d turn out all the lights in the house except for the TV — my mother would sit in the living room with the TV on — and he’d sit in the kitchen and he’d drink a six-pack of beer and smoke cigarettes in the dark. Just sit there thinking all night. He’d lock up the front door so that when me and my sister came in, we’d have to come in around the back door.
I remember I’d come in off that bus and I’d walk through town, and I’d walk through town again, and I’d walk through town, keep walking around until I finally found myself in my driveway. I’d stand there, and he’d have the door open and through the screen, just through the darkness I could see the light of his cigarette. And I’d stand there and I’d slick my hair back real tight so he wouldn’t tell how long it was, and I finally step up to the porch and try to make it through the kitchen before he caught me.
If we came home early it wasn’t too bad, but if we stayed out… if we stayed out real late and came in late in the morning, he’d still be sitting there, waiting for us, and he’d wait just ‘til I got to the end of the stairs and he’d call my name and I’d come back and sit down with him at that table. I remember we’d sit there in the dark, sit there in the dark and I could always hear his voice, but I could never see his face.”
At that moment, the “Big Man” Clarence Clemons interrupts with a burst of saxophone. Bruce continues, recounting the small talk that proceeded their inevitable argument, and his inevitable flight from home, all the while, “telling ‘em, telling ‘em, telling ‘em, it was my life and I was going to do what I wanted to do.”
Then, as if zapped from a trance, Bruce begins to croon the opening lines of the British invasion band The Animals angst-riddled anthem “It’s My Life.” The build-up to that moment is incredible. Bruce forces you to understand the meaning of the song in a way that maybe you had never really considered. He’s not the petulant youth that Eric Burdon portrays in the original, he’s a clear-eyed warrior, fighting for his right to be his own person. In his father, he’s sees a vision of a future that he categorically rejects. It’s his life, and he’ll do what he wants. Hard not to think these words are directed at more than just his old man.
There are other peaks during this show, like the 12-and-a-half minute rendition of “Backstreets” which erupts like a volcano, cools into hardened obsidian, only to be blown into shrapnel moments later, as well as the first officially released take on the song “Action In The Street” which shares quite a bit of the same DNA as the uproarious, horn-driven “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” but only during “It’s My Life” do you get the sense that you’re hearing, and if you were lucky enough to be in the room, seeing the actual Bruce.
Fortunately, Bruce chose not to throw in the towel when the tour ended. Two months after the final performance on May 28, 1977, he finally reached a settlement agreement with Mike Appel. Just three days later, he entered the studio with his new manager Jon Landau, the entire E Street Band, and a plucky engineer named Jimmy Iovine and began work on his next record Darkness On The Edge Of Town.
“I was filled with the light, the exhilaration of being set free,” he wrote in his memoir. “I felt the shadow of a future, two years postponed, upon me. The time was here to finally turn all this into something.”
As Bruce noted, he and Mike Appel were both disciples of Elvis Presley. Actually, sometime around April in 1976, Bruce tried to jump the fence at the his home Graceland just outside of Memphis to pay his personal respects, but was stopped by security. Yesterday, marked the 40th anniversary of Elvis’s death, and I thought it only appropriate to pay homage to the “The King Of Rock N’ Roll” by spotlighting one of the greatest live performances of his career.
In 1972, Elvis was on the road, being followed around by a film crew that included Martin Scorsese, recording his every move for the eventual concert documentary Elvis On Tour. he was in fine form that entire year, tearing up arenas like Madison Square Garden with an exuberant blend of fan-favorites and re-worked rockabilly classics. For whatever reason, Elvis pegged San Antonio, Texas as the gig where he’d leave it all on the table, and according to his close friend and Memphis Mafia member Jerry Schilling, that’s exactly what he did. “Elvis was resolute in the idea that this would be his best performance on the tour for the best movie he ever made,” he said.
Even to someone who watched Elvis perform hundreds of times, the performance he treated the crowd to that night in the Lone Star State was something special. “The San Antonio show turned out to be one of the best, if not the best, concerts I have ever seen. Elvis was happy, energetic and enthusiastic.”