If you’re passionate about music, you’ve had moments in your life when listening to a song or an album, or attending a concert, has taken you to another place that shakes you to your very core. In particular, a rock ‘n roll show can be an almost spiritual experience. If you’re really really lucky, there are times when the artist, the venue, the sound quality, the light show, the audience response, the set list, and the performance all merge to create a memory that’s pretty much perfect, even life-changing.
I’ve seen upwards of 350 concerts in my life, way above average even for diehard music fans, partly because I once reviewed concerts for a living. These shows, as one might expect, have been everything from spectacular to abysmal. I’ve heard great bands in horrible halls, and ho-hum bands in excellent clubs. I’ve seen outstanding performances in front of rude audiences. I’ve heard extraordinary set lists played through crappy sound systems. It can be very frustrating.
Once in a while, maybe once in a lifetime, everything gels. All the elements come together to create an evening you’ll never ever forget. My night was August 10, 1975. I was 20, and I was with a handful of my close friends. We were among the 2,500 or so who assembled at the old Allen Theatre, a formerly grand 1920s-era movie house in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, and we were there to see Bruce Springsteen, the new messiah of rock ‘n roll.
At that point, Bruce was still a relative unknown. He wasn’t even “The Boss” yet. His first two albums had stiffed badly on the charts, even though they were chock full of amazingly vibrant recordings of extraordinary original songs. He had a following in his native New Jersey and a few other pockets, mostly on the East Coast, but everywhere else, it was “Bruce who?” He had reached the “make or break” point with his record company. Some at Columbia Records wanted to drop him from the label; others were still in his camp but realized he had to put up or shut up. He had “one last chance to make it real,” as he sang on his soon-to-be-classic “Thunder Road.”
I had first heard of Springsteen in June, when I invited my high school buddies to convene at my house one night to have a few beers and share the albums we’d turned on to at our colleges the previous semester. My friend Carp, who attended Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, showed up and said, “Everyone else can go ahead and play whatever they brought. I want to go last.” Okay, fine, we said, and we took turns exposing the group to songs by artists like Ambrosia, Jesse Colin Young, Camel, and Peter Frampton. Then Carp stood up and approached the turntable. He lowered the needle on track two, side two of “The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” and an eight-minute piece of unrestrained exuberance called “Rosalita” came roaring out.
When the song ended, every single person in the room was struggling to pick up their jaws from the floor. “Holy SHIT!” we said, almost in unison. Then I asked, “Is the whole album that good?” And he flipped the album over and treated us to another over-the-top masterpiece called “Kitty’s Back.” I bought the album the next day. And, in the record store bin, I found another Springsteen album, the earlier LP “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.,” and I figured, what the hell, and bought that one too. Within a week, I knew the words to almost every song on both albums, and boy, was I hooked on this guy.
Kid Leo, the streetwise DJ on Cleveland’s iconic FM station WMMS, played Bruce’s stuff all the time, especially the monumental new single, “Born to Run,” which he would air every Friday at four minutes ’til 6:00 to sign off his drive-time shift. Over the previous 18 months, Springsteen had damn near broken the backs of his fabulous group, The E Street Band, as they struggled in poverty working in three different studios recording what they hoped would be their definitive statement, the album that would bring them the fame they felt they deserved.
Sure enough, “Born to Run” turned out to be that album. But it wouldn’t be released until two weeks later, so when my friends and I walked into the Allen Theatre to hear him perform “Rosalita” and the material from those first two albums, we were unfamiliar with the wonders of “Backstreets” and “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “She’s the One” and “Jungleland.” Cleveland, a blue-collar rock ‘n roll town, had been one of the cities that supported Bruce early on, and he appreciated it. (Indeed, three years later, he made a triumphant return to Northeast Ohio to play for the WMMS 10th Anniversary Show at the tiny Agora Ballroom in August 1978, a mind-blowing gig that was just recently released in CD and on-line formats.) But in the summer of 1975, it was still about a month before the legendary week-long stint at The Bottom Line in New York City, where he cemented his reputation with critics as one of rock ‘n rolls’ finest-ever live performers.
Our expectations were high when we took our seats. The venue wasn’t too big, which meant it would be intimate enough to provide the opportunity for a genuine bond between audience and artist. We knew from previous shows there that the acoustics were decent and the sound should be reasonably good. We loved the albums, and we’d heard he was one of those “you’ve gotta see him live” performers, so we were pretty sure this was going to be great.
The Boss and his band proceeded to rearrange our brain cells, decalcify our spinal columns, and send us into the stratosphere with almost three hours (!) of incendiary music. It was sweaty, it was vital, and it was electrifying.
They played almost every track from the albums we knew, and damn near every song from the new-to-us “Born to Run,” plus some vintage rock ‘n roll tracks like “Twist and Shout” and “Quarter to Three.” Springsteen “commanded the night brigade” with a cocky/confident look that combined pirate with street punk, complete with scruffy beard, newsboy cap, torn undershirt, leather jacket, jeans and sneakers. He was young, hungry and eager to please, and it showed. He scampered all over the stage like a chimpanzee in heat, bringing the crowd to a frenzy that rarely dissipated. He leaned onto the broad shoulders of his sax player Clarence Clemons, “The Big Man,” just like on the album cover that hadn’t appeared yet. He offered up early lyric-heavy tunes like “Spirits in the Night,” “Growin’ Up” and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” embellishing the recorded versions with spoken introductions and extended solos. He treated us to intimate arrangements of “For You” and “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy),” alone at the piano. He showed us the way “Blinded by the Light” was supposed to be heard, instead of the lame rendition Manfred Mann later made into a hit single. And most of all, he blew our minds with the new material from “Born to Run,” most notably “Jungleland” and the title track, which would become his most cherished in-concert songs for many years to come.
After the fifth (!) and final encore, feeling totally drained and exhilarated, I vividly remember as the audience poured out of the theater’s side exit into an alley. That delirious crowd of Cleveland rock fans were total strangers, but we danced and sang and pumped our fists in the air as lifelong friends as we chanted, “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run!!” We knew we had been part of something special, and we didn’t want the night to end. And it didn’t. My friends and I piled into the car and cranked up “Rosalita” one more time for the ride home, and we rolled down the windows and yelled out the words at the top of our lungs. And I still sing it at the top of my lungs to this day.
Every music fan should be lucky enough to have an experience like that.