By Ralph Greco, Jr.
Bruce Springsteen and I lost our virginity together. Let me explain.
The first time Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band played Madison Square Garden was in the summer of 1978, supporting the Darkness On The Edge Of Town album. This also happened to be was my first-ever Garden concert (though not my last by a long shot) and though I have seen plenty shows since at MSG and many other venues (even at Wembley in the UK…stadium name-dropper that I am), I can say with all sincerity, that not only was that 1978 MSG hymen-ripping Bruce show the best Springsteen show I have ever attended, but one of my top-five favorite concerts of all time.
That night, in the waning summer days of the late 70s, Bruce opened with Elvis Presley’s “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” cavorted with Clarence Clemmons, jumped into the audience with what had to be the world’s longest mike chord (this was well before the days of reliable wireless systems); took a freaking intermission, then wowed me with the show stopper “Rosalita,” most of Born To Run and Darkness, and broke the Garden curfew of 11 PM with a four-hour show.
Yes, I have been born raised and bred in northern New Jersey. I’ve lived here all my life, and like all Garden State residents must pledge allegiance to Sinatra, Springsteen or Bon Jovi — or all three. But really, no matter where you’re from or what age you are, I can’t imagine anyone not loving a live Bruce Springsteen show. The guy then — and still pretty much still is — a transcendent performer. On that night in 1978, Springsteen simply played the music he loved for a crowd who loved him back.
My next Bruce outing was at the infamous No Nukes concert, again at the Garden in 1979. The girl I went with was a huge Jackson Browne fan (I liked him too), but that night I was there for Springsteen. In fact, every performer that night was besieged by a very vocal NYC crowd “Bruuuucing” it up every second prior to the Boss taking the stage (I’ll refer you to the concert film form this night where ol’ Bonnie Raitt herself references this). It was during this two-night run that Bruce introduced a new song called “The River,” which would become the title track to his yet-to-be released double album of 1980. It was a considerably shorter set that Bruce and his crackerjack E Street Band performed that night. I recall aching for more then the allotted 90 minutes, but when they opened up with “Thunder Road,” and the crowd started singing every word with him (again, watch the film), I felt that Bruce Springsteen magic again.
At the time of this show, Bruce was still well off of MTV’s radar (as there wasn’t an MTV yet…oh, those were the days!). He hadn’t buffed up and he was still, in a strange way, still a cult figure and NJ’s favorite son. I knew people who saw him at the Stone Pony, that famous club in Asbury Park, NJ, where he had started out. There were stories of him jumping on stage with local bands and showing up at Southside Johnny’s annual New Year’s shows.
Suffice it to say the girl I went with, the big Jackson Browne fan, was a Bruce convert after the Nukes show.
The next time I saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, I was in college and The River had just come out. I wasn’t a big fan of this album, although I like the title track a lot. I felt that this double album had a bit too much 50s flavored filler. But this didn’t stop me from wanting to see the tour when it blew though town. Springsteen’s shows were going to open the just completed Brendan Byrne Arena in Jersey, and there was no way was I going to miss it — for myself and for my then Bruce-freak-of-a-girlfriend, L. (name withheld to protect the innocent).
Back then there was a complicated lottery system in place to buy tickets (the demand was so high in Jersey) but I managed to score tickets, quite far up in the new arena. But it would prove to be another killer Bruce marathon performance, a near four-hour show, heavy on the new album. I seem to recall a very special reading of the song “Point Blank” and my fave from Darkness, “Racing In The Street.”
Born In The U.S.A.
The onslaught that was Born In The U.S.A. brought Bruce Springsteen to a whole new host of fans. Though deserving of the adulation with an album of commercial hits, his still-amazing live shows and the heavy MTV rotation of his videos, we New Jerseysians felt we were loosing the Boss to a wider bunch of fans. OK, we got over it…maybe (?), but you better believe when he came through town, I was there. With the ever-sparkling E Street Band: Roy Bittan on piano, Max Weinberg on drums, the dearly recently departed Danny Federici on organ and accordion, Nils Lofgren replacing Steven Van Zandt on guitar, Gary Tallent on bass, Bruce’s wife (who has, by the way, released some amazing solo albums) Patti Scialfa on vocals and guitar, and, of course, Springsteen’s friend and foil, the “big man” Clarence Clemons on sax — Bruce took the world by storm when he was out on the road supporting Born In the U.S.A.
On this same tour, I once again saw Bruce at my local enormo-dome in north NJ. These shows were killer. Bruce and band were in top form, and while he wasn’t dipping back as much in obscure tunes (in previous years, you could always count on him to play a few unreleased tracks the audience had learned through years), it was a better show than the one I had seen behind The River.
This was a lighter show in tone — or maybe I just like the songs on Born On The U.S.A. better then The River. I recall a hilarious skit Bruce performed with Clarence. It was about him and the big man walking through a notoriously scary NJ Pine Barrens. Other than my Bruce Springsteen freak-of-a-girlfriend (yes, the same girl) and us breaking up that night (okay, maybe not exactly that night), this was a show to rival any Springsteen show I had been witness to before.
I skipped the stadium shows when Bruce came back that summer. I just couldn’t get my mind around a stadium Bruce show at the time, and by then, I was a little played-out on Born In The U.S.A. Still, the man was tops in my book.
Bruce Goes It Alone
Beyond what I saw of Bruce in videos, his much-publicized marriage to model/actress Julianne Phillips (and their subsequent split), his back-to-back Human Touch and Lucky Town albums, the tours without The E Street Band, his Oscar telecast performance of “Streets Of Philadelphia,” and even some concert footage on MTV — I only saw Bruce live once before his reunion with the E Street band.
He was touring his second acoustic-flavored release — the first being Nebraska — The Ghost Of Tom Joad playing smaller venues. This was basically the Bruce show all his fans (or fans like me) had been aching to see: the man on stage, by himself and singing introspective tunes or reworked versions of his rock classics. I went to a great understated night at the Beacon Theater in NYC with two hours of Springsteen singing songs of life in America as he envisioned it now and in the past.
The Return Of The E Street Band
By the late 90s, Bruce returned in full force with the E Street Band. This time, the band consisted of both Nils Lofgren and Steven Van Zant on guitars. The tour was heralded as the second coming (especially in the Garden State!) and I can’t begin to describe what these shows meant to all us Bruce fans who feared we’d never see him reunite with his old band.
They returned to my local concert venue, and I went with a host of friends and family to watch Bruce and the E Streeters destroy a hometown crowd. Opening with “Prove It All Night,” and running through nearly three hours of material pulled largely from Darkness, Born and U.S.A. This night saw killer versions of “Jungleland,” the obscure “Meeting Across the River,” and the tear-jerker, “If I Should Fall Behind.” The Boss was back!
I remember thinking this concert felt more like a rock and roll revival meeting, a three-hour extravaganza with the band and Bruce back where they belonged. The rumor on this tour was that Bruce was mixing up shows nightly with A, B and C sets, respectively, so you really never knew what tunes you were going to hear. One of the best things about the multi-night stands is that you can see the man back-to-back, night after night (as a lot of his faithful do, especially in Jersey) and never see the same show twice.
It was just like old times.
The next year, Bruce breezed through the Garden, the first time he had in years actually, and the first time I had seen him there since the No Nukes concert. It was another three-hour barnburner marathon. I remember an especially rousing “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and the one tune that can cut my sister to the quick, “Candy’s Room.” It was a wholly different set from the year before and included the new, controversial “American Skin (41 Shots).” Since he wasn’t rally supporting a new album, Springsteen dipped into almost every album he’s ever recorded. To see Bruce and the E Street Band back at Madison Square Garden was magical. Interestingly enough, he did not play “Born In The U.S.A.” wasn’t in the set list. The last time I heard him play it with the band (he performed it at the solo Beacon show) was during the Born In The U.S.A. tour when it was slotted in a the opening number.
Cut to 2003 and The Rising came out. This is not a release I am all that into, but I decided to take my buddy Mike, who has never seen the Boss, to one of the shows at my local stadium (first time for me since I had never as yet seen him in a stadium). As I would come to realize, Bruce Springsteen translates well in the big venues. He’s one of the few acts who do — along with U2, Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones — and the set list is n a good cross-section and heavy on the new album. Nevertheless, stellar moments abound. Keyboardist Roy Bittan especially takes a nice solo before the intermission and Bruce resurrects a bone-dry version of “Born in the U.S.A.”. He and the band play two hours, then return for an encore that lasts another hour, leaving Mike to ask, “Is this guy ever gonna stop?”
“Rosalita,” as always, leaves the crowd breathless as Springsteen had omitted this show stopper from his set for the last three decades (it was a staple back in 1978). This was a solid show, maybe a bit darker given the 9/11 theme of The Rising, but it was still Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in a New Jersey stadium! What else do you want?
New Jersey 2008
Well, it was Bruce and me again as I went to see Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. My Bruce-freak of an ex-girlfriend-now-great-friend L was with me, my sis and her two friends (old Springsteen fans never truly move so far away that they can’t attend a show every now and then) — all packed into the soon-to-be-demolished home of the 2008 Super Bowl champs.
Magic, the latest album from Springsteen and the E Streeters, was released on both vinyl and CD in 2007. Steven Van Zandt stated that his Boss didn’t ignore his commercial tendencies this time around, and I agree there are some great singable songs on Magic. But I also hear a lot of old Bruce on that album. On very few occasions have I had the pleasure of seeing an older act and looking forward to hearing their new stuff.
Having missed the Magic tour when the band blew through town last year, I was really looking forward to this show. I had heard these stadium romps were not only the usual high energy assault, but also shows with a very loose set list. In fact, as I witnessed on this muggy July night, Bruce has taken to going out into the audience now and again, calling for his fans’ homemade signs displaying song titles and salutations.
Now you can be an old cynic like me and consider Springsteen will only grab the signs of songs he knows or will play what he wants to on stage anyway, but tonight’s show was drastically different than the previous Monday I attended (I pulled up both set lists on line; Bruce fans are sticklers for these things) and the band admitted they are ready with over 100 songs to cater to Springsteen’s whims.
Bruce and his E Streeters opened with “Out In the Street,” before falling into a blistering “Radio Nowhere” (one of the best songs of the night), followed by “No Surrender,” “Two Hearts Are Better Than One,” and “The Promised Land.” Have you caught your breath yet? Springsteen then sauntered down to the lower stage, close to the audience, spying a sign he liked, he turned back to the band to ask: “Is anybody hungry?” and then counted in “Hungry Heart.” “Summertime Blues” came next and then an unexpected, perfectly played (with Springsteen’s wife Patti Scialfa on those haunting backing vocals) “Tunnel of Love.”
He returned to the faithful (that front area of the stadium being general admission) and began the ceremonial “passing up” of the homemade signs. He launched into a flurry of obscurities and requests: “Held Up Without A Gun,” the B-side of “Hungry Heart”; “It’s Hard to Be A Saint In The City,” the oldest tune of the night from 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., and “Sherry Darling” from The River; a blistering Lofgren-led “Because The Night”; my personal fave, “She’s The One,” and another one from The River called “Drive All Night.”
After two straight hours, Springsteen and the E Street Band took a short break, only to return for an hour-long encore. It began with “Happy Birthday,” sang to Scialfa whose birthday was the next day. The encore included the infamous “Detroit Medley,” a tribute to Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels and concert staple from the late 70s, “Born To Run,” “Glory Days” and “American Land” from We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions (utilizing both violinist/vocalist/acoustic guitarist Soozie Tyrell and Federici’s replacement Charles Giordano on accordion). The last song of the evening was the immortal “Twist and Shout.”
Complaints? Hard to have them with a three-hour performance from a guy who looks like the sexiest mechanic alive, but just may be the hardest working man in rock and roll. I would have liked a little more of older stuff as the set focused primarily on material from The River and Magic. But when the Boss took requests and actually played nuggets like “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” and “She’s The One,” how can I really complain? Plus, he sweats through three or more freakin’ hours of music each and every night! Guys half Springsteen’s age aren’t playing near as long and I challenge you to find me a band tighter than the E Street Band.
Yeah, I could probably do without all that covers and more of his own stuff, but he really likes to play “Twist and Shout,” and dammit it if he doesn’t make it his own. Besides, the screen behind the band repeatedly cut away between Springsteen’s reaction and the crowd’s mania, making the massive Giants Stadium a bit cozier for those sitting a football field away.
If for nothing else, it’s worth seeing this show to watch the guitar roadies come out at the end of a song ready to help the players switch axes while Bruce is already calling an audible, changing the set list mid-stride, and sending the roadie back to the arsenal for a different guitar!
A long time ago, there was an infamous article written about Springsteen’s live performances. The writer stated, matter-of-factly that, “I have just seen the future of future of rock and roll and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” I have to say that Bruce Springsteen is very much the ‘now’ of rock and roll, or, at the very least, where the hell it should be in these times of high ticket prices and 360 deals. Three and half decades on, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are still churning out perfect rock and roll marathon shows.
Here in New Jersey, my home and Bruce Springsteen’s home, I saw what was probably the best concert of the summer. Bruce and I march forward together, as inexplicably linked (though he doesn’t know it) as we have been from the very first time I laid eyes on the Born To Run album at my friend Tom’s house and saw Bruce jump on Roy Bittan’s piano at Madison Square Garden in 1978.
From one New Jersyian to another: I love Bruce Springsteen and I know he loves me back.