Thursday, January 29, 2015

SONGS #153-162: Bruce Springsteen-- The Agora, Cleveland OH 8-9-78, SET ONE

Introduction / preshow tailgate:

My relationship with Bruce Springsteen’s music has been inconsistent.  I was late to the game— while Bruce was establishing himself in the late 70s, I was listening to Boston and the Beatles.  The first song I was aware of was “Hungry Heart,” and it sounded like a 50s song to me; I skipped over him and, in 1982, went right to the Clash and punk rock.  In the winter of 1983, however, I joined the Columbia record and tape club (again— see for more details), and bought Nebraska, which was the first Springsteen album I owned and listened to carefully, and I loved it.  When I got my first acoustic guitar a year later, I learned how to play “Atlantic City,” “Johnny 99,” “State Trooper” and “Highway Patrolman” in the first week I had it— they were four of the first twenty songs I learned how to play on guitar.

That spring, I was in the backseat of my parents’ car, and we were driving back into Annapolis over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, when a song came on the radio that grabbed my attention immediately.  I thought the lyrics were incredible (and I usually never notice lyrics) and the melody unforgettable.  But I was also really bummed out by the loud 80s keyboard sound (ironic, as by that point I was myself a loud 80s keyboard player in a band).  When the song ended, I thought to myself, “Wow— that’s a great song— too bad it sounds that way.”  

It was “Dancing In The Dark.”

"I'll be there for youuuuuuuuu...."

The rest, as you know, is history.  Bruce became Broooooooooooooce that year.  By 1985, he was playing stadiums and was probably the most popular American rock musician since Elvis.  I bought Born In The U.S.A. like everyone I knew, listened to it 700 times, watched the videos on MTV every time they came on, and… secretly… didn’t love it that much.  The gunshot snare drum and the DX-7 synth got in my way of those terrific songs every time; they still do.

So I went backwards in the catalog looking for greatness, and I was frustrated by almost all of it. I loved Born To Run (and it’s still my favorite by some distance), but Greetings, from 1973, was too quiet and restrained.  Wild And Innocent was too inconsistent— even then I couldn’t abide a drummer who slows down.  Darkness was too slow and ponderous for me in the 80s— when half your record collection is hardcore punk rock, Darkness sounds like chamber music, and Bruce looked sleepy to me on the cover, not brooding.  Same problem with The River— I loved the first three songs, and most of the fast numbers, but I was bored to death by side four.

I basically decided that, though I would keep it to myself, Springsteen was overrated and perhaps a little too in love with his “everyman” image.

The behemoth live box set in 1986 changed everything.  I couldn’t listen to the fourth and fifth LPs (who wants to feel like they’re sitting in a giant stadium?) but the first three albums in the box floored me.  Here were the versions of the songs that made sense!  Hearing him live, I totally got it.  I listened to some of those performances every day for year.  It’s still not safe for me to drive to “Saint In The City” or “Candy’s Room.”

Therefore, being the kind of person I am (and maybe you are, if you’re still reading) I went hunting for Springsteen bootlegs, and since 1991, when I got high quality copies of the Passaic 9-19-78 and Main Point 2-5-75 shows, almost all of my Springsteen listening has been live bootlegs.  The only two records I listen to anymore are Born To Run and Wild and Innocent— other than that, the Bruce that I feel truly does him justice is unavailable to the law-abiding record buying public. (With the exception of Live In Dublin from 2007— that’s fantastic). In fact, this blog’s humble beginnings is a bootleg Springsteen track;

So imagine my excitement when, after four decades of hopeful clamoring by fans, Bruce Springsteen has opened his vaults.  On the dedicated website, he has started to release complete concerts, following the model used by Pearl Jam and Phish— almost of his 2014 tour is available, but more exciting, he has started a simultaneous “archives” series that promises to reach back as far as 1973.

The first release in the series was from the Apollo Theatre in 2012, and I believe it was the first show after Clarence Clemons’ death.  Though an emotional and memorable night for the band, it didn’t do much for me as a show; I didn’t love the song selection or the mix, and it had me worried that Bruce would overthink his choices and leave us all frustrated again.

This show was the second release, two days before Christmas, and it has taken over my life for the last month.  It blew my head off.  So much so, that it’s going to re-awaken the blog, and lead me to try something new; I’m going to listen to the entire show and write about it in one sitting.

I had heard the bootleg version of the show taped off the radio, and while fun, the sound quality was an impediment.  But this is the original master tape, mixed by Jimmy Iovine and given a sonic 2015 scrubbing to remove its age spots.  It sounds exactly like 1978— it’s a damn time machine. Since I started listening to it, my dreams have been about my childhood, and I’m remembering all kinds of things that I’d forgotten (some of which, I’m sure, will come up in the next few hours).  As of this writing, this show is the definitive 1978 document of the band, and one of the five best things Springsteen’s ever released, period.

Because it’s 2015, the show has already been uploaded here:     AGORA 8-9-78 COMPLETE SHOW

so until they pull it down, get comfy and feel free to listen along.  It’s even indexed for ya.  For the next three hours, the blog has a new subtitle: “Jeff stays up too late listening to a concert for the 17th time and loves every minute of it.”

Set One Notes (Lights go out):

Agora 1978 is the complete set from a show in the middle of the mammoth Darkness tour, a free show played in front of 1500 people in a place that holds 750 and broadcast live on WMMS in Cleveland and all around the region.  Springsteen does two 70 minute sets and a thirty minute encore.  It’s a month after the famous Roxy show that Springsteen used on the live box set.  It’s a hot, steamy Cleveland summer night, the club has allowed double capacity to sneak in, Springsteen knows that millions will be listening on the radio, and he’s hungry.

Kid Leo, WMMS DJ and rock tastemaker, introduces the band.  Springsteen comes on, and undercuts Leo’s rhyming dictionary introduction.  “He must have memorized that at home.”  The band jumps into “Summertime Blues,” faithful to the Eddie Cochran original.  Many of Springsteen’s shows in 1978 opened with a cover— I realize now after years of playing little clubs that it’s a brilliant move on several levels, but primarily, it gives the sound man a “throwaway” song to double check his levels, chase problems, and get a good mix together before the “actual” first song.  And sure enough, it’s a good thing— you can hear feedback throughout the track, and Clarence’s mic is too low.  Nevertheless, the band is having a ball, and when the end of “Summertime” becomes the dramatic opening to “Badlands,” you can feel the audience levitate.

“Badlands,” when Springsteen isn’t feeling it, bores me— it’s dangerously mid tempo, and the lyrics demand an urgency in the performance.  This version is the opposite— I’ve never enjoyed listening to this song as much as I have this month.  I don’t think it’s their “best” performance— the background vocals are ragged, and Bruce oversings in moments and loses pitch, but it’s part of the charm.  Listens to Max Weinberg’s drums— he’s so excited that he’s starting his fills eight bars before a change instead of four— he’s barely in control all the way through, and it’s fantastic.  Weinberg has claimed in several interviews that he thinks this show is the E Street Band’s greatest ever, and you can see why— he goes for broke start to finish.  Check out the ridiculous fill at 3:23— he is jacked up.  It’s amazing he was able to calm down enough to play the ballads.  I also love the guitar tones and where Danny Federici’s organ sits in the track— everything is rough and low-fi but still warm and professional.  When the track ends, you can hear the pandemonium in the club.  Bruce even seems a little overwhelmed— “Yo! Cleveland!”

And right into “Spirit In The Night.”  Here’s another song that can veer off into parody.  For people who don’t get Springsteen, this song is exhibit A, with the silly character names and the overdramatized delivery.  Me?  I love it.  Call me a sucker, but these lyrics capture the desperation of youthful love expertly— “I said ‘I’m hurt,” she said “Honey, let me heal it.”  The first night that a woman said a version of that to me is one of the most intensely (and ultimately heartbreaking) memories of my entire life.  And the fact that it took place near a pond (no Greasy Lake, but it’ll work in a pinch) connected the song and moment forever in my head.  It was the first time I’d fallen in love uncontrollably, and to be requited for one night (but not a second) taught me all kinds of good and bad lessons.  So “Spirit In The Night” might be theatrical, but since I feel like I played the lead role, I forgive it entirely.

The mix on this track is brilliant.  If you listen, you can hear everybody— the interplay between pianist Roy Bittan and Federici is particularly clear, and Gary Tallent’s bass is dead center.  Tallent is the unsung hero of this band— I never undertstood why he didn’t get more session work away from E Street.  Take thirty seconds and focus on him— he never stops moving and never pulls focus.  And Clarence is feeling it early in this show— he’s not exactly Coltrane, but he’s nailing his spots.

Bruce takes a full minute break after “Spirit”— I think he’s worried that the crowd is a little out of control— there’s the “I’m workin’ here!” admonition, and then he asks the front to sit down only two songs after he asked them to stand at the start.  “We’ve got a long way to go.”

“This is for Jay Cox in Cincinnati.”  And into “Darkness On The Edge Of Town.”  The studio version is missing something for me— it’s too careful, or performed, or something.  I never connected with it.  Here, though, the song completely makes sense to me.  The dynamic shift between the verses and choruses is arresting— EVERYONE finds a great part.  Listen to Bruce pull his guitar out of tune three or four times just playing chords along with the band— it sounds like he’s beating the hell out of it.  And Max’s three kick drums at 2:36!!  By the time Bruce gets to the “I’ll be on that hill!” crescendo, the band has nowhere to go— the last minute of the song is full-bore, on a song that was supposed to calm the audience down and restore order.  Not here.

Then comes a real shift— Bruce plays “Factory,” a strange little two minute love letter to his dad and to Cleveland workers, still a successful factory town in 1978 and just starting to die slowly.  It’s clear that Bruce is trying to be serious, and the crowd doesn’t catch on right away.  Bruce is using set one to try to communicate the themes of his most recent album— accepting adulthood, compromise, imperfections, and responsibilities.  “Summertime Blues” is a thing of the past— the next 45 minutes is Bruce at his most deadly serious.  The fans call for hits at the end of “Factory,” but Bruce has things planned out— “we’re gonna get to that one, but this one’s called ‘Promised Land.’”

These kinds of tunes are the side of Springsteen that can be ponderous if he’s not careful.  There’s nothing fun about “Factory” into “Promised Land,” and if not for the band, there might be a lull here, but the guys really have Springsteen’s back this night.  Steve Van Zandt saves “Promised Land”— the rhythm guitar has bite and grit not on the studio version, and his background vocals are unhinged and wonderfully tossed-off.  He’s much-needed adrenaline on the tune (Bruce acknowledges him at the end of the song).  When Springsteen takes a solo at 2:41, he’s picked up on the band’s vibe, and he’s far more adventurous than usual, reaching for high, bended notes and sacrificing precision for feel.  Even so, the last two minutes of this track are the low point of the show for me— listening to the last verse and chorus feels like work, or medicine.  It feels like it’s good for me, and the only moment in the whole show where I feel like Bruce is singing at me, rather than inviting me to sing along with him.

Happily, it’s a short-lived lull.  What follows next is one of the handful of greatest performances I’ve ever heard this band do.  On the 1978 tour, Bruce opened “Prove It All Night” with the longest guitar solos of his career since he was a stoner blooze guitarist on the Jersey Shore in Steel Mill in the late 60s and early 70s.  And this “Prove” is my current favorite— over the ones from Winterland and Berkeley that same year that are also contenders.  I love the tight, claustrophobic mix— listen to Clarence’s triangle cut through, Bittan’s piano, and the way Van Zandt, Tallent and Weinberg are locked in.  At 1:20, Bruce joins in, playing an A to B hammer-on for twenty seconds.  Then he’s off— when I was younger, I thought Bruce was sloppy, but the older I get, the more I love his playing.   He’s an angular player who can play fast, but who is also really interested in the overtones and harmonics that he grabs by accident.  I also love that he’s in no rush here— each part of the solo has its own flavor, and though improvised, stumbles upon some lovely memories (2:30-3:00, for example).  By the time he’s warmed up, he heads up the neck for the showstopping moment.  In a riff that Mark Knopfler would use to kickstart his career in “Sultans Of Swing” a year later, Springsteen builds the intro the first set’s great musical crescendo, and then the bands drops expertly into the song itself.  

I remember reading a story about Springsteen from 1985 in Rolling Stone about his inability to turn off his internal motor.  It described an off night on the Born In The USA tour on which he was playing 3+ hours a night.  He went to a bar, jumped up with the band there and did 50s covers, and got so worked up that his own band took him outside, threw him over a car hood, and poured ice water on him to try to get him back to earth.  “Prove It All Night” to me has always sounded like the musical equivalent of that side of Bruce.  It’s such a desperate song, breathless and aggressive— in almost every live version I’ve heard, he clutches at least one line because his mistimes his breath—  I can’t believe there’s two more hours to go after this song ends— how is this song not the finale?  How does he push himself this completely and then regroup and do it again and again?  Truly remarkable stamina.  The final minute is ridiculous— Max and Bruce are daring each other to keep going.  It reminds me of a Who track the way the drums and guitar takes turns going for broke.

When I was 19, I felt the same way as this song feels— I would have trouble sleeping for days, and either walk or drive around my neighborhood from one to four am trying to feed and conquer the voices in my head telling me that I could do more.  My friends must have thought I was nuts— I dragged so many of them out into the empty streets of my neighborhood just to walk and talk for hours.  It wasn’t until my late 30s that I could have a meaningful conversation without pacing.  

Finally, at ten minutes, they call it.  Even Bruce needs a minute and a half to catch his breath— he gives Max his due, and then takes a break, and maybe even signs an autograph.  But Bruce is not done pushing the audience— there are three songs left to go in the set, and they’re all monsters: “Racing In The Street,” “Thunder Road,” and “Jungleland.”  

I’ve never been a car guy, so the iconography and fetishistic quality of Bruce’s car descriptions have never done much for me, but like any good American, I love the freedom and escape and reinvention that a car offers.  I’m not a big fan of “Racing,” but it’s an essential song to play here— there’s nowhere to go but down from “Prove It All Night,” and Bruce’s vocal here is outstanding— I feel the frustration of the characters here in ways that I don’t on other performances of this song. In fact, one of the few songs I’ve written myself that isn’t awful unconsciously ripped off the final verse of this song and I didn’t know it until this month.  Another sign of aging— I’ve learned that my skills as an editor and critic wildly outweigh my skills as a creator.  The outro here is beautiful, a great example of a band listening to one another and building to something together.  Even Clarence doesn’t overdo it.

Bruce has just played five straight songs from his new album, which isn’t selling well in August of 1978.  That’s thirty five minutes of unfamiliar music.  He has demanded a lot of his audience, and himself, and it’s time to reward them with two tracks from 1975’s Born To Run, the record that saved his career.  

As the songs fades to just piano, Bruce tells a true story of a car trip that he and Steve took in 1977 to the west coast (pictures from it are in the Darkness Box set released a few years ago).  Now he’s the one behind the wheel, but instead of “Racing” around Asbury Park, he’s set his sights on the world— it’s the perfect bridge to “Thunder Road,” a song all about getting out and away and escaping, “pulling out of here to win.”  Now the message of set one is starting to take shape— a concert is a party, a communal celebration, where often we cheer our successes, but it’s also OK to acknowledge our fears, admit to our weaknesses and obsessions, bemoan our disappointments, renounce our fears, and demand more of ourselves and our lives.  When he announces “Thunder Road,” the place explodes with recognition and relief— the Darkness tunes have been bleak and unrelenting, and offered no guarantee of success.  It’s time to sing along and believe that, as Ralph Ellison’s wounded vet claimed in Invisible Man, we can “be our own fathers.”

It’s a great “Thunder Road,” expertly played and sung (though the sound guy is chasing gremlins suddenly— check out Clarence’s entry on sax— he’s WAAAAAY too loud.  Some fans complained that the show wasn’t remixed for release, and it’s true that some moments sound better than others, but I love the you-are-there quality of it— that’s what the show sounded like in the hall that night, and a live show is sometimes defined and made memorable by happy accidents). If the set ended there, it would have been generous, and allowed people to go to the break feeling relieved, but Springsteen isn’t letting people off that easily.  Rather than “Thunder Road’s” uplifting optimism, Bruce makes his audience follow him back into his darkness and neuroses with “Jungleland.”

I can’t believe Bruce wrote “Jungleland” at 24.  In many ways, his music seems more like a younger man’s now than the stuff he wrote in the 70s.  When Bittan starts the intro, the audience sounds excited, but also trepidatious to me— “Oh man, they’re gonna play THAT now?”  You can almost hear them take some deep breaths and prepare themselves for it.

“Jungleland” is another Bruce romantic epic.  Much as I love it, it makes me laugh at the same time.  Who has EVER been known as “The Magic Rat”?  I had never taken the track that seriously until I saw the band do it live in 1988 at the Amnesty International superconcert with Peter Gabriel and Sting and Tracy Chapman and Youssou N’Dour (thanks again for the ticket, Redman).  Seeing it live, all the bombast made sense, and I got completely caught up in the grandeur of it.  The same thing happens here— I’ve been typing non-stop for 90 minutes, and I don’t feel tired at all— Bruce is soloing at the three minute mark, and I’m bopping my head.  I’ve heard this version a dozen times in the last thirty days, and I can’t wait for the sax solo, and I don’t really LIKE sax solos. (There’s some funny stuff going on as well.  Listen for the moments when they put too much reverb on Max’s snare drum trying to imitate the album mix— a few of them last through the next hit).

I like to imagine what the band is thinking at this point— they’ve been onstage for 65 minutes, and they must know it’s been a special first set, and that they’re killing it, again, on the radio.  Do they know the tide is turning?  That this is the gig that will define their lives?  The combination of brotherhood, confidence, arrogance, commitment and purpose must have been overwhelming at times.  It’s so hard to be in a band, and keep it together, and surely the E Street Band must have had its petty politics, but it’s not possible to be onstage playing this well and not feel a part of something bigger.

Finally, Bruce calls an end to set one— the ending of the tune is marred by some painful feedback (blame the reverb again) but it’s still triumphant.  Bruce introduces the whole band, and it feels like it could be good night.  After all, it’s a free show, and it’s been 70 minutes, and instead, he asks for fifteen minutes to regroup.  Little does the audience know that he’s not even halfway done.

So let’s take fifteen minutes (or a month— your call.  It’s the internets, after all.  I’m splitting this into parts anyway).  Get some water and a stretch, rest your ears, and get ready to be rewarded for being such a conscientious audience member in part one.  Set one was complex and demanding— set two is a nonstop party.  I think that, for most people, once is enough through that first set.  The “Prove It All Night” will hold up over repeated listenings, but otherwise, you’re good.  But this second set?  Make room in your iPod (or whatever the hell we’re using these days).  It’s really really fun.

Dear Apple-- can we please have this 160gb iPod back?  I don't want to stream stuff.  
Thank you-- an old man who fears change.


  1. This is great. Must disagree on the set one. set two thing. I'm just a 100% darkness guy. Easily my favorite record, and my favorite Bruce mood as well. Set two is great, but I much, much prefer tortured, angry Bruce to party Bruce. With you on streaming though, blech city.

  2. Jeff--please share the unabridged post.