This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the first time I ever saw Bruce Springteen & The E Street Band; two shows in the US East Coast state of Virginia, the first at the Mosque in Richmond on January 25 and the second a night later at the Chrysler Theatre in Norfolk (where the picture elsewhere on the blog of Bruce, Columbia Records PR Mike Mahoney and myself was taken). They were small old-fashioned theatres and both are still operating today, though The Mosque is now called The Landmark. I don’t think they were sold out.
I stayed in the same hotel as the band and remember chatting with Bruce in the coffee shop on the morning after the first show. He was eating a burger and fries washed down with coke, and wasn’t very talkative, shy almost, maybe a bit tongue-tied. He was thin then, with a whispery beard, and intense, like he had a lot on his mind. I didn’t press him, just told him how much I’d enjoyed the show the night before, and he was grateful for the compliment, humble, courteous, like I imagine the young Elvis would have been.
The two concerts blur together a bit 40 years later so I can’t actually remember which one it was (and it might have been both) where Bruce and his band played ‘Pretty Flamingo’, Manfred Mann’s best ever song and a 1966 UK chart topper, but what I remember as clear as day was Bruce’s long, witty and gloriously uplifting monologue that prefaced it. As it was my introduction to Bruce live his monologues were quite new to me, surprising, captivating and unique.
The ‘Pretty Flamingo’ story began with Bruce telling us how he once lived on a street in Jersey which a beautiful girl would walk down every day at five o’clock, so he and his buddies from the block would gather there at a quarter to five every day just to watch her stroll by. While the band ticked over in the background, idling like a car in neutral, Bruce conjured up in a few pithy sentences the image of a shapely heartbreaker that he and his buddies, and by inference they included some of the band, were too afraid to approach. They were desperate to know her name but too shy to ask, even some crazy guy in Bruce’s gang who often did really brave stuff because he was far too crazy to care about the consequences.
And so it went on, with the girl walking by for weeks, maybe months, Bruce and his buddies still watching her every day, and no-one knew what she was called. By this time we in the audience were all hopelessly in love with her, just as Bruce and his pals obviously were, and they’d coined a nickname for her. “And then… like I moved away,” said Bruce, disappointment clouding his face. “We never found out what her name was. We used to call her something. What was it that we called her Clarence? Can you remember? What did we call her Steve? I remember. Should I tell ‘em?”
Then, louder, repeated, his right arm raised. “Should I tell ‘em?”
“Yeah,” called Steve and Clarence in unison. “Tell ‘em Bruce.”
“Should I tell ‘em?” He was screaming now.
Bruce brought his arm down. A chord.
“On our block all of the guys called her Flamingo.”
Guitars and drums exploded. Perfect. Just fucking perfect. The incredible tension of the build-up was finally released and like a great tidal wave crashing through the theatre Bruce and his band launched deliriously into this great song. The crowd went nuts. But he wasn’t finished with us. Two, maybe three, minutes in, just after the first verse, after Flamingo had brightened up the neighbourhood like she just could, he brought the band down again, let them tick over again, and he had us captive again.
“What can I do Clarence?” he asked, even more passionate than before. “I gotta find that girl. I’m gonna hire a detective, someone good, like Charlie Chan.”
He was laughing now, full of fun, and we were holding on to every word. “And when I get her I know what I’m gonna tell her. I know what I’m gonna tell her. I’m gonna tell her I’m in a band. I’m in a band!”
And off they went again, careering downhill like men possessed.
“Some sweet day, I’ll make her mine, Pretty Flamingo.”
In a band. The best place in the world.
I was hooked, and have been ever since.