BRUCE - The Early Years

After those first two shows in January 1974 I saw two more Bruce concerts that year, one during his week at the Bottom Line club in downtown New York during July, the one where I took Harvey Goldsmith along, and I remember that at one point during his set Bruce jumped off the stage and on to a long table, scattering glasses everywhere, still playing his guitar. The Bottom Line held around 400 people and Bruce did two shows a night for six straight nights. Oddly, the first couple of nights weren’t sell outs but there was a buzz in the city about what was going on down there and by the end of the week it was the hottest ticket in town.
         My next Bruce show was about a month later at the Wolman Skating Rink in Central Park, where he was second on the bill between Brewer & Shipley and the headliner, Canadian singer Anne Murray. This was a gross miscalculation on the part of Murray’s managers, who insisted their client top the bill. Well over half of the audience, those who were there for Bruce, walked out after his set, and many of those that stayed yelled ‘Broooce’ during Murray’s set which, of course, sounded like booing.
         Then, in February of 1975, I caught an unusual show at the Westbury Theatre out on Long Island where the stage revolved. Bruce seemed a bit uncomfortable with this set-up and there were rumours backstage that the place was run by the Mafia, so the show wasn’t quite the roller-coaster ride as others I’d seen. There were a lot of broad-shouldered men in suits backstage, unlike most rock shows where the crew wore jeans and t-shirts, and we left in a hurry. By now the E Street band included a temporary violinist, name of Suki Lahav, so augmenting the group with girls and less obvious instruments – as he does now with many extra musicians – is a dynamic in Bruce’s presentation that goes back a long way.
         Then there was a night in 1974, perhaps after one of the Bottom Line shows, that I chanced on Bruce in JP’s bar, a music industry hang-out on the Upper East Side, sitting having a beer with the writers Jon Landau and Dave Marsh, his booking agent Barry Bell and some of the E Streeters. Landau congratulated me on the piece I’d written about Bruce in MM, but I think he’d got me mixed up with Michael Watts whose much longer piece had appeared in MM the previous year. I was invited to join their table and the conversation which, inevitably, was all about music, the only thing that Bruce ever seemed to want to talk about. I didn’t say much but was happy to listen to Bruce going on about which bands from the sixties that he liked, British and American, and it occurred to me that like so many in his profession who make it to the very top he was a student of rock’n’roll, and by that I mean a Grade A student through and through.
         Not long after my first review, back in early ’74, Jon Landau had declared in Boston’s Real Paper that he’d seen the future of rock’n’roll and its name was Bruce Springsteen, a statement now carved in stone that in the long term led to Landau becoming Bruce’s manager and producer. Eighteen months later, not long after Born To Run was released, in the fourth week of October 1975 he appeared on the cover of Time and Newsweek simultaneously, which prompted suggestions that he was being hyped by Columbia, his record label.
         I was perfectly placed to observe all the fuss that surrounded Bruce at this time, the dispute with his first manager (and producer) Mike Appell, the fretting that this caused at Columbia and the label’s dilemma over whether or not to drop him after the relative commercial failure of his first two albums, which would almost certainly have happened in today’s more cut-throat, less nurturing record industry. The support of the music press was key in Columbia’s decision to stick with him but at the same time there was a perception that he’d been created by those rock critics who sang his praises, me included I suppose, and that he pandered to them by playing music that was by – or inspired by – their favourite artists, the classic rock’n’rollers of the fifties, the Phil Spector stable and style, and the great UK and US bands of the sixties.
         The situation wasn’t helped by an article in the widely read ‘alternative’ New York weekly The Village Voice which decreed that the opinions of only five East Coast rock critics mattered and, by implication, all the rest were superfluous. Those named were Landau (then reviews editor at Rolling Stone), Dave Marsh (of Newsday), Paul Nelson (Rolling Stone), John Rockwell (The New York Times) and its own rock critic Robert Christgau, all of whom were supporters of Bruce. Some writers not in this list took against Bruce as a result and inflated the hype accusations. Being a Brit, I simply watched from the sidelines, digesting privileged information from my inside source at Columbia who’d got me into all these gigs and using it judiciously as I covered the Bruce saga in my weekly New York news columns for MM.
         In truth Bruce didn’t need any of this. He certainly wasn’t a hype, which to my mind implies an element of fraud, a performer elevated beyond his limited abilities by those who stand to make a short term profit from their success. His abilities were never in question but he did provoke strong feelings, however; from other artists jealous of his sudden rise and critical acclaim* and from a handful of writers who felt obliged to condemn Bruce for no other reason than they felt somebody ought to, though I felt in reality they were condemning the Bruce phenomenon, which was something entirely different.
         In the event none of it mattered. Landau took over the production reins for Born To Run, the tour that followed its release saw Bruce reaching even greater heights and the rest is history. The next time I saw him, my last as an MM writer, was in November 1976, at the New York Palladium, and I’ll post my review of that show tomorrow.

* I remember interviewing Bruce's Columbia labelmate Neil Diamond in 1975, not the most friendly encounter I ever had, and Diamond went on and on about how he couldn't understand all the acclaim that Springsteen was getting. Talk about green with envy! 

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