Bruce Springsteen: The Boss Is Back

He hits the road for his first tour in two years and overcomes the stigma of being an East Coast phenomenon

bruce springsteen 1980
Ebet Roberts/Redferns
Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons.
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There are only a couple of small-hall dates on Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's 1980 tour. In most cities, the only way to meet ticket demand is for Springsteen and the gang to play the kinds of huge arenas usually reserved for supergroups and pro sports teams. Tonight, backstage after an epic four-hour show in the Milwaukee Arena, it smells like the latter group has just been through.

"That's me," says Springsteen of the liniment smell. "I've got that stuff all over me. To provide some heat on my back. 'Cause otherwise, in three or four hours, I become very similar to this table." His back seems pretty tight right now as he leans forward to knock on the wood table. He says the stiffness is not from his trademark flying leaps onto the speakers. "I think it's just all that breathin'. The whole top of your body goes like that," says Bruce, flexing like an already-taut bowstring. "It's mental," an admiring insider says later. "It's intensity."

For the past three shows – in Chicago, St. Paul and Milwaukee-the intensity has been apparent. (Springsteen, in fact, was having so much trouble getting to sleep after the Midwest gigs that he proposed an all-night drive to Milwaukee from St. Paul – "The only car for that would be a Corvette station wagon," said road manager Bob Chirmside – but ended up making the one-hour trip by air on a 4:20 a.m. commercial flight.) Springsteen has lent ample life to his performing legend – and with thirty-five or so dates to go, is doing a good job of laying to rest the stigma of being "an East Coast phenomenon" – playing sold-out shows that last a minimum of three and a half hours and are divided into two sets by a break that lets both performer and audience rest. The group does thirty songs in all, and tonight exactly half of them were from Springsteen's new double album, The River.

During its two years off the road, the band's only public exposure has been a segment in the No Nukes concert movie and a couple of songs on the album. The absence seems only to have built Springsteen's following, for in every "market" in the country, the figures for ticket sales and the album – which shipped gold-are flickering faster than the digit counters on one of the Boss' beloved pinball machines.

Cal Levy, from Electric Factory Productions, brought Bruce to Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum in October; he's been promoting concerts in that city since 1975. "In September 1977, Bruce sold 4000 seats here," The recalls. "In September 1978, he sold 6630. This past October 4th, he sold 16.300 seats in two hours and forty minutes. We absolutely could have sold out two more shows. I was as surprised as anybody. I told [Springsteen's manager] Jon Landau he should treat this building like the Roxy [a 500-seat club in L.A. where Bruce did a four-night show in 1975] and come in for a week." Similarly, the office of Madison Square Garden promoter Ron Delsner was deluged with enough ticket requests to fill the 18,000-seat arena for sixteen nights. But for Levy, promoter of the December 3rd, 1979, Who concert at which eleven kids were trampled to death in a rush for the door, the Springsteen show was more than Riverfront Coliseum's first sell-out show since that date. "As one local paper put it," Levy explains, "for the first time since December 3rd, people didn't have to look over their shoulders to enjoy themselves. It was so happy yet so controlled. Bruce had those people standing on their seats for the entire show - unless he asked them to sit down. It was almost a feeling of being in a 3000-seat hall." And as Cincinnati Mayor Jerry Springer said in a radio broadcast, "Rock & roll should never be a defendant in the Who case. Bruce Springsteen showed us that, and we should be grateful to him."

Milwaukee had its own concert problems. The bad memory of a riot last April, when such "special guests" as Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger failed to show up for a New Barbarians concert, had been freshened by a concertgoers rampage on Thursday, October 9th, six days before Springsteen's date. It seems Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler was clocked on the head with a flung beer bottle, and when the rest of the band retreated from the stage after him, the crowd trashed the arena. Just about every cop in the city was called to what local officials called a "miniriot," and some politicians were spoiling to ban rock from the 12,000-seat arena.

Springsteen's representatives thus made a deal to get the band offstage no later than 11:15 p.m. (the concert started a half-hour earlier than usual), but when the time came, Bruce was cranking out an impromptu, rollicking version of "Midnight Hour," and arena president Robert O. Ertl was screaming at tour manager George Travis. "Do you want me to wave him off now?", Travis asked tranquilly, as one wide swath of kids in seats behind the stage swayed back and forth, flinging their hands up in unison on every beat. "He'll come off."

"Oh no, "Ertl remembers saying. "He's got the audience up high, he'll have to bring 'em back down." That, admits Ertl, is just what Springsteen did – "beautifully." In fact, some Milwaukee officials felt that Springsteen's concert took the ammunition away from the city's antirock factions.

Dawn Colla, 27, is a mayoral assistant in Milwaukee who came to the arena that night, but she wanted to talk as a fan. She seems to represent the large chunk of Springsteen's growing constituency, which is described by Cal Levy as "salesmen, lawyers – a very clean crowd." Said Colla: "I didn't especially like having this guy at the door say.

'Sorry, babe, gotta look in your purse,' but they were frisking everybody. I don't think there's anybody else who could get me and twelve of my friends out. We're all in our late twenties. I'm past going to rock & roll concerts-the last show we all went to was his 1978 show. But you know the guy's trying to knock himself out in every city. He comes out with a double album that costs ten bucks [in fact, Springsteen's $15.98-list, twenty-song LP was selling for less than ten dollars in many stores] after Fleetwood Mac came out with one for fifteen dollars. He doesn't have that phoniness so many acts have. There's a lot of good rock & roll, but the guy's also a poet.

"A lot of the people here are real fans. They're tuned into when the sax is gonna come in, they know all the words – it's like a reunion. There were two kids behind me, eighteen, nineteen, yelling for 'Thunder Road,' and they just went crazy when 'Rosalita' began. But I guess I just look for the poetry. He's saying to people, 'Open your eyes, you have some choices, don't get caught in that group that's gonna be street people all their lives.'"

Springsteen may indeed be one of the few authentic rockers still celebrated by the aging gentry who fueled the Sixties rock & roll explosion. But neither has he lost touch with the kinds of fans who were more than a little put out by the Milwaukee Arena's brand-new ban on beer sales. He seemed to please everybody. He opened his show with "Prove It All Night," did a ferocious rendition of "Badlands" – clutching his guitar across his chest like a priceless talisman as he sang the hushed line, "It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive" – and ended up in the middle of a happy mob in the arena's fifth row of seats to holler "I'm all alone" during "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out."

"Are ya loose?" Springsteen demanded before going into more somber territory with "Darkness on the Edge of Town" and "Factory." "When I grew up, I used to watch my father go to work every day to a job he hated," he said before "Independence Day." "You're lucky if you got some choices." He played the new "Jackson Cage" to the "excitable bunch" in the cheaper seats just behind the stage, then moved rapidly through "Promised Land" and "Out in the Street" (he had introduced the former song to Chicago by asking, "How many of you guys are living away from home right now?") and played another new song, "Two Hearts." "Racing in the Street" was linked to "The River" by an invocatory few notes from Roy [Bruce calls him "Mr. E=MC Squared"] Bittan's piano. Springsteen then closed the first half of the show with a flurry of leaps, scurryings and knee drops as he and saxman Clarence Clemons played off each other on "Thunder Road" and "Jungleland." During the latter song, the crowd spilled over far enough to block the view of a kid in a wheelchair in the aisle at stage left. Grinning and flinging his hands in the air, he didn't seem to mind.

After the break in Chicago, Bruce had started a dancing frenzy with Elvis Presley's "Good Rockin' Tonight," but in Milwaukee, he chose the new "Cadillac Ranch." Cupping his hands suggestively to sing "Hey little girlie with the blue jeans so tight," he made sure his diction was perfect on the next line:

"Drivin' alone through the ... Wisconsin night...." Milwaukee roared. When Clarence interrupted "Fire" to finish "But your heart stays cool" in a mellifluous bass voice, Bruce staggered away from the mike, and the crowd screamed with abandon during the long, silent tease before both men made it back to the mike to sing the song's "Romeo and Juliet" verse.

The moment ushered in six songs from the new LP: "Sherry Darling," "I Wanna Marry You" (with a funny spoken intro turning into a beautiful vocal round by Bruce, Clarence and "Miami" Steve Van Zandt), "The Ties That Bind," "Wreck on the Highway," "Point Blank" and "Crush on You." Springsteen flung his guitar to Clarence early in the latter song, the better to launch into some sidestepping so rapid it was more an athletic feat than a dance. His tight black shirt was soaking wet as he called for "Midnight Hour," then stormed through "Ramrod" and "You Can Look (but You Better Not Touch)." "All those songs – with the exception of 'Midnight Hour' – are new songs," he announced proudly. The lights lowered for a brooding version of "Stolen Car," Garry Tallent's bass rumbling like distant, ominous thunder, and then came the spate of crowd pleasers: "Backstreets," "Rosalita," "Born to Run" and the Mitch Ryder medley. The crowd, seated and attentive for much of the show, then pressed against the stage. "I knew you were out there," said Bruce. "You're great. Thanks a lot!"

"It was a real warm crowd," Springsteen said backstage as the medicinal rub heated up under a thermal-underwear shirt. "A lot of them have seen us before. I don't think they come to the show at this point with an attitude of 'You have to win me over.' Course, a lot of people bring friends who have never seen us. They must, 'cause a lot of these places we didn't sell out before. So they must be bringing some body from some place."

His album had been in the stores for only a day, but "Hungry Heart" had already declared itself a single because of radio airplay, and ticket sales were still going through the roof. Where were all those new faces coming from?

"The last tour,"he explained, "we played 122 shows, and the band played real hard every single night, you know. Every single night in every town, the band played very hard. And people, I think they just remembered. They remembered, and this time everybody told their friends, 'You just gotta come down to the show.'"

"Where do you reach for the energy to do it?" I asked him. "You're playing nearly four hours, sometimes three nights in a row. Occasionally, you have to be tired."

"The audience brings a lot, even when you think you have nothing left within you. You know, tonight is tonight, and what you do tonight, you don't make up for tomorrow, and you don't ride on what you did last night. I always keep in my mind that you only have one chance. Some guy bought his ticket, and there's a promise made between the musician and the audience. When they support each other, that's a special thing. It goes real deep, and most people take it too lightly. If you break the pact or take it too lightly, nothing else makes sense. It's at the heart of everything; I'm not sure how.

"I've got a lot of energy just naturally. But when I get onstage and I'm running on empty. I just think of the promise to the guy or girl who's down there, a promise that's made from hundreds or thousands of miles away. It's no different than if you stood with this person and shook his hand."

This story appeared in the November 27th, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 331: November 27, 1980