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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band American Tour
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George Rose/Getty26/50

Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band American Tour

It had been three very long years since Born to Run made Bruce Springsteen a national star. A bitter lawsuit filed against his former manager in 1976 left him legally unable to enter a studio for two years before making Darkness on the Edge of Town. "Prove It All Night," his new single, stalled at Number 33 on the charts. Anything radio-friendly, like "Fire" and "Because the Night," was held off Darkness to maintain the starker atmosphere Springsteen wanted for his set of songs about the reality of everyday working life. To many, all of this was evidence that Springsteen was in decline. So he did the thing he could do better than almost anyone alive: He went on tour. "With the burden of proving I wasn't a has-been at 28," he wrote in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run, "I headed out on the road performing long, sweat-drenched rock shows featuring the new album."

Springsteen and the E Street Band played 115 shows across North America, the longest series of dates they would ever play in a single year. Even the soundchecks were grueling. "Literally, we would play 'Thunder Road' for a half-hour and Bruce would walk around and sit in every section and make sure the sound was as good as possible," says drummer Max Weinberg. "Look, Bruce took his fun very seriously." Not everyone thought it was so much fun. "I thought it was a little self-indulgent and a little bit silly," says bassist Garry Tallent. "We would do four-hour sound-checks and then a three-and-a-half-hour show. We were younger then."

Sets featured the majority of the new album, a big chunk of Born to Run and favorites off the first two discs, like "Spirit in the Night" and "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)." After so much time off, the band played with a stunning mix of pent-up energy and technical precision. "Anyone can be great on any given night," says Weinberg. "To really be great every night takes a lot of willpower, a lot of dedication, a lot of self-confidence, a lot of respect for your audience – tremendous respect for the audience."

Live, the songs completely transformed from their recorded versions. For "Prove It All Night," the band added a piano and guitar intro that built to a furious climax, and "Backstreets" developed an emotional spoken-word interlude about lost love that eventually morphed into "Drive All Night," from The River. "Even at that point, the whole thing was 'You have to see them live – you can't go by the record,'" says Tallent.

As the tour crisscrossed the nation, with five shows getting broadcast on the radio and quickly hitting the bootleg market, a new respect for the album took hold. "Night after night, we sent our listeners away, back to the recorded versions of this music," Springsteen wrote in Born to Run, "newly able to hear their beauty and restrained power."

One particularly great show took place at the tiny Agora Ballroom in Cleveland. Opening with a ferocious cover of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues" and wrapping up three hours later with a wild "Twist and Shout," it became one of the most coveted bootlegs in rock history. "It was really hot," says Weinberg. "Just sweltering. It was incredibly exciting. Then you just get on the bus and go to the next gig. It was like that about five nights a week with two days off."

Word of Springsteen's glorious return prompted CBS Records to mount a huge billboard of his image on the Sunset Strip, advertising the album and tour but making no mention of the band. "It was the ugliest thing I've ever seen," Springsteen told a radio DJ. One night, Springsteen snuck up to the roof of a nearby building with Tallent and saxophonist Clarence Clemons. Armed with cans of black spray paint, Springsteen hoisted himself onto Clemons' massive shoulders and wrote "Prove It All Night E Street" across the entire thing. "We didn't deface it," says Tallent with a laugh. "We corrected it. That was our way of letting people know to not expect the next coming of Christ. It's just a rock & roll show."

Darkness on the Edge of Town still wasn't a commercial hit by the end of the run, but critics across the country hailed the tour as the best of the year, and the album remained at the core of Springsteen's set list for decades to come. "[They] are perhaps the purest distillation of what I wanted my rock & roll music to be about," Springsteen wrote. "[On the last stand of the tour] an exploding firecracker tossed by an inebriated 'fan' opened up a small slash underneath my eye. A little blood'd been drawn, but we were back." A.G.

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