Guest Columnist Pearse Guina|
(A UK Fan From Before the Fame)
The Young, the Naive and the Born to Witness!
Posted on September 17, 1999 @ 11:00PM GMT
I was already a Bruce fan by late '73 - I like to think that I was one of the very first UK listeners to get into him through The Wild The Innocent And The East Street Shuffle and Greetings. I was working in a record shop in those days, which was a blast and gave me an unparalleled opportunity to listen to and evaluate music of all kinds. It was a small privately owned shop handling both Classical and Modern music so I got into a whole load of stuff like Jazz, Baroque, and Renaissance as well as extending my knowledge and appreciation of all things rock 'n' roll. One of the great joys of my work was going through the shelves of sleeves looking for stuff I didn't recognise and sticking it on the turntable and reading all the liner notes.
So when I came across not one but two copies of The Wild The Innocent I was amazed to say the least! The general store policy was fairly conservative (I later discovered that Bruce had been ordered in by mistake) so to have two copies of something I had never heard of usually meant that I had missed out on something everybody else was already raving about. Of course, I immediately took a copy home to hear it for myself. But oh, what a disappointment! Maybe I wasn't listening real hard but I just didn't make the connection that first night. I resolved to return the disc to the shelves the next day and keep on looking for that special something.
I don't remember the details now but I must have had a busy and probably a late night because I forgot to take the record back. So the next night I listened again and it really started to bite. I began playing it over and over. "Sandy" got me first, followed by "Incident". I just loved the characters in those two songs and the musical structures Bruce used to tell the stories and Gary's bass in the quiet middle sections where it almost becomes the lead. They are still the two songs which I love and return to more often than any others. (BTW, the only real disappointment of the '99 for me has been the relative absence of that gorgeous lyrical bass playing from Gary. I love the liquid way he used to weave his lines in and out of the melody and the vocals. He seems to have settled for a simpler, less decorative approach this time around. I miss the old style.)
Very quickly I became an aficionado of the boardwalk and the shore and a lifelong fan of the Boss. And evangelical! It became my mission to convert all my music-loving friends - who didn't take an awful lot of persuading. Within a couple of weeks Bruce had become the number one at many homes in a certain part of East London.
As the years went by The Wild The Innocent And The East Street Shuffle was played again and again in our houses and cars and the word was spreading. Greetings was purchased and offered a myriad of new opportunities to be amazed by the talent of this Jersey poet. "Growin' Up", "For You", "Mary Queen of Arkansas", "Spirit" and "Blinded" all added to the myth. There was no longer any question in my mind. This was the music and the artist I had been searching for and I was thrilled to have made the discovery on my own. No one else had pointed me to this music, I had followed nobody's recommendation. It was a special thing to me. So, of course, it was all the more important that I confirm as soon as possible that this was more than just a flash in the pan. The third album was going to be crucial and by 1975 we were ready!
When we finally heard that Born To Run was to be released we were ecstatic - this was the first new material we would get and we would be able to hear it at almost the same time as everybody else if we could get an import copy. I went down to Revolver Records in Soho to order it and they told me they would have a copy for me within a day or two of its US release. (I had moved on and was no longer working in the record store. Now I was a civil servant and a computer programmer - but I had a great collection of vinyl!)
You can imagine how anxiously I was awaiting the release date. I was eighteen years old and had discovered at last, and after a long search, the music of my heart! I had succeeded in convincing all my close friends that Bruce was the best around and my reputation was on the line. If Bruce delivered, I delivered. I needed urgent confirmation that I had called it right - that Bruce could produce another superb record and that he might go on delivering the goods for all time. I was very aware that I had lit a fire in all the friends I had introduced to the music of Bruce and I wanted that fire to burn brighter than any other.
When release day finally arrived (Revolver got it on the same day as its US release) I told my boss that I would be very late as I had to go collect something. I was at the counter at 9:01am before the staff were even properly awake handing over my pennies and holding the sacred black object in my hands. It was the coolest thing! Because it was an import it had the red US Columbia label on instead of the orange CBS one that we got here. I thought the picture on the cover was awesome and I just had to hear some of it. Even though I had already bought and paid for it I asked the salesperson to put it on in the listening booth so that I could hear the first couple of tracks. From the very first notes of "Thunder Road" I knew that all was well with the world. Sacred indeed! The hardest thing I ever did was wrenching myself out of that booth to go to work after only two tracks - but I already knew that I had nothing to fear. This was the real deal, the full monty, the business! I couldn't wait to get to my friend Alan's house that night to play it for him and my other music friends.
Needless to say Born To Run became an instant legend among us. It was the first record to completely blow us away with songs that were more than just good - they were frighteningly, personally good. They spoke to our British hearts as truly as they must have done to American ones. All those exotic NJ places came vividly to life in our imagination filled with the Wendys and Marys and Terrys and Billys, Bruce would sing about. It was no problem to us to immerse ourselves in the stories. Even three thousand miles away we lived similar lives on the edge of a big city - we knew beaches and backstreets and meeting places and big skyscrapers in cities in the distance as well and felt the energy and the honesty in those songs. And the music that wrapped the lyrics around was perfect for that moment in our lives - a raw blend of power and passion that you could scream and whisper at the same time. Girls and cars, the hope of sex and freedom, were as much the focus of our lives as any Jersey kid. "Backstreets", "Jungleland" and "Born To Run" told the stories of my imagined life and made me feel like I belonged to something.
The most astonishing thing, looking back, is the range of material he offered us. Across those first three albums was deployed a tremendous variety of musical styles, textures, arrangements, lyrical approaches, characterisations and cameos. But listening to "Meeting Across The River" for the first time had me holding my breath at the sheer audacity of it! What an arrangement in what was after all a rock record! Who else would have had the balls to include a song like that in that setting? Maybe ten years earlier, when he was using his voice to fill songs with real dramatic interpretation in imagined bar-rooms, that other Jersey singer would have killed to get that song. And what a wonderful thing it would have been to hear Sinatra sing it!
The whole record seemed then (and still seems now) perfectly formed, constructed from impossible moments of excitement. "Thunder Road" was a class opener, full of promise and potential - all the excitement yet to come and the crap left behind. "10th Avenue Freeze Out" took the party onto the streets, "Night" gathered you in and hurled you towards "Backstreets" which was the purest emotion I had ever heard.
Side two upped the ante. "Born To Run" took no prisoners and allowed no passengers, you were either on the ride or a passer-by. I imagined myself on a wild ride to hell and back with the wind blowing through my hair and a girl's arms tight around me. It was a fantastic feeling to have music you could scream along to! "She's The One" had some of the best chops and smartest lyrics I had ever heard, "Meeting" was a fleeting glimpse of the risks lurking underneath the veneer, while "Jungleland" was the operatic apotheosis of every movie dream you'd ever had of the streets of New York City, and once there you were a smiling fool as it built and built into the tumultuous outpouring of Clarence's sax solo and the guitars until the poets and ambulances of the denouement brought you at last to the final screams.
When we heard that Bruce was coming to London's Hammersmith Odeon, you can't imagine the excitement we felt. We heard a little of the hoopla as the UK music press picked up on some of the US commotion over the Landau article and the cover stories and the interest started to increase around us but he was still largely unknown over here and it was hard to find anyone else getting excited. Back then, unbelievable as it sounds, we were easily able to book a block of twenty tickets for the first show on 18th November 1975. We tried for front row but I guess these were reserved for CBS invitees and we had to make do in the fourth row. Can you imagine that? My seat was the right hand centre aisle seat row 4! To say that I was pumped up for that gig would be understating badly.
In the end, as often happens, a couple of people dropped out and we ended needing only eighteen seats for the show. So my best friend Alan and I decided to find some fans to sell the tickets to. We devised a little quiz of five Springsteen questions to make sure that buyers were true fans. We got to the theatre early and waited around outside for the rest of our party to arrive and to see if we could spot anyone desperate for a ticket checking the touts prices.
We finally spotted a couple and after they had talked to a few touts Alan went over and explained that we might have a couple to sell at face value - if they really were Springsteen fans. They were so excited. We took them to the pub across the road and they passed the quiz test easily so the deal was done. We didn't think to exchange details so I have no idea what happened to them, whether they are still fans or even if they are reading this now. It's a funny old world.
The other strange thing happened on the second night. When the shows were first announced we bought tickets only for the first show, as it didn't occur to us to book for the following Monday 24th as well. But by the time the 18th came around Alan and I were so pumped that we knew we had to try to get into the 24th. So in the pub, chatting about Springsteen and how totally excited we were about seeing him, Alan got into a conversation with a stranger. It turned out this guy was working security on the concert and, he said, he could get us in to the second show. After a bit of wrangling in lowered voices we got a price agreed and arranged to meet him in the same pub before the Monday night show.
So, it couldn't get any better! We were out in force with almost all our friends, the guys and girls we had spent most of our teenage years with, about to go see Bruce Springsteen - our very own discovery and the most incredible thing to happen to us musically in our lives - AND Alan and I were going to see the second night by being snuck in the backdoor. Oh my God, life felt very good at that moment!
Now much has been written about that concert over the years. It has been said that even though only 1200 could fit in the theatre there seem to be about 10,000 people who claim to have been there. It has been said that Bruce thought his performance stank. It has been said that it was a dull night. Well, I was there with my seventeen friends and for us it was like baptism, communion and confirmation all rolled into one. If this was dull, give me dull forever!
From the moment Bruce's harmonica started to breathe out the opening of Thunder Road and the single blue spotlight slowly came up on this gangly youth in a woolly hat and wispy beard - from that moment he had me. Heart and soul, body and mind, now and forever. He looked for all the world like a dirt-poor jazz bum tripping around with a bunch of cool cats but so in need of a decent meal and an early night. He embodied for me all the steam and sweat and smoke of every imagined New York blues bar I had ever wanted to inhabit. And the band, with Steve in his suit and hat, and Clarence prowling like a predator and blowing gales of sax machine music that could fell trees and shake tall buildings to the ground. Gary of so much Tallent giving us liquid bass lines of purest beauty and joy, and weaving submarine melodies in and out of the lyrics like fish through seaweed. Roy and Danny filling the air with textures and tones, Max on the money and heavy on the skins.
Bruce himself was a difficult commodity to define. One minute he was clamped to the mic stand, more or less breathing the songs out to us, the next he was shambling around the stage with THAT guitar around his back. He was obviously nervous on account of all the hype and maybe because it was his first trip to a foreign market but while immersed in the song all that seemed to melt away.
I know someone who has seen what there is of the video footage of this night and pronounced it unremarkable, pretty boring really. Well not from the fourth row, from the edge of my seat and under Bruce's nose. Not in the flesh, in the heat of the moment and in this boy's ears. The air around me buzzed. The whole world seemed to be electrified for that moment. I felt like a pure static charge needing to earth somewhere. Alan and I kept looking at each other and grinning huge inane grins. Even when it was over we couldn't quite believe it.
I have no idea how I got through the next week! All I cared about was the coming Monday night and the show! I plugged away at the job - both Alan and I were civil servants, me a computer programmer (yes they had computers in '75) and him a customs officer - but my mind was on other things. When the day finally came we had arranged to meet up early to get to our rendezvous with our inside man. You'd laugh now, I know I do, but we both arrived with jackets and ties on and carrying briefcases under our arms straight from our office desks. We looked less like security or any other real participant at a rock 'n' roll show than anyone you have ever met. How we imagined it was going to work I don't know.
Anyway we met our contact in the pub as agreed. He looked at us real funny when he saw how we were dressed and I swear he did a double-take when he saw our cases. But the money was exchanged and he said he would do his part. We had a drink and then he announced we were heading to the theatre to get signed in. Just before we got to the stage door he turned to us and said "Now listen, I can get you in but after that it's up to you. Just look official and you should be all right. But I've never seen you before once you're in the building." It felt just like one of those "Mission Impossible" episodes and I am sure, thinking back, that I was in imminent danger of wetting myself the whole time.
So we followed our man in through the stage door and up to a little window where a guy had a signing-in book. Our contact does all the signing in and ushers us through to the theatre proper. "Right" he said. "You're in. Bugger off quietly into a corner somewhere. They won't be letting anyone in for about an hour." And with that he turned and was gone.
Looking back I am astonished at how naive we were but we felt so excited to be inside, illicitly. We hung around in the back of the auditorium trying to keep out of sight and out of the way. Nobody seemed to pay us any attention and as the time rolled on we began to feel pretty confident. And then, just before they opened the doors, a small group of staff came around checking the place. As soon as they spotted us they came up and demanded to know who we were and what we were doing. "We're with the Security company" we said, but our confidence was waning fast. "I am the security company" the biggest one of the group said "and I don't know who the f**k you are!".
Needless to say we were quickly and unceremoniously shown the fast exit from the building. As we were shoved out through the foyer they were just letting the fans in and we could only watch in dismay at the long lines of happy faces. We had never felt so bad. Not having a ticket at all, and not going, was worse than getting our feet in the door only to be dumped on the street again. We tried to cheer each other up and we quickly made a decision to buy from the touts but we had a major problem - very little cash.
We hung around as the minutes ticked away and show time approached. We checked a few prices but couldn't afford any of the tickets we were offered. Things were looking bleak.
We decided that we would stay until the show started and see if we could hear anything from outside. Maybe we could find a spot where we could listen to the music even if we couldn't see what was going down on stage. At the same time we were keeping our eye on the touts waiting to see if they would drop their prices at the last minute. Finally, as the crowds disappeared inside and the late arrivals were rushing in we sensed that the moment of crisis was upon us. After a few more minutes we could hear the show starting but couldn't make out much more than a general noise from the crowd. It was agonising waiting to see if we could score at last and at the same time trying to catch the strains of "Thunder Road". As the song ended we approached a miserable looking tout. He looked cold and hungry - like he wanted to go home. We had watched him off and on throughout the last half-hour and he seemed to have done a good trade but he obviously had some tickets left. We shuffled nonchalantly over and inquired what he had left and after a bit of haggling and feigning disinterest we agreed a price for two seats in the circle.
Our shoes smoked as we rushed inside with the second song playing.
We made our way up to our seats only to be faced with another huge disappointment. The whole area where our seats should have been was covered by a mixing desk and sound engineers. Nothing in the world has ever moved as fast as my jaw dropping to floor as I realised that we had been conned and it began to dawn on me that we would be outside again any second now. The usherette who was helping us looked genuinely sad and surprised but I fully expected her to call a manager over to deal with these idiots.
Instead, bless her, she took pity on us. "Come with me" she said "I know where we have some seats that are empty." We followed blindly, hardly registering the music flowing from the stage. She took us downstairs to the stalls area and down the side of the seating towards the front. I looked at Alan and he looked at me. The usherette stopped us half-way to the front and said in my ear "See those seats in the front, right in front of those speakers - we don't sell them because it's too loud for most people. you can sit there if you want".
So that's how Alan and I ended up in the front row (over on the right hand side, partially blocked by some stacks, but still the front row!) at the second night at Hammersmith Odeon. And he blew us away. Where the first night had been merely incredible and life-changing this performance was in a whole other league. He played for hours and hours (actually about three and a half but it felt like more), did encore after encore, played his own stuff as well as great covers - he even played "Pretty Flamingo" for heaven's sake - and he bought the entire audience to its knees. We danced and clapped and sang along and rocked and rolled and cried and cheered. By half-way through I was standing at the front worshipping at the altar of Bruce. In "Rosalita" as he sang "someday we'll look back on this and it will all seem funny" I just knew that he was singing to me and telling me that all the pain of the pre- show drama was over.
And Bruce was a much looser animal on this night! By the standards of today's shows you could almost call these performances casual - long gaps between the songs, lots of asides to band members, lots of giggling and sharing in-jokes together. But they were having more fun and so were we. During "Spirit In The Night" Bruce crawled down into the orchestra pit and back up again for the "making love in the dirt" lines. The whole thing was more of a party than the opener and Bruce was both guest of honour and the star turn.
When he came out for the third time to play the encores we were begging for he sat at the piano alone and played "For You" like you'd never believe. I nearly melted into the ether of that moment alone. We couldn't have asked for more and he couldn't have given us anything better on that night.
All the hassles and struggles were already fading into nothing as we stood stamping and applauding and finally realising that the show was over. He played so long, and the show ended so late that Alan and I had to walk across London to find a milk train home - but, oh yes, it was worth it. I'd do it again in an instant.
So that's my story. Me and my mate Alan and Bruce and the boys. Since then we've been to many Springsteen concerts together (and a few apart) but we still have the same love for Bruce and for each other that we had in 1975. Blood brothers indeed! We went to Paris together this year to see the first show and it was still special. Few things in my life I can say that about. Thanks Alan. Thanks Bruce. See you down the road!