In the summer of 1978, the year that Bruce’s fourth album, “Darkness On The Edge Of Town,” was released, I was once again psyched for a Springsteen tour. In May, Bruce and the band played The Spectrum in Philly, and I got to see a few of the shows. The band was even tighter than last time, if that was possible. Bruce was awesome again -- at one of those Philly shows, he not only went into the crowd again during “Spirit In The Night,” he ended up singing the last verse of the song from the second-level seating area. I’m not sure I’ve even seen anyone else do that in an arena.
Later that year, an 18 year-old Eric jumped a Greyhound bus for Los Angeles to visit my aunt and uncle. While there, I managed to snag a ticket to the Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band show at the LA Forum. The date: July 5. Once again, he put on another amazing performance – including the first time that I saw him do “Because The Night” – the song he co-wrote with Patti Smith. It was fun, but the energy of the crowd was nowhere near what it was at my earlier Philly show. But still, it was BRUCE. Leaving the arena, I heard on the radio that he’d be doing a surprise show at the Roxy (a small club on the Sunset Strip) two nights later. People began lining up for tickets almost immediately, and although I did not get into that show, it was broadcast live on the KMET. With my ears glued to the radio, I got to hear (as music critic Charles R. Cross called it) “a devastating set” – which included “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” and “Twist and Shout.”
After returning home, I got a chance to see the band at Princeton University's Jadwin Gym on November 1. This was one of his legendary shows -- in a pretty small room at that. After the intermission, Bruce returned to the stage to ask the crowd which song should start the second set: “Kitty’s Back,” a jazzy rocker from his second album, rarely heard in concert – or “The Fever,” an un-released song by Bruce, which had some exposure on Philly radio station in demo form. The answer: a scream of “FEVER” from the entire crowd. Bruce obliged, and the second set was better than the first. We made the long drive home in a very happy state.
In November of 1983, I got a job at radio station WYSP in Philly, in the promotions department. I did the normal things you do: hand out bumper stickers, do meet and greets with contest winners and artists, set-up station events, etc. I got to be friends with most of the local bands (Robert Hazard, The Hooters, The A’s, Tommy Conwell, etc.), and went to a lot of club shows. One club in particular “The Ripley Music Hall” on South Street was like a second home. I was there two to three times a week for station events or to see friends play. I got very close to the doorman/bouncer there – a Philly boxer named Ronnie. On April 13, 1984, Clarence Clemons (Bruce’s sax player, for those not aware) and the Red Back Rockers were scheduled to play – with my buddy John Eddie opening. We knew that Bruce and the band had just finished recording, and while the album was being mixed and mastered, the members of the E Street band had found some side gigs, etc.
I was at the club early, in expectation of a rumored Bruce sighting. Clarence and the band had played “The Ripley” a few months before, which was broadcast live on the “King Biscuit Radio Hour.” Bruce had shown up for the gig (his New Jersey home was only a couple of hours away), but did not join the band onstage. I was working another concert that night, so I missed the show. So the word was…he’d be back that night, and most of the Philly VIP music crowd was in attendance. Hope springs eternal, I guess.
During John Eddie’s set, I stayed in the hall to enjoy the show. Between bands, I went back and forth between the hall and the entrance to talk with Ronnie. Then Clarence took the stage. No Bruce. Total letdown. Massive bummer. I enjoyed the opening of Clarence’s set, but still periodically went back to chat with Ronnie at the front door, then back into the show. After three or four trips like this, I turned the corner to go to the entrance, and standing there was Bruce and another gentleman. The Boss was dressed as he is on the “Dancing in the Dark” single sleeve --- dark jeans, leather jacket, boots. (To this day, I believe that he came right from the photo session to the gig.) I noticed it was kind of like what I was wearing. Anyway, as I walked up to the door, I heard Ronnie say “Sorry, sir. We are sold out tonight. If you don’t have a ticket, I can’t let you in.” Bruce let loose with one of his great underbite grins, but said nothing. I was stunned. Ronnie did not recognize Bruce. “Hey Ronnie”, I said, “they’re friends of mine. Put them on the radio station guest list. “ I walked up to Bruce introduced myself, shook his hand and followed him out to the dark dance floor of the music hall.
We went to the back of the room, by the soundboard. We stood in silence for a while, enjoying the show. After about 20 minutes, the vibe started going through the room that Bruce was actually there. A girl approached us, holding two Heinekens in her hands. She stopped cold. Looked at Bruce. Looked at me. Looked back at Bruce. Looked back at me. In the dark, she couldn’t tell which of us was Bruce! When I figured out the problem, I was immediately embarrassed. I pointed to Bruce, shaking my head and smiling. She gave him one beer, me the other, and retreated back into the crowd. I was semi-awestruck, not really believing that incident (song reference # 3) really happened.
We stood there and enjoyed a few more songs, and then Bruce turned away from the stage, towards the staircase behind the soundboard. Since I was a regular at the club, and worked for the radio station, no one ever stopped me from going anywhere in the place. We went down the stairs to the basement, crossed under the dance floor, and went up the stars that led to the side of the stage. As we emerged from the staircase, I saw the club owner, who was watching the show from the wings. He recognized Bruce, and immediately sealed off the area. So there we were: me, Bruce, his buddy (I believe his name was Phil, and he was Bruce’s trainer), and the club owner. Period. We enjoyed the last few songs of the set, and then Clarence and the band approached where we were standing as they left the stage. Clarence saw Bruce, gave him a big hug, then returned to the stage for the encores.
During this tour, Clarence’s band was doing Bruce’s song “Fire” as their encore – but instrumentally. Halfway through the song, there’s a big sustained note, which Clarence held for what seemed like forever. Phil tapped Bruce on the shoulder, and said: “I think that’s your cue.” Bruce grinned again, and passed me on his way to the stage. As he appeared, the crowd went nuts, and pressed forward toward the stage. I was in the wings in relative comfort, avoiding the crush. They finished the song, and the “Bruce” chant began in the audience. Bruce stayed for “Rockin’ All Over The World,” and then came back towards us, immediately heading up the staircase that led to the dressing rooms. Phil and I followed. Clarence and the band stayed on stage for another song or two. “ A Certain Girl,” I believe, was what we heard heading upstairs.
So now we’re in the dressing room – just the three of us and a couple cases of beer on ice. I opened three, passed them out, and started some small talk with the Boss. The band soon came into the room after their set ended and we were caught in a crush of sweaty musicians. I thanked Bruce for his hospitality, told him how much I was looking forward to the release of his new album ("Born in the USA") only a few months away, and I hoped to see him again. I departed the dressing room, to give the band a chance to cool down and have a beer -- and standing there, waiting to get IN, was most of the rest of the Philly radio DJ’s, music writers, etc. It was a great feeling to have spent that time with the Boss while the rest of the VIP’s were waiting outside – and me, the new guy at that! There was a photo taken of Bruce and me together when he left the club that night, but the camera was dropped in the confusion, and the film was ruined.
Knowing his next release was only a short time away; I figured that I might just have a shot at meeting him again, during the inevitable tour. Little did I know just how overwhelming our next meeting would be.
Next time: The “Born in the USA” dressing room incident, and indications that all was not well in Bruceland.
All Photos by Eric Davis