'The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle'
The weekend Bruce Springsteen loaded into the Armadillo World Headquarters
The South hadn't been kind to Bruce Springsteen.
An April 1973 gig opening for the Beach Boys in Atlanta sold 3,000 tickets in a room big enough for 16,000. In Fayetteville, N.C., there was a show supporting Chicago that he'd later describe as "a soul-destroying experience." Richmond, Va., followed, where Barbara Green for The News Leader wrote: "Bruce Springsteen is a curious performer. Thin and pale and dressed in black, he looks like a parody of early Bob Dylan. His voice is undistinguished, though it cannot be ignored in his songs, and his guitar playing is somewhere to the left of center of a bell curve."
Nearly a year later, before a February concert at the University of Kentucky supporting second album The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, band manager Mike Appel got into an argument with drummer Vini Lopez. A day later, Springsteen asked for Lopez's resignation and the band was forced to cancel the rest of its regional run.
Springsteen addressed his Southern plight when he arrived in Texas in March 1974. On KLOL-FM, after the first of four nights at Houston's Liberty Hall, Springsteen said: "It's hard. We just did Atlanta, and we just did Nashville, and it was really zero. That was two zero gigs. In Nashville, people at that particular branch of the record company were like, 'Zzzzzz,' so the FM station didn't even know there was a second album out. There's no records in any of the stores.
"So you go down there and you play this big place, and you turn your microphone on and you face the band. You play to the band because no one else is there."
But the Bayou City was hip to Springsteen, largely because Appel had sent KLOL a demo of "The Fever," which had gotten play around town. The radio segment, an eight-song set bookended by a seven-minute interview, helped Springsteen conquer his first Southern city.
Five days later, on March 15, he arrived in Austin for a two-night stand at the Armadillo World Headquarters, which was razed in 1981. Both shows are remembered here today as the stuff of legend only the likes of Bruce Springsteen could create, concerts people still talk about 40 years later. The Chronicle met with a handful of attendees and those behind the scenes, combing through foggy memories to sort out what happened that weekend.
'It's Hard To Be a Saint in the City'
Eddie Wilson, owner, Armadillo/Threadgill's: We'd been doing a number of Armadillo shows with Wild West Productions out of Houston. Those guys learned early on that they could make friends with an entertainer by talking him into playing the Armadillo. Since they were doing several dates, a number of times they'd put people in the Armadillo who couldn't make any money and sell it out wall-to-wall and maybe break even. To them, it was a feather in their cap because people thought better of them for it. At the end of the tour, bands would be talking about this one funky joint in Austin instead of empty municipal arenas and other places that they'd play.
Micael Priest, poster artist: We were still a fairly small community in those days, and before we started, the cowboys and the hippies stayed pretty far apart from each other – mostly out of fear for the unknown. We had continually tried to mix them up, and our Willie Nelson shows had really done that well. They finally realized that they had way more in common than they had to fight about. If you go far enough right and far enough left, they meet in the back.
Wilson: We booked Springsteen for a Friday and Saturday and were worried that it wasn't going to sell. We had the idea, and I'll credit Wild West. I had Alvin Crow & the Pleasant Valley Boys booked to play those two nights. Wild West suggested that we play Springsteen on Friday and just charge $1 and see if we could cause a frenzy on that first night to help us with the next. To do that, I had to change my deal with Alvin from a percentage of what came in to $300 to open up the show.
Alvin Crow, fiddler: We had a meeting in the beer garden to decide how much we were going to charge – Eddie, me, and Springsteen's manager [Appel]. Eddie's going, "How much should we charge?" The guy goes, "Well, let's talk about the first night first. Five dollars, how about that?" Eddie goes, "That's too much." So the guy goes, "Well, we don't need to make a whole lot of money. We're promoting on this thing. How about $3?" Eddie goes, "That's too much." We ended up at $1 for the first and $1.50 for the Saturday show.
Wilson: Tiny McFarland had driven all night to get here from Lubbock, where he had just left the Joe Ely Band. He'd played with Alvin before – they were all Texas guys – and Alvin said to him, "You can play on this gig at the Armadillo." So bam, it was booked and he was here. He got to the Armadillo and Alvin said to him, "Sorry, Tiny. You can't start tonight. It's just not a break-in kind of night. There's a guy that we're opening for who's supposed to be really hot shit, someone named Bruce Silverstein. And we're gonna show him how good we are and how tight we are." Alvin proceeded to just absolutely rock the place out.
Well, Mr. Threadgill was at the Armadillo that night, and he was standing next to Tiny McFarland while Alvin played his set. Springsteen was back there watching from the side, and he was pacing back and forth. I think I read in one of the reviews that Bruce admitted to being nervous because he had never seen a country audience make the switch to that kind of music so quickly. He's pacing around and Mr. Threadgill leans in to Tiny and says, "That young fella pacing back and forth, he's as nervous as a coon trying to pass a peach pit."
A Mad Dog's Promenade
A September 1974 issue of Rolling Stone tells us that Springsteen opened the first night with "New York City Serenade," the 10-minute opus of classical, folk, and soul that closes The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. Pat Knight wrote: "Before the first number ended, the audience was giving Springsteen a standing ovation. Not bad when you consider most of those southern-fried kids had never heard of this boy from the Jersey swamps."
Wilson: Springsteen came out and from the first note just leveled everybody.
John Kunz, owner, Waterloo Records: I remember seeing all these folks from the crowd lining up for these two wooden-style phone booths at the back of the Armadillo, in the back of the hall near the door that led out to the beer garden, right in the middle of the first song. You could see it in their faces as they were talking in the booths to their friends: "You gotta get here right now!" I don't ever recall a situation like that. On the one hand, I felt sorry for those people because they were waiting in a line to call a friend. At the same time, I knew exactly why they were doing what they were doing. Everybody got the message loud and clear. I turned around a little later and thought, "Holy shit. This place went from one-third full to overfull."
Denny Angelle, blogger, 30 Days Out: The Armadillo always put up a bunch of folding chairs in the middle of the hall, and they left the sides open so that all the hippies could sit on the floor. Halfway through "Spirit in the Night," all the chairs got pushed out of the middle.
Priest: All of the cowboys in the room were standing up on their chairs. And I've otherwise only seen this in movies, but they threw their hats. They started throwing their hats. The boys onstage were so excited they didn't know what to do. But everybody's screaming for them, so they played "Blinded by the Light." By the time they finished "Blinded by the Light," the bartenders were standing on the bars. Everybody was dancing. It was uncanny. They blew the lid right off the place, and with an audience full of serious country music fans. But that was when rock & roll was still a participatory sport, before the pot got good and it became a spectator sport. It was actually designed to be a participatory sport.
Twist and Shout
Kunz: The interplay between Bruce and the band, it still exists today, but the relationship he had with those guys .... You just felt like it was a bunch of best friends hanging out with each other, and it made you want to be part of the gang.
Hank Aldrich, Armadillo owner: His obvious connection to community – where, when, and how he and grown up in New Jersey – gave him the quality of a kind of folk music. I agree with Mark Rubin in his definition of what folk music is beyond industry marketing categories. It's the music of a culture, of a community, expressed by those in that community. Springsteen was coming from a place like that. His band was as instrumental as he was at every position. Clarence [Clemons] was their awesome visage, and the power of his delivery on the sax, it was very impressive. It had a very heavy impact. And the fact that he was such a huge guy, and black, in the midst of those smaller white kids, it was a wonderful thing.
Priest: They were just so funny, these little, bitty city boys. It always struck me peculiar back then that we didn't realize the reason English musicians were so little: It's because they come out of a place that had terrible famines. There was no food, so kids got born little. Those East Coast boys were byproducts of that. Here we were all the beneficiaries of bovine growth hormone and adversary nuclear testing and antibiotics all our lives. We were all big, hulking beasts and these guys were little and tiny.
Angelle: You got up close, and you realize they look really badass. Springsteen was the star of the show, and he looked like he slept in the gutter. He was all hair, he was all wiry, and he had busted jeans. But the one thing that stuck in my mind was the dude rocked these Converse black-and-white Chuck Taylor tennis shoes. And he wore the low-tops, which I thought was kind of funny. The next week, I took $13 and went and bought a pair of these Converse Chuck Taylors. And I swear to God that I have never been without a pair since.
Aldrich: Springsteen's energy was fascinating. We'd had a lot of experience with Van Morrison. At that point in his career, Van was hyperactive onstage, almost to the point of being frantic. Springsteen moved on the stage a lot, but it wasn't frantic. It was more like a lion on the prowl, the way a cat looks over in an area to locate its prey. His energy was really high but beautifully focused. Beyond Springsteen, there was the obvious reality that this was a hell of a band, and they were indeed a band. It was not just a bunch of hired guys that were backing the guy that the record company signed. They dug into their material together. All the elements of the way the songs were produced on the record were there, but they stretched the solos. They clearly were a performing band. There was nothing cramped about the way they were going about it.
Kunz: There must have been half a dozen times that I thought he'd break his neck because he would jump up on top of the piano and climb up onto a stack of amps. Then he'd jump from one stack of amps to the next and to the next. He'd have his guitar strapped around him and he'd be surfing on these stacks of amps. He had this shit-eating grin once he had it under control.
Aldrich: There was one moment when Clarence was up there just tearing into this solo, and Springsteen was moving around the stage, obviously driven by the power of this saxophone. He went around behind Clarence, and he's just about gone. He was completely obscured except that Bruce had his arms straight out at his side, and it looked like some weird cross with a black post and white arms. And then he sort of slid down Clarence's back. It was a trippy thing to look at.
Kunz: At a certain point, it almost became like a James Brown vamping thing, like, "I just can't go on any more." But everyone in the room was really amped up, and you just knew he was, too. So he's down on the stage, like "I can't go on any more" and "I should have listened to my doctor. He told me not to do 'Twist and Shout,' but it's all those cheeseburgers I eat. I eat lots of cheeseburgers and they're loaded with cholesterol." And I remember him getting down and then jumping up and saying, "But that's OK. I can do it anyway!" And the crowd's going wild.
Wilson: He had some sort of hassle with the song "The Fever." I guess a bootleg had been put out or something. There was some sort of wrangle going on, and he wasn't supposed to play it. The audience was hollering at him over and over again to play "The Fever," but he couldn't. So there was sort of this long silence and somebody shouted, "Play anything you want!" One of the people there that night was the future Laura Bush, who was there with her best friend Regan Gammon from the fourth grade. Years later, I heard that was something they'd shout at the White House: "Awww, play anything you want!"
Springsteen and the band hightailed it for Dallas Sunday morning, bound for four shows at Gertie's before hitting Phoenix and heading home in April. Preliminary work on third album Born To Run began immediately.
Bruce Springsteen delivers the South by Southwest 2012 Music Festival keynote speech at noon on Thursday, March 15, at the Austin Convention Center, Ballroom D. He performs that night at ACL Live at the Moody Theater.