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Bruce and The E Street Band Go (Anti-) Nuclear
Thank you so much, Santa Schwartz! I love my new time machine.
I have been interested in time travel since I was a kid in the 24th century. Or was it the Fourth century, b.c.e.? It's hard to recall.
My family is aware of my time travel quirk. Early in the 21st century, when I was still drinking, I would get a quiet, faraway look in my eyes at the dinner table. My daughters would not ask, "what are you thinking?" They'd ask the more precise: "What year are you in?"
But the recent DVD/CD release: Springsteen E Street Band: The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts, brought me back to a fascinating and troubled year. You could forgive all the trespasses of that tattered year after watching around 90 minutes of Bruce Springsteen at a youthful, arena rock pinnacle on Sept. 21 and Sept. 22, the fourth and fifth of five shows to benefit Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), at Madison Square Garden. Jackson Browne, John Hall of Orleans, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, Tom Petty, and many others had joined together to raise funds and consciousness, because in 1979, energy had become dangerous.
Earlier that year, in March, 1979, my first wife Marjorie and I went to see The China Syndrome at Long Island's Roslyn Theater. The movie was about a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in California, starring Michael Douglas and Jane Fonda as TV news reporters, and Jack Lemmon as a conscientious engineer who must contain the emergency. It was fiction, but crisp and taut and gripping and all those other words we use to describe one of the most finely wrought, plausible films of the disaster movie era.
After the film we got in the car and turned on the radio and thought someone was messing with our heads. Breaking news: There was a meltdown at a nuclear reactor site known as Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, PA. Maybe it was some kind of crazy, hyper-realistic ad for the movie. Very bad taste! But as the news went on, it was really happening, and the dangers of what nuclear proponents promised us as "clean energy" appeared inescapable.
A few weeks later, the country would soon be in upheaval because OPEC, the Middle Eastern cartel on which we depended for cheap fuel, had cutback on oil production: Gas prices went crazy, if you could get any: Lines for gasoline stretched for miles and hours.
It would have been a perfect time to sell the idea of a nuclear-powered future, if it were possible to build indestructible, safe nuclear reactors. But it is not possible: after Three Mile Island came the 1986 the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine, and the 2011 Fukushima nuclear plant, destroyed by an earthquake and resulting tsunami in Japan.
After Three Mile Island, a number of activist musicians, under an umbrella organization known as MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) went into action: Jackson Browne, John Hall of Orleans, Bonnie Raitt, Graham Nash, and many others used their collective influence to spread awareness, and in September 1979, five "No Nukes" concert were held at Madison Square Garden.
There were some long nights, but the last two nights were notable, because after sets by jazz-poet/activist Gil Scott-Heron, reggae star Peter Tosh, Bonnie Raitt, and Tom Petty, the show closer would be Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The headliner the previous nights, I believe, was the Doobie Brothers.
The recent DVD/CD set, Springsteen E Street Band: The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts, is an innovative way of presenting a live Springsteen performance in its early prime. It's pulled together from the best of the visual, audio, and musical performances from the two consecutive shows, September 21-22, 1979, according to the booklet by the film crew coordinator, Jon Kilik. The package contains a DVD, two audio CDs, and a replica of a ticket stub to the Friday, September 21, show. The ticket price was $18.50.
The event had none of the self-congratulatory streak of 1980s benefit concerts. Speaking to MOJO magazine about what it was like backstage, Danny Goldberg said:
It wasn’t the typical narcissistic rock star vibe. It was a semi-party atmosphere, but not a decadent one. It was more idealistic – the coming together of music and politics. That hadn’t been the case for most of the ’70s. That had almost become passé after the war in Vietnam ended. This was a rebirth of that spirit.
(Danny Goldberg, with Julian Schlossberg, co-produced and directed the subsequent 1980 No Nukes movie. Danny, a Critical Conditions subscriber, is most recently the author of Bloody Crossroads 2020: Art, Entertainment, and Resistance to Trump)
Springsteen had not yet revealed any political leanings, or supported any causes. His primary purpose was to honor his band's commitment to entertain. It was Springsteen and the E Street Band's "coming out" party, a shift in the arena rock pecking order. Tom Petty, who went on before Springsteen, had been warned that if he heard what sounded like "boos," to remember the crowd was shouting "Broooooce!" His reply was basically, "what's the difference?" If they're shouting for someone else, they're not that into you.
Springsteen and his crew had not performed in 1979: The band had been in the studio working on what would be the 1980 double-album, The River. The E Street Band played with the reckless, relentless energy of pirates on shore leave in Marseilles after six months at sea.
The DVD stitched together from both nights of the show to present the appearance of a relatively seamless 90-minute show. It was shot on 16mm film and is sometimes grainy, a problem that after about five minutes you just fuhdeddaboudt. I could not stop thinking about energy. Not gas, or oil, or nuclear, or even particular electric, although electricity, to perceive the obvious, was certainly a source.
What kind of energy source did Springsteen and the band tap into to raise the ceiling so high for the level of rock and roll performance they have routinely done, ever since, for more than three hours at a time, over the last 40 years? Those nights in 1979, Springsteen and the E Street Band seemed plugged into a power source beyond electricity, or band chemistry. It was like channeling the energy stored beneath the pyramids, from black holes before they disappear, from releasing King Arthur's sword from a stone.
After declaring their intent, feeling their way through opener "Prove It All Night," they hit a stride . . . stride doesn't seem quite right. It's more like a gallop through "Badlands" and "The Promised Land."
"The River" was a new tune for the audience, but its implications were grasped right away: a song of teen pregancy, early marriage, economic hardship, a dark anthem for its time, and based on events in the life of Bruce's sister, Virginia. "Sherry Darling," more uplifting musically, camoflauges more economic dread, as he and his darling discuss his character's delay in going to the unemployment office.
During this song, the camera stayed close up on Bruce, his face, his head, his hair. If this was Saturday night, he was 29 years and 364 days old. The show, as it passed midnight, was Springsteen's 30th birthday. His sideburns were longer than Elvis Presley's, very long in the back but not what in the time was known as a mullet: It was also long and thick in the front and on top, because Bruce didn't do mullets. He was not muscled up yet, still kind of skinny. He looked like a gorgeous European movie star. I kept waiting for an abduction team sent by Fellini, or Godard, to spirit him away for photo shoots. Andy Warhol had died two years too soon.
With the exception of Clarence Clemons, who shared the front of the stage, the original E Street pirate crew does not get the same camera time. It is the essential band of brothers: Max Weinberg is on a drum platform, Roy Bittan on piano, Danny Federici on organ, Gary Tallent on bass. They are spread around the stage, and with a small camera team, they're not always seen, though clearly heard.
Especially odd was the guitar player, wearing a beret, who occasionally came into view. I knew it had to be Miami Steve Van Zandt, but he was so thin, I had to keep doing double takes. This was clearly years before Van Zandt had been spirited away and fed intravenous liquid cannoli until he was plump enough to play the part of Silvio in The Sopranos.
Bruce and Clarence, however, had their non-verbal communication developed to a high level of stage art. I would say that Springsteen and Clemons engaged in some exciting guitar duels, but of course, Clarence played saxophone; I always thought of his playing tonally as a throwback to King Curtis. But I also think that if you did the musical notation of the saxophone solos he played that night, an adept guitarist would sound great copying it note for note.
But again, energy. The long segment in which "Thunder Road" bleeds into "Jungleland" (never better!) and then kicks it up a notch for "Rosalita," just seems...implausible, as the band plays "Born to Run" so they can relax. "Born to Run" for a breather.
Bruce, Steve, Thom Zinny and Jon Landau talk about the film, and that night
Transitioning to encores, Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Tom Petty, and vocalist Rosemary Butler joined the ensemble for a sweet version of Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs "Stay" (No. 1, October 1960), which had been a hit for Browne in 1978. It was as if they had entered Dr. Who's Tardis, a tiny British police-call phone booth on the outside with a massive spaceship interior. I'm sure they could feel the effects of Springsteenian physics in the atmosphere: They came, they sang, they returned to ordinary 1979.
The E Street Band's energy cells recharged, they play what is called "Detroit Medley," which is really a remarkable compression yet extension of Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels' greatest moments. "Devil With a Blue Dress," and "C.C. Rider," "Jenny Take a Ride" and "Good Golly Miss Molly," in itself just a set-up for Gary U.S. Bonds "A Quarter to Three." Crazy. Do the math: Jackie Wilson's "Higher and Higher" multiplied by Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher" does not quite match this coupling, much less the earlier "Jungleland"/"Rosalita" extravaganza, leaving nuclear power on the dustheap of history.
At this point, Bruce fakes a heart attack with a brief re-creation of James Brown's "Prisoner of Love" routine, flat out on stage the before he is revived to play Buddy Holly's "Rave On" over the closing credits. The clock had passed midnight, Bruce Springsteen was now officially in his own words, old. He was 30 years old. There was a birthday cake at some point, tossed into the audience.
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