By Matt Dolloff (@mattdolloff)
“I saw rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.”
Renowned rock critic Jon Landau penned that prophetic line back in May 1974, after staggering out of a Springsteen concert at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge. He added: “On a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”
It was on that night 40 years ago that Springsteen gave Boston his first glimpse of a young musician who was destined to become a star – only, he ended up becoming a legend.
After playing three nights at Joe’s Place in January of that year, Springsteen would return in April for a scheduled show at the same venue. It would become the final chance Boston would be able to see Springsteen in such an intimate setting.
But a sudden catastrophe and unforeseen circumstances forced him to deliver more than just live music. Fortunately, concertgoers were in good hands.
In a Crisis-Wracked City, Disaster Strikes
A member of the Boston Police force stands in front of a school bus in Boston, Massachusetts on Oct. 10, 1974. Riots broke out and Blacks were beaten in a confrontation over integration of Bostons high schools. (AP Photo/Frank Curtin)
Springsteen arrived in Boston to a city embroiled in the infamous busing crisis. His concert at Joe’s Place was supposed to let fans escape from the tension and fervor suffocating the city.
But unfortunately, the morning of April 2, 1974 made that harder to accomplish. A 5:30AM fire tore through a block of businesses and apartment buildings, displacing 15 families and destroying several businesses. One of the buildings lost was Joe’s Place, which went from preparing for Springsteen’s arrival to losing everything.
The blaze destroyed the venue’s sound system, at the time worth $40,000, as well as two high-end guitars that belonged to Freddie King, the previous weekend’s attraction. Joe Spadafora, the venue’s owner, “didn’t own a nickel’s worth of insurance,” according to a Boston Globe article the day after the fire. This forced Spadafora to rebuild everything and make it happen on his own.
But that’s when he got the help he needed.
“You Have to See Him Live”
Bruce Springsteen is seen in concert in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Aug. 21, 1978. (AP Photo/Jim Pozarik)
As a young DJ growing up in Allentown, Penn., Carter Alan initially didn’t understand the hype surrounding Springsteen. He played the records, but drew little inspiration or emotion from them. Born to Run had yet to come out, and his only go-to song at the time was “Rosalita”, which he performed live at WBCN on the afternoon of April 9, 1974.
It wasn’t until Carter saw Bruce in person that he finally understood what Landau and so many other critics were saying.
“I had friends tell me what pretty much every Springsteen [fan] tells someone who doesn’t like him: ‘You need to see him live.’ So they dragged me down to Providence in 1980 to see the River tour…and I was astonished at how good he was,” he said.
Carter commented on Bruce’s epic live shows, which went on for hours even before he hit it big.
“He was doing these marathon performances from the very beginning, and every set was different,” he said. “There’s so many of these setlists available from the early days, and it’s because people became enamored with him at an early time.”
The most striking moment of that River tour show was when Springsteen stood motionless, froze everyone else in the band, and made the crowd cheer and rumble along simply by darting his eyes back and forth. While most rock stars have to scream into their microphone to get crowds going, Springsteen barely had to move to get the same reaction. That kind of stage presence is rare, even in successful rock stars, but Springsteen clearly had it – and still does.
Carter wasn’t there in Cambridge in ’74 – he didn’t move to Boston until 1979 – but he’s heard tales of early-career Springsteen performing much like a “busker on the street”, regularly interacting with the crowd in addition to performing. It was just clear that Springsteen was born to be a star.
A Benefit to Save the Blues
In this image provided by Columbia Records, Bruce Springsteen is shown on Nov. 14, 1975. (AP Photo/Columbia Records)
“We want to stay here because Joe’s is a very funky place and it would be tough to put blues in a fancy room. But right now, everything’s gone.” – Joe Spadafora
Mere days after hosting one of his venue’s regular blues concerts, Spadafora was suddenly forced to start over and cancel that week’s upcoming shows at Joe’s Place, including Springsteen. Finding a place “funky” enough for his liking was the least of his concern; he just needed a place, period. Sudden intervention from another nearby venue brought the building back from the ashes.
Charley’s Place in Harvard Square took on the scheduled shows for Joe’s Place for that week, adding Springsteen to its schedule for a four-night, eight-show residency. Even better, the venue set up the shows as a benefit for Joe’s Place. Spadafora’s landlord even promised to rebuild the venue just as it was before.
– William Howard on Bruce Springsteen, The Boston Globe, 1974
According to Springsteen biographer Dave Marsh, Springsteen felt he owed it to Spadafora to put on these shows before the small venues could no longer hold his rapidly growing following.
An afterthought of the fire and subsequent benefit shows was the appearance of Springsteen, whom the Globe labeled an “ascending star”. At the tender age of 24, Springsteen suddenly had the task of not just performing music, but lifting the spirits of a community and the beloved venue it had suddenly lost.
Along with supporting act Mighty Joe Young, Springsteen played four nights in a row, April 9-12, with two sets each night. Marsh described the atmosphere: “Sweat was pouring off the walls at Charley’s mingling with the stench of spilled beer and cigarette smoke”, and the crowd as surprisingly “socially mixed”. And this was just the first of the four nights.
The Globe’s William Howard was there for the shows as well, and proclaimed “You’ve missed your last chance to catch the Asbury Park kid in a small setting.” Howard was right: the next time Springsteen headlined Boston was at the Music Hall (now the Citi Performing Arts Center) just six months later.
40 years later, all the critics were proven right. Springsteen was simply in a class above other young musicians, and only continued to prove that as his career grew.