[After the news broke that Bruce Springsteen is releasing his music from the Sept. 21-22, 1979 No Nukes concerts, my brother Mike, who attended, volunteered to write about seeing one of the shows live, as I wasn’t there myself. September 1979 was the same month that I started attending college, in the Philadelphia area, and didn’t even consider making the trip to New York for these shows. (I did see my first arena show later that Fall, though — The Who, at The Spectrum — but that’s another story.) — Jay Lustig]
Bruce Springsteen has announced the next release in his official “Bootleg Series”: Both of his 1979 performances at the No Nukes benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden. I’ve waited a long time for something like this. This was the first concert I ever attended (at the age of 10), and I’ve pored over anything related to No Nukes for most of my life. I’ve had vinyl and cassette bootlegs of the shows, the official 3-LP soundtrack from the movie, I’ve searched YouTube many times for bootleg footage (watch the pro-shot “Detroit Medley” from Night One below and you’ll wonder how this could possibly stay on the shelf) and purchased memorabilia on eBay.
The ultimate release would be the film from both nights, as this is easily the best professionally shot footage of him before the Born in the USA Tour. The three songs in the No Nukes movie are near perfect, and the outtake footage below will leave you wondering why they don’t release the whole thing.
In any event, this seemed like a good time to revisit the show and what I remember of it. My wife says I have a problem with procrastination, and while I tend to disagree with her, reviewing a concert 39 years after I saw it makes me feel she may have a point.
But … that isn’t entirely true. I did review it. In my 5th grade class at Willard Elementary School in Ridgewood, N.J., we were asked to write our autobiographies. One of my chapters, if you can call it that, was entitled “No Nukes!” (see photo at right). As I look back at it, I realize this is bare bones journalism. All killer, no filler. A brilliant exercise in minimalism. Or maybe I just had no idea how to write. You decide.
My memories are few and far between, but my childhood reporting does bring back a couple of them I wouldn’t have remembered on my own. First of all, the two “awful” acts were Gil Scott-Heron and Peter Tosh. It’s embarrassing to admit I had no interest in them at the time. To make up for it, I saw both of them later in life and enjoyed it. The other is that I mention “the music was loud enough.” This was no small thing to me. I was obsessed with volume. The louder the better. I had fears going into my first show that it would not be loud enough. But I also realized that maybe it could be too loud. Was that possible? This was an adult rock concert, and without MTV, I didn’t have much to go on in terms of what to expect. Maybe I’d be put in my place and it would be crushingly, painfully loud.
Either way, I was worried about volume, and this took up a lot of space in my head as I waited out the weeks before the show. “The music was loud enough” is a 5th grader’s glowing compliment to the sound crew at the show.
The memories that have stayed with me are mostly isolated moments, and some of them have had a profound influence on my life.
I was a huge Springsteen fan. The previous year I started guitar lessons because I wanted to be Bruce Springsteen. Darkness on the Edge of Town had come out the year I started playing, and my motivation was precisely because of the guitar solos on that record. “Badlands,” “Adam Raised a Cain,” “Candy’s Room,” “Streets of Fire” and “Prove It All Night” all had devastating guitar solos that spoke to me on the deepest level. I needed to be able to do that.
So I begged my mother to let me go to No Nukes and eventually she relented, allowing my oldest brother Andy to chaperone me. I knew nothing about getting tickets at the moment they went on sale, so we were really late purchasing them, scoring nosebleed seats for the Sat., Sept. 22 show. For some reason, Fri., Sept. 21 sold out fast, but Sept. 22 had seats available for an unusually long time.
The night of the show my mother drove Andy and I to my grandparents’ apartment in Riverdale, N.Y., and put us on a bus to the Garden. She’d wait back at the apartment. Andy and I got off the bus a couple of blocks north of the Garden and walked down 7th Avenue. It felt dangerous and bigger than life. My first time walking in Manhattan without a parent by my side. And then I saw lines of people selling Springsteen shirts on the sidewalk and I was hooked. Excited doesn’t explain it. For maybe the first time in my life, I was in a place I wanted to be. I was in the adult world. I was among music fans. Springsteen fans.
None of my friends liked Bruce Springsteen. He was either unknown or hated. Those were the two acceptable positions on Bruce Springsteen in my school in 1979. But, here I was — among my people.
I remember when the lights went down after what seemed like an endless parade of bands I didn’t really care much about. I liked Running on Empty by Jackson Browne and Tom Petty’s Damn the Torpedoes, which had come out a month before the show. But I wasn’t a real fan of any of it. I was just there to see Bruce. So when he and the E Street Band finally hit the stage, I remember the first song as a blur. They played “Prove It All Night” as the opening song. If I remember correctly, I couldn’t really get into it. Again, we were in nosebleeds at the Garden. With a ’70s sound system, it had to be pretty bad up there. And I remember a bit of disappointment.
The next song was “Badlands,” and during this song I remember what was probably my first time feeling publicly embarrassed. The song went along, and everyone at the top of the arena was seated. When Clarence Clemons’ saxophone solo came up in the song, it was the first thing that cut through everything. “Prove It” has a sax solo, too, but it isn’t as forceful. So, when Clarence slammed into his iconic solo on “Badlands” and I heard it blazing loud and crystal clear, I involuntarily leapt up from my seat, clapping and yelling. Nobody, and I mean nobody, around me did the same. I was overcome with the power of live music and rock ‘n’ roll and had a very public conniption fit. A few people near me laughed. It was probably a “how cute”-type laugh you direct at a kid, but I was mortified. I sat my ass back down and tried to look cool.
The feeling of cool came back fast when someone to my left passed me a joint. I was a couple of years away from my first time smoking pot, but just holding it for a second and passing it down the line made me feel like the coolest kid ever.
Songs blew by. “Rosalita,” “Born to Run,” “Thunder Road”… I had arrived at the best night of my life up to that point. And I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of it.
Other memories are of the house lights going on during “Quarter to Three” and seeing the whole arena up and dancing. It is an epic version of the song, captured in the movie, and Bruce was in full-on ham mode. I remember it clear as day. I didn’t know the song at the time, but it didn’t matter. It was outrageous.
Lastly, I remember the vomit. “The vomit,” you ask? Yes, the vomit. The show ended, and we entered those insanely small and confining stairwells that go down from the top of the Garden. And in corner after corner there were piles of vomit.
Maybe that happened at every show in the ’70s, or maybe it was because the No Nukes show was around six hours long and people drank beer all night, but I’ve never seen so much vomit in one place. In an era when the movie “Animal House” defined cool, this stairwell of horrors, at least for me at the time, was the epicenter of rock’n’ roll. It was a testament to the fact that I had been to a real rock concert. I still think of it every time I walk down those stairs after a show.