On May 9, 1974, music critic Jon Landau saw Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band open for Bonnie Raitt at the Harvard Square Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. Landau, who later became Springsteen’s manager, famously wrote in his review for the Boston area alternative weekly, The Real Paper, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen. And on a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.”
Surely, some in the audience at the Panzer Gymnasium at Montclair State College (now known as Montclair State University), five days earlier — May 4, 1974 — felt the same way. Springsteen had released his first two albums, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, at that point, and had begun work on the album that would turn out to be his masterpiece, Born to Run (released in August 1975). The band had a strong reputation as a live act, but that had not yet translated into big record sales.
The E Street Band was composed, at the time of the Montclair show, of Clarence Clemons, Garry Tallent, Danny Federici, David Sancious and drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter, who had joined in February 1974, replacing Vini Lopez. (Sancious and Carter would leave to form their own band, Tone, in August 1974, and be replaced, respectively, by Roy Bittan and Max Weinberg). Buzzy Linhart was the show’s opening act.
I interviewed Al Mercuro — who produced the 1974 concert as a Montclair State senior — about it, and he shared some photos that were taken by Scott Winter, also a Montclair State student at the time. They have only been published, as far as Mercuro knows, in the college yearbook.
Mercuro currently lives in Montclair and works in the trade show industry, and is also on the board of trustees of the Outpost in the Burbs, which produces concerts in Montclair and organizes other cultural and community-services events as well. He met Springsteen again when Springsteen agreed, in 2010, to be interviewed for a documentary about Roger McGuinn that Mercuro co-directed with Paul Erickson, whom Mercuro became friends with at Verona High School and who now lives in Beverly, Mass. The documentary was included in McGuinn’s 2-CD, 1-DVD 2014 release, Stories, Songs & Friends.
We started the interview by talking about the photos.
Q: When you made the documentary, did you get a chance to show these to Springsteen?
A: After the interview, I said we had met before, way back when, and I told him the situation. And I mentioned that I had some photos, you know, “in case you’re interested.” And he actually sounded like he was really interested, and I showed him the pictures, and he looked at them. And he was really looking at them. He said, “I really don’t have much from that time frame, in terms of photographs.” He said, “Do you have more at home?” I said, “Oh, I might have a few more.” And he said, “Would you mind sending them?” I said, “Of course.” I was just thrilled that he was thrilled seeing them.
Q: Were you the primary person who put the show together?
A: I was concert chairman for an organization at Montclair State called CLUB — College Life Union Board. We used to do about eight shows a year. I had started as a stagehand, and got more and more involved as the year went by, when I was a sophomore, and eventually got elected to this position. So my job was to book all the acts, produce the shows, hire sound and lighting, and all that kind of stuff.
Q: What were some of the other acts you did?
A: J. Geils Band. Jim Croce. Roger McGuinn. Judy Collins. Poco. The Strawbs. James Taylor — and Carly Simon showed up, which was nice.
Q: They performed together?
A: Yeah. She just did the one song, their big hit at the time: “Mockingbird.” That was two weeks after Bruce played.
Q: And these shows were in the auditorium?
A: No, most of the shows were in the gymnasium. I had The Strawbs in the auditorium. Years later, the shows that I heard they had there, a lot of them ended up being in the auditorium. Billy Joel played there, Meat Loaf — not when I was there but later on.
Q: You never did shows in the (Montclair State) amphitheater?
A: The funny part of the story is, here’s how the Springsteen thing came about … we had a carnival every year, that would be outside, and it was waning. It wasn’t doing well. So they came to me and said, “Is there a possibility we can have a concert tied in to the carnival, and have it outside as part of carnival weekend”? I said, “I’ll look into it.” My assistant at the time was a guy named George Bross. We were toying around with ideas … we didn’t have much money to do it with, so it was like, “Who do you think we can get?” And he mentioned Springsteen. “Well, there’s this guy from the Jersey Shore … maybe it’s tied in with this carnival thing, and maybe it will appeal to people from the Jersey area.” I had heard of Springsteen, but I had never seen him perform a concert. I called up his agent, and the price was right: $1,500 for the whole E Street Band. So I said, “That sounds great.”
It was a free concert. That’s why I was trying to keep the cost down. And we went to Springsteen’s people to say, “It’s going to be outside in the amphitheater.” And his agent said, “It’s still cold then. He may not want to play outside.” Which is kind of funny, because he does all these outdoor shows now. So I said, “Well, we could switch it to the gym. It’s not far from where the carnival’s going to be.” The idea was that Buzzy Linhart opened up: We were going to have Buzzy start at 6 or 7, and take a long break, so people would go out to the carnival, and then come back at 11 to see Bruce.
Q: And that’s what you did?
A: Yes. It went really well. The carnival went well.
Q: And he came on at 11?
A: He came on at 11, and played late. I would say it was about 1:15, 1:30. I would think half the audience didn’t know who he was. Maybe more than half. And he won them over, like he does at most of his shows. He won me over. It was the first time I saw him. I was just thrilled by his performance.
Q: Did you get to talk to him at all, or hang out?
A: Yeah. Actually quite a bit. We usually brought catering in for the band, and I just casually asked him, “What do you feel like having?” He was so down-to-earth. He just kind of went, “Eh, whatever you got. Fried chicken is good …” We ended up talking about baseball. I vaguely remember The Mets coming up in conversation — not that I’m a Mets fan, and I don’t think he was — but we chatted about that.
He was equally down-to-earth when I met him in 2010, almost like he hadn’t changed. I got the same kind of feeling from him.
Two funny things:
One, they put a bunch of posters up on the walls, and he actually signed all the posters during the soundcheck. And whoever took those — I wish I got one — but whoever took one of the posters, I’m sure didn’t even realize that he had signed them. They were all gone at the end of the show.
The other thing was, I had backstage passes, stickers that I gave to all the guys in the band, and I gave one to his manager, Mike Appel. And he looks at me and goes, “I don’t need a backstage pass. I’m his manager.” He was a little cocky. And Bruce was standing next to him. And he goes, “I’ve got one on. You can have one on.”
Q: How many people, do you think, attended the show?
A: It was packed. I think 2,000. People went in and out, but I think the majority stayed for Bruce.
Another funny little story: Since it was carnival weekend, we thought it would be cute … one of our committee people was dressed up as a clown, and she was like vice president of our organization, and just for fun, I said, “Would you like to introduce Bruce Springsteen as a clown, as part of the carnival?” And she thought it was great. So when Mike Appel came up to me and said, “Who’s going to introduce Bruce?,” I said, “Well, we have some clown that’s gonna do it.” He looked at me like he was going to kill me. “We can’t have some clown!” And from what I can vaguely remember, I think she ended up doing it. He ended up being okay with it.
Note: While the complete setlist to Bruce Springsteen’s May 4, 1974 concert at Montclair State College is not known, according to the definitive online resource, brucebase.wikidot.com, the following songs were among those played:
“New York City Serenade”
“It Hard to be a Saint in the City”
“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
“Let the Four Winds Blow”
All the songs were Springsteen originals from his first two albums except “Let the Four Winds Blow,” a Fats Domino song covered occasionally by Springsteen during this era but never officially recorded.
Montclair State University is about 10 miles away from MetLife Stadium, where Bruce Springseen and the E Street Band will perform on Aug. 30 (following recent shows on Aug. 23 and Aug. 25). For information, visit metlifestadium.com.
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