When I Rode With Springsteen to My Hometown

Drivin' with the (future) King to a gig in 1973 when almost no one knew his name. Did I save him from being swept over Niagara Falls?

As I warned earlier, I will be using the weekends for longer pieces without the usual snappy short takes, so: If you had told me back in December 1972 when I met Bruce Springsteen in Sing Sing Prison that he would one day make the covers of Time and Newsweek, star in a Super Bowl halftime show, write a bestselling book, sell out on Broadway for most of a year, and take center stage in a couple of presidential inaugural concerts, I would have...laughed. The story of how Peter Knobler and yours truly, at Crawdaddy, were the first magazine writers on the Bruce bandwagon— even before his debut album came out—is covered briefly in my little video below. It’s followed by a reflection (from a draft of my memoir-in-progress) on the time Bruce and I "drove all night" for a gig back in "my hometown." And if you like this please subscribe, it’s free! To judge, here is a typical example of the “short take” weekday edition. Now: Bruce 1973 below.

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It was March 1973, and Bruce Springsteen's Greetings from Asbury Park, which had received mixed reviews (beyond our rave at Crawdaddy) was not exactly setting the album bins on fire.  I'd already caught at least half a dozen of Bruce's live shows around New York and Philly, where he always floored the tiny club audiences, and became friendly with him and other members of his band. So when I learned that he had a gig 300 miles to the northwest in my hometown of Niagara Falls, I jumped on board.  For once, he'd be appearing as a headliner, in the Niagara University gym, where I had attended many a basketball game growing up.

To get there, I’d have to hitch a ride with a couple of E Streeters to Providence, where Bruce would be opening at the Palace Theater for Lou Reed on the evening of March 23, then drive all night to Niagara Falls. This would provide my first true experience of B-level rock and roll “life on the road.”  All I remember about the Providence gig was searching for Bruce backstage after his set and coming upon Lou “Transformer” Reed, standing alone in pancake makeup and looking all the world like Frankenstein’s monster.  Or Andy Warhol’s.

When we piled into vehicles for the drive to Niagara Falls, I was thrilled to find myself, close to midnight,  in a car with Bruce and one band mate, and not in the equipment van.  Bruce was wearing a classic grey hoodie, his fashion statement at the time. Everyone took turns driving and sleeping. Brucie, as he was often called then, had a unique driving style. Occasionally he slumped in the seat and watched the road from under the top of the high-rising steering wheel.   It was a little disconcerting but at least the interstate heading west was clear.   Only years later did I learn that at this time Mr. Born to Run had relatively little driving experience and his license status might have been questionable.

It was a quite an experience to share the front seat with Bruce in a car barreling west on the Thruway at 3 a.m. as we took turns fiddling with the radio dial to beam in some hot sounds from years’ past.  We’d laugh heartily over our good fortune--say, Chuck Berry or Van Morrison--or when we found a real stinker that we naturally refused to turn off. The one song I remember tuning in was the Cascades’ melodic if somewhat sappy hit, “The Rhythm of the Rain.” You may know it: “Listen to the rhythm of the falling rain / telling me what a fool I’ve been.”  I told Bruce I had actually bought the single back in junior high. Really? he replied. I couldn’t tell if he now doubted my taste or thought that was pretty cool.   In truth, before the British invasion, I was more of a Roy Orbison man.

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Anyway, we went on like this for a few hours, and then Bruce climbed into the back seat and dozed. Finally, at mid-morning, we reached the environs of Niagara University, which is technically in Lewiston, N.Y.  We still had much of the day to kill (a motel not being an option for this low-budget operation). I had little desire to crash at my father’s house as time was short, so I pointed us in the direction of my high school friends Wayne and Kippy, who had moved back home after college.  They were happy to take us in, and they even knew a little about Bruce, thanks to the recent issue of Crawdaddy with our 8000-word feature on then-unknown Springsteen.

Without further ado, my friends steered Bruce into their bedroom and let him nap.  I don’t know what the rest of us did for the next few hours.  But in mid-afternoon, Brucie awoke and I gave him a personal tour of the famous cataracts, which he’d never seen.  He seemed blown away–-they are both a cliché and overpowering when you are actually in their presence.  

Then I walked him up to Goat Island, just above the brink where the Niagara River rushes past on its way to the famous plunge. There I almost got him killed which, among other things, would have changed what Jon Landau later labeled “the future of rock ‘n roll.”   I led Bruce to the edge of the rapidly surging waters but, mama, I swear, I didn’t make him step out into the current, hopping from one rock to another.   One slip of the boots and he would have fallen into the river and been swept away forever.  Hey, he had a gig to make that night!  After quite a few frantic shouts from the shore, he returned safely, laughing.

You’re welcome.

I don’t know what we did for dinner but we managed to get out to the school gym for the gig.  His band at the time: Vini Lopez, Danny Federici, Clarence Clemons, and Garry Tallent (the only original member still an E Streeter today). With Bruce headlining there was actually an opening act called Old Salt. No one knew why Bruce got booked here, but I guessed the student promoters hailed from somewhere near New Jersey and heard he was great live.

In any event, the thin crowd of 150 or so was invited down to the basketball floor where they sat or stood around the stage.  Wayne and Kippy naturally came, as did one of my other high school chums, named Paul. So the pressure was on.  What if I had overhyped Bruce?  Blinded by the light? But having seen Bruce rip it up so often, I knew there was nothing to fear unless that all-night drive knocked the passion out of him.  

As it turned out, Bruce put on an epic show. It was the first time I’d witnessed what would come to be known as full-Springsteen concert mode, without the 45-minute limit customary in the clubs. Here he could stretch out.  Dressed in an Elvis t-shirt and leather jacket, he played for over an hour, adding a bit of "Fun, Fun, Fun" to "Rosalita," and then kept going, emptying the song book, from “Thundercrack” to brand new “Kitty’s Back,” with a couple of oldies thrown in, such as "Twist and Shout." The crowd went bonkers (the student paper would later say it was the greatest local show in memory).  He did one encore, then “A Quarter to Three” arrived, and it seemed possible he would play until then. 

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Finally, after maybe three more songs, he had run out of semi-rehearsed numbers, so he came out alone and sat at the piano.  He tinkled a few notes, trying to remember some distant melody, then said something like, “I want to dedicate this song to some friends of Greg who treated me great, Wayne and Kippy.”  He even got the names right.

Then he sang, “Rhythm of the Rain.”

After that, I brought Wayne and Kippy, and friend Paul, back stage. There were hugs all around.  Referring to the wild audience, an exhausted Springsteen said, “Man, they acted like they’d been locked up for months.” (In frigid Western New York that might not have been far from the truth.) Then we hopped in the car, and I drove Bruce to my favorite hometown pizza shrine, La Hacienda.  I ordered a pepperoni pie to go as Brucie played pinball out front.  No one recognized him, of course, until someone from the Niagara U show stumbled in and thanked him profusely, a perfect ending to this 24-hour saga.  But not quite.  We still had to pile in the car again and prove it (whatever “it” was) all night, motoring back to New York City.

(Update: A kind of Part II with a second Bruce piece here.)

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And below: The following year, backstage at Wollman Rink in Central Park, before the now-famous show when Bruce opened for Anne Murray—and half the crowd left before she appeared, more than year before Born to Run. With Peter Knobler left, and Davey Sancious, who had just joined the band.

Greg Mitchell is the author of a dozen books, including the bestseller The Tunnels (on escapes under the Berlin Wall), the current The Beginning or the End (on MGM’s wild atomic bomb movie), and The Campaign of the Century (on Upton Sinclair’s left-wing race for governor of California), which was recently picked by the Wall St. Journal as one of five greatest books ever about an election. For nearly all of the 1970s he was the #2 editor at the legendary Crawdaddy. Later he won more than a dozen awards as editor of Editor & Publisher magazine. He recently co-produced a film about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and now has written and directed his first feature, Atomic Cover-up, which will have its American premiere at a festival this spring.