When I was in high school, there used to be these things called “rock and roll conventions.” They were mostly glorified swap meets, with ballrooms filled with card tables supporting crates and boxes of records and bootlegs and posters and record company promotional items. But the conventions went further because they had video rooms – smaller conference rooms where you could see rare video, most of which was live. Some of this stuff traded hands but it was expensive. Getting to see it felt like you had found some the sacred text from some secret society. You could sit and watch as long as you wanted, and you’d be in a room with other people who wanted to watch blurry black and white film from someone who snuck in a camera or that some enterprising security person took from a venue’s closed-circuit feed that powered the video screens, and there would be clapping and yelling and ohhhhing and aaahhhing at particularly rare moments.
I mention all of this because this is what it feels like having our hands on the concert video that’s featured in the new Bruce Springsteen box set, The Ties That Bind: The River Collection. (Well of course we have a review of that as well.) Tempe is one of those things that you thought was out there, and had seen tantalizing glimpses of in places, but without holding it in your hand you weren’t going to believe that it really existed.
The Tempe show accumulated additional mystique because it was the night after Ronald Reagan was elected, and it was the first night Bruce Springsteen made anything close to a political statement onstage. The only reason anyone even paid attention was that there were rock writers in the house–Mikal Gilmore was there for a Rolling Stone cover story–and so the show was already on people’s radar. There were also audio bootlegs, including a soundboard of the entire show, that circulated for years and years.
But now we have actual proof, though we only have 24 songs out of 34, because the other 10 weren’t filmed. There isn’t some kind of conspiracy here (fan opinion to the contrary), it was 1980 and filming a whole concert for commercial purposes was just not a thing that was done, not to mention that Bruce wasn’t really that crazy about having a concert filmed to begin with. (Remember, we wouldn’t even get a live album for another five years.) It’s probably not a coincidence that the songs that are missing are the slower ones that were probably less well lit. It doesn’t even matter all that much, because it’s still 24 songs. That is a full concert by most people’s standards. The Tempe footage was captured for some vague promotional use in the future. It went into the vaults, and sat there.
Let’s talk about the other 98% of the show that isn’t Bruce talking about Ronald Reagan, because that part has been covered in every music magazine from the dawn of time. Let’s talk about the fact that even if Bruce hadn’t said one word about the election, this was an absolutely inspired performance. These winter River tour shows at the start of the tour were their own kind of animal, long, long sets, 26-34 songs. “Born To Run” would commonly be the first song. That’s right, the song that now leads into an encore and gets entire stadiums on their feet is the song that opened. “Prove It All Night” follows, with a scorching guitar solo. And then Bruce is on top of the piano for “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out,” and he hasn’t improved his dancing one iota from back then. He heads into the crowd and the kids are ecstatic.
This was the E Street where Miami Sugar Steve Van Zandt was at his guitar sidekick sultry best. This was a time when Clarence Clemons embodied Junior Walker and King Curtis, when Danny Federici’s organ lines filled the stage, when the Mighty Max Weinberg was quarter-bouncing-off-the-topsheet tight, when Garry Tallent held down a bass line like James Jamerson, when Roy Bittan’s keyboard work seemed too good to be at a scruffy rock-and-roll show, and when the Boss himself was Elvis 1955 meets Comeback Special Elvis, with a little Jackie Wilson. If it sounds like hyperbole, that’s what it was like to try to explain to people about the E Street Band in the days before YouTube: “No, no, they’re really that good. I swear to God.” They wouldn’t believe you, then they’d come down to see the show, and suddenly you were fighting yet someone else for tickets the next time around.
Steve Van Zandt’s vocals and guitar work on “Two Hearts” is an absolute whirlwind, with every member playing perfectly ends with a pair of women’s underwear flung on the stage, which Springsteen picks up with a quizzical look on his face. It’s Bruce coordinating the whole band to leap into the air at the end of “Thunder Road,” it’s the best intro to “Cadillac Ranch,” along with the best ridiculous dance moves from the whole band, and it is an absolutely delicious version of “Fire,” with Bruce and the Big Man milking the crowd like masters.
These are the days before Patti Scialfa and before Bruce has his own personal gospel choir. The band sings: Roy Bittan has a microphone and Garry comes over and sings on Steve’s mic when needed. There is something so utterly charming in the lo-fi, garage band element of this.
When the upcoming tour was in planning stages, there were rumors that it was just gonna be the guys going out. I would have been very in favor.
“Rosalita” is so goofy that I remember now why people in my high school would generally refer to Bruce Springsteen using pejorative terms once used to describe homosexual men. Bruce leads Clarence around the stage; Bruce instructs Steve to join them; after a third circuit, poor Garry Tallent is roped into accompanying them. They end up piled on top of each other, leaning on the drum riser, before coming to the front of the stage like a wolf pack and then exploding back into the song. Bruce races over to the speakers behind Roy and either falls off the piano or tries to climb a speaker stack and loses his balance, because it and his guitar disappear for a few minutes, before he emerges with the help of a crew member. I don’t want to talk about the dancing at the end of “I’m A Rocker,” which is best described as some kind of awkward pogo.
The best detail is during the “Detroit Medley,” probably because the house lights are up and so the cameras can get that extra detail. Bruce is dancing, Bruce is shaking his butt, Bruce turns around to face the band and makes eye contact with Steve, and there is a classic eye roll. He turns around again, and the camera zooms in to catch the girls who have rushed the stage at the encore, gazing up adoringly. I don’t want to spoil it for you, so just carve out some time over Christmas and settle in with this thing, it’s worth it.
While we don’t have the whole show, the audio is proper soundboard mixed by Bob Clearmountain, and you can hear all of the little things, all of the important details, hearing Danny Federici’s organ swell in “Born To Run” or Steve Van Zandt’s chicken scratch guitar during the intro to “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out.” And the editing was done by Thom Zimny, who’s been working with Bruce since signed on for a temporary three-month stint to help edit “Live In New York City.” He doesn’t hide the fact that he’s a fan, but he’s a trusted fan and knows how to edit a Bruce Springsteen concert movie, thank god, so when there’s a guitar solo the film you are seeing is showing that guitar solo, if there’s a look exchanged between Bruce and Steve or Bruce and Clarence, it’s showing you that and not some shot of the kick drum.
It would be great if they would release the Bob Clearmountain audio mix as part of the Live Archive project; there are other live shows from the River era that definitely could bear releasing. This is a tremendous document and it is amazing that Bruce finally decided to let it out of the vaults.