It was July 1, 1984. I took off from Jamestown at around 5AM in – what else? – my ’73 Monte Carlo
with a 396, Fuellie heads and a Hurst on the floor, and drove through a long, hot July day. Poring over my Amoco map of the Twin Cities – where I’d never driven before – I got to Saint Paul, pulled off the Marion Street exit and parked up by the Cathedral (where a friend of mine had parked the car when we drove down to see The Who in 1982), and made my way down Kellogg to downtown Saint Paul around 2 in the afternoon.
I wandered down to Saint Peter and then Wabasha street, back in the days when there were still stores between Fourth and Sixth streets across from Dayton’s and Ecolab, dazzled by the hustle and bustle of downtown Saint Paul.
I did mention I was from North Dakota, right? And that “hustle and bustle” were very relative concepts? Compared to Fargo – the biggest city I’d ever spent serious time in – Saint Paul was kinda hustly and bustly.
In those days, anyway.
Some of the landmarks from my wandering are still there; the Coney Island still has the exact same hand-scrawled paper “Under Renovation” sign today that it had back then, I think; I thought about eating at Mickey’s Diner, but it was too crowded and I wanted a damn beer. Others – the Burger King/Taco Johns in the funny glass building on 5th, across from Daytons; Daytons itself; Brady’s Pub, where I stopped for a burger and a beer for lunch, Gallivan’s – are long gone.
After lunch, I wandered down Fifth to the Plaza in front of the old Civic Center.
The old Saint Paul Civic Center.
It was getting toward three in the afternoon; I heard some noises inside, and it sounded like the band was getting into its soundcheck. The plaza – including the long row of stairs leading to the endless rank of doors – was thronged with people, mostly looking for tickets. I walked past, listening to the sound of a bass guitar tuning up.
And I figured “nothing ventured, nothing gained”.
I walked to the very leftmost of the long row of doors that overlooked 7th and Kellogg, and gave it a furtive tug, expecting to find it locked.
It wasn’t. It pulled open a few inches; I could hear someone tapping on a drum set.
Understand – I was never much of a rule-breaker. I was always terrified of being in trouble.
But I checked to make sure nobody was watching, inside or outside, and slipped indoors.
I hustled across the concourse to a gate, stepped inside…
…and saw the E Street Band, down on the stage, a level below me. Nearest me was the Big Man, with his sax, wearing sweats and a cap. Danny Federici was on the riser behind him, checking registrations on his Hammond. Nills Lofgren was warming up downstage. Max Weinberg tapped drums as the sound guy rang out the room. Gary Tallent played some scales; Roy Bittan noodled on the keyboard. Then they stopped, chatted, and then Max counted four, and they launched into an instrumental of “Glory Days”, as the sound crew adjusted levels.
I grabbed a seat, and watched the band, and listen to the sound guys tweaking the levels, and just marinated in the whole wanton lawnlessness of it all.
About the time the song ended, someone tapped my shoulder. It was a roadie, in a black t-shirt and jeans. I half expected to get my ass kicked – and it would have been worth it, honestly.
“Excuse me, sir…”
“Yeah, I know”, I responded, getting up. “I’ll leave”.
The roadie nodded. “Thanks”. He was downright polite about the whole thing. “Hey, before you go – how did you get in?”
I showed the roadie the unlocked door, and he thanked me as I stepped back out onto the plaza. I walked down to Kellogg…
…as a white Olds Cutlass with a “Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band “Born in the USA Tour 1984″ Tour” decal rolled past. In the passenger seat was Bruce.
He waved back.
I walked down to Paddy McGovern’s for another beer. I had some time to kill.
So technically that – and not the actual concert, still 5-6 hours away – was the first time I ever saw Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band live.
Eventually – the doors opened at 7, I think – I got into the building legally, found my seat (row 59 on the floor), and waited for the show. And waited.
And finally – right around 9PM – the lights went down, the crowd got on its feet, the band filtered onstage in the dark, and a spotlight picked out Springsteen at the mike. He counted off four, and Bittan’s skirling synths and Weinberg’s drums kicked off “Born in the USA”.
The rest of the show? It’s a blur – and yet vast swathes of the show are as clear in my head as if I’d just seen the show:
- Born in the U.S.A. – In its full, bombastic glory.
- Prove It All Night – Nils Lofgren – who was a world-class guitar hero and solo artist for over a decade before joining the E Street Band – got to take an extended solo, trading licks with Bruce during an explosive, eight minute version of those Darkness–era classic.
- Out in the Street – This was where Patti Scialfa ran out onto the stage and made her debut; it took me completely by surprise (I had avoided reading any reviews of the show’s first night, two nights earlier).
- Reason to Believe – As I recall, it was a sort of rockabillyish arrangement of the Nebraska classic.
- Atlantic City – I had always dreamed about doing a full-band arrangement of this song. This one was it; huge, thunderous, everything I’d thought it should have been.
- Open All Night –
- Mansion on the Hill – Open All Night and Mansion on the Hill were kind of a test; after the powerhouse opening, switching to a couple of numbers with just Bruce and Nils on acoustic guitar. Some of the crowd wanted to rock – but for the most part, people stayed tuned in.
- Darlington County – After the downbeat Nebraska segment, the party started again.
- Glory Days
- The Promised Land Then as now, one of my favorites.
- Used Cars
- My Hometown – along with Used Cars, another slower sweep – although My Hometown was a gloriously intense full-band arrangment.
- Badlands – Aaand the reward to everyone for hanging in there during the quiet part of the set; the roof may not have come off the Civic, but it sure came off of me.
- Thunder Road
I think the band stepped out for a brief intermission here.
- Cadillac Ranch
- Hungry Heart
- Dancing in the Dark
- Sherry Darling
- Pink Cadillac
- Bobby Jean
- Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) – We didn’t quite realize how lucky we were; they stopped performing this one on tour not long after, and only played it rarely live for many more years.
And then the band left the stage.
And returned a few minutes later to play an encore:
- I’m a Rocker – It had been kind of a light, trifling garage-rocker on The River – but here, it was an epic, thundering anthem.
- Jungleland – The lights came down, and Bruce started the first verse…and forgot the words. And as he stole a look at a cheat sheet, the crowd of 18,000 finished the verse until Bruce got back on top of the lyrics.
- Born to Run (segue into) Street Fighting Man – This medley alone was worth a blog post of its very own. The band tore through “Born To Run” the way it was meant to be torn through. And then – as the band vamped through the ending of the song, Bruce counted four, and the house lights came on, and the band ripped into a full-electric version of by far my favorite Rolling Stones song. And I stood on my chair – I hadn’t actually sat in it since intermission – and looked around at 18,000 people dancing in the aisles. And I got a little dizzy from the sheer sensation of the whole thing; it may have been the most perfect rock and roll moment I’ve seen.
They left the stage again – but the crowd would have none of it.
- Detroit Medley – of which not much needs to be said.
The concert let out around 1AM. I debouched onto the street with the rest of the crowd, and made a beeline for my car, up by the Cathedral.
And as I walked up Cathedral Hill, I thought – yeah, it ain’t no sin to be glad your alive.
And as I walked up a side street toward my car, I looked back at Saint Paul, all lit up and teeming with people and knew it; I just had to start angling my life plans toward getting out of North Dakota after I graduated.
(For those who were around at the time? No, it was the second night of the tour. I didn’t get tickets for the first night, June 29, at the Civic – the opening night of the entire tour. The one where they filmed the “Dancing in the Dark” video, in which a very young Courney Cox, planted in the audience, was introduced to the world via a “live” vid produced by Brian DePalma. Sure, you remember it.
But it was pretty cool anyway. Here’s a fanpage with a ton of scanned memorabilia from the June 29 show, and a much less complete set of swag and quotes from the show I was at. And here’s the complete audio from the June 29 show – the opening night of the Born in the USA tour, two nights earlier).
Oh, yeah – the ticket? For 59th row on the floor? $16.50.