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Springsteen tape takes us back to ‘rock & roll future’

A young Bruce Springsteen (shown here in 1975) rocketed to fame after a 1974 Harvard Square gig that can now be heard in a recording. A young Bruce Springsteen (shown here in 1975) rocketed to fame after a 1974 Harvard Square gig that can now be heard in a recording. (Tom Hill/Wireimage)
By Steven Rosen
Globe Correspondent / May 9, 2010

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The evening of May 9, 1974, is legendary in the annals of rock ’n’ roll. It was the night the little-known Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band opened for Bonnie Raitt at Harvard Square Theater, dazzling the critic Jon Landau into writing “I saw rock & roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen’’ in the local alternative weekly The Real Paper. Now a tape from that night — one of the most revered in rock history — has emerged as a museum object 36 years after the storied event.

The tape, never available for public hearing, is included in the Springsteen exhibit “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land’’ at Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, on display through summer. It has been digitalized and streams to a single listening station, where two people at a time can listen to it on headphones. It is not available on the museum’s website, nor can a copy be purchased in the museum store.

The sound has some rough patches, and there are no seats for relaxing. But the radical effect of the music on the audience then (this writer was there and can attest to that) can still be felt. The band aims for the mystically transcendent one minute and party-hearty, sax-fueled retro-rock raucousness the next, keeping everyone off guard. Springsteen was in Cambridge to promote his second album, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle.’’

The idea for an exhibit centering on Springsteen’s career came about because the Hall of Fame’s induction ceremonies were going to be in Cleveland last year and chief curator Jim Henke wanted a big show to accompany it. He approached Springsteen, who had been inducted in 1999. Springsteen agreed and provided items ranging from his “Born to Run’’ Fender Esquire guitar to his favorite songwriting table.

The exhibit drew so well in 2009 — 423,000 visitors — that it has been extended into this summer, with newer artifacts added, including the jacket he wore to President Obama’s inauguration, his 2009 Kennedy Center award, and the Golden Globe he won for “The Wrestler.’’ But it is the Harvard Square tape that remains one of the most fascinating parts of the exhibit, just as that night itself remains an enduring, pivotal moment in the Boss’s career.

“It was my idea to include it, because that show is so famous because of Landau’s review,’’ Henke says. “So we contacted [Springsteen’s organization], and they had a tape of the songs played there. He and the E Street Band were a great live band, and that does come through in those tracks.’’

Springsteen’s band at the time of the Harvard Square booking featured a pianist with strong jazz and classical leanings, David Sancious. (He left in August 1974.) It is Sancious who makes the band’s first impression so strong, opening with a long, melancholy, and ruminative solo on “New York City Serenade.’’ It slowly leads into Springsteen’s yearningly searching vocal, with the impressionistic, romanticized lyrics that seem part Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row’’ and part Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.’’ The song was aiming for theatrical grandeur and also reverent intimacy, and the effect it has on hushing an audience can still be felt today.

But then he moves away from that territory on “Spirit in the Night,’’ a song that still has its cryptically spooky Dylanesque lyrics but also builds into a more traditional soul shout-out, thanks to Clarence Clemons’s saxophone solo. The band then goes into soul-oldies heaven with a cover of “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman,’’ which had been a 1962 girl-group hit. On these three songs and five others, it’s evident that Springsteen and his tightly rehearsed ensemble were trying simultaneously to draw from the music’s past and to create a future. This is the night they came to be forever recognized for it.

It took luck for Springsteen’s audio engineer, Toby Scott, to find the tape. He lives in northwest Montana and met a Boston emigre, musician/retired music teacher Michael Atherton, at an open-mike night at a bar in the town of Whitefish. Atherton, a resident of Trego, said he had a tape for him — Springsteen at Harvard Square Theatre, 1974. He had made it himself, lugging in a professional-model cassette recorder with external microphone and taping the show from a seat in the back. At the time, Atherton was a natural-foods baker (with his wife) as well as a musician. “I saw every concert we could afford to — of course, we were broke most of the time,’’ Atherton recalls. “I don’t even know how I knew who Bruce Springsteen was. When we baked, we listened to WBCN all the time and even took doughnuts over to them because we thought they were so cool. So maybe that was it.’’

Smuggling the bulky recorder into the show turned out to be easy, because he was prepared. “My father was a news photographer for 40 years and instilled in me a rule to always look like you know what you’re doing when confronted with any possible security situation,’’ he says. “So I put it under my peacoat, where it probably looked like I was pregnant. Then I put it in my lap and held the microphone up in the air.’’ He also recorded a bit of Raitt’s headlining act, before the batteries gave out.

Over the years — as Atherton and his wife moved to first New Hampshire and then Montana, he has made a few copies for friends — which may have something to do with the bootleg copies that some Internet sites say exist. But he has only played it once for himself. “It was every bit as good as I remembered it,’’ he says. “It was the greatest band concert I’ve ever seen — completely together, completely refined, the dramatic intent clear from beginning to end.’’

Actually, Landau — who went on to become Springsteen’s manager — didn’t see the performance that can now be heard at the hall of fame. He went to the second show that night, when the set list not only was somewhat changed — Springsteen opened with “The E Street Shuffle’’ — but showcased a new song, “Born to Run.’’ Landau had seen Springsteen at a Cambridge club called Charlie’s Place just a month earlier.

Landau declined comment for this story, but the music writer Dave Marsh — Landau’s editor at the time — recalls The Real Paper review well. “It was playing off ‘A Christmas Carol’ — it was Dickensian in the way he talks about rock ’n’ roll’s past, present, and future. It always gets quoted as being in a prophetic voice, but it wasn’t.’’

Marsh went on to write two Springsteen biographies and “Bruce Springsteen on Tour: 1968-2005.’’ While he and Landau had seen Springsteen earlier in a small Cambridge club, Marsh didn’t make the Harvard Square show. “This is a horrible thing to say,’’ he says. “I had a ticket but was sick.’’

Photos
Bruce Springsteen

The Boss and his band

Photos of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.