LOOKING FOR THAT MILLION DOLLAR SOUND
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
LISTEN NOW: Community Theatre, Berkeley, CA, July 1, 1978
By Erik Flannigan
In terms of listening hours, surely no Bruce Springsteen tour has been re-lived more than the 111 shows Bruce and the E Street Band performed between May 23, 1978 and January 1, 1979. Even with entire tours (e.g. The River 2016) being released in recent years, the Darkness tour remains the consumption king for a number of reasons.
The most obvious factor is time — the decades spent playing bootlegs, tapes, and now downloads from 1978. We’ve held the Darkness tour in high esteem since it ended; even earlier, for those who attended. The rest of us who didn’t witness have been swayed by the wide availability of high quality recordings, notably the five live radio broadcasts from West Hollywood (July 7), Cleveland (August 9), Passaic (September 19), Atlanta (September 30) and San Francisco (December 15), all blessedly released in the Live Archive series.
Add in Houston (December 8), plus second nights in Passaic (September 20) and San Fran (December 16), and one might consider the Archive series has the Darkness tour comprehensively covered. Guess again.
Berkeley 7/1/78 is the earliest Darkness tour performance to be released in the Live Archive series and tenders a distinctive, taut performance bristling with the energy of seven sympatico musicians hitting their stride. The main set offers key songs “Night” and “For You” that only featured in the tour’s early months, while the encore boasts the formal arrival of “Because the Night” to the show. Better still, the final frame opens with an unequivocal boon to the Live Archive series: Springsteen’s solo piano performance of “The Promise,” released for the first time in its definitive, show-stopping 1978 arrangement.
The outstanding sonics of Jon Altschiller’s Plangent-Processed, multi-track mix capture the kinetic electricity exchange between band and audience. This isn’t a “we already know and love him” performance, this is an “Okay, we’re ready to be convinced” set. I’m not one to focus too much on audience sound levels in the mix, but trainspotters who do will be thrilled with Berkeley. The atmosphere in the venue is vividly captured, from the quietest moments to the most rapturous, which adds something extra to the recording.
What a treat it is to hear “Night” immediately after “Badlands,” as a month later it would give way to “Spirit in the Night,” the third song of the night in Berkeley. It’s a particularly joyful “Night,” with each member of the E Street Band coming through loud and clear, from Danny Federici’s chiming glockenspiel to Garry Tallent’s lush bass. “Spirit” takes us down the turnpike to the Shore; “Darkness on the Edge of Town” sends us back out searching for meaning.
“Darkness” taps the show’s tension coil, starting spare but igniting with the line, “Well if she wants to see me, you can tell her that I’m easily found.” I never noticed Clarence Clemons’ rich harmony vocals on “Darkness” before. Listen for him at 3:36, the start of the final, long-held “Townnnnnnn,” the crescendo of a magisterial performance. Fun Fact: Though he doesn’t mention him by name, Bruce acknowledges Mystery Train author Greil Marcus in attendance during his “Darkness” intro.
Like “Night,” “For You” was a set-list regular through July, but it only appeared nine times thereafter. The Berkeley take is lyrical and confident. That vibe continues with added urgency for “The Promised Land,” after which there is a relatively long pause and audible anticipation setting the stage for “Prove It All Night.” It was this very performance that was quickly mixed under the supervision of Springsteen and Jon Landau, and played by the pair three nights later on KMET in Los Angeles in a conversation with Dave Marsh and DJ Mary Turner. Setting aside “Circus Song,” released on the Playback promotional single back in 1973, “Prove It All Night” from Berkeley was arguably the first proper live Springsteen recording to make it into the wild.
Over the years Springsteen and others have suggested the songs on Darkness on the Edge of Town were not as fully realized in the studio as they could have been, with the album sometimes cited as a candidate for a new mix. “Prove It All Night” feels like one of the tracks they were referring to, as the live versions are next-level compared to the studio take.
Given that, it makes sense that after airing on KMET, the live “Prove It All Night” was serviced to several radio stations and the King Biscuit Flower Hour, and it was briefly considered for release as a promo 12-inch single, though it never got past the acetate phase. Compared to versions later in the tour, the Berkeley “Prove It” isn’t as intense, the guitar intro at the start not as long, but it is superb just the same and perhaps a plausible example of what “Prove It All Night” could have been on the album.
The first set continues after Bruce acknowledges his parents and sister in attendance, putting the audience on notice to catch his sister Pam when she was “skipping school.” The final songs of the set—“Racing in the Street,” “Thunder Road,” and “Jungleland”—are exemplary expressions, and you’ll lose yourself in them as the Berkeley audience does. When “Jungleland” concludes, the applause rises and even Springsteen seems caught off guard. The conversion is complete.
The second set matches the first pound for pound, commencing in sprightly fashion with the Big Man showcase “Paradise by the ‘C’” (also aired on KMET along with “Prove It All Night”) and the second of the night’s four unreleased originals, “Fire.” With less than two dozen performances to this point, Springsteen still handles the future Clarence line, “But your heart stays cool.”
Like “Darkness” in the first set, this early “Adam Raised a Cain” is exhilarating. The proto-“Adam” touches the transformer for extra juice, especially on electric guitar, with a nasty prelude at the top and squealing, delicious filth throughout. The dynamics that make Springsteen so compelling in concert are on full display when the band peaks and Bruce howls to a stop just before declaring, “In the Bible, Mama, Cain slew Abel.”
The primitive rock ‘n’ roll guitar foray extends into the “Mona” intro to “She’s the One,” another outstanding reading with more edge than we’re used to. Next, “Growin’ Up” brings welcome sweetness, and the Berkeley audience recognizes the song from Roy Bittan’s opening piano refrain. Bruce then sets the stage, recalling his Catholic school days and the nuns telling his parents he needed “psychiatric attention,” his last words before the lyrics to “Growin’ Up” provide the explanation as to why. In the middle of the song, Springsteen addresses his father directly, explaining in endearing fashion how Douglas’ infamous declaration of “turn down that goddamn guitar” connects to this very night. It’s a special moment.
“Sad Eyes” aficionados can rejoice with another entry in the canon of “Backstreets” versions that contain the emotional interlude. Berkeley 2 matches the intensity with the famous Roxy rendition, with subtle changes including a powerful repeated refrain of “Now baby’s back. Now baby’s back.” “Rosalita” follows, lifting the mood, with the band in total command as they bring a masterful main set to a close.
The encore starts with one of the most significant, singular additions to the Live Archive series, “The Promise,” performed by Springsteen on solo piano. I considered devoting this entire essay to “The Promise,” such is its importance as a song, and in this 1978 arrangement and performance. A friend recently referred to it as “one of the two most important outtakes in the history of music,” the other being Bob Dylan’s “Blind Willie McTell.”
Bruce said “The Promise” was the first song he wrote after the Born to Run album, and it carries overt connective tissue to “Thunder Road,” borrowing those words for its chorus and serving as, if not a sequel, the other side of the coin. For me, “The Promise” is the most powerful distillation in song of the key themes Bruce would explore across Darkness and The River. Heard later by those already familiar with the two albums, it can come across as more of the same, but in 1976 or 1978 it was a revelation.
Over time, Bruce revised the lyrics to “The Promise,” and with a rewritten third verse about his father, he dedicates the song to Douglas in Berkeley and delivers a stark, emotional masterpiece. The songwriting, filled with evocative lines like, “I lived a secret I should have kept to myself, but I got drunk one night and I told it” and “When the promise is broken, you go on living, but it steals something from down in your soul,” is Springsteen at his very best.
Through the passing of time, it is also remarkable how some of the song’s deeply personal lines take on new, societal relevance. More than 40 years later, these words ring truer than ever:
When the truth is spoken
And it don’t make no difference
Something in your heart grows cold
We’re so fortunate to have “The Promise” officially released in its most significant form.
While “Quarter to Three” and “Born to Run” more than hold their own, the Berkeley encore delivers history with the proper arrival of “Because the Night.” It is only the second performance of the song with the E Street Band and the first since Boston in May. Bruce likely restored the song to the set as it was the very week of the Berkeley shows that Patti Smith’s version of “Because the Night” peaked at No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. The Berkeley version is a thrilling work in progress, with lyric variations in progress and an abrupt, unfamiliar ending. After Berkeley, “Because the Night” was a set-list regular.
Though the Roxy show six days hence would take place in a small club, venue acoustics, performance, and mix combine to make Berkeley 7/1/78 the most intimate Darkness tour document in the Live Archive series. You didn’t think you needed one more 1978 show, but you most assuredly do.