When maintenance came to clean Jadwin Gymnasium on the morning of November 2, 1978, they found litter on the gym floor, broken glass, and gouges in the basketball court a quarter inch deep. Folding chair legs had dug into the surface of the tartan track, leaving lasting damage. To the cleanup crews, it was a disaster. To the seven thousand rock fans who had just a few hours earlier witnessed a 29-year-old Bruce Springsteen weave magic from the night, it was history. That evening, the floor undulated, the building shook, and the raucous crowd racked up $15,000 in damages.
Springsteen had played at Princeton on one prior occasion, in 1974. But the Boss had not yet reached the height of his legend then, and Richardson Auditorium, the chosen venue, was not conducive to the theatricality and explosiveness of his concerts. The ’78 show marked the end of public rock concerts at Jadwin and was the capstone of a long history of concerts at Princeton, featuring a variety of artists, from Duke Ellington to the Grateful Dead. When the E. Street Band left town that November morning, they took with them a long and storied tradition. A brief look back seems appropriate.
A half-page advertisement in the Daily Princetonian from October 1974 announced two upcoming events. “This Weekend from McCarter Theater: Tomorrow at 11:00 & 2:00 p.m.,” the main advertisement goes, “Walt Disney’s DUMBO, Admission: $1.25.” A picture of the lovable anthropomorphic elephant sits at the center of the ad. Underneath, a box roughly Dumbo’s size reads: “Sat. at 7:30 & 10:30 (at Alexander Hall): BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, obstructed view seats only remaining at the box office.” A grander welcome could hardly be expected. In late 1974, Springsteen, who within months would ascend the Rock ‘n’ Roll Pantheon, was only a year removed from his first two albums: first, the well-received, weak-selling Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.; then, nine months later, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, which also received positive reviews but achieved almost no critical success.
These debut albums have become popular obscurities among die-hard fans, and each was placed on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time—the first at #379, the second at #132—but their scope was too precise and their songs too long for widespread success. Only one of The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle’s seven titles is under five minutes, and five of Greeting from Asbury Park’s nine are over 4:30. In his first two albums, Springsteen weaves narratives of teenage angst and high-powered cars set against the slick, raw beauty of the Jersey shore. Most of his early characters are identifiable only by epithet: Crazey Janey, Wild Billy, Hazy Davy, Killer Joe, Wild Billy (again), Spanish Johnny, Puerto Rican Jane, Jack the Rabbit, Weak Knees Willie, Big Bones Billie, and the ubiquitous “vibes man.” There is an almost surrealistic quality to these stories. They are freewheeling, long, and passionate. Instruments and sounds are layered thickly: it’s rock ‘n’ roll infused with R&B, folk, and beat poetry.
Despite the retrospective appreciation, though, the E Street Band acquired only a limited following in their first two years. So when they came to Richardson on October 12, the event was met with only mild excitement. Sure, they could sell out Alexander Hall, a venue of nine hundred, but they couldn’t even displace a thirty-five-year-old cartoon elephant in an advertisement to college students.
The band played a thirteen-song, three-hour set. Most of the tunes came from The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, including a ten-minute “Incident on 57th Street” to open and an eighteen-minute “New York City Serenade” after intermission, as well as “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” which has become perhaps Springsteen’s most popular early piece. The concert also featured versions of “She’s the One” and “Jungleland,” which appeared on 1975’s Born to Run, the album that shot Springsteen into stardom.
The show was captivating. Reviewing it for the Daily Princetonian, Michael Zielenziger ‘77 notes Springsteen’s demeanor: “a Latin balladeer, a street poet of the Seventies, dealing with Sixties’ lifestyles and idioms in the terms and music of the Seventies. He’s gutsy, he’s ferocious, but ever so much in control; he’s a ballet dancer, an actor; a prankster, a mime; a showman and oh, so much an entertainer.” But I prefer a review from elsie on greasylake.org (“The Ultimate Bruce Springsteen Tribute Page since 1998”): “The opening (sic) was classic and gripping, I guess typical for then. Dark quiet theater… ‘that’ Bruce — cap, leather jacket, canvas sneaks…then 2 hours of a breath-taking wall-of-sound rock’n’roll party.”
Over the next four years, the world began to discover what Zielenziger ’77 and elsie had found at Richardson. The E Street Band’s road to stardom began not one year later. In August 1975, they released their third album, Born to Run, eight songs and 40 minutes of drums, guitar, piano, organ, and saxophone, all sex appeal and pure rock. With Born to Run Springsteen condensed and synchronized the multiple levels of instrumentation. He cut down on the ten-minute ballads without compromising any of their passion or scope. He simplified his sound without losing his punch. And he oriented his new sound around three songs that have each become classics of themselves: the piano- and harmonica-driven “Thunder Road” to open, the epic “Jungleland” to finish, and the incomparable “Born to Run” slotted at number five. Born to Run was a wild success, the titular song emerging almost immediately as a candidate for the Great American Song.
The band’s fourth album— 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town—capitalized on burgeoning renown. With Darkness Springsteen condensed his sound even more. The tunes are shorter and more conventional. Clarence Clemons’ saxophone, ubiquitous on the early albums and in frequent banter with a slew of other instruments, is kept in check. Now, the piano and guitar are in constant conversation, amplified by a horn solo or shrill harmonica. Most of the songs even have well-defined choruses. And as the music approached conventionality, the scope of Springsteen’s poetry expanded. No more are his protagonists the angsty poets of the Jersey shore, searching for redemption within the confines of the boardwalk. Instead, he expands geographically, mining stories of escape from across the American heartland.
The accompanying tour took on a feverish pace. The E Street Band put on one hundred fifteen shows between May 23, 1978 and January 1, 1979. That’s one show every 1.94 days, many of which were twenty-five songs and almost four hours long. It was on this stretch that the Springsteen legend was solidified. Biographer Dave Marsh later wrote, “The screaming intensity of those ’78 shows are part of rock and roll legend in the same way as Dylan’s 1966 shows with the Band, the Rolling Stones’ tours of 1969 and 1972, and the Who’s Tommy tour of 1969: benchmarks of an era.”
By 1978, then, Springsteen had arrived. Even before the band strolled into town again, their second concert was shaping up quite differently than the first. In October, a new advertisement appeared in the Daily Princetonian, under a single-worded header: Bruce. “Yes, Rosalita, there is a Santa Claus. Bruce Springsteen is coming to town,” the ad reads. “The concert is set for November 1 at Jadwin Gymnasium. For those who were born to run, tickets go on sale 9 a.m. tomorrow morning at McCarter Theater.” Over two hundred students spent the night outside McCarter Theater waiting for the box office to open. The first, eager students arrived at 1:40 p.m., armed with sleeping bags, radios, poker sets, and, according to the Daily Princetonian, “innumerable flasks to ward off the cold.” A list was set up by some students, and roll was called every hour until 9 a.m.: those who failed to appear were off.
The die-hards who waited all night outside McCarter for tickets knew what history has affirmed: that over the course of his 1978 tour, Bruce Springsteen was in the midst of a rock and roll moment, the culmination of four albums, hundreds of riotous live concerts, widespread critical acclaim, and enormous commercial success.
On this particular November night in 1978, Springsteen played only twenty-one songs. They left an indelible impression. Writes one alum on greasylake.com: “I was a sheltered Princeton freshman…I skipped a badly needed math 201 midterm review session to stand in line for two tickets…it looked like the folks on the floor were standing on the surface of the ocean, rocked by waves.” And Jon Healey ‘80, reviewing it for the Daily Princetonian, mused: “When Bruce Springsteen made his final exit…there was no deafening ovation, no thunderous applause. Springsteen’s show had so overwhelmed the crowd that, by the concert’s end, most simply left their seats and headed for the exits in a daze.”
Like most shows from the Darkness Tour, the Jadwin concert combined songs from each of the first three albums. The band opened with “Badlands” and “Streets of Fire”, two guitar-driven crowd-pleasers from Darkness, followed by Asbury Park’s full band jam tune “Spirit in the Night.” A sequence near the middle of the show featured “The Promised Land,” “Prove It All Night,” “Racing in the Street,” “Thunder Road,” and “Jungleland,” each running about ten minutes.
Healey ‘80 also notes Springsteen’s rapport with the audience: “he often pauses between numbers to tell stories or make dedications, a very endearing practice.” Anyone who has been to a Springsteen concert over the last forty years knows this practice: he will pause not only between numbers, but also within them, telling carefully constructed stories, often similar night to night, that inform the songs. Introducing “Growin’ Up” in the live compilation Live 75-85, for example, he recalls how his parents have spent six years “following me around California…trying to get me to go back to college.” He weaves a story about his father’s disapproval of young Bruce’s guitar-playing and his parents’ desire to see him as a writer or a lawyer. He then reveals that his mother and father are in the audience (the crowd starts cheering) and ends: “One of you guys wanted a lawyer, and the other one wanted an author. Well, tonight, you’re both just gonna have to settle for rock ‘n’ roll.” And as yells the words “rock ‘n’ roll” the crowd explodes, the saxophone starts up, the drums hold the beat, the piano launches back in, and the singing begins again.
Each concert the stories vary just a bit. Certain details fade in and out. I first saw the Boss as a real fan in 2012. Admittedly, I was as taken by his storytelling as our Prince reviewer. Not until later did my friend, who had been to another show that same week, tell me that the monologues were identical on both nights. No matter. In his shows, as in his songs, Springsteen is after a narrative. He’s a deliberate storyteller, and the effect isn’t diminished with the knowledge that it was sculpted beforehand, that it’s not improvised—it’s the Springsteen way, and the connection he draws with each member of the audience is unbreakable.
So just how did Princeton get a shot at Springsteen in his heyday? It is almost inconceivable to think that someone of his prowess could play a Princeton venue today. Imagine Dillon Gym as a stop on the Watch the Throne Tour or as an addendum to Billy Joel’s Madison Square Garden mainstay. Today Princeton hosts such bygone stars like Aaron Carter or up-and-comers like indie group Echosmith or hip-hop artist Schoolboy Q. In 2006, we got Rihanna. But for decades Princeton was a destination for some of the biggest musicians.
Long before Lawnparties, Houseparties in the 1930s featured famous jazz bands, including Duke Ellingston and Louis Armstrong. Benny Goodman even debuted as a band leader at Cottage. Ella Fitzgerald played the Prince-Tiger Dance (a precursor to the Orange and Black Ball) in 1936, and Count Basie and Billie Holiday appeared there in 1937. As the music changed, so too did the bookings. In the late fifties Chuck Berry played Tower, and Jerry Lee Lewis performed in the Cloister basement. And when the folk and rock movements emerged in the 1960s Princeton saw a series of remarkable concerts: In 1967, Simon and Garfunkel played McCarter Theater (tickets ranged from $2.50 to $3.50). James Taylor played Dillon Gym in 1970, joined by special guest Joni Mitchell. A year later, Carly Simon and Pink Floyd played separate concerts less than a week apart. The list goes on: Cat Stevens, the Beach Boys, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Bette Midler, Genesis, Billy Joel, Steppenwolf, Frank Zappa, Jackson Browne, the Byrds, and the Grateful Dead, whose Jerry Garcia, when asked to extinguish his joint, told the audience: “I’ll never play here again.”
Many of these concerts were expensive. Some of the early ones cost the University upwards of $10,000. And something changed after Springsteen played Jadwin. Within weeks, a study was conducted on the feasibility of public concerts. Princeton had not bought insurance for the concert because of their high rates, and much of the liability was paid directly by the University. Yes, there have been select concerts since: Boston in 1978, 10,000 Maniacs in the 1980s, Sheryl Crow in 1996. A fifty-nine-year-old Bob Dylan slotted Dillon Gym into his Never Ending Tour in 2000. But nothing reached the madness or electricity of those shows in the 1970s.
Nonetheless, it is a stretch to say that Springsteen uniquely caused the demise of Princeton as a concert destination. There were other reasons: for one, McCarter Theater—which had sponsored most of the shows in the 1960s and 1970s—soon transitioned away from rock ‘n’ roll. Rock groups were demanding larger and larger venues, and the nine-hundred-seat Richardson Auditorium, as well as the six thousand odd spaces in Jadwin, simply couldn’t compete. We still get good shows, mostly at Lawnparties and occasionally at McCarter, but the recent Lawnparties acts suggest that USG is more interested in gambling year-to-year on two or more up-and-comers than pooling all the funds to book a veritable star. And there’s nothing wrong with that: if Mayer Hawthorne or GRiZ ever becomes a household name, wouldn’t we be thrilled to be able to say, “I saw him back when…”
In some ways, though, it is fitting that the Boss brought Princeton’s concert golden age to a close. It, too, fits a narrative. His music and live performances had been on a rapid crescendo for years, each tour pushing the boundaries a bit further. And Jadwin, opened in 1969 as Princeton’s athletic jewel and music destination, 6,854 seats large and built for the big guns, was ready to receive him. The collision of band and venue was explosive. Over the course of one night, as the last and greatest of Princeton’s rock concerts, Bruce Springsteen literally carved himself into the University’s architecture and the fabric of its collective memory.