Back in the ’70s, the No Nukes movement was alive and well (and yours truly even attended some protests.) I did not go to this concert but I remember the event well. And my first experience of the E Street Band was in this timeframe, specifically in 1977 when Bruce was in that “can’t record due to lawsuit” limbo. His most recent album had been Born to Run- Darkness was still a year out. (Seeing all the cool bands is damn near the only benefit I can think of about being old.)
In an article in Rolling Stone called Bruce Springsteen on Why He’s Finally Releasing His Full 1979 ‘No Nukes’ Shows, the Boss says. “I had some voodoo thing about that. Film and television were relatively cool mediums, and we were a hot band. I said, ‘If you want to feel that heat, you need to be at that show.’”
According to RS, he “made a rare exception to that rule in September 1979, when he agreed to perform at two No Nukes benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden alongside Jackson Browne, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, the Doobie Brothers, and Carly Simon.
“They were filming it,” Springsteen says. “They said, ‘You’ll have a choice of whether you’re in the movie or not.’ That meant I didn’t have to think about the cameras since I knew I could throw it away if I wanted to.” While he let the filmmakers use a few songs, most of them wound up in a vault.
Well, you’re in luck Springsteen-O-Maniacs. On November 16, a documentary called The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts, is released for purchase on all digital film outlets. Three days later, it will be available as a two-CD plus DVD or two-CD plus Blu-Ray package (as well as on LP), and on the 23rd it will be up for digital rental.
The concert – held in November 1979 – did not come out of nowhere. The Three Mile Island meltdown had happened several months prior. Musicians United for Safe Energy approached Bruce to “help guarantee that Madison Square Garden would be packed for the final two shows of the five-night stand.
“That was a critical moment,” says Springsteen. “My friend Jackson Browne was very involved. He’s an activist and I was sort of a hired gun. But I was curious to see where else I could take my music, and where it would be helpful. We had enough success where I felt like I should be doing something with it, and that was where I was at that moment.”
Among other tunes, Springsteen played a then-new song, “The River,” which was basically the life story of his sister Virginia who was (somewhat uncomfortably) in the audience. “That song was a real turn in my songwriting,” says Springsteen. “I felt like I had broken through to a narrative type of songwriting that I previously hadn’t quite [figured out],” he says.
“That turned into Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils and Dust, and so many other things. That one song birthed so many other incarnations and so much other music. It was a really critical song in my development and I knew it when I wrote it.”
The film ends with a nine-minute version of the 1961 Gary U.S. Bonds classic “Quarter to Three,” complete with false stops and Bruce collapsing on the stage James Brown-style and getting revived by Clarence Clemons and a towel-waving Steve Van Zandt. (That’s Show biz – ME)
It also made him realize once again that he erred in not allowing the band to be filmed on many other occasions back then. “I wish we had filmed all the time,” he says. “It was a mistake. It was just a young, youthful, insecure, mistake at the time. I wish we’d filmed at least every tour we’d done once. That would have been really nice.”
Looking ahead, Springsteen hopes he can return to the road next year to finally support 2020’s Letter To You with a tour. “I’m hoping,” he says. “Like a lot of people. Everyone’s hoping. We’re just trying to figure out how to do that, like everyone else. If we can, if it’s possible, we will be [touring]. If it’s just not safe or not practical, we’ll be waiting it out like everyone else. We’re waiting and doing our best to see.”
In the meantime, No Nukes will allow concert-deprived fans to experience the E Street Band at the height of their powers. “It’s wonderful,” Springsteen says. “If you missed 1975 Hammersmith Odeon, it’ll knock your socks off. And if you weren’t around in 1979, it will show you what we were all about.”
Shoutout to Rolling Stone for much of this content.
Oh, and Happy 72nd birthday, Bruce.