Before the No Nukes concerts at Madison Square Garden in September of 1979, no live recordings of Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band had ever been officially released, either on film or on LP.
Oh sure, there were plenty of bootlegs around, mostly cassette tapes made from WMMR-FM live broadcasts, like the pre-"Born To Run" 1975 date at the Main Point in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, and the 1978 "Darkness on the Edge of Town" show from the Agora in Cleveland that was the first bootleg I ever owned.
But back in the lean and hungry 1970s heyday of the band, Springsteen shows were all about the mystique, about being in a room with a roof that it felt like the energy on stage could blow off at any second.
That feeling was captured in Springsteen's limited time on screen in the "No Nukes" movie, which came out in 1980 and chronicled the concerts officially known as No Nukes: The MUSE Concerts for a Non-Nuclear Future. The two shows were staged six months after the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg in March of 1979.
The film showcased Bonnie Raitt, Gil Scott-Heron, Jackson Browne and others, but mainly functioned as a Springsteen coming-out party for the world beyond the New Jersey rocker's ready-to-explode following.
Just three songs from the band's two headlining sets were included: "Thunder Road," the stunning debut of "The River," the title track the yet-to-be-released 1980 album, and a raucous cover of Gary U.S. Bonds' "Quarter to Three," complete with a James Brown homage in which Springsteen pretends to expire on stage and has to be revived by his bandmates.
For 41 years, that was all that was seen from Springsteen at the No Nukes shows. Until now, that is. At long last, he has seen fit to release the full footage from the shows as "The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts," a film directed by Thom Zimny that stands alongside "Hammersmith Odeon," "London '75" and arguably supplants it as the finest chronicle of Springsteen on stage in the 1970s.
The new "No Nukes" focuses only on the Springsteen footage from the MSG shows, though it does include guest appearances with the band by Browne, Tom Petty and a showstopping performance by singer Rosemary Butler on Maurice Williams' "Stay."
The movie and an accompanying live album of the same title went on sale digitally last week and will be available to rent on all streaming services starting Tuesday.
The 90-minute set culled from two performances by the side-burned, suit-jacket-wearing Springsteen — which opens with a ripping "Prove It All Night" and closes with a cover of Buddy Holly's "Rave on" as the credits roll — feels like recovered treasure in part because it's so rare.
In that pre-MTV period, Springsteen didn't want cameras near him when he was on stage. He was skittish about opening that experience up to outside eyes and ears, worried that would somehow violate the sacred bond between performer and audience.
"I was superstitious about filming anything in those days," the Boss explains in a promo video interview with his manager Jon Landau and guitarist Steve Van Zandt, who was in the pre-babushka, beret-wearing phase of his career in 1979.
"I always thought a magician should not look too closely at his magic trick," Springsteen says, expressing regret that more footage from the band's pre-stadium period does not exist.
Nonetheless, he felt that way at the time because he was worried about the performances getting too stagy and self-conscious.
"I don't want to see what I'm doing because it might change what I'm doing," he says. "And what I'm doing is working for me, and it's working for the audience, so I don't want to see it." He's still reticent about watching E Street shows, Springsteen says, though he jokingly says he's gotten used to seeing himself on screen and being hit with a fresh realization that "I'm not as good-looking as I thought."
Seeing Springsteen on screen in the original "No Nukes" movie certainly had the effect of stoking a hunger to see him live.
Landau says that film critic Andrew Sarris wrote of the "Quarter to Three" performance that "there is a display of energy on stage that has never before been seen on film."
I couldn't verify that quote on Google, but I did learn some Sarris-Springsteen trivia: When trying to come up with a title for "Darkness on the Edge of Town," Springsteen and Landau thumbed through the index of a book of Sarris' for ideas based on movie titles. Springsteen liked "American Madness;" Landau suggested "History Is Made at Night."
When the original "No Nukes" came out, I can remember being knocked out by "The River" and "Thunder Road." And also being mad that my older brother Nick, who was then a student at Rutgers and went to the shows in New York, hadn't gotten me a ticket and brought me along. I'm still annoyed about that.
The "No Nukes" revisitation also brings to mind the original live album, which has a substantially different song selection, and included the E Street cover of "Stay" and the "Detroit Medley" of songs by Mitch Ryder and Little Richard that was a Springsteen encore staple for years.
That 3-LP set has been long out of print, and it's not available on streaming services. That saddens me because I haven't been able to unearth my original copy from my basement. (It might have been water-damaged, and thus, lost in the flood.)
But I'm also sentimental about the sprawling, uneven album because it helped point me to so much great music.
It was through Petty's cover of "Cry to Me" that I discovered the great Philadelphia soul man Solomon Burke. I had never heard Ry Cooder before his No Nukes' cover of Elvis Presley's "Little Sister." And I'm pretty sure my Gil-Scott Heron education began with the live version of "We Almost Lost Detroit." Somebody reissue that live album, stat!
The new all-Springsteen "No Nukes" movie is also a sentimental journey. Two of the band members — saxophonist Clarence Clemons and keyboard player Danny Federici — are dead.
Everybody in the band is young and full of life and attacking the stage with pent-up energy of a band that was in the middle of recording The River and happy to be let loose on stage. And with most of the camera operators positioned in the pit below the stage, the E Streeters — and Clemons in particular — come off as larger-than-life while at the peak of their powers.
The No Nukes shows were pivotal for Springsteen. Though his songs were increasingly about working-class people who felt their lives being constrained by forces outside of their control, he was still careful about his politics. Browne, Raitt, John Hall and Graham Nash were the No Nukes organizers.
Springsteen has said that he joined as a favor to Browne to make sure the show sold out. But he did write "Roulette," a protest song inspired by Three Mile Island during that period (though he didn't release it until years later), and post-No Nukes his music became increasingly politically engaged.
So was the four-decade plus wait for the entirety of the 1979 footage to come to light worth it? For fans eager to see the band in action again, "No Nukes" captures Springsteen and band in an incandescent chapter in their career. Hopefully, if COVID-19 allows it, a 2022 E Street tour will come to pass, and there's another chapter yet to be written.
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