Former WMMS Program Director On the Legacy of Bruce Springsteen's Legendary 1978 Agora Concert

click to enlarge "Special two-page Bruce Springsteen center-spread including pin-up live photo page of Agora show," 1978.
"Special two-page Bruce Springsteen center-spread including pin-up live photo page of Agora show," 1978.
In his original review for Scene of Bruce Springsteen’s Aug. 9, 1978, show at the Agora Jim Girard wrote, “In case you haven’t noticed, rock and roll has a new king. His name is Bruce Springsteen.” It was a bold statement, but everyone seemed to know that the show would be an experience they would never forget. “It was obvious to the lucky thousand or so Clevelanders that they were witnessing what could only be described as a truly historic event,” Giard went on.

1978 was not Cleveland’s best year. Fortune 500 companies were leaving the city en masse, and the Great Blizzard got an early start in transforming the city into a ghost town. Even the night of the Springsteen show was not a pleasant one. It was hot and muggy outside, recalls John Gorman, author of The Buzzard: Inside The Glory Days of WMMS and Cleveland Rock Radio, over the phone. “There wasn’t a lot of good news to hear about in Cleveland but the one bright spot was rock and roll in the city.”

Springsteen’s 1978 tour, often dubbed the Darkness Tour, was in support of his latest album at the time, Darkness on the Edge of Town. He performed in a mix of arenas and smaller clubs like the Agora. “Springsteen in Cleveland was no longer a club act by any stretch of the imagination. He could fill, at the time, the Coliseum, which was the biggest venue around,” said Gorman.

Springsteen was in the midst of getting back into the public eye following a lawsuit with his manager that halted his career for a couple of years, and “Cleveland had gained a national reputation as an important break-out market for new music.” While Springsteen had already broken in the eastern seaboard market (New York, Jersey Shore, and Philadelphia) he really “became somebody to contend with when Cleveland embraced him,” according to Gorman.

Part of what made the show so legendary was that it was broadcast live on WMMS, as part of the station’s 10th anniversary, and on eight other FM stations across the Midwest including St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, and Minneapolis. The show would later become one of the most bootlegged concerts in history until it received an official release in 2014. It “is one of those rare live albums that transports you to the front row of the hall,” says the Guardian’s Michael Hamm.

Gorman, who managed WMMS at the time and was in attendance that night, talked to us about the show and what made it so legendary.

How did Springsteen end up playing at the Agora?

Gorman: Originally the label, before Steve Popovich intervened and we [WMMS] complained very loudly, the show was either going to be in Detroit or Chicago because those are the two larger markets. They were not looking at Cleveland, but it was a case of — we fought over it and we used the same line we used for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: if it’s in another city it’s just another concert, if it’s in Cleveland it is the concert.

The reason this concert was happening in the first place was, Springsteen had been out of the public eye for a couple of years. Following the Born to Run album, he got into a lengthy litigation with his former manager. It really prevented him from working and prevented him from releasing any music during that time. It was unfortunate because Springsteen had made the cover of Time and Newsweek and his career was on the way and then this was like hitting a brick wall. The public wants more from him but he couldn’t deliver. The label looked at it as we’ve gotta reintroduce Bruce Springsteen to the masses. We’ve got to gain those people that he already won over and also further his career. The label decided on doing a series of club concerts and then regionally broadcast them.

The other thing too, it really helped WMMS because it coincided with the station’s 10th anniversary. So that became another thing, we were able to put it under the banner as a WMMS anniversary concert. It was something that Cleveland could be proud of; for that reason alone in an otherwise very bad year for Cleveland it’s noteworthy.

Why did this show stick out more than any other show on that tour?

What made the Cleveland one unique — and I have to say that not only did Bruce and the band pour their hearts and souls into the performance — but what makes a great performer better is the audience. And in 1978 there was no better rock and roll audience in America than Cleveland. If a band plays the East Coast and West Coast, people sit on their hands. They don’t get as excited. They don’t sing along, they don’t become a part of the concert. There’s that coolness factor, which isn’t very cool. Meanwhile when an act plays Cleveland, the audience gets really enthused, the audience gets behind the band, they become part of the performance. That was the uniqueness of that concert and that’s why it’s looked at as part of one of Springsteen’s greatest if not his greatest concert. Because he had 100-percent connection with the audience, he and the band was firing on all cylinders. It was just a perfect storm, an incredible two to three hours of music.

How many people were at the Agora that night?

I think legally the Agora had a capacity of 800, might have been a few over. I don’t know; I saw nothing but everybody having a good time.

Why was this show being broadcast on so many other FM stations?

It was reintroducing Bruce Springsteen to the rest of the country. In Cleveland they never stopped loving Bruce Springsteen. The same is true for the eastern seaboard. But for the rest of the country Bruce Springsteen was this new artist that they first heard with Born to Run and then the momentum was building and he was developing, then — bang — the lawsuit hit and there was a brick wall. Springsteen couldn’t record, he couldn’t perform. You always have to come back for an encore, when you finally have that taste of success the first thing you have to think of is what are you gonna do for an encore? Springsteen wasn’t even allowed to do half that encore for years.

These concerts were put together to jumpstart his career. He had just released a new album, Darkness, so this is also reintroducing him as an artists and helping people catch on with his new album. I think it worked in those other cities because the concert they heard coming from the Agora in Cleveland is one of the most amazing live concerts in history

What was the impact of the recording after that night?

The reason why more stations ended up broadcasting the show, after the Cleveland performance it became known like, 'Man, did you hear about the Springsteen concert in Cleveland?’ So it became a much dubbed broadcast. I know that even though Springsteen did a concert in San Francisco, the San Francisco station that originated that broadcast also broadcasted the Cleveland show on a later date because it was so unique. A number of other stations ended up getting copies of the Springsteen concert in Cleveland and played it. I heard it was either the first or second most bootlegged concert in history. I think it was a tie between Bruce Springsteen at the Agora and Led Zeppelin at the Coliseum.

Are there any particular memories that stick out for you from that night?

It was the single best concert I’ve ever seen in my life. It was just one of those unique nights where everything came together. The audience was great, Springsteen was at his absolute peak. It was pure entertainment, it was pure energy. I’ve seen thousands of concerts but I compare all of them against this one. It was something very very positive for Cleveland, for the history books in an otherwise bad year in Cleveland at the time. That concert sort of made everything else go away. Yeah, it was a bad year but we had that Springsteen concert.

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