Thursday, August 9, 2018

How WMMS, Cleveland and the Agora Created and Preserved One of the Most Important Nights of Bruce Springsteen's Career

Posted By on Thu, Aug 9, 2018 at 9:03 AM

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As WMMS marks its 50th anniversary this year, there’s one event that looms particularly large in the station’s history. August 9, 1978, the legendary rock station celebrated its 10th anniversary with a concert featuring Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, who had become a cornerstone part of the station’s musical makeup in the preceding years. By all accounts, the Cleveland Agora was the place to be on that night — and thanks to a network broadcast coordinated by the station and Springsteen’s record label, Columbia Records, it was an event that would reach an audience much greater than the limited capacity of the club.

You can read Scene’s original review of the Springsteen Agora concert here.

“Kid Leo was pretty tight with the Springsteen folks. We wanted to have an act come and do our 10th anniversary show. We were pleasantly surprised and floored that Springsteen agreed to do it. So we booked the Agora,” former WMMS personality and music director Denny Sanders recalls now, during an interview with Scene. “We did tickets in a lottery. That was the only way to do it. I can’t tell you how many thousands of ticket requests we had. I don’t even remember. It was an amazing amount and it’s only less than a thousand people that can fit in the Agora. I don’t remember how we did it. I think we put them all in a big bag or something and just started picking things and made sure that if there was a duplicate, we would disqualify them and all of that. So that’s how we did the tickets, it was based on a lottery. When we were ready to go with the show, Columbia said, ‘This is really heavy, why don’t we make this available to other stations in other cities.’ They were owned by CBS in those days, so they had satellite channels available through CBS.”

The concert was broadcast on WMMS and seven other stations nationally in the United States. Fans were rolling tape, of course, and whether you were sitting by the stereo that night monitoring the recording or acquired a copy later through other channels, copies of the broadcast quickly became prized possessions that would be kept close, often remembered and discussed and occasionally upgraded across the decades that followed.



“It was one of the best….I think the critics usually say this was one of the best live performances that Springsteen ever did and you can hear it. As a matter of fact, it’s so good that it finally, after many bootlegs being out there — because it was on the air, anybody can just tape it off the air — it was finally released as a legal album,” Sanders says. “You can hear it. [His performance was] just pedal to the metal, fifth gear, overdrive, full throttle — and it was thrilling, to see a mature act like that, in a small club up close, performing full throttle. You almost never see that. The power of that performance was just tremendous.”

Former WMMS programmer John Gorman wrote in his book, The Buzzard, that drummer Max Weinberg called it the best show that the E Street Band ever did.

In a 2018 Scene interview with Weinberg, the drummer mentioned the Agora and Cleveland several times. “You know, particularly when you go to a place like Cleveland, which brings back memories of Swingos and the shows we did at the Agora and at Richfield Coliseum, I can tell you this — we knew when we rolled through Cleveland back in the ‘70s, we were going to have a good time — and we did,” he recalled with a laugh.

While he stopped short of copping to making the statement about it being the best show that they ever did, Weinberg made it clear that Cleveland holds a special place in their legacy.

“Cleveland was always great. Because there were certain cities — and there weren’t that many of them, where Bruce and the E Street Band went over really big. You know, you were working it. This was back in the ‘70s and we were traveling by cars and buses. Not even buses, vans, then [a] mobile home and then a bus. And not like a fancy bus, like the kind of bus that you get on to go from Freehold to New York. Cleveland was always one of those places where….I mean, you’re cranking out these shows and every one is individual. But you know when you get to Cleveland or in our case, Austin, Texas, Philadelphia, the audiences, they were already dedicated fans. Cleveland was one of those places.”

As Weinberg references, Springsteen had begun to build up specific pockets of dedicated fans in certain markets and Cleveland was no exception. Springsteen would acknowledge them during his Agora performance, shouting out “Cleveland Boys, a little party noise!” prior to his performance of “Sherry Darling,” one of several then-unreleased tracks that he included in the setlist that night.. In a 2014 article, John Soeder wrote that the guys even made an unexpected cameo during “Jungleland,” with Jim Kluter, one of the “Boys,” detailing that their association with Springsteen had come about as a result of a benefit softball game that they had played with The Boss during a 1976 visit to Asbury Park. Going forward, the New Jersey musician would always make sure that his Cleveland pals were covered with ticket access. Reflecting back on the Agora gig, the Cleveland Boys were present and accounted for in Weinberg’s recollections.

“There was a group of guys, I don’t remembered their names individually, but they were known as the Cleveland Boys. It was like having the Dallas Cheerleaders,” he laughs. “They were so enthusiastic. You know, these are the days where it wasn’t as organized security-wise and stuff like that as it is now. So you really got to know the fans and they were right up close in your face. We weren’t even staying in the hotels for most of those days, we were just driving right to the next city. The Agora was incredible, because it was one of the [early] shows we did after we finished the Darkness on the Edge of Town album and it was really hot and it wasn’t a very big place. It was packed. Kid Leo was broadcasting and you know, it was just one of those nights. It’s taken on a bit of a mythical quality, but it was to us that night, the band just really was hot. We had just started playing those songs and you know, 40 years ago, I was 27 years old. So that’s very memorable. You know, playing in and around the Cleveland area, all of the colleges that we played. It brings back those days very clearly into focus, where we were a struggling young rock and roll band, who had each other for company. Bruce, of course, is our fearless leader. You never knew what was going to happen, really. Musically or even career-wise, because it was very up in the air.”

“Cleveland was a major, major city for us. Made even more important by crazy Kid Leo playing the Jukes’ demos, which this crazy friend of ours, Steve Popovich, who had leaked the demos to Leo before we even made the album,” E Street guitarist Little Steven recalled during a 2017 conversation with Scene. “They’re playing demos [on WMMS] — that’s gotta be unique in the entire history of radio, I’m sure! But it was one of those things that you know, the Agora, Hank LoConti and then later the Belkins and Swingos, the crazy hotel. You know, there was a lot of personality going on there. This was before Cleveland got rebuilt with the [new] Stadium and everything. So this is in the days when the river caught fire. [Laughs] You know, those crazy days! When you have a city like that that is kind of going through tough times, sometimes it brings out a lot of personality and also a freedom, I think. Because there was nothing really to lose! Kid Leo had complete freedom, which the minute he stopped having complete freedom, he quit, until I brought him back on SiriusXM where he had complete freedom again. But it was a very important part of our history with Bruce and Southside and myself. We just love going to Cleveland and I’ve got nothing but good memories from those crazy rooms at Swingos Hotel — every one of which was a different theme!”

During a separate 2017 interview with Scene, Gorman pointed out that it was Popovich, legendary record man, well-known for his own label, Cleveland International Records, that provided the springboard to success for Meat Loaf’s Bat Out Of Hell album, who would also step in on Cleveland’s behalf to lobby with Columbia Records to make sure that Springsteen would wind up at the Agora that night. Because according to Gorman, there were other plans afoot at the label.

“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,” Gorman recalls. “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.”

In his book, Gorman further details the events that led up to the eventual night, noting that Springsteen showed up in town a day early to hang out with the Cleveland Boys. Reportedly, E Street saxophonist Clarence Clemons had his radio stolen from his room at Swingos prior to the show and naturally, he wasn’t pleased. Springsteen’s reference to Clarence and his need for a new radio during a sprawling performance of “Growin’ Up" lends a lot of credibility to the story. During the song, Bruce also details a visit to God — a trip where he also encountered Kid Leo, who was “prayin’ for more watts” for WMMS. And related to that last bit, Leo was blown away by the mid-song namecheck by Springsteen.

“I never saw Leo cry. But that's probably the closest he ever came,” Gorman told Soeder. “I was standing with him when Springsteen said that. Leo was in shock.”

Leo himself, a longtime supporter of Springsteen and his music, provided the memorable introduction for that evening’s concert, taking on the persona of a boxing announcer. “Round for round, pound for pound, there ain't no finer band around. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band!" The boxing theme carried forward as the band started their second set that night, with Springsteen offering up a spirited cry of “Alright, round two!” as Weinberg hit a cymbal in a fashion that sounded just like a boxing bell ringing in the next chapter of action, with Springsteen adding, “In this corner, weighing 260 pounds, the master of disaster, The Big Man, Clarence Clemons!,” introducing the instrumental “Paradise By The C,” a spotlight moment for Clemons, which ushered in the second set.

But first, on the heels of Leo’s introduction at the beginning of the show, Springsteen and the band strolled onstage, with Bruce ribbing the WMMS DJ, “Leo, he must have memorized that at home. I know you did! Cleveland, how ya doin’? Are you ready to shake them summertime blues?” as Weinberg’s drums came thundering in. “Well, I’m a gonna raise a fuss/ I’m a gonna raise a holler,” Springsteen sang, he and the band digging into a version of Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” to launch the evening, which would span two sets and more than 20 songs, running nearly three hours in total length.

Listening to the recent official release of Springsteen’s July 7 1978 concert at the Roxy in West Hollywood, California, it’s not hard to hear why the Agora concert is held in such high regard. Springsteen did a handful of now-legendary radio broadcasts in key markets in 1978 during the Darkness on the Edge of Town, and unlike some other artists and bands that might have kept a static setlist throughout the entire tour, there are song variations with each of the ‘78 gigs that give them individual and important charm. During the band’s performance of “Spirit In The Night” at the Roxy date, they slightly flub the intro, a moment which Springsteen handles with good humor, having them restart the song to get it right. And that’s what sticks out about the WMMS Agora broadcast — it was a night in which top to bottom, they got it all right. The songs, the stories, the ad-libs and the spirit of the night (really, that wasn’t an intentional Springsteen pun) that’s captured in the recording, all generate an emotional feeling that 40 years later, will still remind you of that moment that you first became a Springsteen fan. Wherever you were, whatever you might have been listening to, the feeling of that first moment is all compiled and bottled in the Agora recording, which was finally released for official consumption (read: purchase) in 2014 by Springsteen via his series of authorized archival concert releases, available on CD and download. Fans didn’t have to wait long for Springsteen to put it out, once he launched the initiative — it arrived five weeks later as the second entry in the series. Rolling Stone quickly heaped a lot of praise on the Agora release. "This is simply the greatest live LP this greatest of live rockers has ever officially released," Rob Sheffield wrote in early 2015.

With the recollections of both WMMS personnel and the fans who were at the show that night, we can only imagine what it must have been like to be there in person. But thanks to WMMS, one of the most important nights in Springsteen’s career is forever preserved.

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