By Andrew Poulsen
“This is for Jay Cox in Cincinnati. This is for anybody who drove through the darkness on the edge of town.” – Bruce Springsteen, the Cleveland Agora, August, 1978
I am a bespectacled 23-year-old with a deep affinity for Oxford shirts, Levi’s skinny jeans, and overpriced beer and coffee, and I, like so many of my kombucha-sipping contemporaries, enjoy blowing on the fading embers of archaic technology. But I’m not the asshole who totes around a 20-pound typewriter. For me, scouring a city’s record store is my escape from the faceless infrastructure of the Midwest. Record stores take me back to an era when my mom claimed she knew every band on the shelves and a time when my dad could walk up to a bar and simply say, “I’ll have a beer.”
This is what brings me to the basement of Shake It Records, a Cincinnati staple and easily my favorite place to kill an hour in the city. What pulls me in is the shop’s extensive collection of bootlegs – live recordings that offer a listening experience as raw and unregulated as the beverages from which the word derives – and specifically, the abundance of Bruce Springsteen recordings. One afternoon, I found an album that epitomized everything I loved about Springsteen and the way his music has woven its way into the Rust Belt ethos.
It’s all happening here, and it’s happening in Cleveland. Not in Madison Square Garden. Not at Red Rocks. The Agora Ballroom, in Cleveland.
The “cover” is a yellow 8.5” x 11” piece of paper taped to the front of a record sleeve that reads “Bruce Springsteen Live at the Agora Cleveland Ohio 1978,” with a picture of Springsteen posted up in front of a house with a half-smile. Drop the needle on the groove and the worn-out but gracious grit in Springsteen’s voice rings true. That rhythmic cadence where every syllable hits like feet on a staircase. The energy that practically makes the speakers well up with beads of sweat and drip onto the floor. It’s all happening here, and it’s happening in Cleveland. Not in Madison Square Garden. Not at Red Rocks. The Agora Ballroom, in Cleveland.
Henry LoConti, Sr., a former record distributor for jukeboxes, opened the first Agora in Little Italy in 1966, with the intent of establishing a place for Case Western Reserve students to dance. The club’s instant success forced LoConti to soon move to a larger location on East 24th Street, near the campus of Cleveland State University. At the end of the 60s and well into the 70s, the Agora was famous for breaking fresh touring bands, and its in-house recording studio and television series, “Onstage at the Agora,” established the venue’s global reputation. Lou Reed, Meat Loaf, the Clash, U2, Patti Smith, and countless other colossi have made their mark on its stage. It was even a backdrop for Paul Simon’s 1980 film One Trick Pony, about fictional fading rock star. After a fire ruined its historic location, the venue moved to its present address at 5000 Euclid Avenue in 1984.
The word “agora” derives from the Greek for “gathering place, and in its own way, the Agora Ballroom served a similar purpose in its prime. The agoras of old were places of deep spiritual, political, and social discourse. What happened in them arguably laid the foundation of modern civilization. Yet, all the mental pictures I have of these ruins involve boisterous tourists taking selfies in front of pieces of history. Similarly, the Cleveland Agora, once a launch pad for some of the biggest acts in music, is now more associated with performers that make bigger dents in Hot Topic T-shirt sales than counterculture history books. What happened?
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“Good evening! And welcome to the ‘WMMS 10th Anniversary Concert.’ I’m Kid Leo, and I have the duty and the pleasure of welcoming, ladies and gentlemen, the main event. Round-for-round, pound-for-pound, there ain’t no finer band around: BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN & THE E STREET BAND!”
“Don’t touch your dial! This is not a test,” Springsteen screams as the band launches into a quick drum-saxophone-keyboard-filled crescendo that cuts off at its peak to let the dust settle into the balmy groove of the 1973 single “Spirit in the Night,” from Springsteen’s debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. The unpolished audio of the bootleg captures what made Bruce such a tour-de-force in those early tours and what made him so appealing to Rust Belt fans. His voice is shot, but rather than take a lower key or octave, he pushes his throat into overdrive, like turning the gain knob on a Marshall full stack. He performs as a man who’d rather kill himself than exit the stage feeling like he didn’t give the fans their hard-earned dollars’ worth and then some. The Cleveland performance clocks in at just under three hours. This was common, and maybe even a little on the short side for a Springsteen concert in the ‘70s. His concerts came with not just encores, but intermissions. At that pace, Springsteen and the E Street Band were performing upwards of 20 hours a week for months on end. When you factor in driving, press, business meetings, sound checks, and all the other behind-the-scenes work, these guys were working overtime.
He performs as a man who’d rather kill himself than exit the stage feeling like he didn’t give the fans their hard-earned dollars’ worth and then some.
Springsteen’s guitar playing captures the hardworking, plastic-spoon essence of the Rust Belt. He is not a natural player. He doesn’t have the “makes it look easy” flow of Clapton. He doesn’t have the larger-than-life guitar voice of Brian May or Jimmy Page. His right arm works up and down as his fist comes down each time on the bridge like a hammer. His left hand bends, twitches, and pulls like he’s going to rip the strings clean off the neck of his Fender Esquire. His solos are never pretty. They squeak and squall like power tools in a garage, sometimes sacrificing our ears for a heartfelt, cathartic end. I always felt like Springsteen’s guitar playing never quite got the justice it deserved, but considering the relentlessly dynamic and passionate stage presence he delivered as a frontman, my complaint sounds like I’m arguing for more posters of Michael Jordan playing conservative defense on a Milwaukee Bucks shooting guard.
“When you go talk to the priest, you tell him you want to be a lawyer. You tell him you want to be an author. But don’t you tell him nothing about that goddamn guitar!”
My earliest musical memories are dominated by the canon saints of rock and roll. Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, and Eddie Van Halen were my priests, and power chords and pentatonic scales my “Hail Marys” and “Our Fathers.” But with high school came the pressure to develop a more esoteric musical palate, and I soon outgrew my love for those immortals like I had outgrown the overpriced T-shirts I begged my parents to buy me at their concerts. But for some reason, this was never the case with Springsteen. Rather than outgrow, I grew with his music. The earnestness and sincerity of his music are timeless. As kid, he was the soundtrack to baseball games, where I silently prayed for rain in the passenger seat of my dad’s Toyota Tacoma. It was in that truck where my dad and I would pull into Swenson’s and he’d pop in the most dad-friendly Bruce CD, Born in the U.S.A., while humming “My Hometown” as he brushed the crumbs out of his Burt Reynolds-esque mustache.
It’s easy to find yourself peering through the blurry lens of nostalgia. It’s human nature to romanticize times we perceive as being better, simpler, or happier. But a phenomenon I often see with my generation, and I have been just as guilty, is the nostalgia for a time in which we did not exist. When you read On the Road in college, how many times did you wish you were sitting shotgun in a ’49 Hudson, glass coke bottle in one hand and in the other a lit Lucky Strike dangling out the window, ashes falling on the fresh pavement? This is how I’ve always felt listening to Bruce and the stories of his youth, and maybe that’s why listening to this album left me with a feeling of cognitive dissonance. Here I am listening to a bootleg I found of one of my favorite musicians playing the city in which I live, but I can’t help but feel incensed thinking about a place I never knew no longer being what it was. Could the Agora still be today what it was had that fire not killed its momentum and forced a renovation? Does the current state of music even allow for venues to be these launch pads for fame and exposure? Do people who were at this Springsteen show even remember the performance as I think it should be remembered?
Does the current state of music even allow for venues to be these launch pads for fame and exposure? Do people who were at this Springsteen show even remember the performance as I think it should be remembered?
There’s no real metric to determine if the state of music was or is truly better. Sure, the Internet has thrown a wrench in the plans for any guitar-slinging schmuck who thinks he’s four chords away from a million-dollar pop song. But now the floodgates have been opened, and an artist’s music can be heard by anyone in a matter of seconds. It’s forced musicians to create their own standards of success, cultivate their own scenes and venues and interact with fans on platforms no one would have dreamed of in 1978. Maybe it’s time people like me embrace this evolution, rather than feel cheated that a place like the Agora isn’t still the fertile cultural basin it was almost 40 years ago. Maybe I should just be happy that, for a small pinch in the sands of time, a Rust Belt town like Cleveland had a venue powerful enough to have the music world on its ear. I mean, at least the Agora remains a fully operational venue and didn’t suffer the same fate as CBGB’s, which is now home to an upscale men’s clothing store.
It isn’t just the daydreams of balmy nights on the Jersey Shore in the 70s that attract me to Springsteen’s music; it’s the honesty. Even in his day, Springsteen’s music spoke to me more than any of his arena-rock contemporaries. Despite his massive commercial sound and appeal, his heart was closer to seemingly modest folk heroes like Bob Dylan or Pete Seeger. Sure, he wrote his share of vague, hackneyed songs about love and loss, but Bruce at his best wrote about real people and real struggles. Many of his songs are tall stacks of snapshots from the lives of characters caught in the throes of some deep malaise brought on by unemployment, failed marriages, and the sight of youth tearfully waving goodbye in the rearview mirror. For me, these vignettes always sparked a detached curiosity comparable to the feeling of craning my neck out the window on boring Akron drives, briefly peering into the homes of strangers eating dinner or watching television in a natural environment and, for a moment, wanting to know their entire story. And in 1978, the year he came to the Agora, Springsteen solidified himself as the patron saint of the blue-collar Midwest, musically uniting the underdogs in a fashion trumped only by what the Insane Clown Posse did for disaffected trailer park-dwelling teenagers in more recent years. Not bad for a guy from the Jersey Shore.
In his essay “Darkness on the Edge of Town: Bruce Springsteen’s Rhetoric of Optimism and Despair,” Michael McGuire breaks down Springsteen’s lyrics from 1975-1980, and finds that three themes dominated his songwriting during this era: despair, optimism, and responsibility. Songs from the breakout Born to Run often convey a buoyant naiveté, proposing that the protagonist can escape the doldrums and despondency of his hometown with a simple leap into the void. But with Darkness on the Edge of Town Springsteen sought to make an album that reflected the pain and financial uncertainties that plagued his factory-working father during his working-class childhood. The overnight success of Born to Run had turned Springsteen from a lovable also-ran to a reluctant heir apparent to Dylan with his face on nearly every magazine on the newsstand. Springsteen felt as if he had drifted from his original intentions of writing music with down-to-earth sincerity. The result, compounded by the frustrations of a three-year legal battle that locked him out of the studio, was a stark departure from the anthem-heavy Born to Run and produced the Boss’ bleakest songs of his career.
The characters of Darkness on the Edge of Town are trapped in their despair. Daydreaming about skipping town wasn’t going to put food on the table or hours on the punch card. Songs like “Something in the Night” and “Streets of Fire” breathe sighs of resignation as the narrator tries to stare down his grim fate with clear vision. Victory and freedom are relative to these characters, and to those who can’t relate, the two are probably unfounded. But the reality is that thousands of people in 1978 Cleveland and even 2015 Cleveland do relate to these characters and themes. Optimism, despair, and responsibility could be the three words painted on the Rust Belt coat of arms. Many have turned to more mystical musical heroes to escape from a tough reality, but those want to face it can face it with Darkness. His later, stripped-down, acoustic album Nebraska and the 1995 single “Youngstown” would shift Midwest and Rust Belt connections from the abstract, to the concrete. What makes Live at the Cleveland Agora unique is that you’re listening to a legend on the rise in an American institution on the descent.
“I’d like to thank Cleveland for supporting us. It was one of the first towns that when we first came here, we got some respect!”
Andrew Poulsen is a writer from Akron, Ohio, who is currently based in Cleveland. He has contributed to Billboard, Cleveland Magazine, Ohio Magazine and Fresh Water Cleveland.
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