Three songs into Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s legendary September 1979 live benefit concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the Boss belts out “Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man” as part of the song “The Promised Land”. Maybe that’s true. The fact is, Springsteen just turned 30 years old. Indeed, he gets a birthday cake during the show and makes jokes about the fact he “can’t trust” himself anymore (re: his generation’s famous quip, “Don’t trust anyone over 30”). Later in the concert, he declares James Brown-style, “I can’t go on like this. I’m 30 years old. My heart’s starting to go on me”. No Nukes shows the Boss is at a crossroads. His beloved rock ‘n’ roll is more than just a plaything. It’s a tool for social change.
Springsteen didn’t organize the anti-nuclear power concerts. That was Musicians United for Safe Energy (MUSE), an organization led by Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt, and John Hall after the accident of the Three Mile Island. As a Jersey boy, the Boss felt the impact of what happened right next door in Pennsylvania. While Three Mile Island may no longer be part of the energy conversation, what happened was big news at the time. Many people feared a catastrophic nuclear meltdown would occur, kill residents and pollute the land. (Thousands of people fled the area, including myself, my wife, and my guinea pigs, with the words “Radiation Refugees” painted on the side of my Chevy van.) Springsteen’s support at the time felt like an old friend coming to help in times of need. And he rocked!
Originally, No Nukes: The Muse Concerts For a Non-Nuclear Future was released as a triple live album with less than ten minutes of Springsteen. Other musicians included Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Chaka Khan, James Taylor, and Carly Simon. A film of the event came out months later. The album went gold and, in 1997, was reissued on a two-CD set. The original record received mixed reviews, earning a C+ from Robert Christgau and three out of five stars in the Rolling Stone Record Guide.
The rest of Springsteen’s set became a holy grail for bootleg collectors since his and the band’s performance was so damn good, and it was recorded using state-of-the-art (at the time) equipment. There’s a good reason why this new release is billed as The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts. The new two-CD set features 13 songs performed over two nights with a DVD of the concert film that contains newly edited film footage, a 24-page book with photos, an essay, and for some odd reason, a vintage ticket envelope and ticket reproduction.
The Boss was a star by 1979, with four albums behind him and the last two hitting the top five of the Billboard charts. However, his future direction seemed unclear. His output went from the celebratory Born to Run to the murkiness of Darkness at the Edge of Town. He and the band began the show with three rousing songs from Darkness, “Prove It All Night”, “Badlands”, and “The Promised Land”, which were all released as singles. They give a muscular performance with Max Weinberg’s pounding drums and Steve Van Zandt’s blazing guitar licks, in particular, setting the stage for Springsteen’s throaty vocals.
Then the Boss quiets down the crowd and does a new song, the subdued “The River” from his as yet unreleased album of that title. It’s a heavy song about many things, including the disillusionment of his youthful self. Springsteen tells the audience it’s time to party and does another new song, “Sherry Darling”, but this one is much more upbeat. The following four tracks come from Springsteen’s back catalog, including such popular numbers as “Rosalita”, “Thunder Road”, and “Born to Run”. The band operates on a high level with lots of energetic playing and singing. There’s never a dull moment.
The last four songs are a set of rollicking covers from Springsteen’s youth, including Maurice Williams’ “Stay” (recently a hit for Jackson Browne who joined in the fun), a “Detroit Medley” that features “Devil with the Blue Dress” “Good Golly, Miss Molly” and “Jenny Take a Ride”, Gary U.S. Bonds’ “Quarter to Three”, and ends with Buddy Holly’s “Rave On”. Clarence Clemons’ saxophone playing deserves special mention for the excitement he creates.
The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts does a great job of showing the power and the glory of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. The excitement is palpable even on record 40-plus years later. The Boss might be joking when he refers to his loss of youth, but it’s true, as he proves during the show. He’s no kid fooling around in the garage, although he exudes that DIY spirit. He’s a master who takes his mates and his audiences to the heart and soul of rock and roll as a communal experience. That’s what has made him a legend.