Mike Grenier wasn’t buying all the hype about this gawky kid named Bruce Springsteen. Grenier, a big music fan, was well aware that the skinny wailer from New Jersey had been on the cover of Time and Newsweek at the same time in 1975. He knew that a writer from Boston’s weekly Real Paper had grandly declared the then-little-known Springsteen the “rock and roll future” a year before that.
Eh, Grenier thought.
But when some friends from Wellesley called him around midnight on March 24, 1977, to say they’d just gotten home from an incredible Springsteen show at the Music Hall in Boston, Grenier relented. The following night, he stood outside the Tremont Street theater (now the Wang), trying to buy a ticket from a scalper.
Fifteen minutes before showtime, he was about to give up when a young man approached with an extra. The guy only wanted face value: eight bucks.
“I walked into the show as a complete skeptic,” Grenier recalls, “and I walked out converted.”
That show, he says, “took me into a different orbit, a stratosphere of music exploration. The fact that I’ve seen Bruce 227 times” — he’s not exaggerating; he’s been counting — “tells you it was life-changing.”
It isn’t just Grenier who feels that show — Springsteen’s last of a four-night run at the 3,500-seat Music Hall —was a high point in a career that has reached some of rock music’s most elevated peaks. As Springsteen, now 73, and his E Street Band prepare to play the TD Garden on Monday, we tracked down several diehard fans who were in the building for those vaunted Music Hall shows.
“I was all the way in the back, but it didn’t matter. It was like I was onstage,” says Paul Kaytes, a retired biologist from New Jersey who was attending Brandeis University at the time. “He projected all the way to the back wall. It was really a one-to-one connection.”
Kaytes, who also worked in the theater world as a stage manager, says the Thursday show (the third of the four that week) “was the closest I’ve ever come to a theatrical experience in a rock show. It really was opera, it was ‘West Side Story,’ all those things wrapped into one, with Buddy Holly thrown in.”
Ellen Rothman, who estimates she has seen 180 Springsteen shows, still gets emotional thinking about the 18-minute version of “Backstreets” she heard on the final night of the March ‘77 residency. That song featured the so-called “Sad Eyes” interlude — an embellishment that longtime fans have parsed through a deep database of unofficial live recordings.
“‘Chills’ doesn’t even begin to describe it,” says Rothman, who was also present at Springsteen’s mythmaking 1974 appearance at the Harvard Square Theatre (and the one before that in the same neighborhood, at Joe’s Place). “The whole Music Hall was dead silent. People were just mesmerized.”
In his 1989 book “Backstreets: Springsteen, the Man and His Music,” the Seattle-based music journalist Charles R. Cross declared the final night of the 1977 Music Hall run a “candidate for greatest show ever.” For years, fans have shared recordings of the live tape, known as “Forced to Confess,” from that night.
Cross is also the founder of Backstreets magazine, which covered all things Springsteen from 1980 until its last publisher announced its closing earlier this year. Cross thinks one of the reasons the Music Hall shows have loomed so large for fans can be traced to the lawsuit Springsteen was embroiled in at the time with Mike Appel, his former manager, which kept him from releasing new music. (The man who replaced Appel, Jon Landau, was the writer of the Real Paper review; he remains Springsteen’s manager today.) After releasing three albums in three years, culminating in his 1975 breakthrough, “Born to Run,” Springsteen was stuck; he would have to wait another year before he could release 1978′s “Darkness on the Edge of Town.”
“It was one of the most difficult lawsuits in rock history,” says Cross. “During that time, Bruce had no money. I think what he was doing at that point was reclaiming who he was onstage.
“It was the transition between the romance of the songs on the early albums, evolving into the working-class anthems. On the ‘Lawsuit Tour,’ you got both. There was a magic when he was onstage during that tour. It felt like every single night could be the last.”
Jeffrey Hersh co-promoted all of Springsteen’s shows at the Music Hall between 1975 and ‘78 with his friend Ira Gold, doing business together as Windowpane Productions. They first worked with Springsteen on the Cambridge shows in 1974, when they were collaborating with Bonnie Raitt’s manager, Dick Waterman.
“Bruce remained loyal to us,” Hersh says from his home in Southern California, where he moved around 1980. For years, he was a vice president for Gold Mountain Entertainment, the management company for Nirvana and the Beastie Boys.
Springsteen knew he was in good hands. After the Harvard Square Theatre show, Hersh found a spiral notebook in the dressing room. It contained the singer’s handwritten lyrics to new songs he had yet to record, some of which would end up on “Born to Run.”
Hersh called the talent agency and said, “I’ve got something Bruce may want.”
Rich Stefanik drove up from New Jersey for the third night. He found tickets for sale in a classified ad in the Aquarian, a weekly newspaper in his home state. He still remembers the name of the Boston seller.
“He had four tickets for $100, a big mark-up at the time,” Stefanik says. “I sent cash in the mail.”
A songwriter himself, Stefanik had already seen Springsteen at another legendary show, at the Bottom Line in New York City. As he recalls, none of his buddies who made the trip to Boston had seen Springsteen before.
“You wanted to turn other people on,” he says.
He brought his camera and took some pictures, including one of the band in front of a makeshift backdrop covered in graffiti with the names of characters from Springsteen’s lyrics and members of the Miami Horns, the horn section that was touring for the first time with the E Street Band.
On “Mona,” the Bo Diddley song that inspired Springsteen’s homage, “She’s the One,” the singer promised to take the crowd “back to the beginning of the universe, when the sun collided with a ‘63 Impala.” That led into an uptempo version of “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”; later, the band played the epics “Jungleland” and “Rosalita.”
“I don’t think there was ever a tour where you got more of a blitzkrieg out of Bruce,” says Cross, the music writer.
“Are you alive?,” Springsteen demanded of the audience, six times in a row, during the final Music Hall show that March. Each time he asked, the response grew louder.
During the encore, as the band leaned into Jackie Wilson’s “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher,” he took a moment to thank his Boston fans for their role in boosting his career.
“Through the hard times and through the good times, we appreciate your support,” he said.
After the show, Mike Grenier walked outside and claimed the first pay phone he could find. He called his friends in Wellesley and said, “Sorry to wake you up, but this was spectacular!”
“I thanked them profusely,” he says.
Over the years Grenier, a longtime sports reporter for the Salem News, met plenty of fellow Springsteen devotees who were in awe when he told them he’d been there at the last Music Hall date in 1977.
“When they found out you went, they’d go, ‘Whoa, that was a special show,’” he says. “‘You certainly caught Bruce at the right time.’ ”
Story updated to correct Jon Landau’s quote describing Bruce Springsteen after seeing him perform in 1974.
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.