Sunday, March 04, 2007

Happy News and Bomb Scare Memories

I met a girl who sang the blues
I asked her for some happy news
She just smiled
And turned away -- Don McLean, "American Pie"

Music radio around the country is like a Baghdad neighborhood -- bombed out, destroyed, useless to all but the predators who destroyed it to save it. Ever since the arrival of the consultants who were imposed on free-form rock and roll radio stations over 30 years ago, the stations that once spread magic through the air since the arrival of the Beatles have devolved into (literally) empty shells, where they don't even bother to put DJs in front of the mic anymore -- most voices you hear were recorded weeks ago and songs play off of the same computers that develop the playlists. Instead of trying to grab everyone's attention, each station is cynically aimed at a niche, pushing bad music into ears turned bad because of lack of intellectual exercise.

Milwaukee music radio has been particularly bad, now almost wholely owned by Clear Channel and others of their money-grubbing ilk. Sure, there have been some bright spots, mainly on student-station WMSE (91.7) and at night on public station WUWM (89.7), but not so you'd notice and not when you want it.

A couple of positive things have happened this month, however. The radio station run by the Milwaukee Public Schools, WYMS (88.9) has dropped its syndicated jazz and gone into an alternative direction, playing rock, soul, hip-hop -- definitely the most integrated playlist in town, which is not saying much. Only one week into the changes, they are still getting their feet under it, but it is one of the few stations you can listen to without cringing. It's groovy for sure, and they don't bother you with details, like who you just listened to (but what it you want to know?)

But, by far, the happiest news is the return of Bob Reitman on WUWM. Reitman helped create FM rock-music radio back in the '60s and '70s. After spending 25 years as a top-rated and pleasent-enough morning-talker on KTI, his show on Thursday nights is a revelation for those who forgot what it's like to have a talented DJ spinning CDs and vinyl with intellegence and with a story to tell. Reitman is not stuck in the past -- he was still paying attention to what has gone on over the years he was gone and looks to the future for hope. Better yet, you can have his show anytime you want on podcast.

Anyway, I was inspired to write him after his latest show, when he talked about his part as the MC at the legendary Springsteen Bomb Scare show at the Uptown Theater in Milwaukee on October 2, 1975:

Hi Bob:

I really appreciate your return to free-form radio. Your show is not only a blast from our collective past, but also a look into the present and future through your unique and badly-missed prism. Your return is absolutely the best thing to happen to Milwaukee radio since, well, I think of one it's been so long.

I was at the bomb scare show at the Uptown and still have vivid memories. My best friend at the time was Marcus, who turned me on to Springsteen in the first place. We camped out (the show was general admission) and got seats in the 3rd row in the middle. The first part of the show was intense and slowly building – the first song was "Meeting Across the River" (Bittan on trumpet?), he crawled down the aisle on "Spirits in the Night", etc. Just before you made your announcement, someone came out and talked to Bruce, the band left the stage, they checked in and around the outside of the piano for bombs and then he sat down and nervously sang a solo "Thunder Road".

Then you came out and told us all to leave and come back at midnight, offering refunds to anyone who didn’t want to come back (almost more interesting than who was there is who didn’t come back and regretted it later). Marcus and I hit the bars in the area of 49th and North, which, at that time, seldom saw any young or black kids in looking for beer. We went back at 11 p.m. and lined up again – someone had Born to Run blasting out of their car in front of the theater. When we got back in, we were in the front row this time, to the far right of the stage. And, yes. We were LOOSE!

The rest is pretty well documented on the CD of the post-scare show (which I always thought was a boot – if the Iceland version has the first part of the show on it, Bob, we need to talk). I got my version off the internet about five years ago, and, man did it take me home. Legend has it the band went back to the Pfister (or, as Bruce says, the Pfffffffisssster) and got bombed, appearing drunk on stage for the first and only time in their careers. This was the first time I had heard many of these songs – I had only heard Born to Run before, and that only came out the week before. Someone I knew from out East was there and I remember him going absolutely insane that he was playing one particular song – now that I think about it, that must have been "Kitty’s Back".

At the end of the show, he did a soulful version of "Sandy" and then announced he would play one more song by Gary U.S. Bonds. "Quarter to Three!" yelled Marcus, right next to me. Springsteen came right up to the lip of the stage right in front of us. "What?!" he shouted. "Quarter to Three!", yells Marcus again, as I stood there with my mouth hanging open. After a few more back-and-forths, Bruce yells "Well Alright!" and that was that. You can hear this exchange at the end of the "Sandy" track on my version.

Since then, I have seen Springsteen thirty or so times, whenever he was here or wherever I was. I worked for Peaches Records in the late ‘70s and they moved me to Cincinnati in the summer of ‘78 to help run a new store there and I got a chance to see that amazing Darkness tour three times in one week (Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati – and there was a live show on the radio broadcast out of Cleveland the same week). I was amazed by the four-hour marathons and the variety – every show was different, in set-lists, passion and energy. The last show that week was in Cincinnati, and a bunch of us retail types were invited backstage to meet him. Since I was taller than everyone else, I used that advantage to talk to him over everyone’s heads. I asked if he remembered the Milwaukee bomb scare show. He got this wide-eyed look of pleasure and surprise on his face. "Yeah!" he said. So we bonded for a moment. As it was with you on the streets of New York, it was still with him.

I didn’t think anything could top the Darkness tour until the Rising tour. I saw about four of those shows and Miller Park was definitely the highlight – he could have retired then and no one would blame him. The emotion of the 9/11 tribute, the E-Streeters as grown-ups and the commitment to quality and his fans was truly incredible on that tour. I don’t expect to see anything like that again, but he has surprised me before.

Keep up the good work, brother.

No comments: