In this feature from our March 2003 issue, writer Tom Netherland reflects on Bruce Springsteen's ties and times in Richmond, from the Coliseum to the gym at Virginia Commonwealth University to the parking deck at Seventh and Marshall Streets, and everywhere in between. Travel back to a time in Richmond when Steel Mill wasn't an industrial workplace and concert tickets were $2.50.
Bruce Springsteen has a long history in Richmond, dating back to the late '60s. (Photo by Danny Clinch)
As the sun set and dark clouds hovered, a crowd of nearly 1,000 music fans assembled atop the parking deck at Seventh and Marshall streets, seven flights above the pavement below. It was Aug. 14, 1970, and following a set by Northern Virginia’s Marlo Mays and the Stingers Blues Band, Richmond-based rockers Mercy Flight served up serious heat as the night’s second opening act, the sound of their guitars carried along by the summer breeze.
But most of the crowd had come to see Steel Mill.
More to the point, they came to see the lead singer, a skinny, charismatic 20-year-old from New Jersey. Long-haired and whiskery, sporting low-top black sneakers, he covered his wiry frame with a white muscle tee and a pair of cutoff blue-jean shorts that clasped his tiny waist like fingers clinched upon a mountain’s cliff, barely hanging on.
That man, now-longtime rock superstar Bruce Springsteen, returns to Richmond for a performance at the Coliseum on March 6.
Springsteen and . . . Richmond?
Think Bruce Springsteen, think New Jersey. Nearly as synonymous as the Beatles and Liverpool, it’s unthinkable to fathom the Boss with roots elsewhere.
And yet, rock’s voice of the blue collar spent many a day and night in and, some say, nearly moved to Richmond. Little wonder, given that from 1969 through 1975, he performed at least 30 and most likely more shows in the city. Yet he hasn’t played here since August 1, 1975, when he brought the E Street Band to the Mosque.
Back in the late 1960s and early ’70s, before he gained widespread recognition with “Born to Run,” and before international superstardom struck on the heels of “Born in the U.S.A.,” Springsteen was sleeping on people’s floors in the Fan and playing to crowds of a couple hundred people.
One of his musical compatriots and friends in those days was Richmond’s own Robbin Thompson, Mercy Flight’s lead singer and a co-founder of In Your Ear Music and Recording Services.
“I know he liked Richmond,” Thompson says. “A couple of the guys in his band did live here. [Steel Mill bassist and E Street guitarist] Steve Van Zandt was down here for a while. [E Street bassist] Garry Tallent lived here for a little while and married someone from here. And [former E Street keyboard player] David Sancious lived here for a while, too. Steve stayed with me for a little bit.”
Round about that time Springsteen helmed a band called Steel Mill. No hits, just heart. Originally known as Child, the group had to come up with a new moniker after discovering a band from Long Island playing under the same name. Stages throughout Richmond’s downtown offered an outlet for the band to steadily build a grass-roots following. Promoter Russ Clem, who lives in Lexington these days, knew Springsteen quite well and booked most of those shows, including the parking deck concert.
“There was a time when Bruce came down here and was seriously considering moving here,” Clem says. “He brought the whole bunch of them down here and kind of drifted in and out, made some real good friends. Always had a place to sleep. Bruce Springsteen never bought a hotel room.”
Springsteen was an ordinary Joe with promise aplenty and extraordinarily loud lungs. All the talent in the world, but he was in search of fertile ground upon which his career in music could take root. California and New Jersey beckoned, but so did Richmond.
Springsteen and the Fan? The Mosque, VCU and Monroe Park?
“I was in a band called Mercy Flight, and that’s how we kind of met, playing along with them, whether it be Monroe Park or the Free University, the parking deck,” Thompson says. “In fact the parking deck was the last Mercy Flight job that I was in the band with, and then I ended up joining Bruce’s band.”
That was in August 1970. For about six months thereafter, Thompson went on to sing lead in Steel Mill. You read that right, he sang lead in Bruce Springsteen’s band.
“When I was in Steel Mill, it was a really good band,” Thompson says. “It was a happy-go-lucky crew of people.”
Thompson and Springsteen were tight. Enjoyed a lot of the same, ahem, friends, too.
“Bruce and I had the same girlfriend for a while,” Thompson says. “It was … uncomfortable. Actually, she’s no longer on this earth. It wasn’t a happier part of my life. Actually, it didn’t break up the friendship that Bruce and I had. It was a … situation.”
Regardless, music rang central to Springsteen’s life. Friends from the day note that he remained focused no matter his surroundings and circumstances.
“I don’t know if anything he did wasn’t motivated by the fact that he was a rock-and-roll star and he knew it, and all he wanted to do was let people know that,” Clem says. “He has a tremendous, commanding personality onstage.”
The Boss honed that presence by performing as often as he could, in Richmond and beyond.
“We would get to gigs by any way possible,” Thompson says. “I remember playing the Mosque one night with Ike and Tina Turner and then playing the next night in Nashville. Then playing the next night in Richmond. Half of the band traveled in the back of the U-Haul truck with the equipment on a mattress.”
Park and Rock
Perhaps most notable among Springsteen’s Richmond concerts is Steel Mill’s performance atop the Seventh and Marshall parking deck, which still stands on the southwest corner of the intersection.
“I had talked Springsteen into letting me borrow his guitar amp that night,” says Mercy Flight lead guitarist Tom “Cool” Yolton. “My amp was good, but his was really good. He had a stack of Marshalls.”
And quite a crowd. Despite some reports to the contrary, Yolton, who now lives in Versailles, Ky., says that the show, held on the deck’s top floor, attracted a large audience. In fact, he says, the size of Steel Mill’s following was the reason such an unusual venue was selected. According to Yolton, Steel Mill’s crowds had gotten too big for local clubs, but they weren’t quite ready to fill the Mosque. Hence, the parking deck.
“The place was packed full of people,” he says. “They had put signs on the edge of the parking deck [that said] ‘Please don’t jump.’ People walked up to the seventh floor, and we [Mercy Flight] opened the show. We were tight, had all kinds of original songs that the crowd was familiar with.”
Yet even on that warm August evening in 1970, Springsteen was the star attraction. While reports vary on the exact set list that night, among the known songs were numerous Steel Mill staples of the day, including set opener “He’s Guilty (Send That Boy to Jail),” the tale of “George,” a man who’s “been speedin’, runnin’ down his mother/stabbin’ his wife and stranglin’ her lover”; “Resurrection,” a biting critique of Catholic dogma; and “The Wind and the Rain,” a song about lost love. At least one of the concert’s patrons taped the show and later made a recording, which remains one of Springsteen’s most highly coveted bootlegs — at least in these parts.
“At one point I went back down onto the street while Steel Mill was playing. It was like a scene from ‘Abbey Road’ when the Beatles were playing on the roof of the building,” Yolton says. “People were down there looking up in the air, wondering what was going on up there. It was plenty loud. It was probably the first and the last time that ever happened there. That’s a very famous concert for Richmond.”
Springsteen fans should recall “Spirit in the Night,” a classic from his first album, “Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.” Perhaps you may remember the lines about “Hazy Davy,” who “crawled into the lake in just his socks and shirt.”
Mercy Flight’s drummer, Dave Hazelett (who later played with Steel Mill for a while), says that he’s Hazy Davy.
“By then I had left [Springsteen’s band],” Hazelett says. “Everybody had heard it and brought it to my attention. You know, you’re hanging out and having a good time. And the guy writes a story. He’s amazing about that. Brucie can pretty much write a story about anything and put it to music.”
Some history: Springsteen hired Hazelett to replace the hot-tempered Vini Lopez on drums near about 1970.
“[Bruce] and I lived together in a surfboard factory [in New Jersey] when I was up there playing,” Hazelett says. “It was the Challenger Surfboard Factory. We practiced in the back. We were kids. I can remember sitting there and hearing him tinkering on the guitar. The next thing you know, boom! Here’s another [song].”
Given that he not only played with him but also lived with the man, of those who remain in Richmond, perhaps Hazelett knew Springsteen the best.
“When he was down here, he’s been to my house for dinner, a few times at my parents’ house,” Hazelett says. “I know him pretty good. It went really well. Of course, back then my hair was to my waist and so was his, so you can imagine the shock of the parents when you come rolling in. Back then all the guys were down from New Jersey, and no one had any money, so you helped out any way you could.”
Believe it or not, today’s rock legend isn’t really a far cry from the shy, soft-spoken Springsteen of old. Even then, those who knew him say, he could captivate a crowd, hold them spellbound and on edge with each lyric sung, each word spoken.
“He had it all, even back then,” Yolton says. “Everybody recognized that he was very charismatic. He didn’t drink, didn’t smoke cigarettes. He didn’t party, take psychedelics. He didn’t even have a driver’s license. He was a bit shy, not real talkative. He wasn’t outward going, wasn’t the life of the party. Only when he’s onstage.”
Then, as now, just strap a guitar on his frame, point the way to the microphone and back the hell away.
“When he hit that stage, man, it was like somebody was shooting fire up his ass,” Hazelett says. “Then he had that gold Les Paul. I hated to see him turn the lead over to other people, because he was one hell of a fine lead player.”
Take one particularly noteworthy show on May 23, 1970, at the VCU gym located on Franklin Street. Silk-screened posters found their way into numerous windows and onto light poles all over Richmond to advertise the show. Songs like “Going Back to Georgia” and “Sweet Melinda” whipped the crowd to life.
“Police had to shut it down because they kept playing, and the crowd kept yelling, and the police wanted the thing to be over with,” Yolton says. “They finally ended up turning the power off so that Springsteen couldn’t play anymore. They couldn’t stop the drummer, Vini Lopez. He kept drumming, and the crowd kept whooping and hollering. Security didn’t know what to do, so they wrestled Vini to the ground and got into a big fistfight. They ended up hauling Vini off to jail for the night. It was quite a night. Springsteen talked about that for quite a while.”
Richmonders still do.
Movin’ On Up
Springsteen’s anything-goes style held true through 1971, when he formed the Bruce Springsteen Band, and into 1972. Performances included those at the Backdoor Club on Grace Street, the University of Richmond’s Keller Hall, the Richmond Arena and the Free University. An institute of higher education at Laurel and Broad streets, the Free University supplied an educational alternative (and a draft deferment) for students unable to afford other area colleges. Upstairs from the school was the Center, a wood-floored concert spot.
By 1972 Springsteen was forming the E Street Band.
“The phone rang one day, and it was Springsteen,” Hazelett says. “He was looking for me and flew me in to New York to try out for the E Street Band.”
Springsteen needed a drummer, so it made sense to call the man who had replaced Vini Lopez in Steel Mill. As luck would have it, a particularly precipitous snowstorm ensnared New York City as Hazelett arrived, thus preventing him from making his way to the decided-upon venue to audition. A show date of his own beckoned back in Virginia, so he left New York without ever having auditioned.
That February the Boss and the boys — with Lopez on drums — backed Chuck Berry during a show at VCU. Within a year Rolling Stone critic Jon Landau, Springsteen’s future manager, declared him to be rock’s future. In October 1975 Springsteen landed the covers of both Time and Newsweek magazines in the same week, something not even Elvis Presley had done to that point.
“The thing is, everyone knew he was going to go somewhere,” Hazelett says. “He’s just got this magnetism about him onstage. The longevity is what has floored me. I loved his old style, that more rock-and-roll style. It just kind of shows you the versatility of the guy to play all different types of music as he has through the years.”
No one but the man himself knows how close he came to moving to Richmond, but most of those who knew Springsteen at the time readily acknowledge that it was on his mind.
“I can’t really positively say that I knew he was gonna move here, but I think it might have been discussed,” Yolton says. “I can recall several times, and of course I was still going to VCU at the time, walking down the street going to a class or going home from a class, and a couple of times I saw Bruce across the street walking. He seemed pretty comfortable here.”
A list of 10 significant Springsteen concerts in our city
June 1, 1969, Monroe Park — Posters advised Richmonders to “give summer a good start” at this free outdoor concert, Child’s first trip to Richmond. Fellow New Jersey band Brother Duck opened the show.
Nov. 1, 1969, VCU Gym — This may have been the band’s last appearance under the name Child. The concert poster promised “hard rock & together blues” and “a night of explosive sound,” all for just $2.50.
Nov. 20, 1969, the Center at the Free University — Mercy Flight opened for Steel Mill for the first time, in place of the advertised opening band, Morning Disaster, which cancelled.
May 23, 1970, VCU Gym — When the power got cut off by police looking to shut down this Steel Mill concert, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez lived up to his nickname, spurring on the crowd by continuing to play his drums. A fistfight broke out when security wrestled him to the ground, leading to him spending a night in jail.
Aug. 14, 1970, Parking Deck at Seventh and Marshall — Mercy Flight opened for Steel Mill at this legendary concert. Fittingly, a bootleg of the show features a garbled recording of Steel Mill staple “The Wind and the Rain,” reportedly because the wind kept knocking over the microphones.
Nov. 10, 1970, the Mosque — Steel Mill (now featuring Richmonder Robbin Thompson) opened for Ike and Tina Turner.
Oct. 23, 1971, Keller Hall, University of Richmond — The short-lived Bruce Springsteen Band, which featured horns and female backup singers, comes to Richmond. In a concession to economic reality, the lineup was soon trimmed down to a five-piece outfit.
Oct. 25, 1971, Richmond Arena — Though Steel Mill had broken up earlier that year, this concert was billed as its farewell to Richmond, with the Bruce Springsteen Band playing plenty of Steel Mill material during the two-and-a-half-hour show. The audience was invited onstage during the encores of this emotional performance, with at least one concertgoer claiming that tears were streaming down Springsteen’s face at one point.
May 31, 1973, the Richmond Coliseum — Springsteen and his band opened for Chicago, playing a 45-minute set. Earlier in the day, a six-song acoustic set, including such songs as “Wild Billy’s Circus Story,” from the upcoming album “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” was broadcast live from Alfa Studios by now-defunct Richmond rock station WGOE.
Aug. 1, 1975, the Mosque — This was Springsteen’s last concert in Richmond before this month’s show at the Coliseum. Posters for the gig trumpeted his return, reading “Brucie’s back in town.” Two months later, his mug graced the covers of both Newsweek and Time in the same week.