The Wailers and Bruce Springsteen, 1973

Bruce Springsteen and the Wailers
Max’s Kansas City, July 18, 1973*

© Lorraine O’Grady, 1973

A piece written by O’Grady in 1973 for the Village Voice, but rejected by her editor because it was “too soon for these two” and finally published in 2010 by Abrams Image, reviews the night the Wailers with Bob Marley led in for Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band.

Upstairs at Max’s Kansas City is packed. Tonight the tiny showcase room that seats 40 is crammed with 50 record execs and press wanting to hear for themselves the buzz from Asbury Park, Bruce Springsteen’s first album. The smoky air is electric when the lead-in act begins: they are the Wailers, a Jamaican reggae group being seen for the first time in the States. Though the audience may be curious about this new island music, the charge here is for Bruce.

Springsteen is getting famous. “At least,” he says, “that’s what my manager tells me.”

And why not? He’s the real thing. An authentic talent, with a rushing stream-of-conscious imagery that is banked by a solid rock-and-roll-rhythm-and-blues beat. At times the imagery becomes less of a stream and more of a torrent. It’s enough to make a Freudian analyst rub his hands in glee.

In lyrics that are among the most beautiful and complex in rock today, Springsteen takes his audience on a tender odyssey through the

landscapes of a decaying city with side trips to a boardwalk’s circus-carnival, fitting enough for an artist from Asbury Park, New Jersey.

But star-making is a grueling process. When the band came on, Springsteen looked as if he hadn’t slept in weeks. The first set was tired and listless. Still, no one in this audience was about to leave. By the second set, the band’s mood had change to tired but happy, with playing so loose and easy I felt as if I’d wandered into a practice room accidentally.

Springsteen and his band are in transition and, like so many groups about to make it big, the sound is being temporarily affected. Their small, inexpensive equipment has been turned in for larger amps, more suited to the concert hall than to the intimacy of the small club. Eventually it won’t matter. This is probably one of their last trips to Max’s Kansas City.

Last night, the acoustic songs worked best. The carefully orchestrated, line to line mood-changes in “Circus Song,” from
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