photos and artwork courtesy of Austin Museum of Popular Culture
Bruce Springsteen rolls into Austin for a stop at the Armadillo World Headquarters in March of 1974
(Learn about all of our plans for the 50th anniversary of Armadillo World Headquarters HERE)
by Bill Harwell
Even in the early seventies, a lot of people wanted to move to Austin. So I was feeling pretty lucky to have been offered a job at KRMH-FM (Karma Radio), an eclectic, free-form ‘progressive rock’ station, in the summer of 1973.
At Karma, we could, and did, play pretty much what we wanted – with some guidance. While the station’s business office and production studios were on West 10th Street just off of Lamar, their on-air studio was at the transmitter site in a pasture near Niederwald, some twenty miles south of town in Hays County. We’d all go to the office for production duties and meetings, then make the drive out to the remote facility for our air shifts. Somehow, it worked. We’d even get musical guests to trek out to the studio for performances and interviews. It’s hard to believe now, but Michael Rutherford of Genesis spent an hour on the air with me prior to their show at a converted National Guard armory on Barton Springs Road known as Armadillo World Headquarters.
The Armadillo had opened in August 1970 and was already legendary among local music fans. Featuring a pleasant outdoor beer garden that served Texas comfort food, and a 1,500 person capacity music venue with folding metal chairs, AWHQ was just the place for beers after your softball game, a relaxing spot for state workers and hippies to mingle over lunch, and a go-to destination for music lovers of all tastes. It was a true community center. Austin was a very different place then, of course. The population was under 300,000, and pre-home computers and cell phones, a ‘tech industry’ was almost beyond imagining. Highland Mall was the main shopping destination, Mopac Expressway was still a construction project, and rent was cheap. (Our two-story apartment in Barton Hills cost $165 a month.)
Bruce Springsteen was in a different place then, too. In the spring of 1974, things were not going that well for the up-and-coming artist. After the major label hype surrounding his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., and some modest acclaim, Bruce’s second effort, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, had been released in November 1973 to little notice. John Hammond and Clive Davis, the legendary figures at Columbia Records responsible for the signing and early promotion of the young artist, had left the company. No one left on the staff seemed to be taken with the eclectic collection of long, wandering songs that made up the record. Springsteen openly complained in one interview of a lack of support while on tour: a visit to a record store in a city where the band was playing found no copies of the new album on the shelves. And in February, Bruce had made the tough decision to fire Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, his drummer on the first two releases. Ernest Carter, a local Asbury Park musician and friend of pianist David Sancious was quickly brought on board, and the group headed south for scheduled tour dates.
Most of the DJs at KRMH were leaning pretty heavily on The Wild & the Innocent and getting a good response. We’d also scored a copy of “The Fever”, a bluesy unreleased track from that album’s sessions that, rumor had it, Bruce’s manager, Mike Appel, had leaked to some influential stations to tweak the folks at Columbia.
Following poorly-received gigs in Nashville and Atlanta, Springsteen and his band were coming off of a successful four-night stand at Liberty Hall in Houston when they rolled into Austin and the Armadillo World Headquarters for a weekend of shows on March 14, 15 and 16. The scheduled opening act, Alvin Crow, recalled in the March 16, 2012 issue of The Austin Chronicle that AWHQ owner Eddie Wilson was so unsure of how the new-to-Texas Springsteen would draw that he suggested to Appel a cover charge of $1. Bruce was even convinced to come by the Karma studios for an interview, and played a few of his favorite tracks from our library: stuff like Major Lance, Martha and the Vandellas, and anything produced by Phil Spector.
Against that backdrop, you’d expect Springsteen to hit the stage with a bang, trying to win over the uninitiated. Instead, the six-piece band (augmented by a female violinist) opened with the atmospheric street-poetry of “New York City Serenade,” a ten-minute, mostly acoustic album cut that opened with a dazzling David Sancious piano solo that was more Gershwin than rock ‘n roll. We were all transfixed. By the time Clarence Clemons played his first sax fill, there was an ovation. And when it was all over, the audience was on its feet, cheering wildly. Never looking back, Bruce strapped on his 12-string Fender, launched into The Crystals’ “And Then She Kissed Me” and an unforgettable night was underway. Cuts from his first two albums like “Growin’ Up”, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”, “Spirit in the Night”, and “Sandy” would be interspersed with bar-band staples such as “Let the Four Winds Blow”, “634-5789” and “A Quarter to Three”.
The on-stage enthusiasm and energy was so palpable that you couldn’t help but wonder how long the group could keep it up, much less night after night. “Rosalita”, a track that we’d been playing a lot on the radio, was the set closer, as I remember it. And when I noticed the group of out-of-place clean-cut looking student types in front of me singing along with every word, I knew that Bruce was going to make it.
Speaking in 2012 to The Austin Chronicle, Waterloo Records owner John Kunz recalled people rushing mid-show to the club’s phone booths, urging friends to get to the Armadillo to see what was taking place. Folks who’d been enjoying a plate of nachos outside in the beer garden, hearing the crowd reaction from inside the club, decided to join in as well. The next day, I phoned a former roommate in Dallas telling him that he had to go catch the band’s shows at a club on Lemmon Avenue called Gertie’s, their next stop on their tour. He did, but the crowd was very disappointing; he thought that there were fewer than fifty people there on a Monday night. Even so, he reported a performance just as compelling as what we saw here in Austin.
Bruce would return to Austin and the Armadillo for two more two-night stands that year: one in June and another in November. By that time, Carter and Sancious had left the group and were replaced by Max Weinberg and Roy Bittan. The November shows were memorable for the encore of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, complete with Clarence Clemons in a Santa Claus hat and Christmas lights twinkling on the PA stacks.
There was such a feeling of having witnessed something rare and special that March that no one in attendance was at all surprised by the adulation and success that would surround Springsteen in the years ahead. After leaving Texas that spring, Bruce went home to record Born to Run. It was just over two months later that Springsteen’s future manager, Jon Landau, would review a Cambridge, Massachusetts show that included the now-famous quote, “I have seen rock and roll’s future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” But at The Armadillo for a few glorious nights in March, we all got a sneak preview.