...in 1974, 25-year-old Bruce Springsteen played at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge. Although popular with the college crowd in the Northeast, Springsteen was not yet a star. That night, he and the E Street Band opened for Bonnie Raitt. The influential music critic Jon Landau was in the audience. Overwhelmed by what he heard, Landau wrote, "I saw my rock and roll past flash before my eyes. I saw something else: I saw rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." In the years since that momentous spring night in Cambridge, the Boss has had 14 albums go platinum, has won20 Grammies and an Oscar, and has been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In May of 1974, Bruce Springsteen was still just one of hundreds of young rock musicians hoping to make it big. His early work, and particularly his performances on college campuses, had earned him a small but devoted following. His hard-driving manager, Mike Appel, had helped him get a record contract with Columbia. But most reviewers were at best lukewarm, and Columbia executives were becoming impatient. The record company had already lost $150,000 on Springsteen's albums; there seemed little prospect that the young singer would ever become a star.
When Springsteen performed at the Harvard Square Theater in Cambridge that spring, his life and the future of rock and roll changed forever. Springsteen's albums were uneven, but his live performances were sensational. Onstage, the skinny, shy kid from the New Jersey shore transformed himself into a dynamic and powerful rocker. The influential music critic Jon Landau was in the audience on May 9th, and he was captivated by Springsteen. A regular writer for Rolling Stone and the Real Paper, Landau could make or break a career. In the next issue of the Real Paper, he made Bruce Springsteen a star.
"Tonight," his column began, "there is someone I can write of the way I used to write, without reservations of any kind. Of Springsteen's recent concert in Harvard Square, he wrote: "On a night when I needed to feel young, he made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time. When his two hour set ended I could only think, can anyone really be this good, can anyone say this much to me, can rock and roll speak with this kind of power and glory? And then I felt the sores on my thighs where I had been pounding my hands in time for the entire concert and knew that the answer was Yes.
Springsteen does it all. He is a rock'n'roll punk, a Latin street poet, a ballet dancer, an actor, a joker, bar band leader, rhythm guitar player, extraordinary singer, and a truly great rock'n'roll composer. He leads a band like he has been doing it forever. I racked my brains but simply can't think of a white artist who does so many things so superbly. There is no one I would rather watch on a stage today."
Columbia was quick to take advantage of Landau's enthusiasm. Rolling Stone and other papers were soon trumpeting Landau's endorsement:"I have seen rock and roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,"declared full-page ads. But the Real Paper review had even more far-reaching consequences. It marked the beginning of a relationship between Springsteen and Landau that would be key to transforming the singer into a superstar.
In October of 1974, Springsteen returned to Boston to play at the Music Hall. After the concert, he and Landau sat down for a long discussion of how Springsteen could make the leap from his amateurish first albums to serious recordings. Shortly afterward, Landau joined Springsteen's management team as co-producer with Appel. With Landau behind him, Bruce Springsteen recorded Born to Run, the first of his records to go platinum, selling over a million copies.
The Mansion on the Hill: Dylan, Young, Geffen, Springsteen, and the Head-On Collision of Rock and Commerce, by Fred Goodman (Vintage Books, 1998).
"The Harvard Square Theatre, Cambridge, Massachusetts Presents Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, 9th May 1974," by Jon Landau in The Real Paper, May 22, 1974.