During the early days of the E Street Band, Bruce Springsteen resisted nearly every opportunity to capture the magic of their live show on film. “I had some voodoo thing about that,” he tells Rolling Stone a few hours before taking the stage for one of his final Broadway shows. “Film and television were relatively cool mediums, and we were a hot band. I said, ‘If you want to feel that heat, you need to be at that show.’”
He made a rare exception to that rule in September 1979, when he agreed to perform at two No Nukes benefit concerts at Madison Square Garden alongside Jackson Browne, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Bonnie Raitt, Jackson Browne, the Doobie Brothers, and Carly Simon. “They were filming it,” Springsteen says. “They said, ‘You’ll have a choice of whether you’re in the movie or not.’ That meant I didn’t have to think about the cameras since I knew I could throw it away if I wanted to.”
He ultimately let the event organizers use his performances of “The River,” “Thunder Road,” and “Quarter to Three” as the climax of the 1980 concert movie No Nukes, but the vast majority of the three hours of E Street music that was filmed over two nights ended up stuffed into a vault and not seen by the public for the next four decades.
That will change on November 16th, when Springsteen’s new movie, The Legendary 1979 No Nukes Concerts, is released for purchase on all digital film outlets. Three days later, it will be available as a two-CD plus DVD or two-CD plus Blu-Ray package (as well as on LP), and on the 23rd it will be up for digital rental. The film is directed by Springsteen’s longtime collaborator Thom Zimny and features the best moments from both of Springsteen’s No Nukes performances, including explosive renditions of “Born to Run,” “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight),” “Badlands,” “Prove It All Night,” and “The Detroit Medley.” Without question, it is the best representation of a Seventies Springsteen concert ever captured on film.
“The energy of the band that comes across in this film is just incredible,” says Zimny. “You can read about it or hear sonic recordings, but when you see this footage it’s as exciting as seeing the Clash in this same time. This is a band that was exploding onscreen.”
At the time of the shows, Springsteen had been off the road for nine months and was hard at work on The River, whose release was still a year away. He’d attached to his name to virtually no political causes at this point, but Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, Bonnie Raitt, John Hall, and activist Harvey Wasserman came together as MUSE (Musicians United for Safe Energy) in the wake of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, and they asked Springsteen to help guarantee that Madison Square Garden would be packed for the final two shows of the five-night stand.
“That was a critical moment,” says Springsteen. “My friend Jackson Browne was very involved. He’s an activist and I was sort of a hired gun. But I was curious to see where else I could take my music, and where it would be helpful. We had enough success where I felt like I should be doing something with it, and that was where I was at that moment.”
Springsteen says he paid almost no attention to the camera operators assembled all around Madison Square Garden at both shows, but they were an ace crew led by cinematographer Haskell Wexler, best known for his work on In The Heat of the Night, The Thomas Crown Affair, and American Graffiti. “These guys were filmmakers and cinematographers at the top of their game, and they were in sync with the band,” says Zimny. “The cameramen are at the foot of the stage, and they’re literally side-by-side with audience members. This is not a language of MTV and this is not a language of multi-cam cranes and swooping angles and quick cuts. It’s pure documentary.”
On the first night, Springsteen debuted his new song “The River,” which wouldn’t see release until the following fall. It was inspired by the struggles of his sister Virginia, who’d had a baby at 17 with her husband, Mickey Shave.
“That song was a real turn in my songwriting,” says Springsteen. “I felt like I had broken through to a narrative type of songwriting that I previously hadn’t quite [figured out],” he says. “That turned into Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, Devils and Dust, and so many other things. That one song birthed so many other incarnations and so much other music. It was a really critical song in my development and I knew it when I wrote it.”
Virginia Springsteen was in the audience of Madison Square Garden when he first played it, having no idea he’d written her story into a song. “She inspired it with my brother in-law, so it was nice to play it for them out of the box,” Springsteen says. “She came backstage and all she said was, ‘That was my life.’”
In 2012, Virginia Springsteen told biographer Peter Ames Carlin that she was initially uncomfortable with “The River.” “It was wonderful that he wrote that and all, but every bit of it was true,” she said. “And here I am [in the audience], completely exposed. I didn’t like it at first — though now it’s my favorite song.”
Near the end of both sets, Springsteen welcomed Jackson Browne and backup singer Rosemary Butler onto the stage for “Stay.” Tom Petty joined them on the second night, marking one of the few occasions in his entire career that he performed with Springsteen. “Rosemary Butler is phenomenal there,” says Springsteen manager Jon Landau. “She doesn’t get enough screen time, because I don’t think the [camera] coverage was there, but musically, she’s in there, really helping to make that great version of that song.”
“Stay” goes directly into “The Detroit Medley,” a mashup of “Devil With the Blue Dress,” “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “C.C. Rider,” and “Jenny Jenny” that had been a staple of Springsteen shows since the Born to Run tour in 1975. It’s featured on the No Nukes soundtrack, but the complete footage has never been seen until now.
“At one hour and seven minutes, which is the start of ‘The Detroit Medley,’ this thing goes to an energy level that has rarely been seen,” says Landau.”Bruce transports himself to a space where the endorphins have been completely released. He’s floating on pure energy. He’s absolutely floating. It’s spectacular.”
The film ends with a nine-minute version of the 1961 Gary U.S. Bonds classic “Quarter to Three,” complete with false stops and Bruce collapsing on the stage James Brown-style and getting revived by Clarence Clemons and a towel-waving Steve Van Zandt. What’s not seen is an infamous moment during the performance where Springsteen noticed photographer Lynn Goldsmith, who happened to be his ex-girlfriend, snapping photos from the floor. He pulled her onto the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen!” he roared to the crowd. “This is my ex-girlfriend!” He then escorted her to the side of the stage and demanded she be removed from the house.
This moment was edited out of “Quarter to Three” in the original No Nukes movie, and it doesn’t appear here. “I had no interest in exploring that,” says Zimny. “It’s not a musical moment. Even if you wanted it, it’s not really even documented since it was such a chaotic moment and the cameramen didn’t know what was happening.” (Springsteen and Goldsmith made peace decades ago, and she told Carlin they laughed about the incident when they bumped into each other at the Sunset Marquis in 1980.)
The Lynn Goldsmith incident and all the other No Nukes footage were tucked away in a film vault and half-forgotten until Zimny started going through those archives while assembling the 2020 movie Bruce Springsteen’s Letter To You. “Bruce noticed this wonderful shot we used to show Danny [Federici] and Clarence,” says Zimny. “In that was a composition and a beauty and a clarity of the E Street Band in that era that we had never really seen before. It was something that immediately struck us as the next project to explore, and also Bruce was real into the idea of remixing the soundtrack of that concert and finding a way to piece together everything we had from those shows.”
The multi-track recordings of the show were given to Bob Clearmountain, a recording engineer, mixer, and producer who has been working with Springsteen since the Born in the USA days. “Bob Clearmountain is a giant,” says Landau. “We’ve worked with a variety of terrific mixers, but we always come back to Bob. He’s so creative and always takes the work to some unexpected sonic level. It’s a fact that, when it comes to mixing, Bob is a genius, pure and simple
Springsteen didn’t see the film until it was practically finished, and it hit him on a deep emotional level. “It’s very intense to see the young Clarence and Danny,” he says. “But Clarence particularly, since he was in front and so athletic and so youthful, and he just looked so damn great. It’s a wonderful moment in Clarence’s performing experience, and mine with him.”
It also made him realize once again that he erred in not allowing the band to be filmed on many other occasions back then. “I wish we had filmed all the time,” he says. “It was a mistake. It was just a young, youthful, insecure, mistake at the time. I wish we’d filmed at least every tour we’d done once. That would have been really nice. There was a pretty decent bootleg from [Houston] 1978 that ended up on our [Darkness] box set. We have 1975 from the Odeon [in London]. We have a little taste of 1973 from the Ahmanson Theatre [in Los Angeles]. What’s funny thing is the one thing I don’t know we do have is anything from Born in the USA. There was a lot of video shot, but no film.”
“I’m just glad [No Nukes] is there,” he continues. “Looking back, I had my reasons. They worked for me well psychologically at that time and kept me stable. I just didn’t have the flexibility as a young man to sort of delve into that side of my work life. Looking back, of course I wish I had.”
Looking ahead, Springsteen hopes he can return to the road next year to finally support 2020’s Letter To You with a tour. “I’m hoping,” he says. “Like a lot of people. Everyone’s hoping. We’re just trying to figure out how to do that, like everyone else. If we can, if it’s possible, we will be [touring]. If it’s just not safe or not practical, we’ll be waiting it out like everyone else. We’re waiting and doing our best to see.”
Jon Landau feels the same way. “The only thing I can say about this is that we approach things very cautiously,” he says. “The safety of everyone, the audience, the artist, the band, the crew, and the people who work at the various facilities…We need to feel that everyone is as safe as possible in order to move ahead with what we hope will eventually be a great tour.”
In the meantime, No Nukes will allow concert-deprived fans to experience the E Street Band at the height of their powers. “It’s wonderful,” Springsteen says. “If you missed 1975 Hammersmith Odeon, it’ll knock your socks off. And if you weren’t around in 1979, it will show you what we were all about.”