Memories of 1975…Tom Russell, Norman Blake and Bruce Springsteen

Springsteen 75The horses are in the barn, the chickens in the coop, the cat is laying on my toes and the glow of the fireplace makes this room seem like an old time moving picture as the shadow of the flames dance across the walls and ceilings. While the talking heads spent the last several days whipping up everyone into a frenzy with their warnings of the impending blizzard, here in the Hudson Valley we awoke this morning to find maybe a foot of snow dusting the meadows…merely a freckle on the face of a red headed girl. Oh it’s indeed cold and windy as promised, which makes me feel not too guilty as I do some inside chores while listening to both old and new music, and taking the time to let my thoughts and memories spill out across this electric screen.

The year was 1975, and I was a twenty three year old purveyor of recorded music in the form of singles, albums and eight tracks. In my light blue VW Super Beetle I traversed the turnpikes and back roads throughout Eastern Pennsylvania, going from town to town with a thick binder of catalogs that offered for sale roughly thirty-five per cent of all recorded music. It was a time when independent distributors ruled the airwaves and sales charts, unknowingly just four years away from the shift to a corporate controlled American art form.

Allentown, Scranton, Williamsport, Lock Haven, Lancaster, Reading. These were coal and steel towns standing on the edge of the cliff, still surviving on their last gasp of breath. Tom Russell from California wrote a song about those days, and I often find myself listening to it at times like these.

In the little town of Bethlehem along the banks of Monocacy Creek in the Lehigh Valley, there was a record store called Renaissance Music and a fellow who ran it named John helped me get a handle on the Flying Fish and Rounder titles I was selling. Even forty years ago both of these labels offered a large repertoire of traditional American music and it was John who helped guide me through a world of great bluegrass and string bands, Delta blues musicians, the hammered dulcimer players and Welsh folk music. Being a guitar player transitioning from electric to acoustic music, John thought I might like this new fellow who had just released one or two albums by the name of Norman Blake.

If you’re reading this you probably don’t need me to tell you about Norman, nor his spouse and musical partner Nancy. If you’d like some education, just enter his name into “The Google” and you can spend a day or two reading his credits and sampling his work. I remember seeing these two perform at an outdoor venue in Ambler, and sitting on the lawn at his feet just staring at his left hand. With fingers that flew effortlessly across the fretboard, and vocals that took me back to some nineteenth century porch in Georgia, I thought he was the most amazing guitarist I’d ever seen.

In 2006 when he and Nancy released Back Home to Sulphur Springs a publicist whispered in my ear an ominous message that “this will be the last record they’ll ever make”. Hardly. At least five more have come out since then, and most recently Devon over at Hearth Music sent me Norman’s latest recording of all self-written songs. His first of such in thirty years.The voice has grown tired and at times a bit shaky, but the guitar playing is simply as traditionally-innovative as always. Guess I could drop in a sample here if I was trying to sell it to you, but frankly I’m partial to this older clip with Nancy.

Since it seems as if today I’m stuck in this time bubble of forty years ago, let us take a moment to talk about Bruce. There was a disc jockey back in Philadelphia by the name of Ed Sciaky who worked at a number of local radio stations, but is mostly known from his time (twice actually) at WMMR-FM. Along with promoting the hell out of Billy Joel’s Cold Spring Harbor album, his real legacy is the role he played in exposing Springsteen to an audience beyond just Freehold and Asbury.

A man schooled in mathematics and self taught in musicology, his shows were like doctoral thesis on the origin of the songs and artists we listened to back then. I can still hear his deep voice that he kept soft as it worked its way through the speakers of my car radio late at night. The sadness came when diabetes caused his right foot to be amputated in 2002. Two years later while in Manhattan with his wife, he collapsed while on the sidewalk outside Penn Station and died at age fifty-five from a massive heart attack.

He and Bruce come to mind because the other day I found myself in possession of a digitized soundboard recording (we used to call these bootlegs) from Philly’s Tower Theater on December 31, 1975. It was the last of a multi-night run, and although for decades the tapes have been reproduced, sold and traded among fans, a different mix from Sciaky’s collection is now in circulation. I like the name of this album…Last Tango in Philly…and you can find more than one version from start to finish on You Tube.

While during this time frame Bruce was in the midst of his Born to Run tour, the track list includes a few oddities, including the oft-bootlegged “Mountain of Love” and “Does The Bus Stop At 82nd Street”. Seeing that it’s the official beginning of our New York winter, here’s a slow-downed version of one of my favorite tracks, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out”. Until we meet again…