Oral history: Reliving the legendary Springsteen bomb scare show
Milwaukee is a city rife with associations, from beer to brats, Hogs to "Happy Days."
But for devoted fans of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Milwaukee means only one thing: the bomb scare show – that Thursday night in October 1975 when the band's Cream City concert was halted by a bomb threat and resumed three hours later, resulting in a high-energy show unlike any other the band would ever perform.
Today is the 40th anniversary of that legendary gig: Are you loose?!
We tell the story here in an oral history.
A night like this
1975 was an exciting year for fans of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
The band was newly re-energized when, in September 1974, mighty Max Weinberg replaced Ernest Boom Carter on drums. Another jolt came with the arrival of guitarist Miami Steve Van Zandt. A co-founder of Jersey band Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, Van Zandt lent a hand during the "Born to Run" sessions and subsequently became a full-time E Streeter.
At the same time, Springsteen was shedding his media-created image as "the new Dylan," a welcome transformation that fast-tracked on Aug. 25, when the release of Springsteen's third record, "Born to Run," was boosted by a quarter-million-dollar promotional campaign.
"I saw rock 'n' roll's future," music critic – and Bruce's future manager – Jon Landau famously wrote, "and its name is Bruce Springsteen."
In July, the band got a jump on the acclaimed record's release, by launching the "Born to Run Tour" at Providence's Palace Concert Theater. The Milwaukee stop on the tour – Oct. 2, 1975 at the now-razed Uptown Theater, on a short length of North 49th Street between North and Lisbon Avenues – would prove perhaps the most exciting and surely the most memorable of a long tour that ran nearly non-stop through New Year's Eve.
Three weeks after the Boss' Milwaukee debut, Springsteen would make rock and roll history as the first rocker to grace the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week.
The band rolled into town for the Uptown gig – which had been staged by Alan Dulberger and Randy McElrath's Daydream Productions – after having performed at Omaha's Civic Auditorium Music Hall on Tuesday, Sept. 30.
McElrath began working in concert promotion in 1969, and partnered with Dulberger – who, with his brother Mark had owned 1812 Overture, a popular, cutting-edge record store on Brady Street – on a Black Sabbath gig at The Pabst Theater, launching Daydream, in 1971.
But Daydream was a side gig until three years later, when Dulberger and McElrath promoted a sell-out Crosby, Stills and Nash concert at County Stadium that launched them into the game full-time. No less than Summerfest's Bob Babisch got his start working as a backstage runner for Daydream.
By 1975, Daydream was booking gigs like the one set for the sunny, relatively warm early October Thursday, in the Uptown, a 1926 Saxe movie house with 1,818 seats designed by Rapp and Rapp that boasted a barrel-vaulted lobby and an auditorium adorned with a trio of pergolas on either side. Each pergola was decorated with a mural of an Italian landscape and lit from behind little balconies below. (See astortheater.org photo at right.)
That Thursday night, the marquee declared, "Live in Concert Tonight Bruce Springsteen," and concert advertisements promised "An Evening with Bruce Springsteen." And a long evening is what Milwaukee would get ...
Michael Plaisted: For legendary status, nothing can top the Springsteen bomb scare show. It was general admission and I stood in line for quite some time that day and ended up in the third row in the middle. The only thing I knew about him at the time was the recent hype and the "Born to Run" album that only came out a couple of weeks before.
Louie Lucchesi: The two things I remember were that we – I was with my brother Mike and my sister Mary – were going to be out very late on a school night. The concert was advertised by saying if you didn't like the show you could get your money back within the first 15 minutes. I heard less than 10 people got a refund.
Rick Rand: I drove and with me were two close friends, Howie Epstein and Joel Shayne. All three of us knew of Bruce and the E Street Band at that time. We were all big music fans and followed many bands who were really not well known at the time. Both Howie and I were involved in the regional music industry at the time. Joel had been booking bands during and after high school and in 1975 was far more focused on graduating college. What was driving the tour in 1975 was the release of the "Born to Run" album. The timing of the show was perfect. The album was hot and we all were going to see Bruce and the E Street Band. What better way to spend the night?
Bob Reitman: When you get asked to emcee a show, it's a thrill. You get up in front of people, introduce a show. It's an ego thing, I admit that. My brother, who's 14 years younger than me, turned me on to Springsteen's first album. I listened to it and I liked it, but I thought it was too wordy, but then there was all the hype; "Born to Run" plus his next couple albums before that were good. There was so much hype for "Born to Run" and I'm easily hype-able.
It was a one-time experience where I was asked to emcee the show. Keep in mind I was really jacked up about going to this. I didn't know what to expect, but I just had a feeling that it was going to be incredible. When they asked me to emcee it, I was, for the only time in my life, reluctant. On one hand it's like, "Yeah, what a thrill," but on the other hand it's like, "No" (because I wanted to watch the show). What I said to him was, "I'd be honored to emcee it, but, as soon as I'm done, I'm not hanging around backstage. I'm going out to watch the show. Period. I don't want anything else to do with it."
They said, "OK." They agreed to that. One interesting aspect of it was before the show I was wandering around backstage, but downstairs at The Uptown were separate rooms for the guys and the women. I'm walking down there and I look in one room, and I was startled. There was Springsteen, in what he was going to wear that night, with a guitar. Playing but it wasn't amped. I looked and I said, "Hey, how you doing?" He was friendly. I said, " What are you doing?" He said, "Playing Buddy Holly. It keeps me honest before the show." Well, at that point I fell in love with him. It didn't mean that he was going to be a great performer. It meant he loved rock and roll. Anyways, that impressed me.
Robert Cavallo: Bob Reitman was asking me, "How did you get into this thing? Who did you work for?" I was in a group called The Messengers. First white band signed with Motown Records in 1968 for the Rare Earth label. We broke up in '72. My dad, a photographer, started in 1938, so I went to work with him. I knew all the promoters in town, so I just showed up, and (head of security) Terry (Cullen) so nicely said, "(Cavallo) was just so professional. I let him in the door every time he came." Being on stage and a performer myself, I never wanted to rub elbows backstage or have my picture signed next time they came back, like many photographers. I always let them have their room. I always said, "The real people are out front."
The first set
Bruce Springsteen – lead vocals, guitars, harmonica
Roy Bittan – piano
Clarence Clemons – saxophone, percussion, background vocals
Danny Federici – organ, electronic glockenspiel, accordion
Garry Tallent – bass
Miami Steve Van Zandt – guitars, background vocals
Max Weinberg – drums
The Miami Horns:
John Binkley – trumpet
Ed De Palma – saxophone
Dennis Orlock – trombone
Steve Paraczky – trumpet
Meeting Across the River
Tenth Avenue Freeze-out
Spirit in the Night
She's the One
Born to Run
Bob Reitman: It was general seating, which wasn't real common, and so people filed in and sat where they wanted to. The place was full. I introduced him.
Michael Plaisted: The show began slowly and beautifully – I could see music building to what would well have been earth-shattering without the bomb scare. He was the street poet then, caressing his odes to the boardwalk life – a killer "Meeting Across the River." During "Spirit in the Night," he crawled up and down the aisle of the small theater, the first of many demonstrations of trust in humanity and his fans.
Damien Jaques: The scene that night was supercharged even before the bomb scare announcement. The Uptown wasn't that big, and the audience was a gathering of music hipsters because Springsteen hadn't really broken out into the general public yet. You had to be a music person to have heard the buzz from the East Coast about him. Reitman was still the head hipster in Milwaukee at that time. There was an excitement in the crowd from the moment people got to the Uptown.
Fan #1 (caught on tape during the first set): The sax player is good, what's his name?
Fan #2: Clarence Williams.
Robert Cavallo: They had a stage presence that reminds me so much of the English groups, going back to the Small Faces and Ian McLagan and even before Rod Stewart joined them, and Ronnie Lane. There was just something about the English groups, The Who, The Kinks, any of those. They just had a fervor almost like energy and real vaudevillian. This was also a visual show, too, with humor.
Dave Benton: I drove over to the show with four friends from Madison. The first part of the show was pretty amazing, and as a New Jersey native I really felt a connection.
Bob Reitman: I have no sense of any low points in the first part. It was powerful. The (fans) were into it.
Incident on 49th Street
The Boss introduces Bob Reitman.
Michael Plaisted: After 45 minutes – that used to be a whole concert, remember? – (WQFM DJ Bob) Reitman came out and said something to Bruce. There were worried faces and confusion. Two people looked all over and under the piano before Bruce sat down to play himself, solo, a tense, riveting "Thunder Road." Then Bruce said, "My friend here got something to say," and Reitman gave us the news in his best "don't panic" voice. They said we all had to get out, but we could come back at midnight if we saved our ticket stubs.
Bob Reitman: He's playing "Thunder Road," which is, to me, one of the great songs. (Roy Bittan is) playing the piano and that's it. The band's not on the stage. Basically, I was just in a very good place. All of a sudden, I see some motion out on the right side of the isle, somebody walking. I'm thinking, "How could anybody be even walking around during this? Why would you do that?" This person started getting closer to me, and I thought, "No, no don't do this." It was Dr. Alan Reed, who was the medical guy at a lot of big shows. He comes over and he leans down.
My first instinct was to punch him. But I wouldn't do that. I mean, it's like, "You're interrupting the epiphany here." He leaned down to me and said, "You've got to come back stage." I looked at him and I said, "No." He said, in a much more commanding voice, "You have to come back stage." At which point I realized I had to come.
Something's up, so I got up and walked back stage, Springsteen still playing "Thunder Road." Backstage, the band, the old manager for Springsteen (Mike Appel), the promoters, (Daydream's Alan) Dulberger and (Randy) McElrath, and a bunch of cops and detectives. I'm going, "Oh, I don't know what's going on." Well, what happened was they got a bomb threat, as we now know.
(They tell me) "after this song, you have to go out there." At the beginning of the show, I didn't say much, but I did say to the crowd, "You came in here, orderly, you did a great job and I just want to tip my hat to you." Because they did a good job. I had to go out there and Springsteen said he would go out there with me. They explained to him what's going on, and he is smart enough to know that if I go out there, I'll only get a certain percentage of attention. If he goes out there with me, we'll get a 110 percent.
He just says something like, "My friend here wants to say something to you." They paid attention so I just said, "Look folks, I complimented you on when you came in here, which was great. Now we're going to be put to the test. We're going to have to clear the theater in an orderly fashion." I can't remember if I said because there was a bomb threat. Because, that might have caused panic. I can't remember what I said, but with Springsteen standing there, it was really comfortable. I mean, I would go out there and tell them the truth, but with him out there, it really verified it.
Robert Cavallo: You can see kind of something's going on. Me right there – in the pit – and I see something going on. All of a sudden, there's policemen and things. Then, Dr. Alan Reed comes back and calls Bob (Reitman) backstage. Bob comes out with Springsteen. He says, "We got a situation. We've got to clear the place out." Nobody was really pissed, like, "What do you mean the show's off?" But they had gotten seven songs, that's (a full concert sometimes)."
Rick Rand: I think that everyone in the audience was pretty shocked when we saw Bob Reitman walking on stage just after the band finished one of their songs in the set. We were sitting about halfway back in the center seats. When Bruce let Bob announce that there had been a bomb scare most of us thought it was a joke! He then told us we had to vacate the building at which time Bruce grabbed the mic and in a very animated voice told the audience that they would be back. He went on to say something like; "Don't go too far 'cause we will return and play all night!" It happened pretty quickly and then we were all ushered out of the building. It was really weird, nothing like this had ever happened before to most of us. We thought that this was a bad prank.
Bob Reitman: I often wondered, "I wonder who did that?" Your guess is as good as any other guess.
Robert Cavallo: I guess it comes down to someone thought he was of Jewish decent ... and just didn't care for whatever it was that was going on. They published that in the papers. I guess they didn't know. Nobody's every taken claim for it. I thought it was just a disgruntled fan who came from Madison or something and didn't get a ticket.
(Editor's note: While some people repeated the assertion that the caller expressed distaste for Springsteen's "Jewish" surname – which is, in fact, of Dutch derivation, at least one, who refused to be quoted, suggested the bomb threat had nothing to do with Springsteen or the perceived ethnicity of his name, but rather was meant to cause trouble for the promoters.)
Garry Tallent: You don't forget things like that. I remember somebody was hanging around, I think with Clarence and he told everybody his name was Elton Jones. Not Elton John, Elton Jones. I think we all figured out it must've been him that did this. I'm not sure what the reason for it was, or anything like that, but he called in a bomb scare, that he had planted a bomb somewhere. They had to put it together. As I recall, I think we just started the set, or maybe started the first song of the set. He was just this guy.
Clarence was a very affable guy. He took a lot of people under his wing and befriended a lot of people. Sometimes they were kind of strange people. I don't know. I didn't know him. I'm surprised I even remember that name, only because it's kind of a ... It was kind of like Elton, like Elton John. Elton Jones. Anyway, we don't know for a fact, we kind of after the fact surmised it must have been this fellow.
Lt. Steven Caballero: They had to have thought the threat was credible because they evacuated everybody. My guess is they figured, let's get everyone out and search. It's going to take so many hours to look. We'll keep some employees here because who better to know if something looks out of place. If we find something we can keep the theater closed, but if now, we can let everyone back in. It must've been credible enough for them to not want to have that liability.
Robert Cavallo: The crowd was great, probably because Springsteen was (out) there. Then, he came back on the microphone and said, "Listen, let the cops do their job. Come back at 12:00, and we'll put on a show for ya."
Are you loose?
As fans streamed out and headed for neighborhood bars like Brett's (now McBob's), across North Avenue, and restaurants, like the now-gone La Joy Chinese Restaurant across Lisbon, or milled about in the triangular parking lot across 49th Street, the band piled into a limo and headed for The Pfister, where they set up shop in the hotel's lobby bar...
Bruce Springsteen (from the stage during the second set): "I don't know what you did, but we got real weird. We ran back to the hotel. Ran into the bar. I said bartender, 'I need a drink.' I was shakin', my knees were weak, I couldn't see straight. Steve was there. We were sitting at the bar, we were scared to death, we said, 'Bartender, somebody tried to blow us up tonight.' We said, 'Bartender, are you loose?' He looked at me and said, 'Son, are you loose?' I said, 'Yeah.' And there I was and Clarence came in the bar. Clarence shuffled in in his white suit. The people over at The Puh-ffffister didn't know what was happening. That is a weird joint. So there we was. I was sitting at the bar, Steve was sitting at the bar, Clarence was at the bar, we was drinking our skulls out. And that's when it happened. It got very serious for a minute. I sat back, I seen what was coming I took a big gulp, my knees started shaking my heart started beating faster than it ever had, I said, 'Steve you know ..."
Garry Tallent: We just vacated the place with everybody else and back to the hotel and killed some time until we were called back and they brought people back in. We went back and finished the set. Unfortunately, we weren't quite as sober as we were. We just thought it was weird. I don't think anybody freaked out. It was just strange. It was just, "Is this something that we're going to be dealing with all the time?" I guess they weren't as common back then, but they existed. No, I don't think anybody really freaked out. It's like, "Coitus interuptis." We're into the set and all of a sudden stop. Yeah, when we got back to the hotel we just hung together. Thinking it would just take a few minutes. I don't even know how long. You probably know more about this than I do.
I just remember we were waiting and then I guess we kind of got bored and figured that at some point that the show would be postponed or cancelled or whatever. Somebody decided that we should probably have a drink or two, which is something that we don't normally do before a show.
Peter Mortensen: In those days the lobby bar was enclosed. It was a place called Cafe Ole, that was established sometime in the '60s. The space had been put in sometime in the late 1950s. It was a bar, very popular with people after work. At 9 o'clock on a Thursday, it was probably fairly happening. You had a mix of regulars who came in and hotel guests. It was just kind of the hotel equivalent of a Cheers, in the sense that there were a number of regulars, people who stopped in on their way home from work. It was a more relaxed environment. It was very dark, a place you could be anonymous.
A 1971 advertisement for Cafe Ole, a bar that also served food.
We had a number of bartenders and they really made themselves at home. There wasn't as much job turnover as you see now. Most of them tended to be older men, outgoing, engaging and certainly the one I remember the most was a man named Jacques, but he went by Jocko. Very very outgoing, very exuberant guy and funny. Just found humor in everything. He was the classic "mine host" and he really took to that role. For him it wasn't about pouring drinks, it was about making that connection with people. Particularly if the bar wasn't really crowded, I could easily see him getting involved in whatever was going on with any individual group of people. Between that and kidding the waitresses. That's how he whiled away the evening.
He retired from the hotel probably early to mid '90s. Last time I had seen him, which would have been a number of years ago, he had been working for, I think, the City. In the hospitality industry, you get to meet a lot of people, but they come and go, so you lose track of people. But he was definitely a character.
Bob Reitman: Bruce and the guys get on the bus, or whatever they're driving, to go back the Pfister. Anyway, we're wandering around the theater. They're due back about midnight. I stay there. Hanging around watching. I don't recall (bomb sniffing) dogs, but I'm sure they were looking. I cannot even begin to guess what they were thinking, but if you forced me to, I would guess that they probably suspected that there wasn't (a bomb).
Fans wait outside The Uptown while awaiting the resumption of the concert. (Photo: Mark Goff)
Mark Goff: The crowd went outside and milled around for while thinking we'd be back in soon, which is when I took the photo (above). At that point the Fire Department hadn't even arrived. Then Alan Dulberger, the promoter, came out and said the concert would resume at midnight. It was only a little after 8 p.m. and it wasn't going to take the FD almost four hours to check out that little theater.
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