The Exorcist & The E Street Shuffle

The Exorcist & The E Street Shuffle

It’s March 3rd, 1974 — I remember, because the Watergate Scandal is seared into my brain, and two days earlier, seven members of Reagan’s administration (‘The Watergate Seven’) had been impeached. 1973-74: these were the gift years that just kept on giving.

It was the idea of Mike O’Mahony, CBS Records’ maverick Irish/American PR maven, to book us into the Watergate Hotel overlooking the Potomac. Here was a Grade A opportunity to pillage any artefacts still left in the Watergate Complex and sell them on eBay (wait... that can’t be right). I was a journalist on Sounds, and had been sponsored by CBS as a kind of special envoy to create some advanced publicity for the first UK performance by their new protégé, Bruce Springsteen (specifically his debut at Hammersmith Odeon in November the following year). But by the time I arrive in New York, the tour has been temporarily derailed due to a throat infection and the fact that he has been coughing up blood.

“Wait for the call,” is the instruction from CBS. “Put everything on room service, and we’ll fly you to wherever the tour resumes.” There are worse places to be holed up than the Plaza Hotel on Central Park South; and by day two, I’ve done their rider, I’m frustrated, overfed, and fed up, so CBS line up interviews with Paul Simon and Johnny Winter. The first is a prosaic affair, an international press conference to tie in with the launch of There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, (and to hear how he has mastered the skills of classical guitar), but the second sure as hell isn’t.

The albino bluesman has just emerged from a long seconal programme after a kind of Verlaine/Rimbaud enfants terrible type narco-ride (allegedly with Rick Derringer). It was around the time of Still Alive & Well... two adjectives which still seemed mightily premature in their assignation.

The call duly comes, and we are off to Washington... Georgetown University to be exact (newly immortalised in William Friedkin’s terrifying movie, The Exorcist, which had launched in the States three months earlier). The famous Exorcist house was 3600 Prospect Street, Georgetown, and much of the movie’s backdrop is the very 750-seat Gaston Hall auditorium where the Springsteen show is about to take place.

The Watergate itself is a washout — nothing but plain white linen and some fancy stationery, which I still have to this day. All the genuine memorabilia has either been removed or stolen. But we’re in the music industry, doing hotel damage is in our DNA!

But in truth, I don’t have much appetite for a wrecking ball. I am still nursing the mother of all hangovers, brought about by my interview with Johnny Winter the previous day. When the hard-living Texan had asked if I wanted a drink, I expected him to emerge at least with a cheeky Rebel Yell, a bottle of Jack, or something moderately dangerous like Mezcal... Not two bottles of Harveys Bristol Cream Sherry! My head was now spinning faster than Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist (though admittedly without Regan’s diabolical pea green vomit).

We check the schedule: there’s an 8pm show and a midnight show. Opening act is Orleans led by John and Johanna Hall (before the former became a politician). OK, so who remembers Dance With Me?

We leave the left-footers of Georgetown and head for the gig. The midnight show ends after the E Street Band has worked its way through most of Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle — and then they launch into a lengthy Gary US Bonds tribute. There must have been something prophetic in Bonds’ famous hit Quarter To Three, because that was around the time the ensemble exited the stage for the final time.

Backstage, Springsteen’s manager, Mike Appel, attempts to block the interview on the grounds of his charge’s health — aside from illness, this waif-like street urchin (as Bruce certainly was back then) is heavily fatigued; and besides, dawn would soon be breaking. But the artist is having none of it... And after treating me to a new song on the backstage piano, we find an all night burger bar and talk until sunrise, Springsteen swigging cough mixture all the while.

A year later, Zigzag, the UK’s premier fanzine, is looking for a cover story, and calls me up to see if I have any ideas. What the hell?! So I dial Springsteen’s home landline on the off-chance he’ll pick up. He does — and after a 40-minute cathartic riff (about why the E Street Band is broke, and on the verge of breaking up... tight finances, alimony payments due, etc.) we end the call. Trying to make a living off an elpee’s worth of toons, is how Todd Rundgren neatly puts it. Many years later, the interview appears in a Bloomsbury Press compendium / miscellany of rock journalism (which at least covers the cost of the original long distance call).

Touted as ‘the next Dylan’, by the time Springsteen arrives in the UK the following year he is on the offensive, rejecting the hype from his record company, and enraged at the posters declaring: Finally London is ready for Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band.

Unable to take up the offer from his tour manager, Peter Jay Philbin, to attend the earlier soundcheck, Bruce Springsteen seeks me out at the show’s after-party — a lost soul in the unglamorous balcony bar at Hammersmith Odeon (though I probably made a mental note to keep him away from the balcony edge). It was the final time we were to invade each other’s personal space. Darkness on the edge of... what?

From then on, we were on different trajectories. While he was born to run, I seemed destined to forever remain a little bit sideways.