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Lohmann: 50 years ago, Springsteen's band Steel Mill headlined a concert atop a Richmond parking deck

Lohmann: 50 years ago, Springsteen's band Steel Mill headlined a concert atop a Richmond parking deck

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The idea came to Russell Clem when he went downtown — maybe to pay a parking ticket at City Hall, he can’t remember exactly — and he couldn’t find parking on the street, so he steered the borrowed car he was driving into the parking garage at Seventh and Marshall streets and experienced a sudden moment of inspiration:

The top floor of the seven-story deck, open to the sky, would be a perfect place for a rock concert.

“I went to the [garage] office and there were some people in there, and I presented the idea to them, and they said, ‘Yes,’” he recalled in a tone of voice that says he still can’t quite believe it. “I mean, the only pitch I made to them was, ‘It’s a Friday night, and you’re not going to be selling a lot of parking spaces on a Friday night, but if we have a concert up there you probably will.’”

Simple as that. No contract. No permits. Clem wasn’t even charged rent (or a fee to plug into the structure’s electricity to power the sound system and spotlights).

When I expressed amazement at such a deal, Clem said, “At that time in history, things like that weren’t that unusual.”

The idea to employ a parking deck as a concert venue was birthed in a bit of desperation. Clem managed a Richmond band called Mercy Flight, whose lead singer was the late Robbin Thompson, and booked shows for other bands, including one from New Jersey, Steel Mill, which had built a devoted Richmond following.

He was tasked with finding a place for Mercy Flight and Steel Mill to play a gig, but one of his usual spots, Free University, near Laurel and Broad streets, had closed so he didn’t know what he was going to do — he had little money to work with. (He didn’t even own a car at the time, hence the borrowed car he was driving). He couldn’t even consider booking a place like The Mosque, now known as Altria Theater.

“Not only could I not afford The Mosque,” Clem recalled, “I couldn’t afford The Mosque basement.”

But the top floor of the parking deck at Seventh and Marshall came at precisely the right price — zilch — and so the concert was scheduled for Aug. 14, 1970, and held under the stars, taking up permanent residency in Richmond music lore. The show included an opening act, Marlo Mays & The Stingers Blues Band, followed by Mercy Flight and headlined by Steel Mill, a band fronted by a dynamic, long-haired young singer and guitarist named Bruce Springsteen.

***

“Epic” is how Tom Cool Yolton recalls the show.

“No cooler concert setting that I have seen,” he wrote in an email, and he ought to know. He’s played for a lot of bands in a lot of concerts, including that one, as lead guitarist for Mercy Flight. He still performs and lives near Lexington, Ky.

The Mercy Flight drummer on stage with him, David Hazlett, remembers looking up at the sky and noting the dark clouds “were just zooming by.

“I mean, it was magical,” Hazlett said. “One of the better venues that I’ve ever done.”

Tickets were $2.50 apiece. Concertgoers streamed up the parking deck stairwell and vehicle ramp and stood for the entire show. It wasn’t quite elbow-to-elbow, attendees said, but the rooftop was crowded. Clem doesn’t remember how many tickets were sold (or how many freebies got around the ticket table), but he’s heard others say the attendance was about 1,200, and he believes that could be “approximately right.”

“It was pretty much full,” he said.

Those who were there remember different things about that night — after all, it’s been half a century: how windy it was seven stories up (some recalled microphones being knocked over by the breeze), a storm approaching in the distance (but no rain) and Clem, preacher-like, introducing Steel Mill, against a backdrop of thunder and lightning, “If you’re ready to witness, they’re ready to testify!”

Oh, and the parking garage started shaking during the show.

“You know when you’re in a ball stadium and everybody’s jumping up and down and you feel the structure?” recalled Bo Jacob, a young “roadie” with Mercy Flight who has been touring and working with bands and artists, most recently Randy Newman, off and on for 50 years. “That was the sensation I had. It was just flexing from everybody dancing.”

Glenn Habel, a student at the University of Richmond at the time who had become a fan of Steel Mill and went on to become a musician himself, recalls the deck “just sort of moving under your feet. But you’re 20 years old, and you don’t care.”

Youth also served Bland Goddin, a student at the Collegiate School, who was 15 then and now figures she must have been the youngest at the show. “My boyfriend and I … kind of thought we were cool,” she said with a laugh. The swaying of the building was something she still remembers, but, she added, “When you’re 15 years old, it’s not really scary.”

“I remember going up those steps, feeling that place swaying and the energy of the whole thing,” she said. “Those guys really put out some energy.”

***

Springsteen’s connection to Richmond is well-documented. New Jersey, of course, was his base, but Richmond became something of a Southern outpost for him in the 1960s and early 1970s, before he appeared on the covers of Time and Newsweek in the same week of October 1975 and went riding off into the big-time.

In those days, he came to Richmond every few months with his early bands — Child, Steel Mill and The Bruce Springsteen Band — playing small clubs around town, Randolph-Macon College a couple of times (where he opened for Chicago and Iron Butterfly on successive nights) and even a couple of concerts in Monroe Park.

Despite having no record contract or radio play in the early years, Springsteen and his bands became “enormously popular in Richmond,” he wrote in his 2016 autobiography, “Born To Run.”

“Our voodoo had worked outside of the Garden State!” he wrote, adding that as they tried to spread their geographic reach, “it was our Jersey and Virginia fans who kept us in subs and cheeseburgers.”

The community that followed Springsteen around whenever he played in Richmond had an almost Deadhead-like vibe, said Buzzy Lawler, who was a 19-year-old college student and musician when he attended the parking deck show.

“Richmond really took Springsteen and his band into their hearts,” said Lawler, who plays today with The English Channel. “There was always a feeling of community because a lot of friends and fellow musicians went out to see them. Just a real feeling of camaraderie.”

Without radio airplay, word of mouth and seeing-is-believing built Springsteen’s faithful following in Richmond, or as Habel put it, “Anybody who stumbled into [a Springsteen show] once, always came back for another show. They were really good.”

Habel was told about Steel Mill by a college friend who had attended Woodstock the previous summer and later saw Steel Mill at one of its Richmond shows.

“He said he saw this group from New Jersey and they were insanely good,” Habel recalled. “He said, ‘They’re better than anybody I saw at Woodstock.’”

Those who followed Steel Mill described the band as “hard-rocking” and threw out such comparisons as the Allman Brothers Band, Santana, Humble Pie and Cream. You can judge for yourself by listening to audio of a dozen songs from the 1970 concert, which is on YouTube. (Go to YouTube and search for “Richmond parking deck show.”)

No matter who Steel Mill reminded anyone of, everyone agreed Springsteen — a month shy of turning 21 at the time of the concert — had a manner about him, an extraordinary way of connecting with the audience.

“Everybody knew the guy had the goods,” Habel said. “Lots of people are good songwriters, lots of people have good bands and sing well, but not everybody is born with charisma, and he had it in spades.”

Mike McAdam, who attended the show, was a young musician whose band had opened for Springsteen earlier at a show at the old Hullabaloo Club near Willow Lawn. He said the first question anyone would ask after seeing Springsteen for the first time was, “Why is this guy not a star?”

He was, McAdam said. It was just that few people beyond Asbury Park, N.J., and Richmond knew it.

“He had star quality … everything about him,” McAdam said in a phone interview from Nashville, where he has lived and worked for 35 years as a session and touring musician and who was well-known around Richmond for his time as a guitarist in The Good Humor Band. “He just hadn’t been signed to a label yet.”

Steel Mill opened its set with “Dancing in the Street,” the song written by Marvin Gaye and made into a hit by Martha and the Vandellas in 1964, but most of the other songs on the playlist were written by Springsteen. As a songwriter, he was so prolific in those early days, fans recall seeing him multiple times in a year and often hearing new songs each time.

The makeup of Springsteen’s band was evolving: For example, Steven Van Zandt, Springsteen’s longtime bandmate, was part of Steel Mill; Clarence Clemons, who became a stalwart of the E Street Band, was not.

The band evolved even more a few days after the show when Springsteen invited Thompson, Mercy Flight’s lead singer, to join Steel Mill, which he did within days. Hazlett, the Mercy Flight drummer, also played a few gigs with Steel Mill when the band’s regular drummer, Vini Lopez, wasn’t available and lived for a time in the surfboard factory on the Jersey Shore where Springsteen resided. Hazlett, who went by Hazy Dave, later showed up in the lyrics of Springsteen’s “Spirit in the Night,” on the “Greetings from Asbury Park N.J.” album, as “Hazy Davy.” Hazlett lives in Midlothian and performs with Hazy Dave and the Mission Band.

The poster promoting the parking deck show was on display for a time at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, according to the hall’s curator, as part of the exhibit “From Asbury Park to the Promised Land: The Life and Music of Bruce Springsteen.”

***

Late that night, after the show, Jacob and band members were loading out the gear — a long haul to the street below.

“We were all there, including Bruce, schlepping equipment,” Jacob said.

Two days later, Brent Pye, a 17-year-old high school student and fan of the Richmond music scene who attended the parking deck show, went to see an Allman Brothers show at the String Factory, a club at Laurel and Broad that occupied the space where Free University used to hold shows.

“I remember showing up early and hanging around,” said Pye, who was a rising senior at Highland Springs High. “The Allman Brothers Band was unloading their equipment, and I see Bruce walking across the street — white tank top, cut-off jeans, barefoot. He walks up to Duane and Greg Allman, shakes hands, looks like he was meeting them for the first time.”

It turned out to be a memorable weekend for Pye, who had interviewed Clem and written a three-paragraph news item in advance of the parking deck show that was published in The Richmond News Leader. When he showed up with his date at the show, Clem somehow recognized him and waved him in for free.

“Russell saved me five bucks and gave me great cred in front of this young lady,” said Pye, who now lives in Charlottesville, where he works in information technology.

Through the cloud of time, details of the event have grown hazy for Clem, though one thing that remains clear in his mind is the anxiety that washed over him in the hours leading up to the show.

“I remember getting there, seeing the set-up and walking over to the edge [of the parking deck] and looking down and losing it,” he said. “I just totally lost it at that moment. I thought, ‘Holy Toledo, what have I done!’”

His concern: During a night of revelry, someone would go over the side.

No one did, and you can hear the relief in Clem’s voice almost 50 years later.

At age 76, Clem still refers to Springsteen as “Brucie” in a phone interview from Florida. His official residence is North Carolina, but he said, “I basically live in my truck,” as he travels around selling T-shirts. The special events where he counts on setting up shop to make a living have all been canceled because of the pandemic. “It’s been tough on me,” he said.

Some stories have indicated Richmond’s parking deck show might have been inspired by “Let It Be,” a British documentary starring The Beatles that was in theaters that summer and featured an unannounced rooftop concert by the group. Clem says not so. He had not seen the film, and it “didn’t have anything to do with my thinking.”

Looking back, he’s a little surprised the concept of parking deck concerts “didn’t gather more momentum.

“It has certain disadvantages,” he said, “but it is a pretty good outdoor venue.”

Although, in the words of Lawler, the musician who was there that night and has played countless gigs over the years, “Can you imagine trying to pull off something like that now?”

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