Bedatri D. Choudhury
The Philadelphia Inquirer
PHILADELPHIA — “For two-and-a-half years, my life was Bruce,” Art Reilly said to me over the phone. “If there was a [Bruce] concert within 150 miles of Philly, we were on it: North Jersey, Delaware, Pittsburgh.”
Back in 1972, the Roxborough resident had come back from serving in Vietnam for 19 months as a combat photographer and “didn’t know Bruce from a hole in the wall.”
He was working at Barrington’s Edmund Scientific, producing its light show when Marc Brickman (who has since lit and produced shows for the Olympics, Paul McCartney, and more) asked Reilly to join him in Philadelphia, working for MacAvoy lighting.
“He said, ‘Yeah, we just got a contract for this guy named Bruce Springsteen. He was supposed to be contracted with another lighting group called McManus, but they didn’t want to do him. So I kind of got it as a fallback,’” Reilly said.
Ahead of Bruce Springsteen’s return to Philadelphia, I chatted with Reilly, who worked on some 75 Springsteen concerts, about the Boss’ early days in Philly.
[The interview has been edited for clarity.]
Q: I hate to start with this. What’s your favorite Springsteen song?
A: “Lost in the Flood”
Q: Do you remember your first Bruce show?
A: In April 1974, Brickman said we’re going to Widener University, in Chester. “I need you there at three in the afternoon.” And I showed up. It was Widener College then. I went into the student hall and there were a couple of folding chairs. I said, ‘There’s going to be a concert here tonight.’ They’d sold about 150 or 200 tickets, and it was a students’ union thing. I ended up helping set up chairs after our equipment was in and up, then waiting for the band to show up for a soundcheck. And that band: It’s Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.
Q: Was it any good?
A: The concert was a hit. It ended up being maybe 400 people. This was before anybody really knew him, before the 1975 Main Point show. He was just another local band that had a good sound, and they paid on time. 100 bucks a night for a roadie like me. That was great.
They had just hired Boom [Ernest] Carter as a drummer, after Vini Mad Dog [Vincent Lopez] left.
Q: Did you tell your friends about him?
A: I told everybody I knew that hadn’t heard about him. I said, “Man, you guys need to see this guy, Bruce Springsteen. You got to hear his music. He’s got a song called ‘Rosalita’ that will knock you on your behind.”
I talked him up as much as I could. First, because I thought he was really good. Second, because the more people that heard about him, more people would go to his concert, more concerts would mean more work for me. It was one of those one of those loops, When you’re 23 and 24, you think that way.
Q: When did you became a fan?
A: After the fourth or fifth time of working with him. Then it became, “Hey, we’re gonna go out and do a Bruce concert tonight. It’s gonna be fun.” They were never 90-minute concerts; always two to two-and-a-half hours so I knew it’d be a long day. But they had it together.
They didn’t come in and do very much of a soundcheck. I guess they did it a lot beforehand and were tight enough. They would come in and do maybe a 40-minute soundcheck, and then go away and eat and then wait for the concert to start. And in most cases, Bruce was the only one on the ticket, there were usually no opening acts. Everyone knew he was going to come on and stay on.
Q: You were a combat photographer in Vietnam. Did you take pictures of the Boss?
A: I always had my cameras with me. So as soon as my part of the job was done, I started taking pictures at all the concerts we went to. I literally have a couple hundred pictures of Bruce Springsteen.
Q: What other Philly-area shows stand out to you?
A: The 1973 show at Roxy Theatre [now a Dunkin], right by Roxborough where I now live. And it was again a local thing, you could probably put 400 people in that theater. It was a really, really good show and got lots of people talking about it locally and spreading the word.
Q: And then he blew up?
A: I’ll be honest with you, once Jon Landau took over as manager for Bruce Springsteen, it suddenly went from the super sharp, “Wow, this guy’s really got it together” to “Born in the U.S.A.” and the anthems and stadiums.
You know, early on, Bruce would say, “You’ll never catch me at the Spectrum.” He liked the 400-, 600-seat venues. It reminded him of the Stone Pony, of the places he played when he was starting out, when the people could get right up to the stage. Then Landau let go of Boom Carter and got Max Weinberg on board.
Q: When did you stop working with the band?
A: Not until Jon Landau wrote that famous line, “I’ve seen the future of rock and roll. His name is Bruce Springsteen.” That made Rolling Stone, and then he quit writing and became Bruce’s manager and got rid of everybody, including the stage lighting company.
But they decided to keep Brickman.
Q: What did you do after?
A: I went off and started working in broadcast television, for Showtime, HBO, ESPN, all the local sports places. I retired from the TV business in 2018. And I’m now sitting back and enjoying life.