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Bona Grad Reflects on Early Connection to Bruce Springsteen

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Backstage at a 1973 Central Park concert are (from left) Peter Knobler, Greg Mitchell, Bruce Springsteen and keyboardist David Sancious, an early member of the E Street Band.
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Tickets sold out in a matter of minutes for rock ‘n’ and roll legend Bruce Springsteen’s Feb. 25 “The River Tour” concert at Buffalo’s First Niagara Center.

Things happened a little differently nearly 45 years ago in December of 1972 when a young Springsteen got ready to take the stage at Sing Sing Prison for a concert his manager arranged as a publicity stunt of sorts. 

The manager had invited folk from all sorts of press outlets, but almost none of them showed up at the prison that is some 30 miles outside of New York City.

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In the audience sat Peter Knobler and Greg Mitchell, editors at the rock music magazine Crawdaddy.

Mitchell, who had graduated from St. Bonaventure University with a journalism degree two years earlier, had quickly worked his way up in the journalism world and held the position of the magazine’s senior editor.

“He had not released his first record yet,” Mitchell said, adding Springsteen, relatively unknown, had often been described wrongly as the next Bob Dylan. "It happened that I was invited to attend his first concert with his band before his record came out.”  

Mitchell recalled that he and Knobler, greatly impressed by that initial live performance, had the chance to listen again to Springsteen that same night at Kenny’s Castaways, a club in New York City. There, the two editors became friends with the musician, who had already signed with Columbia Records.

“There are plenty of press stunts that don’t work out or you say, ‘Well, this is kind of fun, but the artist kind of sucks,’ ” Mitchell said. “So there was no guarantee that we were going to like him, especially to the extent that we did.”

Following the performances, Mitchell assisted Knobler in obtaining the first interview and writing the first profile of the rock ‘n’ roll musician.

“We decided that contrary to what anyone had ever done before, we were going to write like a 10,000-word feature about this guy no one had ever heard of because we thought he was great and he would become a star,” Mitchell said.

But Springsteen did not become a star right away. As Mitchell recalled, neither Springsteen’s first nor his second albums became chart toppers. It was not until 1975, when Springsteen released his third studio album, Born to Run, that Springsteen really found stardom, Mitchell added.

“But we kept supporting him,” said Mitchell, referring to Springsteen’s early trial years. “The first three or so years of his career were very touch and go. Crawdaddy was not only first but also his strongest supporter in those kind of crucial years.”

And, according to Mitchell, when Springsteen’s Born to Run moved him toward the top of the charts, Crawdaddy again honored the musician, this time with Springsteen’s first cover story, which was on newsstands before Springsteen graced the covers of Time and Newsweek. Crawdaddy did the same when the rock star released his fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, in 1978.

When Crawdaddy went out of business at the end of the 1970s, Mitchell took his writing in a whole new direction—writing books and editing historical and political magazines.

“My rock ‘n’ roll days were sort of over,” he said.

His connection to Springsteen did not end. “Bruce and I had reconnected a few years later, and he actually ended up writing the preface to my one of my books,” he said, referring to his work titled So Wrong for So Long, published in 2008. “It was sort of like coming full circle. He did me a big favor many so many years later after we wrote about him for Crawdaddy.”

Mitchell, a Niagara Falls native, did not start out writing about rock ‘n’ roll. Growing up, Mitchell enjoyed reading comics about Superman—but not just for the excitement of the daring rescues thanks to the superhero. “We all read the Superman Comics,” he said. “My friends wanted to be Superman, and I wanted to be Clark Kent.”

As a university student, he wrote for The Bona Venture, the student-run newspaper, during the academic year and for the Niagara Falls Gazette (now the Niagara Gazette) during the summer. After Crawdaddy folded, Mitchell served as the editor of Nuclear Times, a national magazine of the anti-nuclear movement, from 1982 to 1986, and later was the editor of Editor & Publisher.

Mitchell, who has more than 26,000 Twitter followers, has published over a dozen books, including The Campaign of the Century (1992), which received the Goldsmith Book Prize and was a top-five finalist for Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He has also served as the chief adviser for multiple documentaries, is a regular blogger and has had work published in both The New York Times and The Washington Post. Mitchell is finishing a book about a group escape under the Berlin Wall, The Tunnels; the movie version will be directed by Paul Greengrass.   

Mitchell remains in contact with Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, and memories of the artist have appeared in Mitchell’s work over the decades. In fact, Mitchell said that in The Tunnels, he mentions how Springsteen played in a concert in Berlin around 1988 and spoke out for freedom and the end to the Cold War.

“In a way, we’re reconnecting [because of the book],” he said.

And there’ll always be a hint of Springsteen in Mitchell’s home: A gold record of Born to Run hangs on one of Mitchell’s walls. 

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Greg Mitchell tells the story of meeting Bruce Springsteen in the video below.

 

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