40 years ago, Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt drove through the Utah and Nevada deserts. The Boss wrote about what he saw in one of his masterpieces.

Elvis Presley’s death almost derailed the trip.

Bruce Springsteen stops his car underneath storm clouds near Unionville, Nev., on Aug. 20, 1977. Copyright Eric Meola 2007.

There was no limousine waiting when Bruce Springsteen landed in Salt Lake City 40 years ago this week. Springsteen, who already was one of the biggest names in rock ’n’ roll, would spend the next few days driving, riding and even sleeping in a used car. 

His closest bandmate and sidekick, Steven Van Zandt, accompanied him on the trip. Springsteen also was traveling with someone else who had a role in making him famous — photographer Eric Meola. Together, in that red convertible Meola rented, they drove west on Interstate 80, across the Bonneville Salt Flats and into Nevada. 

That’s where they found roadside attractions. At one, dark clouds rolled in. Lightning flashed. 

“We were incredibly influenced by that storm,” Meola said. 

Meola made photographs of the trip. One of them appeared the next year inside the album cover for “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Springsteen shared what he saw in the lyrics for one of the album‘s songs, a harmonica-infused tune called ”The Promised Land.”

The song begins:

On a rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert<br>I pick up my money and head back into town<br>Driving cross the Waynesboro County line<br>I got the radio on and I’m just killing time<br>Working all day in my daddy’s garage<br>Driving all night, chasing some mirage<br>Pretty soon little girl I’m gonna take charge.

”Darkness” was the reason Meola persuaded Springsteen to go west. 

Bruce Springsteen performs at the Los Angeles Coliseum, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 1985. (AP Photo/Michael Tweed)

Ending the hiatus

Two years before the Utah and Nevada trip, Meola photographed Springsteen leaning against saxophonist Clarence Clemons for the cover of the “Born to Run” album. After its release, Springsteen and manager Mike Appel entered into contractual and legal disputes, during which Springsteen recorded, but didn‘t publish another album. 

Meola, in an interview Monday with The Salt Lake Tribune, said Springsteen played him songs he assumed would be on ”Darkness.” Meola started thinking about what the album cover would look like. He knew he couldn't repeat what he did with ”Born to Run.” 

“Bruce looked different,” Meola said. ”He shaved his beard, his hair was shorter and the songs had less to do with Jersey Shore.”

Meola had gotten infatuated with Gothic-looking photography from the Midwest and Great Plains. He visited Springsteen at the hotel where he was staying in Manhattan and took him photography books, including one by  Robert Frank titled ”The Americans.” Its photos showed the upper and lower classes of U.S. society in contrast to one another.  

“We threw some thoughts back and forth,” Meola said, “and he said, ‘Well, where do you want to go?’”

Photographer Eric Meola in 2017. Copyright Eric Meola 2017.

Meola looked at maps and came up with an idea to travel to eastern Nevada. He knew the population was low and the landscape desolate. 

“It just struck me that we were going to run into stuff out there,” he said. 

The plan was to fly to Salt Lake City, rent a car, drive to Nevada and find photogenic places on the way to Reno. From there, they could fly home.

Springsteen and Meola were to fly Aug. 17, 1977. The day before the trip, something happened to someone even more famous than Springsteen.

The king is gone

Elvis Presley died at his mansion in Memphis. Like nearly everyone of his generation, Springsteen regarded Presley as the embodiment of rock ’n’ roll. According to the biography ”Bruce,” by journalist Peter Ames Carlin, Springsteen even had tickets to see Presley perform the next month in Madison Square Garden. 

“I got a call from Bruce saying, ‘Do you really want to go on this? Maybe we should cancel the trip,’” Meola said. 

Meola was worried that there would be no rescheduling. He persuaded Springsteen to make the trip. 

At the car dealership, the men considered renting a 1957 Chevy. Meola said Springsteen ruled it out because it was too much of a cliché.

Instead, Meola paid $300 to rent a red 1965 Ford Galaxie 500XL with bucket seats. 

After spending a night in Salt Lake City, Springsteen, then 27 years old; Van Zandt, 26; and Meola, in his early 30s, began driving west.

In this Saturday, May 27, 2017 photo, Bruce Springsteen, right, performs at the Count Basie Theatre in Red Bank, N.J., with rocker Steven Van Zandt, left, during the show’s encore. Springsteen performed a handful of songs including “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” when Van Zandt surprised guests and invited Springsteen on stage. (Amanda Stevens/Count Basie Theatre via AP)

There are no published photos of Van Zandt on the trip. Meola said the best recollections he has of Van Zandt at that time was how he and Springsteen were talking about Presley and his Memphis Mafia — what Presley called the group of friends, family and employees who protected and served him.

Springsteen and Van Zandt believed the Memphis Mafia had abandoned Presley. The pair rehashed The King’s decline on the drive. 

They had plenty of time to talk. 

Silver State legend

Springsteen “wanted to take every single side road that we could in Nevada,” Meola said. 

Meola describes bouncing up and down gravel, sandy, washboard roads. Eventually, he and Springsteen passed eastern Nevada and entered the center of the state. 

On the first night of driving, Meola photographed Springsteen at the Valmy Auto Court in a town of the same name, the glow of the exterior lights illuminating Springsteen.

The photo was published on the jacket cover for a vinyl single Springsteen released on the CBS record label in 1981. The songs on the single: ”The River,” ”Born to Run” and ”Rosalita.”

Bruce Springsteen sits outside Valmy Auto Court in Valmy, Nev., on or about Aug. 18, 1977. Copyright Eric Meola 2007

The auto court was owned by Eugene DiGrazia, who at the time of Springsteen’s visit was about 64 years old and already a Nevada legend. He literally owned the town, which then had a population of 75 people, most of whom worked for Southern Pacific Railroad. 

The Valmy Auto Court was a Shell gas station, a Greyhound bus depot, a store and a post office. DiGrazia also owned a cafe, a motel and two trailer parks in Valmy. He had been appointed the town’s postmaster by President Franklin Roosevelt. He was the unofficial Valmy mayor and fire chief, and he drove the school bus. In his obituary in 1990, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported DiGrazia was preparing to appear as a guest for Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show” when he suffered a heart attack and died at age 77.

DiGrazia’s daughter-in-law, Susan DiGrazia, said he walked home after closing for the night, looked at everyone in the house funny and asked, ”Do you know a Bruce Springsteen?”

DiGrazia didn't, but the younger generation in the household did. The elder DiGrazia, his daughter-in-law said, told them a young man had showed up at the store about closing time and looked around. DiGrazia offered to stay open longer if he wanted to buy something. 

Springsteen instead asked if he could pose for a photo in the doorway, Susan DiGrazia said. The family still has a signed copy of ”The River” single Springsteen mailed DiGrazia. 

In this 2017 photo, a member of the DiGrazia family holds up a signed copy of the single Bruce Springsteen signed and mailed to Eugene DiGrazia. In 1977, Springsteen stopped at DiGrazia's Valmy Auto Court and posed for the photograph that's on the album cover. Courtesy DiGrazia family.

The evening wasn’t over for Springsteen. Meola said Springsteen had the threesome driving 34 hours with only a few roadside stops.

“He’s got a song called ‘Drive All Night,’” Meola said. ”It’s literal for him.”

At one point, Meola said, the three parked during the night on Main Street in Elko. Springsteen and Van Zandt stretched out in the car to sleep. Meola slept on the hood. 

There were dogs howling. Meola said it gave Springsteen the chorus for ”The Promised Land.”

The dogs on Main Street howl<br>’cause they understand<br>If I could take one moment into my hands<br>Mister, I ain’t a boy, no, I’m a man,<br>And I believe in a promised land.

Rolling in

If the Valmy Auto Court had been waiting for Springsteen, what he and Meola found near the town of Unionville required them to be nimble. 

On Aug. 20, Meola and Van Zandt got out of the convertible. Meola asked Springsteen to drive half a mile down the dirt road, then turn around and drive toward him. He set his Hasselblad camera on a tripod to photograph Springsteen driving through the flat valley with the mountains of the Humboldt Range in the backdrop. As he shot a roll of film, he saw dark clouds moving toward them.

The three drove back to I-80 and a roadside cafe to get something to eat. Within half an hour, Meola said, the sky blackened. 

“I said, ‘You know we have to go back,’” he said. 

They returned to the car and drove again toward Unionville. 

“And then all hell broke loose,” Meola said.

There was lightning and rain. Meola said it inspired another verse in ”The Promised Land.”

There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor<br>I packed my bags and I’m heading straight into the storm<br>Gonna be a twister to blow everything down<br>That ain’t got the faith to stand its ground<br>Blow away the dreams that tear you apart<br>Blow away the dreams that break your heart<br>Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted

Brenda's Cafe in Lovelock, Nev., is seen here in 1977 on the trip Bruce Springsteen, Steven Van Zandt and photographer Eric Meola made. Copyright Eric Meola 2007

Closing number

A day or two after the storm, Springsteen, Van Zandt and Meola finished their trip in Reno. 

Unknown to Meola at the time, Springsteen wrote during the trip. Not everything in ”The Promised Land” matches perfectly with the drive. For example, neither Utah nor Nevada has a Waynesboro County

But when Springsteen played Meola the song, the photographer knew where it originated. 

“It was obvious to me the song had been generated from everything we saw,” he said. 

Not everything worked out as planned. 

Meola’s photos of the trip did not make it onto the cover of ”Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Part of the problem, he said, was that in late 1977, Jackson Browne released ”Running on Empty” with an album cover depicting a drum kit sitting on an empty highway leading over a pass. 

But Springsteen and the record company also found what Meola acknowledges was a photograph that better captured the musician and what his album was about. Frank Stefanko took a portrait of Springsteen in a black leather jacket and white T-shirt standing in front of closed window blinds. 

According to the website Brucebase, which documents Springsteen concerts, he didn't perform in Utah until 1996. Springsteen played Abravanel Hall during a stop on a solo acoustic tour. 

Springsteen closed the show by playing ”The Promised Land.” 

(Tribune file photo) Bruce Springsteen, 1996.

Bruce Springsteen plays at symphony Hall. photo by Al Hartmann

Correction: Aug. 17, 3:52 p.m.: The caption for the photo of Bruce Springsteen at the Valmy Auto Court had the incorrect year. The photograph was taken in 1977.

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