First off, apologies for the excessive reprint specials in the past month or so. Well, I suppose I should be more apologetic for the excessive Springsteen content, because that’s been much more frequent. I think, after this weekend, we’ll be taking a bit of a break from The Boss for a couple of weeks, barring one or two pieces during the week. I can’t help it, there’s just so much Springsteen in my library. What’s more shocking is that there’s been so little Trent Reznor stuff so far. That’s the real motherlode.
Like the other three reprints, this originally appeared on Yelling About Music, January 5, 2013. Almost two years ago to the day, because that’s the birthday of this album. This particular version was something I actually used as a piece of sample writing when applying for an internship way back in April of this year. I didn’t get the job, unfortunately, but it provided me an opportunity to clean this piece up and make it more presentable to the me of 2015, as opposed to the garbage writer I was at the end of 2012.
Spoilers: Tomorrow will be a Vinyl Special with updated thoughts about Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., though I’ll try to focus on other aspects of the album than what’s covered here, since much of this article is factual information that hasn’t changed. In any case, please enjoy this, and look forward to tomorrow’s Special and the return of the daily schedule on Monday.
Forty years ago today [January 5, 2013], the world was introduced to Bruce Springsteen.
Or rather, the small portion of the country that initially bought Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (many of whom had most likely been tracking Springsteen for years, starting from his time with the Castiles) was introduced not to Springsteen the frontman, but Springsteen the solo artist – Springsteen the independent musician – Springsteen the “New Dylan” of that calendar year.
The album did…passably, so to speak. Neither “Blinded by the Light” nor “Spirit in the Night” – both tracks that had been recorded after the rest of the album, with a skeleton crew of Springsteen, Clarence Clemons, and Vini Lopez, and, incidentally, both four word titles that rhyme – made a dent in the Billboard charts. Manfred Mann’s 1977 cover of “Blinded,” perhaps ironically, hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, after Born to Run made Springsteen a national star, which remains Springsteen’s only Hot 100 chart-topper.
The sessions were, compared to the hellish sessions for Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town further down the road, short and quick, especially by Springsteen’s standards. There were, naturally, disagreements between him and Mike Appel regarding the album’s content – Appel had convinced Columbia to sign Springsteen as a solo artist, a true “New Dylan,” while Springsteen had every intention of bringing the Bruce Springsteen Band (Lopez, Garry Tallent, Danny Federici, and Steven Van Zandt) with him to the sessions. Thus, the initial submission of the album in July 1972 was a fifty-fifty split between Springsteen’s solo tracks, and full-band tracks, resulting in a ten-track album. (Of these full band tracks, Van Zandt only contributed with sound effects on Lost in the Flood due to prior obligations, while Federici was similarly unable to contribute, being replaced by David Sancious for both Greetings and The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle later that year.)
While Mike Appel was convinced that this album was the one Columbia had wanted, CBS president Clive Davis stated that the album lacked a hit single, and that the full-band tracks were stronger than the solo tracks, essentially siding with Springsteen in regards to the album’s content. Thus, in August of that year, Springsteen returned to the studio, this time with only Lopez being held over from the previous sessions. With Davis’s musings that the album needed a hit single fresh in his mind, Springsteen decided that the songs would require saxophone – and so he called Clarence Clemons, who he’d met the previous year, to record the soon-to-be iconic saxophone parts. After retooling the album’s running order, Springsteen arrived at the album’s final tracklist – seven full-band tracks, and just two solo tracks (having removed three from the initial submission.) This album would be given an initial release date of December 1972, but was pushed back to January 1973 to avoid competing with the holiday rush of albums from more established artists.
So Springsteen’s debut album, the album that featured songs that he’d wooed John Hammond – the John Hammond – with in his audition to be signed by Columbia Records, dropped into the world, and nobody cared.
That’s a bit of an overstatement – there were several thousand people that cared enough to at least buy the thing. But it was just another drop in the poisonous pool of “New Dylan,” a tag that, by 1973, guaranteed the offending artist a career of obscurity and non-relevance. But, as you may have heard by now, Springsteen was different from the rest of the “New Dylan” pack in that he didn’t intend to rely on the tag to keep his career afloat, and he never had. In fact, he himself disliked the connotations of it, well aware of how people generally reacted to “New Dylans.”
“Why did we need a New Dylan when the Old Dylan was still around?” he’d once stated in an interview, perhaps voicing the opinions of all those music critics and disc jockeys that had refused to play his singles solely because of the “New Dylan” stigma, instead writing him off as just another shitty singer-songwriter that would disappear in a few years, or a few months if everyone was lucky.
The difference that Greetings exhibited was that the songs in it were heartfelt, genuine, and most of all, good damn songs. The level of wordplay and lyricism exhibited in the songs was incredible for a musician so young, even if the lyrics themselves didn’t always make sense (have you ever actually read the lyrics for “Blinded by the Light?”) It was, perhaps, that wordplay and level of musical talent and ability that drew Springsteen’s early supporters to him, the ones that flocked to the concerts, setting forward the concert pattern that would continue to escalate in scale and grandiosity for the next decade, finally hitting the border of ridiculousness with the Born in the U.S.A. Tour in 1985.
Those first concerts as “Bruce Springsteen” and the prototypical version of the E Street Band – the culmination of Springsteen’s attempts to put his own name at the front of his musical endeavors, instead of being part of a separately named ensemble – were his proving ground, where he took the songs on Greetings and the demo versions of songs that would later surface on Wild & Innocent, Born to Run, or possibly never at all, and truly breathed life into them, showed the world (or rather, the East and West Coasts) what they really were supposed to sound like.
Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. has several moments of clear distinction between the groups of songs – it’s easy to tell which songs had been recorded together, and three groups of songs make up the album – the five full band tracks recorded with the expanded ensemble in the summer, the two solo tracks recorded at the same time, and the two tracks recorded towards the end of the recording cycle with Clemons and Lopez. Aside from the instrumental compositions of the tracks, the lyricism and subject matter differentiated these groups of songs from each other.
The initial full band tracks are all rooted in the Jersey Shore, fantastical stories of people that may or may not exist, all of them bursting with character, just as the songs themselves are bursting with extravagantly named characters. The songs are fast paced and frantic (with the exception of Lost in the Flood), demonstrating the energy that Springsteen had been holding in to release in the studio.
The two solo tracks are far less solid and approachable than the full band tracks, with slow melodies and shaky lyrics, further emphasized by the fact that neither of these songs were ever played regularly – “The Angel,” in fact, was never played live at all until 2009, when it was played in sequence with the rest of Greetings, at the conclusion of the Working on a Dream tour.
And the two saxophone tracks – these were very clearly tailor-made to be singles, with easy, infectious rhythms dominated by Clemons’s reedy, airy saxophone, and Springsteen’s abundance of wordplay, and his nervous habit of cramming as many words into a line as possible, to the point where the lyrical structure falls apart at several points in the album.
Perhaps the album’s only compositional mis-step is in “For You” and its full band arrangement – the juxtaposition of the lyrical subject matter (a lover being rushed to the hospital yet again, perhaps this time dying on the way) and the upbeat, high tempo instrumentation feeling rather jarring, masking the true nature of the lyrics on the first few listens. Perhaps this juxtaposition was Springsteen’s intent; however, the song is undoubtedly more powerful in its live, piano-only version, where Springsteen is the sole man on stage, in full control of the song’s feel, forcing his audience to hear every painful aspect of the lyrics, to realize the true nature of the song. There is also the matter of the two remaining solo tracks, which, considering the rest of the album, were likely only left on as filler, to keep the album at a respectable length, without having to record more full band tracks with a skeleton band, in the vein of “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night.”
Despite the album’s advanced age, Springsteen has continued to keep it well-represented all the way through to his current Wrecking Ball Tour. “Growin’ Up” in particular has been a crowd favorite since 1973, with the traditional story inserted into the bridge expanding in length and grandiosity roughly in time with Springsteen’s own live shows, culminating in what I consider to be the absolute definitive performance of the song, during the 1985 leg of the Born in the U.S.A. Tour. The song then was removed from Springsteen’s setlists for about as long as it had been a mainstay (with only a few exceptions from 1992 to 1997), returning alongside the E Street Band for the 1999 Reunion Tour and making an occasional appearance ever since.
Most of the other tracks experienced a drought of plays from the late 70s through to the Reunion Tour, only being pulled out on special occasions, or as sign requests. “Mary Queen of Arkansas” and “The Angel” are by far the rarest of the Greetings tracks, “Mary” having been played less than twenty times ever and “The Angel” a whopping one time. “Blinded by the Light” received a big-band makeover for the 2006 Sessions Band tour; “Lost in the Flood” was a setlist regular during the Reunion Tour and made infrequent appearances during subsequent tours.
“Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” and “Spirit in the Night” received revitalizing new arrangements during the Wrecking Ball tour, assisted by the band’s new five-piece horn section. “Spirit” became a mainstay and one of the centerpieces of the set during the European leg of that tour, featuring lengthy intros and outros with Springsteen screaming to the crowd, “CAN YOU FEEL THE SPIRIT?” as well as a heartwarming segue into the bridge, with Springsteen and Jake Clemons (‘filling in’ on tenor saxophone for his uncle Clarence, who’d died in 2011) sitting on the steps of the stage, Springsteen mentioning that Jake hadn’t been born when the song was written and the story initially told.
And, of course, there was the legendary run of the full album in Buffalo in 2009, the closing show of the Working on a Dream tour; the last tour show that Clarence Clemons would ever play. Fitting, perhaps, that his last full show with the E Street Band would include the very album that he helped shape, the album that served as the first stepping stone for Springsteen to become the international icon that he is today.
And so, while Born to Run made Bruce Springsteen a star, and Born in the U.S.A. Took that star and elevated it into an American icon, it must never be forgotten that it all started with a little nine-track album called Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J..
Can you feel the spirit?