Bruce Springsteen’s pre-Born to Run work can often be overlooked, because of its relative obscurity and drastic divergence from the kind of music that made Springsteen famous. The working man’s hero is not present on this album; in his place is a young man, still brimming with cautious optimism and an eye full of wonder for the world around him, spinning grandiose tales of the Jersey Shore and the characters that are packed into it. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., alongside its fellow 1973 record The Wild, The Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle is very much a regional record, one that still works on a national scale, but is very much rooted in the place that Springsteen called home for much of his professional career.
I have a great amount of personal fondness for this album. Debut albums are always a little rough around the edges, where an artist is trying to figure out exactly what their audience will and won’t take from them. Springsteen, of course, had a very good idea of what his audience wanted, as he had been performing live for years prior to Greetings, but he was also trying to define himself on his own terms, as the artist Bruce Springsteen, not as the frontman of a band. Perhaps this is why he allowed a couple fully solo tracks to make it onto the album, even with his intent on highlighting the full-band aspect of his music.
And he was right; “Mary Queen of Arkansas” and “The Angel” are simply not up to snuff. They’re two incredibly forgettable tracks in an era where Springsteen made very little forgettable music. That’s not his fault; I get the impression that Springsteen simply isn’t all that great at making tracks as bare as those two. Both of them are slow, and feel like they drag on forever. They’re not like the Nebraska tracks, where Springsteen was just laying down demos, or The Ghost of Tom Joad and Devils & Dust, where the songs were still complemented by additional instrumentation, sometimes full band levels of instrumentation. These two are just Springsteen, fully formed tracks that just do not work. No wonder he never plays them.
But the rest of them are so, so good. One of my absolute favorites from this album is “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?”, which really comes alive in a live setting. My first Springsteen concert was on March 23, 2012, the third stop of the Wrecking Ball tour, in Tampa. The setlists for the first two shows had mostly adhered to the skeleton of the warm-up, Sirius Radio-broadcasted Apollo Theatre show several weeks before; however, in Tampa, Springsteen began aggressively swapping out random songs from the set for the benefit of our audience. One of the early swaps was after “My City of Ruins,” where the expected song was “The E Street Shuffle.” Preceded by a story about the song’s origins, when he began telling it, I noticed that the story seemed more oddly specific than before; once he mentioned that he’d written it on a bus, it clicked what he was doing, and I got so, so excited. The band was immediately in full gear, and it was a fantastic performance.
An interesting thing about the album’s vinyl packaging (and the packaging of vinyl replicas – more on those in a second) is how the cover isn’t just a traditional vinyl sleeve. Springsteen reportedly came up with the idea for the postcard cover, and had to fight through his manager, Mike Appel, who thought that the cover designers at Columbia would never let it happen. However, it turned out that the designer was a huge fan of postcards, and Springsteen’s idea became exactly what the cover turned out to be. The postcard section of the album cover folds over the sleeve, creating a flap that keeps the record secure in its sleeve, while adding additional surface area to print the album’s lyrics and credits without the need for interior liner notes. It’s interesting that Columbia was willing to presumably take on additional manufacturing costs for the non-standard sleeve, for an as-yet unproven artist; this lenience, compared with the fact that the album barely sold for its first two years in print, may be why The Wild, the Innocent, & the E Street Shuffle has such a traditional portrait of Springsteen as its cover, something Springsteen didn’t want to do for Greetings.
So, reissues. Greetings, like the rest of Springsteen’s early catalogue, received an interesting set of reissues in 2005, where the albums were all packaged in CD-sized replicas of their vinyl sleeves, with every part of the vinyl packaging intact; some of the CDs were even designed to look like records. I have the 2005 reissue of Greetings from this run of albums, as well as a copy of Darkness on the Edge of Town, for reasons we’ll talk about later on. It’s an incredibly faithful recreation of the Greetings artwork – more faithful, it turns out, than my own copy of the album on vinyl, which is actually a 1975 reissue in the wake of Born to Run‘s success, with a generic inner sleeve as opposed to the interesting newspaper-style promotional sleeve that apparently came with the original album. The Japanese reissue is actually done a little better than Springsteen’s own CD reissue, released in The Album Collection, Vol. 1 in November, which I also have. Yeah, I have three copies of Greetings. That’s going to happen a lot with albums I like.
Greetings certainly isn’t the best album in Springsteen’s catalogue – no, this is the man that made Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Greetings was his first album, so it can’t possibly be the best. However, it still stands as a simply fantastic album, and is almost certainly in the top 5 for many people, even with Springsteen’s musical renaissance of the 2000s. The album is a portrait of early Springsteen, Springsteen before he became The Boss, when he was still trying to sort out what being The Boss of his own band, his own career, really meant. There are duds on the album, there are some questionable choices, and the band standing behind him was much less secure and consistent than it would become, but Greetings was the start of a legend, the start of one of the most storied careers in rock music, and an essential piece of music history.