BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK, N.J. (1973)
1) Blinded By The Light; 2) Growin' Up; 3) Mary Queen Of Arkansas; 4) Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?; 5) Lost In The Flood; 6) The Angel; 7) For You; 8) Spirit In The Night; 9) It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City.
No sooner had Bruce Springsteen and his band recorded ten songs that were to constitute his aspiring debut album than Clive Davis, the president of Columbia Records, began to complain that there were no potential hit singles on the record. Subsequently, the release was postponed, three songs were deleted, and two new songs, including the rousing opener ʽBlinded By The Lightʼ, were written by the Boss and placed in strategic locations. Both Davis and Bruce miscalculated — neither of the singles managed to chart, though, ironically, four years later, when Springsteen's fame had already reached nationwide limits, Manfred Mann's Earth Band managed to correct that mistake and turn ʽBlinded By The Lightʼ into a smash success.
This seems like a small enough detail, but it is an important one when you begin to consider all the Dylan/Springsteen comparisons, especially in the early period. While Dylan did have hit singles, I am not aware of anybody ever forcing a «hit single» on him — and yes, it is very easy to pin the difference on chronology, where record labels, including that very same Columbia Records to which Dylan was brought by the very same John Hammond who recruited Springsteen a decade later, would give the artists more freedom in the Sixties than they did in the Seventies, and where the Seventies forced artists for harsher compromises than the Sixties. Very easy, but not very correct: unlike Dylan, who has always followed his muse and nobody else's, «The Boss» has always kept his ratings high by regularly giving the people what they want. If there's one motto with which we could describe his lengthy career, it would be something like «One for myself — two for y'all». Not that there's anything wrong with that, right?
In fact, you could probably make a case that out of the two — Mr. ʽIt-ain't-me-babeʼ Dylan, quietly sitting in a corner and mumbling gibberish under his nose, and Mr. ʽThunder-roadʼ Springsteen, boxing the shit out of his sweat-drenched Telecaster under stadium lights to the sheer delight of the roaring thousands — it is Mr. Springsteen who is being the more humble and less pretentious, making himself one with the earnest folks whose spiritual needs he is covering, rather than putting up an invisible, but impenetrable force field between the two. But then this logic would rather quickly lead us to recognizing the saintly nature of Billy Joel, Jon Bon Jovi, the Backstreet Boys, and ultimately even Taylor Swift, and that is not the road down which I would have the strength — and humility — to travel.
Anyway, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., even though it has rarely, if ever, penetrated anybody's Top 5 for Springsteen, and even though it happened to slip through the cracks of the public consciousness back at the time, already finds the Springsteen formula well established. The hinges yet have to be oiled, and the front still lacks a glossy paint coating, but the sound is that of a guy who knows very well what it is he is doing and what his main talents are and how they should be applied (well, after all, he had almost eight years to figure it out, having first begun to play in regular bands like The Castiles in the mid-Sixties).
What puts Greetings apart from the majority of singer-songwriter stuff circa 1973 are not the lyrics (who still own a lot to Dylan, Robbie Robertson, and Van Morrison) and certainly not the melodies (who also own a lot to Dylan, Robbie Robertson, Van Morrison, and all the legions of anonymous people in the pre-rock era folk music tradition to whom these three guys own their melodies). It is the overall approach to arranging and recording these lyrics and melodies — an approach that would arguably induce me to the somewhat sensationalist claim that it was Bruce Springsteen and nobody else who actually invented «folk-rock», or, rather, «folk-rock'n'roll», or, if you don't like that either, «hard-folk-rock». If we think of «folk-rock» in terms of, say, the Byrds, as we often do, it is clear that even at their heaviest, the Byrds did not have even half of the maniacal stomping energy that the Boss stores in his musical batteries. If you listen to some of Bruce's earlier material, like stuff he recorded with Steel Mill in the early Seventies, you will see that they were essentially a gruff, brawny hard rock band along the lines of Bloodrock or Grand Funk Railroad — and even as he moved to more sensitive, thoughtful territory, the idea of Rocking The House Down never left his mind for a second.
But you don't really need a maddeningly loud, terrifyingly distorted heavy rock guitar to rock the house down. You can easily do it with an acoustic instrument, and a piano, and a saxophone, and a regular rhythm section — and record something like ʽGrowin' Upʼ, a song that, technically, has nothing to do with hard rock, but ultimately rocks as hard as any hard rock there is, because it's the spirit that counts, not the amplification. You wanted yourself some James Taylor and some Eagles, but they had too little crunch for your rocking heart? You were almost ready for Budgie, Steppenwolf, and even Sabbath, but they repelled you with the dumbness of their sound? You would be happy to endorse yourself some «progressive rock», but couldn't stand the unnecessary complexity and meandering of the twenty-minute long suites? Well, then, your problems are at an end now — and, by the way, greetings to you from Asbury Park, N.J.!
One reason why I have always complained about Bruce's approach was that I found it «populist», but I would like to rephrase this, so as to avoid getting stoned by the majority — it is not so much «populist» as it is (or, if it is «populist», it is so due to its being) «mystery-free». Whether or not The Boss calculates his formula with cold, detached, psychologically insightful precision, it is a formula that is very easily laid out, scrutinized, and understood, upon which it finds itself prone to inducing boredom or even annoyance. Frantically strummed guitars; aggressively punched drums; pianos and saxes going at full power nearly all the time, with every member of the band equally important to the final sound; lyrics that carefully alternate between metaphor-laiden poetry (for the intellectual critics) and «streetwise clichés» (for the average Joe), never forgetting the powerful singalong hook explosion in the chorus; and a good understanding of the magic power of diminuendos and crescendos.
Doubtless, even a perfectly understood formula, when it is taken to the utmost limit, can still impress and seduce (see AC/DC's ʽHells Bellsʼ for a great example). But here begin the local problems: Greetings does not yet take that formula to its limits. If you take the typical «big» songs here, like ʽFor Youʼ or ʽBlinded By The Lightʼ or ʽIt's Hard To Be A Saint In The Cityʼ, you will see that the overdubs still leave a lot to be desired (there's just too few of them), that the guitar sound is still underdeveloped (largely due to Steven Van Zandt, Bruce's sparring partner, not yet being a regular member of his E Street Band), and that The Boss has not yet begun to fully exploit the earth-shaking capacities of his vocal cords — apart from just a few chest-tearing moments on ʽLost In The Floodʼ, which mainly serve as a teaser for things to come, he sounds here like a shy younger brother of Van the Man, and ever so often, even comes across as a pitiable whiner rather than a fearless commoner-preacher of rock'n'roll.
Indeed, the two «solo songs» that are included here without full band support — ʽMary, Queen Of Arkansasʼ and ʽThe Angelʼ — are arguably among the weakest spots in his entire catalog. Meandering, folksy-derivative, and overlong, they end up being irritating rather than soulful; and even if the basic vibe of ʽMaryʼ, come to think of it, is no different from the basic vibe of ʽBorn To Runʼ and ʽThunder Roadʼ ("I know a place where we can go Mary / Where I can get a good job and start all over again" — "sure Bruce, but you have to grow yourself some facial hair and get a second guitarist before you can really convince me"), the presentation is lamentable, and you really have to have some religious love for the man, I think, to appreciate this stuff. It is not surprising that when it came to deciding which songs would have to be pushed off the album in favor of the freshly written and recorded «potential hit singles» — the «band songs» or the «solo songs» — it was three of the latter that they decided to sacrifice. Maybe Bruce was just being generous to his pals, but clearly, at this point he was not yet ready to go «solo».
ʽBlinded By The Lightʼ I find to be too obvious a rip-off of some song from Astral Weeks or its periphery, but the record does have at least two really fine offerings. ʽSpirit In The Nightʼ, where Clarence Clemmons finally gets his first chance to shine on his own (the main instrumental hook is his sax riff), the chorus features cool call-and-response vocals between Bruce and his men, and the grizzly «life-on-the-streets» atmosphere is well reflected in the nonchalantly, but menacingly shuffling music. And then there is ʽLost In The Floodʼ, the first and far from the least of the man's «tragic masterpieces» — nothing all that great in the way of melody, but a fairly great theatrical delivery from The Boss as he carefully builds the tension over each long verse to lead us to the climax. I must state here and now that I always prefer the pessimistic Springsteen to the optimistic Springsteen (not that it is always easy to tell the difference), and so, naturally, the most pessimistic song on his debut album is also the best song on it.
When it comes to the final rating, after some deliberation, I think I would rather stay on the fence. No thumbs up will be coming for a record on which Bruce Springsteen is simply being Bruce Springsteen, because I cannot count that as a rewardable virtue; and there are too few seductive «extras» on Greetings to push the spirits any higher. Yet, on the other hand, this here is a new, workable, reasonable formula for 1973, and neither the «populism» of the approach, nor the immediately noticeable influences, nor the two forgettable «solo» tracks should count as arguments for hating or dismissing the album. And a first effort is always a first effort, after all, there being something in common between so many of them. "Last night I said these words to my girl — I came for you, but you did not need my urgency — I know you never even try girl — I came for you, but your life was one long emergency". See? Always something in common.