Take a local joker and teach him how to act: Bruce Springsteen, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ (1973)

greetings_from_asbury_park_nj

Forty-five years ago today – January 5, 1973 – the debut album of Bruce Springsteen was released. Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ didn’t sell well, but caught the attention of critics. Creem magazine’s Robert Christgau suggested that Springsteen had that same sort of “absurdist energy” that made Dylan a genius; in short, the “new Dylan” label showed up early.

The complex lyrics led others to make the same comparison. The opening track on the album, “Blinded By The Light,” essentially required listeners to use the provided lyrics sheet to see just what exactly Springsteen was singing.  Columbia released “Blinded” as a single, which failed to dent the Top 40. (An original copy of the single fetches more than a few bucks.) Four years later, Manfred Mann’s tidier cover version topped the charts.

I first got on the Springsteen kick in high school. Buoyed largely by the attention that Born in the USA received, I attended my first Bruce show in July, 1984. (That was the night he changed the words to “Rosalita” to say “But my record, Rosie, just went to number one.”) I was so enamored that within a few days I was at Discount Records in Oak Forest looking for items in the back catalog.  Greetings was one of the albums I started with, figuring there was a reason to start at the beginning. I fell in love with it and have had it in the regular rotation ever since.

Now, we should be clear about something: This isn’t the E Street Band that you love.  The groovy keyboard section on this album comes from David Sancious, who was gone by the second LP, replaced by Roy Bittan. There’s no Max Weinberg here, either; the drums are courtesy of Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez. But The Boss and the Big Man are there, even if we don’t yet know them by those names. It’s a different sound than you’d expect if your only exposure to Springsteen has been “Dancing in the Dark,” which even at 15 I discerned pretty quickly.

Let’s take a walk through the track listing:

Blinded By The Light” leads off Side 1, as discussed above. It’s got the full set of lyrics to it as opposed to the abridged Manfred Mann cover. Is the song really about masturbation? At least in one verse, but I’ll leave that up to you.

“Growin’ Up” has long been my favorite track on the LP. I wrote about in the early days of this blog, and stand by what I said then. It’s a fantastic tale of youth and its simplicity.

Mary Queen of Arkansas” usually ends up near the bottom of polls ranking fans’ favorite songs, which I think is unjustified. It’s a plaintive love song about a love that has ended.  Seriously, have you ever heard a lyric (outside of Dylan) as politely angry as “You’re not man enough for me to hate or woman enough for kissing?”

Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” is silly and fun, and I usually sing it along with it when I hear it. Queen of diamonds, ace of spades…

Lost In the Flood” is where Springsteen begins the storytelling that will fill his second LP, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle. It’s extraordinarily Dylanesque in its lyrical construction. It’s full of a whole cast of characters linked together through their separate but similar tales of misfortune – the veteran, the racer, and the city kid. It also provides the ending to the first side of the LP on a bit of a downer.

Side 2 starts out slowly as well.  “The Angel” sounds like it’s about yet another character from “Lost In The Flood,” and I wondered why the songs weren’t linked together. Of course, since “Bus” segues seamlessly into “Flood,” we can’t have all the songs come together a la side 2 of Abbey Road, can we?

For You” became my second favorite song on the album.  I referred to it in my homecoming piece last fall.  It’s another song that Manfred Mann covered – they included it on their Chance LP in 1980 and got airplay with it.  Again, there was a hack  job on the lyrics in the cover: “lick my sores” became “fight my wars,” which lacks a bit of the grit. It’s a love song with attitude, much like “Mary,” but I always got the sense that in this one he got the girl.

Spirit In the Night” was the second single released by Columbia, which also failed to chart. It was also covered by Manfred Mann, but the third time going to the well wasn’t a charm for them, either. It’s too bad one of the versions didn’t get more airplay, since it’s a great record.  It’s another story song about a few friends who go to the beach, get drunk, “make love in the dirt, singing the birthday song,” etc. I mean, who can’t relate to that.

The LP closes with “It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City.”  Admittedly, it wasn’t a favorite of mine until I heard the version from the Live at Hammersmith Odeon LP a few years ago, and it took on a whole new life. It’s a great tale of swagger, and that’s probably why it didn’t speak to me in high school.  Oh, I thought I had swagger then; it took years to realize just how little real confidence I actually had.

The years have been quite kind to Greetings. Despite the weak sales 45 years ago, it’s made a number of “greatest albums” lists,  especially “greatest debut albums.” Like I said, there’s a reason I’ve had it in regular rotation in my home for almost 34 years now.  If you haven’t worked your way through it, I suggest giving it a listen.

3 thoughts on “Take a local joker and teach him how to act: Bruce Springsteen, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ (1973)

  1. I agree that Greetings is a good, interesting record, and one worth seeking out.

    “Does This Bus Stop…,” while a minor part of the Springsteen canon (is it his shortest-ever studio track? it’s gotta be up there), has always been my favorite song on the record. It’s catchy as hell and chock full of memorable images. I love how the band cuts the tempo in half near the end, and then does it again for the very last line.

    Minor correction, and one that does not affect your conclusions: David Sancious was not gone by the second Springsteen album (The Wild, The Innocent, etc.) He plays most of the keyboards there, with Danny Federici in more of a supporting role.
    Sancious was mostly gone and Roy Bittan arrived by the time of the Born to Run album, though Sancious plays on the title track.

    Like

  2. Pingback: Snow’s coming: Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, “Stranded” (1980) | 45 Ruminations Per Megabyte

  3. Pingback: Cut loose like a deuce: Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, “Blinded By the Light” (1977) | 45 Ruminations Per Megabyte

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