“Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat
In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat
With a boulder on my shoulder feelin’ kinda older I tripped the merry-go-round”
Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ feels exactly like a debut album should: it’s full of energy, enthusiasm and awash with ideas – essentially what happens when an act has been working up these songs long before getting a deal and let into a recording studio. So here we find Bruce Springsteen at the tender age of 23, in thrall still to his idols, making his recording début not as a frontman for a rock band but, essentially, a solo artist with a few band members on a couple of tracks.
Indeed a bit of a dispute arouse very early in as Bruce wanted more tracks with his band (at that time featuring Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez, Garry Tallent and David Sancious) whereas Mike Appel and John Hammond wanted more of the solo artist, acoustic feel. Not only that but Hammond’s boss, Columbia Records president Clive Davis, didn’t feel there was a single on the album and sent his new signing back to work.
So Springsteen, proving his craft, wrote two – ‘Spirit In The Night’ and ‘Blinded By The Light’* (which would mark Clarence Clemons’ entry into Bruce’s catalogue). Neither would prove a hit for Bruce but Manfred Mann’s Earth Band would take ‘Blinded…’ to the top of the charts. The two songs pushed a trio of ‘solo acoustic’ songs off never to be heard from again. I’ve never been this song’s biggest fan, to be honest. I don’t like what I feel is wordplay for the sake of wordplay and I still can’t fathom the meaning of lines like “And go-cart Mozart was checkin’ out the weather chart to see if it was safe to go outside, And little Early-Pearly came in by her curly-wurly and asked me if I needed a ride, Oh, some hazard from Harvard was skunked on beer playin’ backyard bombardier”… it’s almost as though he’s just going for rhyme over reason… but that’s just me.
But then if – after seventeen studio albums – your début was still considered your best you’d have to wonder what you’re doing wrong, right? He’d later start finding his own voice and stripping away all the wordiness and start matching his poetry to more muscular, tighter rhythms that really worked together. At the time, though, I think he was desperate to get his foot in the door. I think he’s even explained that he’d sit on the bed with a rhyming dictionary to help with the lyrics. It’s a fun anecdote now but I think it does kinda harm the music – Jon Landau and his editing hand were still a way off.
I think the only reason I don’t spend as much time with this as I do with later albums is probably down to the production / guiding hands behind it. The whole ‘New Dylan’ tag that Columbia was marketing Bruce behind meant that it landed somewhere between folk and rock and not firmly in either, in amongst some that don’t really leave much of an impression are some great songs on here that would later go on to become fleshed out monsters live restrained by their studio rendering – as though Bruce wasn’t being allowed to really bust loose with his own material. When he’d play the final album to a friend, the question was “where’s the band?”
For my money the album’s stronger tracks are those which most prominently feature a band – ‘Lost In The Flood’ is an immense song for someone in their early twenties to have penned (and features Mr Van Zandt clobbering Springsteen’s Danelctro amp to get the opening sound) remains a favourite and I’m sure it’s not just one of mine, and marks the start of those ‘story’ songs that would continue on up to ‘Jungleland’.
As I’ve said, we’re already into real strong territory on this list so I won’t say anything on Greetings is bad, more that the kitchen-sink attempts don’t always work and songs like ‘Mary Queen of Arkansas’ and ‘The Angel’ don’t really hold long in my memory after listening. There’s just not much about them to kinda hang your hat on – they don’t have the melody / hook of ‘Growin’ Up’ or ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’ which, although it’s almost drowned in the Dylanesque lyrical flood, points as to where he’d be going with his next effort in just a few months.
One of this album’s fans included David Bowie – who actually covered ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’. Initially, though, it was meant to feature on his Young Americans album but, according to Tony Visconti, after they played the cover to Bruce, David and The Boss had a tense, private chat after which work on the song was abandoned (later released on Bowie’s 1989 box set).
I think what I really love about Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J – aside from the music – is the sheer journey it started. It’s amazing to listen to this and associate it the the same artist who, just a decade later, would be muscle-bound and singing about how he “had a brother at Khe Sahn”. Here he is in all his youthful, bearded glory, searching out the avenues his music would later stride down, a little in awe to the poetry of his idols over his own voice but still, unquestionably, massively talented.
Highlights – ‘Lost In The Flood’, ‘Growin’ Up’, ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’.
*Jon Landau would pull the same method just a decade later, sending Bruce back to come up with a ‘hit’ as he felt that Born In The USA lacked one. Turns out that with the resulting ‘Dancing In The Dark’ it had seven singles in it.