Least to Most: Bruce – Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J

“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”

Pardon?

greetings_from_asbury_park_njGreetings 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.

10 thoughts on “Least to Most: Bruce – Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J

  1. Ah, now here’s something I can sink my teeth into without listening to it. (See comment on ‘Promise.’) Yes, a terrific debut and one that pretty much went ignored by the buying public, at least initially. I mentioned in my Springsteen series last year that I belonged to a record club which sent out preview copies. And a song I got was ‘Blinded by the Light.’ So I can say I was an early Bruce listener but alas, not adopter. Like you, I liked but didn’t love it. (Wish I still had that single.)

    I feel compelled to address the Landau Factor. I think that yes, on balance he helped Bruce’s career and probably helped launch him to superstardom. But at the cost, I think, of the jazziness if not the wordiness. Personally I will take one ‘Kitty’s Back’ over ten slam-bang ‘Glory Days.’ So I have very mixed feelings about Landau.

    David Sancious was awesome. I wonder if he left because he was a black man playing in a white man’s rock world. Clarence Clemons wrote about this eloquently in his autobio, Big Man: Real LIfe and Tall Tales. If you’ve never read it, worth it. My wife gave it me a while back .

    You’re right about some songs being wisps. He played “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” when I saw him recently and I didn’t recognize it, at least not at first.

    I’m fond of this album but not yet sure it’ll make my Top Five when this series is done. Top Seven?
    Bruuuuce!

    • Hm. I wonder what level of involvement Landau has in terms of direction / sound / writing. It’s not something I’ve found reference to. Curious now.
      Samcious left (taking Lopez with him) after securing his own record deal – he went in a more jazz direction I think

      • Right. Now I can’t quote chapter on verse on this and I stand to be corrected. But I’ve always felt that Landau was involved in shaping and certainly managing and producing.

        And so I think maybe Landau gave him a choice. Keep playing that jazzy, free-form non-commercial stuff and maybe eke out a career, although perhaps not as lucrative as you’d like. Or simplify your music, make it more basic four-to-the floor. Stick with the working man ideas that got you here but make it more accessible to the masses. So, to some extent, leading to Born to Run. But culmination of that in Born in the USA. Who knows? Maybe Bruce would have tended in that direction anyway. But I think to some extent Landau gave him a push.

        Again, I could be wrong about that here but I always took it as an article of faith. And I know that Bruce’s style changed post-Landau.

      • It’s definitely one for further investigation (though I’ll need a Bruce Break after this series)… if my memory of the BTR book serves correct I think Bruce already had the song Born To Run when the two met and he was already trying to sharpen up the sound. I know Landau convinced him NOT to chop the start of Backstreets… With these things, though, it’s not likely we’ll ever get a true awareness unless a fly-on-the wall gives it all away as those involved certainly wouldn’t

      • Well… without wanting to drop spoilers it’s clear he sees him as a massively positive force. Certainly there were some father-figure elements in there for both of em too but in terms of Landau’s involvement in the overall creation / writing I really don’t recall much. There’s probably more about horse riding than that

      • OK, so I’ve started reading Bruce’s autobiography and the Landau influence is becoming a little clearer. And yes, Landau is not guilty of pushing him in a direction he did not want to go, contrary to my assertion. Bruce had somewhat outgrown his jazzy, wordy recorded beginnings. He was listening to (studying, really) those great, tight late ’50’s, early ’60’s radio-friendly songs. It’s clear he needed and wanted a hit.

        And he wanted his own Wall of Sound. So Landau helped shape that and, as you mentioned, sometimes had to pull Bruce back from cutting too close to the bone.

        So, an interesting dynamic. I’ll have to stop blaming Landau for pushing out any of the jazzy sound and lay it on the shoulders of the Boss. And yes, he gained something. But by abandoning any vestiges of that, IMHO, something was permanently lost.

  2. I came to this album so late that it was truly a revelation. I’d first heard Bruce around the time he was doing that big stadium bombast stuff like Born in the USA (and HATED it – though, the intensity of I’m on Fire gave me pause). I then heard some of the stuff off the river and thought (despite myself) that it was actually pretty cool. I loved the pathos and regret of the title song.
    I still basically ignored him until a local TV station covered his solo tour in the 90s. He seemed at that point to have matured so much and the stuff he played – just him and an acoustic guitar – struck me as really meaningful and poetic.
    To that point, though, I’d never heard any of this jazzier stuff and had no idea that Bruce was responsible for Manfred Mann’s Blinded by the Light (it was actually a silly cartoon that clued me into that fact).
    When I finally heard The first two albums, I fell in love immediately. I think that was what finally convinced me that I needed to look further into Springsteen’s back catalog. The rest, as they say, is history.
    A Springsteen tragic was born.

    • It’s funny how we sometimes get ourselves into a resistance to a band or performer, only to eventually be overtaken by their songs or ability or whatever. I felt exactly the same way about the Clash at first. Took me quite a while to warm up to them.

  3. Pingback: Least to Most; Bruce – I’m just around the corner to the light of day | Mumbling About…

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