Kicking off with a lyrical tongue twisting barrage of lyrics that one would assume were derided from dropping acid (but weren't), Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ is an absorbing and nostalgic album that introduced the world to Bruce Springsteen. Now from the perspective of history, if Springsteen had given up on music after its release, one wonders if anyone would have given this album a second listen? My thoughts are no, but that doesn't make the album any less endearing to me or my ears. While wonderfully wistful and romantic, I don't feel the album is essential. But that doesn't mean that it is not without great songs. Further proof of this is the number of people who have covered these songs over the years. Both Manfred Mann and David Bowie recorded three songs a piece from this record shortly after its release and the songs have continued to endear themselves through covers, repeated listens and most importantly, potent live performances.
After playing around the Jersey shore for years in bands like Earth, Child, Steel Mill, Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom and The Bruce Springsteen Band he approached this album unlike any of the music he had created up to this point. Those who were familiar with Springsteen were surprised by the album's sound and others viewed him as a Dylan wannabe, but the truth is that while the album is far from perfect, it is far better debut album than it should have been due to the high level of songwriting. Springsteen created these nine songs from a vast wonderland of imagination that channel Dylan, Van Morrison and the Band. "Blinded By The Light" (yes, that "Blinded" which was covered by Manfred Mann) kicks off the festivities in a spastic start. This one track has 514 words in it (not a typo) and that's just the tip of the ice burg. Throughout all of Greetings Springsteen had lyrical diarrhea in a way that would never reappear in his career ever again ("Some silicone sister with her manager's mister told me I got what it takes"). This was the only record where Springsteen wrote the lyrics first and went back and wrote the accompanying music later. The rapid fire with which he spews forth the lyrics leaves you drained merely by listening to it, let alone trying to memorize and decipher them. It's no wonder that many of these songs went unperformed for decades. I would dare anyone to try and say some of these lines five-times super fast without screwing them up and putting themselves into a hysterical fit. Songs like these are why teleprompters were created.
"Growing Up" may be his finest and most endearing track from this album of his mystical and mature journey. ("I was open to pain and crossed by the rain"). Beginning with a lullaby piano, the album's magnum opus takes the listener on a Forrest Gump passage of adolescence into adulthood. To this day, it remains the starting point of Springsteen's internal expedition and largely where I start mine as well. "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" finds the band revving their engines for a song that is musically more fascinating than lyrically while "It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City" has lyrical depth ("I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra) and a brushing beat to match it. The romantic and pleading anthem "For You" is wondrous (although I prefer the beefed up live version) and the urban "Lost in the Flood" proves to be a hint at the ambitious nature of lyrics and arrangements that Springsteen would perfect two albums later on "Jungleland". Today, these songs are welcomed in any concert performance and in most instances, the live version easily surpass these album renditions. Springsteen's live legacy has been greatly enhanced by the live versions of these songs.
Ironically, one of the biggest discussions around this debut record was whether it should be a solo or band album. Springsteen wanted a band record, but John Hammond (who signed Springsteen, plus Aretha Franklin and Bob Dylan as well) and manager Mike Appel wanted more of a solo project. Eventually an agreement is made to do half and half, covering five songs on each side. After the album was handed over to CBS, in a rare display of brilliance, Clive Davis commissions two more band songs which wound up being "Blinded By The Light" and the crowd favorite "Spirit In The Night", both of which will feature Clarence Clemmons first appearance with Springsteen. "Spirit" would be a staple in concert for Springsteen for decades. It has a lingering groove so engaging, it still evokes zealous and feverish reactions in concert today. Sadly, the four songs cut from the record, "Bus Driver", "Jazz Musician", "Arabian Nights" and "Visitation At Fort Horn" has yet to receive any kind of official release by Springsteen. However, they have been heard on some unofficial releases (notably The Early Years and Before The Fame). These recordings were fought over for decades until they were rightfully rewarded to Springsteen in a UK court ruling in late 1998. This instance is notable as it may prove to be the only time that the advice of Clive Davis truly made a better record.
The album's two glaring blemishes are solo songs; "Mary Queen of Arkansas" and "The Angel". These are two completely forgettable tracks and until the release of Human Touch were viewed as the weakest songs in Springsteen's cannon. Now, it's not so much that these two songs diminish Greetings legacy, but the overall production of the album proves to be its biggest hindrance. Even by 1970's standards, this album has a tiny and flat sound. Springsteen's management at the time, Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos produced the first two records and their lack of studio expertise shows. In the hands of more secure and confident hands, these songs may have become true classics, alas, every step in one's life is part of the larger journey and Springsteen's is no different. In concert, these songs soared to heights no one deemed possible. Springsteen and the E Street Band delivered devastating performances that left the audience mouths agape, something this record did not accomplish. Time has been relatively kind to this record and in the last fifteen-years; the album has been resurrected in the minds of many Springsteen fans, including myself. The album takes you back to a place and time that was more innocent and pure. The songs to my great surprise, despite their lacking production, remain fresh. Time has been kind to this album and it even made the cut of Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Albums" a few years back (something I don't completely agree with). However, the cryptic lyrics, buoyant charm and studious performances make this a damn indelible album that despite its flaws is largely irresistible.
Anthony Kuzminski is a Chicago based writer and Special Features Editor for the antiMusic Network and his daily writings can be read at The Screen Door and can be contacted at thescreendoor AT gmail DOT com.
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Bruce Springsteen Month: Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ