Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Bruce Springsteen Retrospective, Part I: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)

"I stood stone-like at midnight
Suspended in my masquerade
I combed my hair till it was just right
And commanded the night brigade
I was open to pain and crossed by the rain
And I walked on a crooked crutch
I strolled all alone through the fall out zone
And came out with my soul untouched..."

I said we'd get to Bruce eventually, and here we are. Next to Butch Walker, there's been no figure more important to my musical evolution or obsession than Bruce. It took me a lot longer for his music to click, but when it finally did, in late 2008, there was no going back. Over the past two and a half years, his music has defined experiences and times of my life like few other artists ever have. My story starts with Born to Run, his third LP, and, in my opinion, the greatest album in the history of rock and roll. I considered trying to write one all inclusive piece about Bruce and his music, like I did with Butch, but I concluded that he just has too many albums, too many eras, and FAR too many songs to cover in a single blog post. And while starting with Born to Run would have worked well into my own story, I figured it would only be fair to the legacy of Bruce if I started from the beginning, and that beginning is Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.

Greetings is my step dad's favorite Bruce album, so even though Born to Run was the first album of his to click with me, Greetings might be the one I remember hearing first. Like I said in my Butch Walker tribute, I have very vivid memories of my step dad listening to this album on Saturday evenings while he got ready to go on dates with my mom: I most specifically remember the jazzy rush of the penultimate track, "Spirit in the Night", a Van Morrison-esque rocker that just tears the house down, and when I hear it, it still transports me back to when I was just a kid. Even though I don't share my step dad's opinion that this was Bruce's finest record, there's still a lot to love here.

Greetings generally steers closer to folk than to the nearly symphonic rock and roll that Springsteen would create on his next two albums, and that's immediately clear from the first cut, the rapid fire lyrical flurry that is "Blinded By the Light". Bob Dylan's influence is clearly on display as Springsteen tries to get out as many lines as he can, building to a killer chorus that makes quite the statement for a new artist. The song, made more famous via a lyric-botching cover version by the band Manfred Mann, is far better in it's original form, a rough hewn piece of folk-rock that opens the album with an atomic force. "Growing Up", with it's gorgeous piano intro and memorable lyrics, is even better, and remains a fan favorite even after all these years. Personally, it's probably my favorite song on Greetings. Another fan favorite is the scorching album centerpiece, "Lost in the Flood", a storytelling song with the kind of characters that Springsteen would be writing about in even greater depth on The Wild, The Innocent... and Born to Run. "For You" is almost equally terrific, another fan favorite that would remain a live staple for years. Springsteen gives one of the album's best vocal performances on that track, full of emotion and conviction that takes the songwriting to another level.

The criticism most often levied against this album is that it doesn't quite know what it wants to be: Springsteen wanted to make a full band record, whereas the label wanted to play up his Dylan influence with more solo/acoustic type songs. The result is that the record is pretty much a amalgamation of the two extremes. The strongest stuff, naturally, is the full band material, where the E-Street band (an early form, at least) make their first appearances. Most impressive among these is, of course, the side 2 cut, "Spirit in the Night", which features Clarence "Big Man" Clemons in a big way for the first time (he appears on "Blinded By the Light" as well, but here he's much higher in the mix), only hinting at the partnership between the two musicians that would become the heart, soul and core of much of Springsteen's music and especially of his live shows. The song, perhaps more so than any other track on the album, sounds as great today as it ever has, not hindered by the album's dated production or by the fact that Springsteen still hadn't quite found his voice. Clemons' saxophone playing is as electric as ever, even if it's only the tip of the iceberg as far as his E-street features go. The solo material doesn't fare as well: "The Angel" and "Mary Queen of Arkansas" are more forgettable than much of the material here and they disrupt the flow a bit, but even those I think are a bit underrated. "Mary", in particular, is quite hypnotic and hints at where Springsteen would go with Nebraska a decade later , and perhaps more so with Devils & Dust in 2005. And "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" is the first in a long list of great Springsteen album closers. Indeed, I don't think there's a weak song here.

The biggest flaw with the record is not the solo songs or the occasional hiccup in flow, but the production. It's clear that Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos, the producers who worked the boards for this record and it's follow-up, didn't quite know how to translate the electricity of a Springsteen live show onto a studio record. Even in those days, Springsteen and his band were destroying venues with terrific performances, and it's clear, from the few bootlegs I've heard from that time period, that these songs soared in their live setting in ways that they don't on the record. Yet even despite it's imperfections, this album is great: a nostalgic folk-rock record that only hints at the perfection that Springsteen would achieve. And the band sounds terrific, even if most of these guys wouldn't stick around as members of the E-Street band for long (only the Big Man and bassist Garry Tallent would stay on as long-term members).

During the Working on a Dream tour in 2009, Springsteen and the E-Street band shifted the focus of their shows towards playing their classic albums front to back rather than focusing on newer material. Born to Run, Darkness and Born in the U.S.A. were the albums featured at most shows, though they also did single nights of both The Wild, The Innocent... and The River at Madison Square Garden. Perhaps it's appropriate that they saved this one for last, only playing it in full a single time: on November 22nd in Buffalo, N.Y., on the last night of a tour that had essentially stretched on since the release of Magic in 2007. As they closed that show (which they seemed unwilling to do, since it went on for three and a half hours), many wondered if this would be the farewell tour for the E-Street band. Listening to the bootleg of that show, I couldn't fathom it being the end of the road for the greatest rock band ever assembled: they sound absolutely terrific, as electric and hungry as ever. And hearing Greetings in full, 36 years after the fact, with a frontman who's far more experienced than he was then and with a band full of veterans and blood brothers, is simply fascinating. These songs sound celebratory, gleeful even: I don't think I've ever heard "Blinded By the Light" sound as big as it does on this recording, and during "Growing Up", where Springsteen tells the almost mythical story of how Clemons came to join the band (an honor that was usually reserved for "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out"), it's just about as perfect as can be. Clarence really does sound like a force of nature, and when Bruce finally comes back in after the tale with the third and final verse, it's chilling. When I listen to the bootleg now, as I write this, I can't help but feel that it's taken on a heartbreaking layer in light of Clarence Clemons' death earlier this year. I do think the E-Street band will tour again, but without Clemons, things will never be the same. Someone brought a sign to that last show that said "It's only rock and roll, but it feels like love," and I can't imagine a better slogan for the E-Street band, who have become more of a family on the stage than perhaps any other band ever to grace one, a family that just suffered a huge and terrible loss. I count myself lucky that I had a chance to see them play one show with the Big Man. And if that Buffalo show on November 22nd, 2009 was the last time the E-Street band ever played together, I really can't think of a better ending than Greetings From Asbury Park. The end is the beginning, so to speak...

And what a glorious beginning it was...

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