Sunday, March 27, 2016

My Back Pages, Vol. 7: Bruce Springsteen - Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Welcome to My Back Pages, a collaborative staff feature that will survey a landscape of renowned classics and unheralded gems alike, most of which no one around here ever writes a word about. The rules are simple and loose: we won’t cover anything from this millennium and we will avoid all or most favorites—though we might make an exception if something is nearing a milestone anniversary. Beyond that though, anything is fair game. So if you have an album, artist, or genre you would like to see discussed in this feature, feel free to throw us a few recs.

This week we have a double feature on deck for you, and yes we're talking about Springsteen--if you know anything about either of us you knew it was coming eventually. To celebrate the 40th anniversary of the release of Springsteen's first two albums, which both came out in 1973, today we will be discussing
Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, his debut, and check back tomorrow for The Wild, the Innocent, the E-Street Shuffle. As always, there's a full Rdio stream of the record below, as well as a link to check it out on Spotify. Enjoy!

Chris Collum: It’s hard to imagine now, forty years, seventeen studio albums and thousands upon thousands of shows into his career, but once upon a time Bruce Springsteen was nothing more than another wayward musician in his mid-20s, a Jersey shore beach bum bouncing from band to band and club to club hoping to hit it big with the right group of musicians—or at least sell enough tickets to buy lunch. In 1972, he finally got his first break, a record deal with Columbia. After his manager Mike Appel had badgered Columbia so much the label literally could no longer say no, in May of that year Springsteen auditioned with John Hammond, the famed talent scout who “discovered” Bob Dylan. Hammond was impressed, Appel and Springsteen booked studio time for later that year, and Columbia began a PR campaign heralding Bruce as the second coming of Dylan.

However, despite some obvious similarities (verbosely poetic lyrical style, white boy fro, etc.), Springsteen was not the new Dylan. While he auditioned as a solo artist, performing on acoustic guitar or piano, when it came time to record his debut album, Springsteen showed up at 914 Sound Studios with a band of fellow Jersey shore drifter musicians in tow. After a lot of back-and-forth with Appel and Hammond about whether the songs that were being recorded sounded better as solo or full-band numbers, a compromise was reached in the end and so Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ has two solo songs (“Mary Queen of Arkansas” and “The Angel”) and seven full-band ones.

Springsteen was right. These songs sound better with a full band. Those two aforementioned songs are easily the two least-memorable songs on the album, and feel strangely out of place alongside the lush instrumentation of songs like “Blinded by the Light.”

Given the rushed nature of the recording (all of the songs were recorded in a week), the fact that not all of the musicians who sat in for the record had played with one another before, the behind-the-scenes dispute about how the record should be made, and the fact that Springsteen was absolutely still finding his feet as an artist, this is a fantastic album. However, if you ignore all of these extra-musical factors, it is undeniable that while this is a great, great record and would be the highlight of many lesser artists’ careers, it is not of the same caliber as Springsteen’s later work. The songs by-and-large do not pack the same carefully executed emotional punch that he is so good at exacting, and the characters that inhabit said songs do not spring to life from the pages of the lyric booklet the way that the Magic Rat, Spanish Johnny and the couples who inhabit the world of “Racing in the Street” and “The River” do.

Perhaps the reason why the characters in these songs are not as lifelike as the ones in his later ones is because this record is the beginning of the story—where the characters first start to take shape. You certainly can see flashes of what was to come in the likes of Hazy Davey in “Spirit in the Night” or Jimmy the Saint in “Lost in the Flood.” Springsteen introduces us to the street empire that he would immortalize with his next two records, and comes tantalizingly close to fully fleshing out the songs, but there’s something intangible missing from almost all of them. You can’t quite put your finger on it, but if you’ve heard Bruce’s later stuff you know that there’s something that’s missing.

Furthermore, while the band sounds very good, you will find nothing more than basic rock ‘n roll backing tracks. Clarence’s saxophone is used mainly for color and not allowed the spotlight it deserves. Likewise, David Sancious is not allowed to cut loose and show off his jazz chops in the way he is on the other Springsteen record on which he is featured (The Wild, the Innocent and the E-Street Shuffle). The production on this record is certainly pretty good by 1972 standards, but it certainly could be a whole lot better—it was recorded in very cheap studio in one week. By way of comparison, Shuffle was recorded less than a year later and sounds much, much fuller than this album does.

Okay enough that about does it for the things that are “wrong” with this record, and I put that word in quotations because like I said, one can only find issues with Greetings if it is judged side-by-side with Springsteen’s later work. There are plenty of things to love here.

First of all, this was the world’s introduction to Springsteen as a lyricist, and while I know some fans aren’t that huge on his incredibly wordy style on this album, I think it’s fantastic. “And the sages of the subway sit just like the living dead / As the tracks clack out the rhythm their eyes fixed straight ahead/ They ride the line of balance and hold on by just a thread / But it's too hot in these tunnels you can get hit up by the,” he sputters on “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” in a rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness yet still quite soulful style. Additionally, “Growin’ Up” has some of my favorite lyrics he’s ever written—“I swear I found the key to the universe / In the engine of an old parked car” is just the greatest line. Finally, the internal rhyming and giddy wordplay of “Blinded,” the opening song, never fails to bring a smile to my face—it’s an incredibly fun song (and one that was horribly neutered by Manfred Mann).

Springsteen’s voice and vocal delivery sound pretty great here too, especially for someone with no training at the beginning of their career. As I’ve mentioned, the rapid-fire style that he utilizes so often on this record works very well for these songs in my opinion. This style, which certainly calls to mind Dylan, also was a pretty obviously huge influence on Craig Finn of The Hold Steady (arguably the master of the “talk-singing” style) and I adore The Hold Steady so I’m grateful this record exists if only for that reason. Beyond that unique style though, there are also some great vocal melodies—the chorus of “For You,” for example, is incredibly catchy, and something about that “hey bus driver” bit that begins “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” giddily infectious.

Greetings is memorable simply by merit of the name that graces the cover certainly, but there’s plenty to love here even if Bruce had never made another record. The gritty street characters portrayed here and the Jersey shore fusion of R&B and rock ‘n roll that is the soundtrack to their lives grabbed the attention of the few people who initially heard this record. It’s not a perfect record and it’s not on par with his later work, but it is a very, very good album and the world’s first glimpse into the creative mind of Bruce Springsteen.

Craig Manning: Greetings is my step dad's favorite Bruce album. I’ve met a lot Bruce fans over the years, and I think he’s the only one of them who’s ever given that answer. It means one thing though, and that’s that, even though Born to Run was the first Springsteen album I fell in love with, Greetings might be the one I remember hearing first. I have vivid memories of him listening to this record when I was a kid, of the jazzy strains of “Spirit in the Night” floating out of my parents’ bedroom while he was getting ready for dates with my mom, or of the ringing piano chords of “Growin’ Up” blasting from our home stereo system while he was cooking dinner. So while, for me, Greetings would probably land in seventh place out of Bruce’s near-flawless seventies and eighties run (Nebraska would be last; I know, blasphemy), to say this album has a near and dear place in my heart is probably an understatement.

There are two primary criticisms levied against Greetings, and probably the loudest is that, as an album, it’s not quite cohesive. There are two possible reasons for this. The first is that Bruce didn’t know who he wanted to be as an artist yet; the second is that he actually did know, but his label wasn’t quite ready to let him be that artist yet. I tend to lean toward the latter option, especially after an enlightening read through the latest Springsteen biography this past winter. (The book, penned by Peter Ames Carlin, is simply called Bruce.) As Chris discussed above, this album is often regarded as Bruce’s “trying to be Dylan” album, but I don’t necessarily agree with that assessment. Sure, if you’re reading through the lyrical flurry of “Blinded by the Light” in the album’s liner notes, the comparison is an easy one. But actually play the song (preferably at full volume) and the parallel doesn’t fit so well. And it never really would fit well, either, even though Bruce’s label, as well as manager/producer Mike Appel, wanted so desperately for Bruce to be the next Dylan.

Part of the reason for the inequity is the loose, spontaneous blast of the E Street sound, which was already beginning to take form on the album’s best songs. Bruce liked the full band texture he was cultivating on songs like “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street” and “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City,” but the higher-ups—Appel and John Hammond, a producer and talent scout at Columbia Records who had actually signed Dylan—liked his more stripped-down singer/songwriter stuff. And so the three came up with a compromise: the record would be ten songs: half full-band, half acoustic solo material.

But as we all know, the record actually ended up only having nine songs, and the division didn’t quite work out the way it had been planned. I’ll be the first person to defend the two acoustic songs that actually survived the record’s last minute revisions—“Mary Queen of Arkansas” and “The Angel” are often derided as weak points, but I think that both, especially the former, are haunting, hypnotic, and gorgeous gems that hint at what Bruce would do on his later, stripped-down records—but it would be hard to argue with how the rest of the sessions worked out. When the record reached the desk of Columbia Records president Clive Davis, it had three additional solo songs—“Arabian Nights,” “Jazz Musician,” and “Visitation at Camp Horn”—but, as Davis noted, it also didn’t have a single.

So Springsteen went back to the drawing board, trying to scramble his band back together for a quick recording session. Bassist Garry Tallent and keyboardist David Sancious, both of whom had played on the five previously recorded full band songs, were unavailable, so Bruce went in a different direction to fill out the sound. And that direction changed everything. Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez stuck around on the drums, sessions man Harold Wheeler added some piano on “Blinded by the Light,” and Springsteen even strapped on an electric bass for good measure, but the major addition, of course, was Clarence. Any Springsteen fan worth his or her salt has heard the mythical story of how the Boss and the Big Man met, but for the uninitiated, it’s worth relaying the images here. The tale is one of hurricane gales and buckets of rain, of rattling Jersey boardwalks and trees bending at the force of the tempest. It’s a tale of a small, dimly-lit club, where Bruce and a few of his band members were weathering the storm and making some noise in the name of rock ‘n’ roll. And it’s a tale where, suddenly, the door tears open, lifts off its hinges, and goes barreling down the street, leaving a massive silhouette framed in that doorway instead, a man who seemed to stroll out of Springsteen’s dreams and into that noisy room. And it’s a tale of the big, booming voice that cut through the din and changed the E Street legacy forever.

“I want to play with you,” Clarence said.

He got his first chance, at least in the studio, on the two new songs the band cut at Davis’s suggestion. And while my loyalties will probably always fall with “Growin’ Up” and its poignant, powerful lyrical imagery as the album’s definitive track, it’s impossible to imagine Greetings without highlights like “Blinded by the Light” or “Spirit in the Night.” The former is the album’s liveliest cut, a rough-hewn folk-rock tour-de-force that did end up being the single Davis wanted, just not for Springsteen. British prog-rock band Manfred Mann would hit number one on the charts with the song five years later (even though it sounded like they were singing “douche” instead of “deuce” during the chorus), a feat that, to this day, remains Springsteen’s only number one single on the Billboard Hot 100. The latter, meanwhile, is one of Springsteen’s jazziest numbers, with a Van Morrison-esque groove that sounds as good today as I’m sure it did 40 years ago.

In fact, “Spirit” and “Blinded” are probably the two songs on here that don’t really sound at all dated, and that brings me to the second primary criticism of this record. Chris mentioned that the sound here is kind of thin, and there’s really no better way to describe it. I truly love this album, and I think Springsteen was already in top form as a songwriter, but damn, I wonder what would have happened if these songs had gotten the production value Born to Run had—or, for that matter, the production that The Wild, The Innocent & The E-Street Shuffle displayed only half a year later. Listen to a song like “Lost in the Flood”: here, it sounds like a demo. It’s lyrically resplendent, and Bruce’s narrative gifts have rarely been better, but the song doesn’t have the level of punch or polish that it should. In comparison, listen to the song in a modern live setting. When the E Street Band played through the whole record in 2009 to celebrate the end of the Working on a Dream tour—and the final show Clarence would ever play with the group—“Lost in the Flood” sounded remarkable, building to the kind of visceral, incendiary guitar solo it deserves. The arc on record is fine, but with better production, the song could have been one of Bruce’s best.

Still though, for a debut album, Greetings serves as a solid mission statement for the rest of Bruce’s career. He’d reach much greater heights only a few months later (more on that tomorrow), and it would be just a couple years before he entered the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll legends (and, in my opinion, made the greatest album of all time), but at the beginning of 1973, Greetings displayed an artist who knew where he wanted to go and had all the tools to get there. His band might not have officially had their name yet, but at its best moments, Greetings From Asbury Park is E Street splendor (almost) all the way through.

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