The debut album by Bruce Springsteen, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., was released in the first week of 1973. During the first listens the album used to struggle quite a lot: now its secrets have been beginning to unravel.
I listened to ”Greetings” for the first time in the summer of 2010, which was the time I started to unresolve Springsteen’s discography for the first time. The first impression was that the record had a few of remarkably great songs, slightly immature and unintentionally rambling instrumentation and a LOT of lyrics. The same elements can be found there these days as well: during the few years of listening they have started to find their place.
Blinded by the Light starts the LP with a tinkling guitar intro and a lyrical blast: ”Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat” – and that’s just the first line. Right from the start of the first song there’s a possibility to make a remark about something to be discovered in Springsteen’s songs later as well: the songs leave room for the listener to interpret the texts (in this case, you first have to find out what the song’s all about!).
The composition and the melody have got enough hooks and the text contains great portions. There’s rhymes on every line: according to legend Bruce wrote this one with a rhyming dictionary. The at-the-time twenty-something lyricist is here and there pretty close to stumble on his own handiness. The chorus (”And she was blinded by the light →) is in the end pretty traditional section and a catchy one.
I’ve had the chance to experience Blinded by the Light on a live show a couple of times: first was during the acoustic warm up in Helsinki 2012, the other in Turku’s second show in 2013. In Turku the most memorable thing was, when Bruce forgot how one section should go, kept the band in the E-chord for several bars and the counted in the next section: ”I can’t remember this one, let’s go back to the verse!”
The second song continues to play in a light mood. Growin’ Up starts with a piano-arpeggio, in to which Bruce joins with his singing a moment later. There’s not much instrumentation in this song: in addition to the above-mentioned there’s a rhythm section consisting of bass and drums, saxophone and little guitar. A snappy piano-solo can be heard as well.
The blast of the lyrics keep on going with a story about “growing up”. The song’s about where do you wanna go and which way? “I hid in the clouded wrath of the crowd but when they said “Sit down “ I stood up”.
There’s something mystical in the line “And I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car”: a whole scene in one, it’s up to the listener to develop the events.
Mary Queen of Arkansas is a more tender, singer-songwriter-stylish song. “Mary” is the target of the narrators feelings in many of Springsteen’s song all the way to the 21st century. This one took a few listens, before I got any grip of it.
The lyrics got some uncertainty: “You’re not man enough for me to hate or woman enough for kissing” or “ But I know a place where we can go Mary / Where I can get a good job and start all over again clean”.
As the fourth song comes Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?, lasting just a little more than 2 minutes. Beginning with a little intro by an acoustic guitar starts a “song of praise for public transportation”, like Bruce himself introduced this in Helsinki 2012. Then this song had developed into quite a party song with solos by every player on stage (there was even a drums vs. percussion -battle!). The album version is more compact: it has no solos, only scenes guided by the lyrics. “Broadway Mary, Joan Fontaine, advertiser on a downtown train”. The last two lines in turn pave the way to the second song, which is in fact the greatest on the album: “Senorita, Spanish rose, wipes her eyes and blows her nose / Uptown in Harlem she throw a rose to some lucky young matador.”
Lost in the Flood, track five. A story to begin accompanied by piano, that grows up to a powerful song. “The ragamuffin gunner is returnin’ home like a hungry runaway”. A lot of transaction as the refrain asks symbolic questions. Especially the midmost chorus is great: “And he said “Hey kid, you think that’s oil? Man that ain’t oil that’s blood”. There’s many lines in this song that make you wonder.
Lost in the Flood hit me from the DVD recorded in Hammersmith Odeon, London in 1975. That version had more power than the album version. After the mid-70s Springsteen shelved the song from concert set lists until 1999, after that it has been occasionally heard. The current arrangement has evolved into a beast: a cumbersome, even more tough-faced version in which overdriven guitars and even an outro solo by Bruce can be heard.
When it comes to selecting the best track from the album, Lost in the Flood is fighting for the title: in most days it’ll be number one.
The B-side of the LP starts with a beautiful song called The Angel. It starts, like the previous one, with a piano. It’s a steady composition with practically just one section that repeats three times.
This was a song that was for a long time not played in concerts: the first and heretofore last time it was heard in an E Street Band-show was in Buffalo 2009 (the last concert of the Working on a Dream Tour), when the band played the “Greetings” album for its entirety.
The ending trio of the album is great, the third last song being For You. The band rushes in right from the start into a song in which the text is once again going on pretty fast. “Princess cards she sends me with her regards / barroom eyes shine vacancy, to see her you gotta look hard”. The situation is pretty clear: “I came for you, for you, I came for you but you did not need my urgency”.
There’s something hasty in the air, almost conclusive. Great lines (and even rhymes!) one after another.
Wounded deep in battle, I stand stuffed like some soldier undaunted
To her Cheshire smile. I’ll stand on file, she’s all I ever wanted
Crawl into my ambulance, your pulse is getting weak
reveal yourself all now to me girl while you’ve got the strength to speak
This one gets quite (teen-)romantic. While listening to this album, it’s good to remember that Bruce was only 24 years old while making this record: so the songs are written by a pretty young guy.
Beautiful lines proceed as the last verse tops off the tale:
You were not quite half so proud when I found you broken on the beach
Remember how I poured salt on your tongue and hung just out of reach
And the band they played the homecoming theme as I caressed your cheek
That ragged, jagged melody she still clings to me like a leech.
The story can be taken as literally or as figuratively. The way or the another, if one focuses on the lyrics they can get pretty deep. The title of the best line, however, goes to the next snippet which also has something very pretty:
And don’t call for your surgeon even he says it’s too late
It’s not your lungs this time, it’s your heart that holds your fate
Spirit in the Night, maybe the biggest hit song of the album, also has an atmosphere to be felt. It’s a fan-favourite, that was heard during the first gig in Turku on May 2013. You can hear from the first saxophone notes that there’s “something” in this song.
There’s once again a lot of words and the band is playing a little unsteady. The first verse sets a premise: original characters like Crazy Janey, Wild Billy, Hazy Davy and Killer Joe set to party on the lake of Greasy Lake. All kinds of things happen, there’s new aspects revealed about the characters and the party is immemorial. Just like “spirits in the night”
The tale of the song would work even without music: it’s like a short story. The vocal melody has to take some freedom so that all the words can fit in. There’s some great lyric in here as well.
“Spirit” has been on the concert set lists for a long time. On the last tours, especially with the extended horn section, the saxophone riff has re-emerged. The arrangement has also caught new nuances and the song has at places streched to last really long. “Spirit” held it’s place great among even 40 years younger songs .
“Greetings” ends with a rocking song It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City, in which young Springsteen sings with a great confidence. ”I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra / I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova”. Piano tinkles nicely through the song: this one rocks!
“I was the king of the alley, mama, I could talk some trash”. The emanation lasts for the whole song. The composition is different than the other songs of the album, it has more edges. Especially the guitar patterns in the end arouse the interest: in concerts there’s been a guitar battle between Springsteen and his long-time-guitarist Steve Van Zandt all the way from the 70s. This one also works great in the 21st century: with more angular sounds the playing gets to support the text’s almost aggressive self-confidence more effectively.
So, there goes Springsteen’s debut from 1973: Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. A nuanced record that has got rocking songs, more plain descriptions of feels and a couple of biggers songs. Only Mary Queen of Arkansas and the Angel remain in the mid-term hand as invidual songs, but in the album wholeness they sooth it nicely. As highlights I’d say tracks 1,5 and 7: Blinded by the Light, Lost in the Flood and For You. And Spirit in the Night can’t be forgotten as well: it sounds like a hit, which it was.
Bruce Springsteen’s recording career continued as early as the same year’s autumn in a little bit of more refined form with the album The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. “WIESS” will get it’s turn when it’s time…