Dusting ‘Em Off: Bruce Springsteen – Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.

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Here at Consequence of Sound (and at any music publication for that matter), you’ve probably noticed that we talk a lot about Bruce Springsteen. And why not?  New Jersey’s favorite son is that rare musical gem; a megastar who’s both smart and fun enough to appeal to just about everyone. Whether you’re a basement breathing hipster or a sweaty, grisled steel worker, chances are you’ve appreciated his music at some point in his lengthy, diverse career. From the acoustic haunt of Nebraska to the wounded inspiration of The Rising, there’s a Springsteen album out there for everyone. Oddly enough, many folks tend to overlook his earlier work. Before he smashed through the graduation gates with pistols blazing on his magnum opus of a third record (1975’s Born To Run), he had two studio albums under his belt; the quirky, freewheeling calliope sideshow of The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle, and the drunken, scattological street poetry of his debut, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.

Now if you’re a fanatic like I am, Greetings is no new discovery. But if you’re the casual listener who’s mostly familiar with the rich arena rock of Born In The U.S.A., this fascinatingly flawed album comes as a pleasant surprise; a detour into the surreal, cerebral backstreets of one of the world’s most gifted songwriters who was still finding his voice.

The album is chock full of the anthemic, lush intrumentation that would become a staple of Springsteen and the E Street Band, but only two of its core members were with the Boss at the time, and even they couldn’t sound more atypical than they do here. Bassist Gary Tallent, who preferred to take a more backseat role on later outings, is the driving force behind many of the album’s highlights, swinging and chugging through dive bar jazz narratives of frenetic nightlife like “Spirit In The Night” and “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City.” Clarence Clemmons plays his role to the opposite effect. The hulking teddy bear of a saxophonist later defined by his brassy, standout solos does more underscoring than anything, only showcasing his grimy, woodwind bravado on a handful of tracks, opting to let the helter skelter stylings of multi-instrumentalist David Sancious and feral drummer Vinnie “Mad Dog Lopez” do most of the talking.

bruce Dusting Em Off: Bruce Springsteen   Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.And oh is there talking. Springsteen is the Faulkner of rock n roll here, cramming more words into his songs than a chapter from The Sound And The Fury.  As dwarfing as his syllables can be, his most effective lyrics stick to one theme or story. “Mary, Queen Of Arkansas” is a restrained acoustic ballad chronicling the romantic woes of a slave; “a lonely acrobat,” “shine boy,” and “wharf rat” who is in love with his female proprietor, professing his dreams of running away with her to Mexico by way of the circus. The song is built around several false crescendos, never exploding until the end when Springsteen damn near attacks his acoustic guitar and harmonica, sending the country-tinged track into a sandstorm of desperate love. Although fleshed out by Western images of shadowy nooses and sky “grown with cloud seed,” the lyrics never wander too far from the central story, rounding out the song into something sidewinding yet cohesive.

His sentences don’t fare as well on looser tracks such as “Blinded By The Light.” Although catchy as hell (as is everything on the album), and backed by a celebratory E Street Band in all their summer-sweet glory, Greetings’ most famous track just doesn’t make much sense. Lyrics like “in Zanzibar, a shootin’ star was ridin’ in a side car, hummn’ a lunar tune. Yes, and the avatar said blow the bar but first remove the cookie jar, we’re gonna teach these boys to laugh too soon” sound like Springsteen’s trying to express some sort of narrative, but the whole thing ends up being nothing more than a wash of poetic but empty images. This isn’t to say that it’s not a great song.  It is. But its style over substance lyrics keep it from being as resonant as “Mary, Queen Of Arkansas,” “Spirit In The Night” or anything off of Springsteen’s later albums.

“Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?” is plagued with similar lyrical problems. Happy-go-lucky in nature as the song’s protagnist wishes luck to a city busdriver, the song merely devolves into trippy descriptions of the city’s inhabitants. Lines like “wizard imps and sweat sock pimps, interstellar mongrel nymphs” may sound cool, but they do little to move things along.

Despite the album’s lyrical flaws, there are moments of true brilliance. “For You” remains one of the most nostalgic, beautifully spastic songs about adolescent yearning ever written and “Lost In The Flood,” with its swelling piano and stormy production, chillingly portrays the plight of a Vietnam Veteran returning home without ever being too obvious. Apocalyptic questions like “ I wonder what he was thinking when he hit that storm, or was he just lost in the flood?” entomb the politics in dark poetry, allowing the song to be topical and narratively engaging at the same time.

Springsteen would later find his sublime lyrical balance on Born To Run, crafting tales of urban poetry that had clear beginnings, middles, and ends. But Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. is as important an inaugural album as any, and perhaps the most interesting collection of songs in Springsteen’s back catalogue. As disoriented as it is, it allows us to trace his stream of consciousness, giving us insight into the ambitious brain of a born storyteller. He hadn’t reached the perfection he would one day achieve, but even today, it sure is a blast listening to him try.

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