Monday, December 15, 2008

Bruce Springsteen. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (Columbia, 1973)

"Well now wild young Billy was a crazy cat/ And he shook some dust out of his coonskin cap/ He said, Trust some of this, it'll show you where you're at/ Or at least it'll help you really feel it."

When I was a kid, my dad had a mixtape he'd compiled from a bunch of his records. It was called Party Tape, and it was awesome. Lots of Stones and Bowie, plus some Cat Stevens, Springsteen, and Tom Petty. I used to listen to it a lot: I liked the crackle and hiss from the vinyl dubbing, and the songs were pretty great, as well. And by far my two favorite cuts on the whole mix -- "Spirit in the Night" and "For You" -- were from Springsteen's 1973 debut Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Greetings From Asbury Park is a fantastic record, and an early testament to Springsteen's gifts as a composer and lyricist. This record, more than any other, I think, paints the Boss as the street smart Jersey Dylan wannabe, a scruffy kid with a love of beat poetry, cars, and girls and the skill to transform that love into a purely American kind of hyperverbal musical art. Greetings from Asbury Park sounds exciting and excited, combining feverishly overflowing, nearly stream-of-consciousness lyrical assaults with a loose, mosaic instrumental approach, the end result being an LP whose words and music sync up perfectly.

Springsteen's penchant for inventing hilariously-named characters and speaking about them like they're some kind of universal catch-all is in full effect here. Here are a few of the guys and girls populating these ten tracks:
  • Go-cart Mozart
  • Early-Pearly
  • Mary Queen of Arkansas
  • Jimmy the Saint
  • Crazy Janey
  • Hazy Davy
  • Wild Billy (with his friend G-man)
Given this cast of characters, you can see why Springsteen has been ripe for spoofing: Bob Dylan allegedly wrote the Traveling Willbury's song "Tweeter and the Monkey Man" as a gentle mockery of the Springsteen style, and if Charlie's song Night Man from it's Always Sunny in Philadelphia isn't spot-on early Bruce, I don't know what is. It's totally goofy, but really fun, and gives the impression that Springsteen has invented an entire universe in his head. The Hold Steady's Craig Finn has moved in this same direction, constantly referencing people like Hallelujah, Gideon, and Charlemagne (in sweatpants) in his songs, giving them personalities and histories and motives.

Musically, this first Springsteen isn't nearly as muscular as later material, especially when compared to 1975 breakthrough Born to Run. Instead, this early incarnation of the E Street Band embraces a kitchen sink approach, with melodies and hooks scattered willy-nilly throughout the songs. It's a freewheeling ride, and a lot of it has to do with the rhythm section. Initial E Street drummer Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez (who would be kicked out of the band after the second LP, 1973's The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, for reasons that are still disputed) has a very distinctive style, forgoing straightforward timekeeping in favor of an impressionistic, intuitive percussive technique. It's relentlessly busy and driving, and nicely complements the manic lyrical delivery and rich (sometimes cluttered) multi-layered production (courtesy of Jim Cretecos and Louis Lehav).

Song-wise, there are some career highlights here. Opener Blinded by the Light (which would be made into a #1 hit in 1977 by Manfred Mann's Earth Band, who would also re-record this album's "Spirit in the Night" and "For You") is a revved-up hallucination hung on an addictive hook, with brilliant nonsense lyrics: "Some brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone preacher from the east/ He says: 'Dethrone the dictaphone, hit it in its funny bone, that's where they expect it least,'" and, "Oh, some hazard from Harvard was skunked on beer playin' backyard bombardier/ Yes and Scotland Yard was trying hard, they sent a dude with a calling card/ He said, do what you like, but don't do it here." It's an avalanche of images and ideas, most of which amount to nothing but easily convey youthful exhilaration and wide-eyed joy.

"Mary Queen of Arkansas" is a stripped-down ballad, using a stark acoustic guitar and harmonica arrangement to express heartbreak and emotional devastation. It's a peek into later Springsteen directions, particularly 1982's Nebraska, and probably the album's most Dylanesque song.

The pianos of Lost in the Flood invest a certain majesty into this bleak appraisal of America in the early '70s, where the "
countryside's burnin' with wolfman fairies dressed in drag for homicide" and "nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleadin' immaculate conception." The character of Jimmy the Saint ("that pure American brother, dull-eyed and empty-faced") racing his muscle car on weekends to outrun his haunted past, is a tragic abstraction of the kids in "Born to Run" and "Thunder Road."

"For You" and "Spirit in the Night" are the two best songs here. The first is another frenzied rush, with an insanely hooky melody and vaguely great lyrics. The kiss off of "
Don't give me money, honey, I don't want it back/ You and your pony face and your union jack/ Well take your local joker and teach him how to act/ I swear I was never that way even when I really cracked" is priceless, as is the line about the "metal-tempered engine on an alien, distant shore." Vini Lopez's drumming here is, as always, a big part of why this song works so well. Spirit in the Night takes Clarence Clemons's snakey sax hook and builds it into a sexy, nocturnal beauty, one of the most thrilling, achingly pretty songs Springsteen has ever written. It's the embodiment of adolescent lust and mystery, small-town boredom translated into epic emotion.

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. is the sound of Springsteen finding his voice. It's not a perfect album, and it doesn't sound too much like the Boss of Born to Run or the River or Born in the U.S.A. But it's a bracing, astonishing collection all the same, the work of an adroit, distinctly American blue collar balladeer coming quickly and surely into his own.