Wednesday, January 4, 2023

The Albums of 1973: Bruce Springsteen: Greetings from Ashbury Park, N.J.

Release Date: January 5, 1973

Produced by Mike Appel, Jim Cretecos

Side One: Blinded by the Light; Growin' Up; Mary Queen of Arkansas; Does this Bus Stop at 82nd St?'; Lost in the Flood

Side Two: The Angel; For You; Spirit in the Night; It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City

Greetings from Ashbury Park marked the debut of one of the most vibrant and iconic voices in Rock - Bruce Springsteen. A working-class New Jersey kid, Springsteen, like millions was enraptured with the romance and promise of rock music, a step towards the promise of something revolutionary, even Utopian.

He played in many bands, shaping a sound and style with many musicians along the way in what would evolve into the E Street Band. In 1972, he was signed by Columbia and recorded the first album.

Springsteen's musical and autobiographical influences are all over Greetings From Ashbury Park, while also introducing themes and locales that would carry though his entire body of work. Verbose and romantic, Greetings made moderate sales but garnered glowing reviews from critics. 

Taking a cue from Dylan's 1965 LP Bringing it all Back Home, Greetings was initially intended to be divided between acoustic numbers and tracks recorded with the band, but only two acoustic songs made the final cut: "Mary Queen of Arkansas" and "The Angel." The former could be compared to Dylan's "Ramona", but also introduces the desperate star-crossed lovers on the run in so many of his songs. "The Angel" is a piano number, vaguely reminiscent of Randy Newman's mini epics, but also referencing Kerouac's road prose poetry, Bruce adds a touch of Gothic darkness and despair, a zone of pitiful desperation and dead ends. 

"Blinded by the Light", the bombastic opener written at the behest of Columbia who "did not hear a single," is one of the highlights of the record. Clearly Dylan inspired, while at the same time influenced by R&B and gospel, the surreal landscape of the song allows for playful wordplay:

And go-cart Mozart was checkin' out the weather chart to see if it was safe to go outside

And little Early-Pearly came in by her curly-wearly and asked me if I needed a ride

In the vein of Dylan's "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again" minus the icy cynicism and more in line with Marc Bolan's jukebox anthems of dreamy imagery, the joyful call and response on the fadeout welcomes all to join in.

"Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" is a poetical tapestry of New York Street scenes. "Lost in the Flood" revealed a cinematic lyrical style. Each of the three verses follows characters disillusioned with America in the wake of the Vietnam War, juxtaposed with violence and despair on city streets. "For You" is about a girl whose life was "one long emergency" in a frenetically paced vocal by Springsteen. 

"Spirit in the Night" eases the mood, a piano driven narrative held together by Clarence Carter's saxophone. Not interested in straight narrative, the song creates a youthful atmosphere, moments of release among wanderers of the night who will return in various incarnations on future songs. The closing track "It's Hard To Be A Saint in the City" begins with a jazzy piano and returns to street scenes with more adventure and temptation.

Other artists took notice of Ashbury Park, David Bowie was a fan and recorded versions of "For You" and "It's Hard To Be a Saint in the City." Fifty years later the sense of urgency still enraptures the listener and gives the album a distinct power. For anyone seeking new voices in 1973, one would've found it here. 

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