Monday, January 21, 2013

Bruce Springsteen 1: Greetings From Asbury Park

In our younger days, New Jersey was something to be endured while traveling between the New York metropolitan area and Delaware. And well before a certain John Bongiovi attempted to put himself forward as its poet laureate, another guy had been linked to the musical image of this much-maligned, easily insulted state.
The music of Bruce Springsteen was rammed into the ears of album-rock radio listeners, which meant that some of us were truly sick of him well before he became a national hero. His voice took some getting used to, and the saxophone got to be a little much. Between that and the plaudits of Rolling Stone magazine, you’d think the guy invented rock ‘n roll, and we kept wondering what we were missing. It wasn’t until the mild backlash of his eighth studio album that we began to see him in a better context. And since Bruce is a man who has crafted each of his albums just so, often at the expense of dozens of worthy songs, a forum like this can better approach his history, and give him some overdue appreciation. (Like he really needs it.)
He started out as another New Dylan, a sensitive kid with an acoustic guitar and songs overspilling with words. In fact, many of the songs on Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (branding him as a local boy right there) feature multiple rhymes within a single line, almost tongue-twisting but struggling to keep up, gasping for space. For instance, if you’re more familiar with the spacey version of “Blinded By The Light” as interpreted by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, you may be surprised to find that this wordy song actually has more of a standard structure, and a guitar rhythm shared by the Doobie Brothers’ “Listen To The Music”. However, it also introduces the sax of Clarence Clemons. “Growin’ Up” is also loaded with internal rhymes, but it’s a little more concise, and more successful. “Mary Queen Of Arkansas” is taken at a much slower pace, almost too slow, with a bare accompaniment that threatens to run away from him in the closing seconds. “Does This Bus Stop At 82nd Street?” is a wonderful title, though the song isn’t much more of a flood of images. There’s a slowdown at the end that makes it very much of a setup for “Lost In The Flood”, a moody exploration of the apathy toward Vietnam vets and dead gang members. There’s a nice build through the track, too.
“The Angel” begins the second side very quietly, with a slow dense lyric seemingly about another motorcycle rider. That makes “For You” very welcome—a full band sound, an excellent arrangement, and well-balanced lyrics that seem more personal than observational. The saxophone comes back to the fore on “Spirit In The Night”—on the surface a portrait of noir-ish characters with wacky names, but really an authentic portrait of kids partying at a lake until the party has to end, as they all do. The album ends much like it starts, with a cavalcade of rhymes, mythmaking and swagger in “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City”.
For all the aforementioned drawbacks, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. holds together very well as a piece, but his inexperience is obvious. He’d learn as he went along, and those discovering him down the road will find some favorites here.

Bruce Springsteen Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)—

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