The album that introduced the world to Bruce Springsteen remains a uniquely impressive entry in his expansive canon
Some albums feel like they emanated from a place, rising off the streets like steam in a heatwave. You don’t need to know New Jersey, to have strolled the boardwalks of Asbury Park or Long Branch or sunk beers at The Stone Pony to appreciate the authenticity and specificity of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. It’s all deep in the album’s DNA, like a smell of decades past that is as much a part of a thrift store jacket as its stitches. It just can’t be faked.
Right from the tumbling chords and word salad of ‘Blinded By The Light’, Asbury Park sets out its stall as a comprehensive run through the building blocks that constructed the Bruce Springsteen of 1972. It’s overwhelmingly Dylanesque in a way that Springsteen hasn’t been since, but a Dylan in thrall to classic rock ‘n’ roll, sweat-drenched soul revues and youthful optimism. It’s confident in a way that few debuts are, the result of years of time-served as a band-leader in New Jersey clubs. And more than anything, it’s got an excitable, raw energy as if Springsteen couldn’t stop the words and music pouring out of him like a torrent.
Most younger Springsteen fans will have come to Asbury Park later on, entering via his blockbusters of the 70s and 80s and eventually winding their way around to his first two albums once they’ve covered the “essentials”. That’s understandable. Their retrospective role in his legacy is as initial steps that nearly lost him his record deal and tanked his career before it even started. That’s not a fair assessment of their quality but it isn’t totally inaccurate. As an introduction, Asbury Park is baffling, it’s overwhelming, it’s consistently brilliant.
Asbury Park is filled with now-classic songs, songs that sit apart from most of Bruce’s later work in their verbosity and endearing lack of refinement. With Born To Run, he would learn to streamline his lyrics and impose more defined structure on even his lengthier compositions, but here, the songs feel like the dog walking the man – and both are getting a much-needed workout.
Take the closer, ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’. It feels like the band can’t quite decide on the tempo, pushing and pulling each other in thrilling directions. Bruce is clinging onto his tongue like it’s going to get him killed. By the end, he sounds like he’s about to pass out if he doesn’t take a breath. The whole thing feels epic, but it’s only three minutes long.
The swinging instrumentation, carnival organ and Bruce’s mile-a-minute verbosity all add to the album’s shoreline feel, casting the band as a cocksure gang of young men seeking out mild devilment on the boardwalk. They’re the kind of rogues you can’t help but root for, bouncing off the world and each other on songs like ‘For You’, ‘Spirit In The Night’ and ‘Growing Up’.
The youthful exuberance is only punctured by ‘Lost In The Flood’, a brooding cautionary tale with vivid wordplay such as: “Nuns run bald through Vatican halls, pregnant, pleading immaculate conception”. It’s a staggering song that foreshadows the talent for getting under America’s skin that Bruce would return to on songs like ‘Stolen Car’, ‘My Hometown’ and ‘American Skin’.
Bruce would never make another album that sounds anything like Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. And there’s something satisfying about that. The old adage says that you’ve your whole life to write your first album and six months to write your second. Asbury Park feels like Bruce’s whole life up to that point, a line drawn between Bruce Springsteen, the wirey, bearded young man with dreams of stardom and Bruce Springsteen the bona fide superstar.
Pianist David Sancious said recently that when he first watched Bruce play these songs to an audience, he thought: “As soon as the world knows about this guy, it’s all over. Everybody is going to get it.” It took a little longer for the world to know about Bruce Springsteen, but Sancious was proved right in the end.