Bruce Springsteen's Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ 
By Richard Abowitz

From Gadfly July 1998


Try to guess who wrote these lyrics: 

Madman drummers bummers
and Indians in the summer
with a teenage diplomat.
In the dumps with the mumps
as the adolescent pumps his
way into his hat.

It's obviously informed by Dylan (the diplomat if nothing else is a giveaway) but it's way to clumsy (the double rhyme on "m" results in a thick cluster of consonance which is almost a tongue twister). Beck is certainly a possibility as is Patti Smith, Lou Reed, or David Byrne. Even Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter couldn't be entirely ruled out. But these lyrics, of course, begin the famous first verse of Bruce Springsteen's "Blinded by the Light" which opens up his not-so-famous debut album Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ (Columbia, 1973).

The story of how Springsteen wound up recording Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ is a rock 'n' roll fable mixed with pure chutzpah. After years bumming around the Jersey bar scene playing in bands with names like Child and Steel Mill, his manager took Springsteen to New York to audition for John Hammond. Hammond, whose discoveries include Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday, and Benny Goodman, was perhaps the most legendary talent scout in popular music. Springsteen sang a few songs for Hammond and a contract was instantly signed with Columbia Records. A few weeks later Springsteen, still in his early 20s, was in the studio recording and producing (along with his manager) Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ.

Hammond mistakenly thought of Springsteen as a folk singer and it was left to Springsteen to find musicians to play on the record. He created a band which mixed fellow veterans of the New York club scene like Vini "Mad Dog" Lopez with some future members of the E Street Band like Clarence Clemons and even included a top-flight jazz musician in Richard Davis who backed Van Morrison and Jimmy Witherspoon and had made music history with his brilliant playing on Eric Dolphy's Out to Lunch. Despite the caliber of the musicians, Springsteen had never produced a record before. Therefore—particularly on compact disc—the sound of Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ is muted and slight. As a result, commercial radio paid almost no attention to the record, and Springsteen wasn't even able to mount a full national tour to support it.

Critics, too, have consistently given harsh assessments to Springsteen's debut. The Rolling Stone Record Guide says, "Way to wordy and sabotaged by thin production..." and the Music Hound guide is even worse listing Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ as an album to avoid and noting, "Columbia thought it had a troubadour, not a rocker, and this set sounds more stiff and mannered each passing year." Not surprisingly, the album sold poorly and quickly faded from memory.

But these views are unfair—and without intending it—are too influenced by the Springsteen of Born to Run. For despite its flaws, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ is a passionate, ambitious and moving work. It is the only Bruce Springsteen album, which can fairly be described as joyful. It is a brilliant young man's tumultuous explosion. It makes its subject out of high school hijinks and a South Jersey community, which are interpreted through a pastiche of surreal lyrics. Greetings also includes three great songs ("Blinded By the Light," "Growin' Up" and "Spirit in the Night) and two pretty good ones ("Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street" and "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City").

But over the years, despite the neglect that the album faced, a cottage industry has developed of other artists recording its songs. Manfred Mann's Earth Band had a huge hit with their radio-friendly, thickly produced version of "Blinded By the Light" and followed it up with a take on "For You" which while less commercially successful was just as hideous. Perhaps the most intriguing interpreter of these early Springsteen songs has been David Bowie. Bowie recorded "Growin' Up" and "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" around the time of his Pin-Up sessions and though he wisely chose to release neither of them at the time, both songs reveal elements of Springsteen that are otherwise hard to imagine. Springsteen's "It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" is a know-it-all euphoric boy who wants to taste it all, but in Bowie's hands a jaded gay prostitute emerges: "I felt his hot breath on my neck/ as a I dove into the heat/ It's so hard to be a Saint when/ You're just a boy out on the street." Who would have thought that Bruce Springsteen, the hero of the Reagan Democrats, would write a "Sister Ray"? Bowie's version of "Growin' Up" is less successful. While in principle lines like "I was a cosmic kid in full costume dress," are perfect for the Thin White Duke, in practice Bowie has never been able to project the earnest attitude the song requires. Most Springsteen fans recoil at Bowie's interpretations—Springsteen fans have rarely cottoned to covers. However, it remains a supreme tribute that these, to be blunt, verbose and complicated songs have exerted such an appeal to fellow songwriters.

Springsteen's second chance arrived unexpectedly the year after Columbia released Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ. Critic Jon Landau saw Springsteen play. On stage with the E Street Band Springsteen put on performances that were so charismatic that church gospel seems the only adequate metaphor. That evening he sat up and wrote "I saw Rock and Roll's future and its name is Bruce Springsteen." The following year Springsteen appeared on the covers of Newsweek and Time in the same week.

For the past 25 years since the release of Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ Springsteen has gone through a variety of transformations: the great striver of Born to Run, the stadium rocker of Born in the USA, a moody relationship auteur on Tunnel of Love and even a side trip into the stark Americana of Nebraska. Each of these records ranks among rock's great achievements created at a time when greatness had seemed already fully mapped out by Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles and Bob Dylan. At a time when all that even the most talented could do was find a niche to explore like Frank Zappa or Lou Reed, Springsteen managed to chisel his face onto rock's Mount Rushmore.