Thursday, May 3, 2018

Greetings From Asbury Park

There are scattered few who recognize genius just like that (finger snap). Imagine hearing the 9th for the first time back in '24 (1824) in Vienna's Theater am K√§rntnertor, and recognizing its significance, its brilliance, its scope. Or more so, imagine having that same insight at the 1st Symphony instead. Who was paying attention? Then imagine hearing Greetings From Asbury Park at the Stone Pony, the young Springsteen spitting out words in poetic torrents, erroneously compared to Dylan in the same manner in which Beethoven was compared to Mozart. I wonder if I would have had the insight. Or, like Berlioz would I have intimated "This is admirably crafted music, clear, alert, but lacking in strong personality, cold and sometimes rather small-minded." 

I want to erase all of this; the pretentiousness of comparing Springsteen to Beethoven seems silly and uncool, though Ludwig Van was a rock star in his day, indeed The Boss.

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., (AM8) announced a considerable new talent and though he wouldn't shake the "new Bob Dylan" till Born to Run, his lyrical detail certainly had a different feel from Dylan's 60s triumphs. Take the fab opener "Blinded by the Light," a wonderfully surreal tale brimming with unusual imagery and snappy rhyming schemes; this highly innovative rocker was a brave choice as the opening gambit, but showed Springsteen's unshakable confidence in his lyrics even at this early stage of his career. Perhaps a lesser man would have kicked off with the delightfully catchy "Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?" Vaguely reminiscent of The Band at their best, this irresistible two minute pop nugget sported some fine lyrics: "Queen of diamonds, ace of spades, newly discovered lovers of the everglades, they take out a full page ad in the trades to announce their arrival" – yet it was the jaunty tune that really caught the imagination. 

If these tracks had encapsulated the best of Springsteen's lighthearted wordplay, then the edgier side of the muse surfaces in “Growin’ Up,” which saw the tentative onset of many key Springsteen themes. His desire to become a leather clad street hero is obvious from the outset and the rebellion scattered throughout only underlines this aim. However it's the line "I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car" that first establishes the car as vital element in Bruce's lyrical armory. Overall the track skilfully reflects both the bold ambition and tense uncertainty of youth, managing to sound as though there's still a fair amount of self-doubt behind the seemingly confident statements. In contrast, the outstanding street anthem "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City" oozes gritty experience, yet despite the slick swag the tension is maintained by snippets of danger and drama throughout. 

"Lost in the Flood" was another street-based gem. This time the arrangement was more understated allowing the lyrics to take centre stage. What could have been a simple tale of cars and guns is elevated to epic status through its immaculate detail. The opening verse sees the ragamuffin gunner returning home to a religiously bankrupt town – "they’re breaking beams and crosses with a spastic's reeling perfection, nuns run bald through Vatican halls pregnant, pleading immaculate conception" from which Jimmy the Saint tries to escape through frequent drag racing. Unfortunately over-confidence leads to his dramatic demise in a hurricane – "and there’s nothing left but some blood where the body fell, that is nothing left that you could sell, just junk all across the horizon, a real highwayman's farewell." Finally the town's frustrations erupt into a gun-fight which results in death and injury – "and Bronx’s best apostle stands with his hand on his own hardware, everything stops, you hear five quick shots, the cops come up for air." One of Springsteen's most downbeat and violent songs of the period, "Lost in the Flood" was another track surprisingly compared with Dylan, though more for its fine construction than its graphic content. 

Less disturbing were the unexpectedly tender strains of "Spirit in the Night." Rather than use nighttime as a backdrop to tough street-life, the track tapped into the mystical beauty of the night. Ultimately Crazy Janey and our narrator fall in love under the near-magical spell of the gypsy angels down by near Greasy Lake. An odd love song that has more in common with A Midsummer Night’s Dream than Springsteen's usual bedfellows. Greetings from Asbury Park is Springsteen's most interesting album (alongside Nebraska and Tom Joad.), providing a fascinating glimpse of Bruce in the pre-Boss years. No, not the "best" album, but clearly Greetings is the album that most contained the poet, or conversely set him free.