The Working Man's Rock & Roll

Bruce Springsteen: 40 years

Digital art by Rob Shields; Album cover, Columbia Records


The American Working Man's Rock & Roll

Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ: 40 Years Later

By R. Alan Clanton | published July 4, 2013 |
Thursday Review Editor

Forty years ago I was obsessed with popular music. By the summer of 1973—July in fact—I had begun scratching together my meager profits from lawn care and newspaper delivery so that I might upgrade my bedroom’s sound system from the inexpensive 1969 record player with built-in speakers to something more formidable and stylish. Style mattered to a young teen, but technical prowess and power mattered more. After all, rock music was heaving with intensity and experimentation that year: Bob Dylan’s moody, transcendent “Knocking on Heaven’s Door”; Elton John’s epic album “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” The Who’s “Quadrophenia,” Grand Funk Railroad’s iconic and infectious “We’re an American Band”; and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird,” arguably one of the greatest anthems in rock music history.

All of this astonishing musical activity was enough for me to want to raise the level and quality of sound in my room, where the staples of listening pleasure for me and my friends included Led Zeppelin, The Who (I could never quite play “Won’t Get Fooled Again” loud enough on that little vinyl turntable) and the Beatles.

It was during that summer filled with news about Watergate that I first heard the name Bruce Springsteen. I didn’t hear him on the radio, or read about him in a music magazine, or hear about him from a friend. In fact, I didn’t even hear a Springsteen song on the radio for another couple of years. Springsteen’s debut album, “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ,” released in early 1973, had little impact on the record charts, less impact on radio, and by the end of that same year had sold barely 25,000 copies. Compare that to Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” which had exceeded half a million in the U.S. alone by late fall of 1973; or to Lynyrd Skynyrd’s debut “Pronounced leh-nerd skin-nerd,” which was released in August 1973 and reached sales of over 500,000 by late 1974. Indeed, Bruce Springsteen would not hit his stride for another couple of years.

What I first knew of Springsteen I learned from a fellow whose name I didn’t even know—a shopkeeper-manager who ran a tiny store inside a small suburban shopping center in my hometown of Jacksonville. It was a combination head shop, poster gallery, record store and novelty shop—just the sort of place that proliferated in the early 70s in small spaces in malls and shopping centers. My friends and I would ride our bicycles to this little mall, often making a bee-line to the record store where the scent and haze from strawberry incense wafted through the crowded space. The walls were covered with squares of shag carpet in jarring combinations of color and hue, and attached to the carpet were dozens of black light posters. The typical fare on the sound system included The Who, Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, The Rolling Stones, and of course the Beatles. The folks who worked in the shop were especially fond of “Abbey Road,” “Let It Be” and “The White Album.”

But one Saturday afternoon that summer, as I lingered in the store rifling through vinyl which I could barely afford on my allowance budget, I realized that the store’s sound system was churning out music which sounded nothing like anything I had ever heard before. At first, it was aurally confusing: Was this Bob Dylan? Van Morrison? John Prine? It wasn’t British. And though the energy levels were high and the mix of blues and rock pure and heartfelt, it wasn’t Southern American, which ruled out The Allman Brothers. The voice was raspy, energetic, soulful—but it wasn’t soul, at least not by the definitions predominant in ‘73.

Then, there were those lyrics—transcendent as Dylan, evocative as Van Morrison, but with so much energy and so much playful poetry packed into a single song that it seemed manic, verging on chaos. Surely at this pace, and after one or two songs, this voice would tire and reach the limit. But on it went, song after song. It was as if someone had locked John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Steve Goodman, Wolfman Jack and Dr. Seuss in a recording studio with too much sugar and caffeine.

I worked up some courage, and ambled over to the counter to ask the guy what he was playing.

“Not sure,” he said, cocking his head, “but it is busy-sounding. Somebody Springfield or Springstine. Catchy, though!” He slid some stuff aside on his counter and lifted the record sleeve. “Bruce Springfield,” he muttered, “maybe too much like Elvis for my taste.” He explained tersely that the record was merely on loan to him from a friend who worked at a local FM rock station, and he would have to return it—along with a few others—later that day. I made a mental note.

The problem is that a few days later I did not remember the name. Oh, I remembered the “Springfield” part, which led me down the path of misinformation and confusion for two more years. Like most teens I moved quickly onward with other musical distractions, using my allowance to buy up Three Dog Night, Deep Purple, Yes and Chicago. Whenever someone would mention Buffalo Springfield, it would trigger something in my head, but I was never able to reconnect to that original thread, or to those few songs I had heard.

Then, sometime in 1975, I heard the song “Born to Run” on a local rock station. The song was energetic to a fault—like a runaway freight train, and when it was over the deejay said it was the work of newcomer Bruce Springsteen. I had come full circle. Springsteen, I said out loud.

I was not alone in this lost period in Springsteen’s career. In those days, his records sold in limited numbers, and then only to cultists and music anthropologists, despite the fact that his stage and club act was becoming a phenomenon wherever he performed. “Greetings From Asbury Park” was released in late January of 1973, and later that same year CBS released “The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,” which didn’t sell any better. By the early part of 1974 Springsteen was already looking at two strikes in a ruthless industry that rarely offers its talent a third chance at bat.

But a strange thing was happening during this period—he was beginning to convert some of that cult status into actual mainstream music press attention. Springsteen’s early followers and champions became dedicated fanatics, soon morphing into what would become rock’s most ferocious and protective cadre of promoters. Despite the tepid record sales, Springsteen and his band were drawing packed houses in New York clubs, including a game-changing ten-night show at The Bottom Line music nightclub. It was there, to standing-room-only crowds, as well as music critics and record label moguls, that Bruce Springsteen gained first traction. So he was given one more chance to make a record, and this time it would surely be his last. Columbia even raised the ante, giving the band a larger studio budget, a decision CBS immediately regretted when Springsteen, the obsessive perfectionist, spent over a year in the studio searching for intangible and illusive elements to improve each song.

Still, by the time the album “Born to Run” was finally complete, the talk of Springsteen had hit full stride in the national press, driven in part by the ever-burgeoning crowds at his shows.

Released finally in August of 1975, “Born to Run” received uniformly positive reviews, even by those critics who had dismissed his earlier work. Its songs gained immediate traction on rock radio stations across the U.S., and the phenomena of his “cult” status abruptly ended when his face infamously appeared on the covers of Newsweek and Time on the exact same day, October 27, 1975. “Born to Run” and its many potent, image-rich songs—“Tenth Avenue Freeze Out,” “Jungleland,” and “Thunder Road”—would very soon establish itself as one of the greatest collections in rock history, and it is now routinely ranked among the 10 or 20 best albums of all time. Springsteen and his E Street Band would become iconic and famous, nearly overnight.

In the meantime, his new fans were discovering—to their surprise in some cases—that there was an early Springsteen, the poet and singer with material before “Born to Run.”

“Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ” is now often regarded as one of the best debut albums in rock history—an arguable but reasonable judgment when viewed from the new millennia, or, for that matter, when we looked back from the late 1980s or 1990s. Still, this refined, reformed perspective doesn’t square with the initial record sales. Compare “Greetings” to a few of the other albums generally regarded as stunning debuts—Led Zeppelin’s self-titled release, Boston’s namesake first, U2’s “Boy,” The Eagles’ self-titled debut. Boston’s now-iconic debut sold nearly a half million in less than a month, and by the end of 1976 its sales had exceeded one million. Led Zeppelin’s debut (technically they were already configured as a band under the name Yardbirds) in 1969, though not well received by the critics at the time, nevertheless sold well into the millions after just two years.

One explanation is simple enough: had it not been for the ongoing drumbeat by certain vocal music critics and writers—as well as the intervention by savvy producers at Columbia Records—Bruce Springsteen may have languished in the backwaters of musical notice. Peter Knobler, editor of Crawdaddy, and music writer Jon Landau, were among those who championed Springsteen’s talent and potential.

Another cause for this rewrite of rock history can be found among the diehards: by the time of the release of “Born to Run,” Springsteen’s cadre of followers had become one of the most dedicated contingents ever to coalesce around a single act. No other performers—American or British—could claim such rapid ticket sales for concerts and shows.

But perhaps more important was the fact that as an American-born singer-songwriter to ensnare such devotion, Springsteen became the first since Elvis to challenge the British-dominated template of sound and popularity. No American group had drawn this much adoration and loyalty—not The Beach Boys, not the Doors, not The Allman Brothers, not Creedence Clearwater Revival—since the British Invasion and the ascension of the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Moody Blues, The Who, and so many other bands with their roots in England.

In that sense, Springsteen was an American original, a term bordering on cliché by today’s standards, but the appropriate moniker in the mid-1970s to describe a songwriter and singer with such a direct lineage to the origins of rock and roll and the working-class ethos associated with the likes of Elvis, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.

And Springsteen was a genuine Baby Boomer, born in 1949, one of the first wave of musical newcomers to arrive in time to challenge the pre-Boomer’s dominance over loyalty and enthusiasm.  Dylan, Elvis and all members of the Stones, The Who, the Beatles, and Zeppelin were born during World War II (see American Graffiti and the Great Boomer Experience; Thursday Review).

The hybrid, folk-rock fusion of “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ” shines in retrospect in large part for its lyrics, which seemed to transcend even Dylan’s best stuff in energy and compression. What emerged on “Greetings” was something never before heard in rock and roll, and those scant few who heard at the time knew they were hearing something fresh and potent. And there was that working-class thread found in nearly every song: racing stock Chevys in Jersey; the faces on long rides in city buses; the Daily News; “hubcap heaven” and the interstate’s choked with nomadic hoards. Densely packed descriptions of social life were juxtaposed with colorful, evocative portraits of people drawn and composed from Springsteen’s own life experiences along the Jersey Shore, in New York, and along the streets and boulevards in between.

There are these lines from “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?”: where dockworker’s dreams / mix with panther’s schemes / to someday own the rodeo / tainted women in Vistavision / perform for out-of-state kids / at the late late show / wizard imps and sweat sock pimps / intersteller mongrel nymphs

When read as poetry on the album liner, many songs seem like florid lists, but coupled with the voice and the fusion of folk and rock sounds, the songs spring to life as much larger than mere evocations of place, time and flesh. With the benefit of hindsight, it is also clear that Springsteen’s first efforts from 1973 were part of a learning curve—preliminary chapters to the more forceful era he would launch with “Born to Run” a few years later, where he would shed the last vestiges of folk, replacing it instead with a dazzling merger of his working class poetry with the dynamic, energetic rock and roll sound experienced in songs like “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and “Thunder Road.” The sound he invented would eventually be understood as part of a larger movement, called by some music writers “heartland rock” or “American heartrock,” a subgenre into which would flow Bob Seger, John Mellencamp, Bruce Hornsby and many others. The music was rarely experimental, built instead—like the songs on “Greetings”—on a mix of traditional rock and roll, blues and folk.

“Greetings From Asbury Park” also benefits from its musical cast, for he had already found a partner in horn sounds in Clarence Clemons, as well as bass player Gary Tallent. Later, in 1975 he would more-or-less establish the band’s personnel as it would appear for many years, with Steven Van Zandt on lead guitar and backing vocals, the iconic Clemons (who died in 2011) on all forms of saxophone and backing vocals, David Sancious on piano and organ, Roy Bittan on keyboards and accordion, Max Weinberg on drums, and Danny Federici on organs, accordion and vocals.

Though Columbia released two songs from "Greetings" as singles, “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night,” they gained virtually no traction in those first two years. For most rock fans, the success of “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night” are linked inextricably to the British group Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, who, in 1975 and 76, re-recorded both songs and released them to the British and American radio audiences as elaborately layered synthesizer and keyboard-infused hard rock. “Blinded by the Light” shot straight to the top of the charts, reigniting Manfred Mann’s musical career even as many new Springsteen fans were unaware of the song’s obscure, folksy provenance.

With Greetings, Bruce Springsteen also established his reputation as a “album” perfectionist. It was never enough for him to simply write a couple of songs that sounded like “hits” to the producers, then fill what remained of two sides of vinyl with material of the fair-to-middling stripe. Springsteen’s infamous reputation as an obsessive-compulsive “let’s record it again” taskmaster in the studio—though tiring and trying to those who worked with him—produced over time albums of genuinely high caliber and remarkable thematic cohesion. He was never accused of unevenness or sloppiness. Later albums such as “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “The River,” and “Born in the USA,” and even his relatively recent work such as the album “The Rising,” still demonstrate the same determination to create a seamless package of poetry and music, rather than just a collection of disparate songs. The discipline of this creative process was begun with “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ.”

Over time, especially in the middle-to-late 1970s, the rediscovery of Springsteen's earliest work would bring about the great critical reassessment, and “Greetings From Asbury Park,” as well as its 1973 companion, “The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle,” would move easily into the Pantheon of great albums. (We list “Greetings” on our Music Page as one of the five must-have debut albums in rock and roll history, second—arguably—to Led Zeppelin’s initial release).

If the British Invasion could be seen as simply the larger tectonics of a series of smaller movements, the constant baroque experimentation of the Beatles, the black-hat blues bad boy rock of the Rolling Stones, the fidelity to blues-acid heaviness of Led Zeppelin, the energetic youth dynamism of The Who, then Springsteen’s earliest work was the starting point for a resurgence in American rock fundamentalism, as forged through a newfound fusion of the black man’s blues, upper Appalachian white folk music, and the blue collar, working man’s rock and roll—about as American as it gets.