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By Peter Basham
Oldcastle BooksCopyright © 2005 Peter Basham
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1. Jersey Nights
Having spent his formative years as a musician in a host of wonderfully named bands – The Rogues, The Castiles, Earth, Child, Steel Mill, Dr Zoom And The Sonic Boom – based around the clubs of New Jersey and most specifically his adopted seaside home of Asbury Park, Bruce Springsteen finally landed his professional recording contract at Columbia Records, as a solo artist. The heavy metal and blues-rock fusion of Child – strongly influenced by acts such as the Eric Clapton-led Cream – had been re-branded under the moniker of Steel Mill. This group built up enough of a following to open for an act as well known as Grand Funk Railroad, whilst the subsequent Dr Zoom had landed a support slot for The Allman Brothers. However, with his new group, the horn-enhanced Bruce Springsteen Band, counting membership in the double figures, money was proving very tight for the young Bruce who was resolutely unemployed in a 'proper job', clinging to that of hopeful musician. Various band members had taken part-time work to make ends meet, while Bruce increasingly looked for solo gigs in the folk clubs of New York to keep himself occupied, and in money. Thus, it was when his original, informal manager, Carl 'Tinker' West, put Springsteen in touch with showbiz wannabes Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos, that he played solo and acoustic for them. This pair of occasional pop producers and songwriters, who had written a couple of Partridge Family hits, were undoubtedly dominated by Appel and, after a delay that forced Bruce to re-contact Appel to remind him who he was, Springsteen's career was taken firmly in hand. Appel had an unusually aggressive approach to promotion in which there was little space for subtlety and building relationships, and once he fell for Springsteen's act, he went all out to make him a success. He forced Columbia Records' legendary A&R man John Hammond to give his new client an audition through sheer cheek, insinuating that Hammond would be making a huge mistake if he passed up a chance to hear Bruce. The A&R man must have heard this kind of bravado hundreds of times before, yet Appel's manner was persuasive, even if it was curiosity on Hammond's part as to whether this upstart might just be peddling a future star. When Springsteen played his demo set on 3 May 1972 (widely bootlegged since and with some of the performances given an official release on Tracks), Hammond felt that Appel had indeed been right and this New Jersey singer was something special, particularly impressing him with a rendition of 'If I Was The Priest'. Just over a month later, on 9 June, Bruce Springsteen became a Columbia recording artist, signed by the man who had previously brought Bob Dylan's signature to the label. It has often been suggested that Springsteen was seen as a 'new' or replacement Dylan, whose own powers seemed in decline after a run of albums that had not been greeted critically with the previously mandatory 'classic' status, although Blood On The Tracks was just around the corner. Bruce, however, was a rock and roll fan at heart (as, ironically, was Dylan himself despite being first claimed and then savaged by the folk purists). Bruce was devoted to Little Richard and Chuck Berry, the Stax and Motown label sounds, British invasion bands, and the great showman, Elvis Presley. Where Dylan's early lyrics – and indeed melodies – did draw heavily on folk music (1963's 'Girl From The North Country' strongly borrowed from the traditional 'Scarborough Fair', for example) and followed the civil rights political protests of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, Springsteen sang of the everyday lives he witnessed being acted out around him. The nightlife and the curious street characters, his friends and all their dreams – this was a world in which he was an active participant and that he found himself able to recount vividly in his music. Therefore, despite being keen to sign under his own name with a batch of songs he had specifically written to enable him to play solo gigs and travel lighter, it is no surprise to find various members from his recent past rock bands helping out on the debut Bruce Springsteen album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., rather than it simply being a vehicle for one man and his guitar.
Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.], 1973.
Mike Appel, Jim Cretecos.
Clarence Clemons, Vincent 'Loper' Lopez, David Sancious, Bruce Springsteen, Garry Tallent.
Richard Davis, Harold Wheeler.
'Blinded By The Light', 'Growin' Up', 'Mary Queen Of Arkansas', 'Does This Bus Stop At 82 Street?', 'Lost In The Flood', 'The Angel', 'For You', 'Spirit In The Night', 'It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City'.
The urgent 'Blinded By The Light' opened Springsteen's debut, and first of two albums, in 1973. It was a torrent of surreal images and phrases that the twenty-three year old had seemingly thrown down for the primary purpose of connecting renditions of the lively chorus, although the writer's resourcefulness to find the endless rhymes is undeniably impressive. The rest of the album – and his previous two years of prolific songwriting and demo recording – reveal an artist learning as he went along how to tailor his cinematic storytelling and poetic imagery, streetwise and colourful characters to the medium of popular song. At their best the songs on Greetings, although flawed (far too many dense similes – "I've been a shine boy for your acid brat and a wharf rat of your state" he sings to 'Mary Queen Of Arkansas'), are undeniably passionate. 'For You' has even made a reappearance some thirty years down the line as a solo interlude in the E Street Band stadium shows, with Bruce at the piano, but, as part of the hook has it, "you did not need my urgency ...". Tracks such as 'The Angel' and 'Mary Queen Of Arkansas' succeed in slowing down the frenetic pace, allowing the listener to catch some sort of breath, but even within the sparse acoustic strumming of these songs, the imagery is never less than gushing out, like oil from a cracked tank. Closing with the impressively swaggering 'It's Hard To Be A Saint In The City', Bruce may not have quite "burst just like a supernova" as the song has it, but this album is a very solid start from a man who had already written scores of songs but had yet to understand quite how to harness his writing to his chosen form of expression. Perhaps the record's biggest weakness is the undermining tension between Appel and Columbia's hopes for an acoustic collection, and Bruce's natural ease in the company of his musician friends and a band sound. Bruce has claimed that it was through Clive Davis' initial rejection of the album for its lack of obviously commercial singles that caused him to go and write 'Blinded By The Light' and 'Spirit In The Night', two of the more orchestrated tracks. Bruce may originally have been keen to be signed as a solo act but he gradually pulled in more of his past Jersey band colleagues over the course of recording, despite a reluctance for this augmentation by his manager/producers. Come the follow-up record, there was no doubt who had begun to win that battle.
'Growin' Up' – a warm, early anthem that has Bruce playing the rebel, but with great humour in place of brooding bravado that might have been expected from a young newcomer. Here he flies a pirate flag and takes care to look "just right" before, prophetically, he finds "the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car"!
'For You' – densely packed with similes, as is too much of this album, this is one of the more satisfying tracks on the album for its passionate hook, despite an unclear narrative. The hospital imagery points to the object of the narrator's frustrated affection being in physical trouble, whilst there is mention of "your Chelsea suicide" to suggest an even darker aspect to the tale, as does the past tense of "your life was one long emergency".
'Does This Bus Stop At 82 Street?' – here the lovingly drawn characters of the Jersey shore make way for a cascade of fairly minimal descriptions. There is plenty of early Bruce surreal rhyming and the song still sounds fun on those rare occasions when it makes a present-day concert appearance, but it also has the feel of something very slight, perhaps emphasised by being sandwiched by two epic five-minute-plus songs in the running order on side one.
Key Missing Tracks (official release status is noted in parenthesis):
'If I Was The Priest' (unreleased) – when Bruce wasn't singing of the colourful characters peopling the Jersey shore, he was transposing them to the Wild West or the Civil War, where they became soldiers or outlaws, still competing for women's affections, and which suited his filmic aptitude to songwriting. The still unreleased 'Cowboys Of The Sea', 'Evacuation Of The West' (a full band workout) and 'Visitation At Forth Horne' all use Western imagery. 'If I Was The Priest', however, combines this Catholic religious imagery, another popular early Bruce trait. The Virgin Mary runs the saloon and the Holy Ghost heads the burlesque show. Along with many of the scores of demos and outtakes from the early Bruce canon, this song is impressively structured, although probably not a track that would have added significantly to his reputation. As a song that Bruce felt confident enough to play at his Columbia audition, and the one that John Hammond subsequently commented had helped persuade him of Bruce's special talent, it is curious that this did not even make the final cut for the Tracks boxset and remains unreleased, whilst four of the first album's nine songs were included from this session.
As the bootlegs that Bruce went to court to suppress in 1998 revealed, there were a lot of well-recorded demos and studio run -throughs made prior to the 1973 album recordings. While many of these are more curiosities than classics, the dramatic content and cinematic feel to unreleased songs such as 'Lady And The Doctor', 'Southern Son' and 'Randolph Street (Master Of Electricity)' suggest that a darker and quite unique record could have been assembled at this time.
The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle, 1973.
Mike Appel, Jim Cretecos.
Clarence Clemons, Danny Federici, Vini 'Mad Dog' Lopez, David L. Sancious, Bruce Springsteen, Garry W. Tallent.
Richard Blackwell, Albany 'Al' Tellone.
'The E Street Shuffle', '4 Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)', 'Kitty's Back', 'Wild Billy's Circus Story', 'Incident On 57 Street', 'Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)', 'New York City Serenade'.
The follow-up to Bruce's debut album showed a growing ambition from the outset with its witty, sprawling and film -referencing title, The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle. The artwork was also more sophisticated than the brash, small town feel to the debut's postcard-adorned front. Here, the cover featured a close-up of a reflective, distant-looking Springsteen, partially hidden in shadows and with his right hand fingers touching his lips and beard to obscure his features further. The singer looks thoughtful and the music within has a more assured feel, even as it heads into jazzy interludes. The shortest song on the collection is the opener, 'The E Street Shuffle', which still manages to sound quite epic whilst clocking in at just under four-and-a-half minutes from its deceptively ramshackle multi -horn introduction to its funk workouts in the final quarter. Four of the seven songs last more than seven minutes with the closer running a shade under ten. The more relaxed feel to the Springsteen sophomore effort is largely due to the space injected into narratives that are very much mining the same ground as on Greetings, but which presented here seem to carry a real feeling of summer evenings, with the soft thudding of Vini Lopez's drumming, twin keyboards and a fuller role for Clarence Clemons' saxophone rounding out the band sound. The sense of openness in the music is created by soul and jazz inflections, possibly due to a greater role for keyboardist David Sancious. He would soon jump off the E Street wagon on the cusp of its big break to form his own experimental electric jazz band, Tone, alongside another brief E Streeter, Ernest Carter. Here, however, he adds textures and bubbly solos that are quite removed from the more strident piano style of Roy Bittan, band mainstay from 1975, and Danny Federici's underpinning organ work.
Where perhaps Greetings suffered from a uniformity of tempo in each song – 'Blinded By The Light' was frenetic from the outset, 'The Angel' soporific – The Wild, The Innocent And The E Street Shuffle revels in changes of pace within the tracks. 'Kitty's Back' opens with a seductively wailing guitar part from Bruce, who handled all the album's guitars, backed by a gentle saxophone and drum parts for the first instrumental minute. The song is then taken into a low -key funky jazz mood before building to an exciting rhythm and blues crescendo over the next few minutes. Lyrically, this is nowhere near Bruce's strongest effort, but as a group piece, 'Kitty's Back' remains an exciting listen today, even while it is very much of its time and of a style Bruce has never gone back to.
The seductive keyboard and accordion (the latter courtesy of Federici who had missed out on Greetings after years serving in Bruce's early bands) on '4 Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)', combined with a particularly soft and yearning vocal from the twenty-three-year-old Springsteen, bring this piece to life. Even as the narrative describes the characters' lifestyles as inexorably altering, with the world around them no longer offering the security and comfort it had once provided, there is a sense of huge affection for the town and its fireworks. However, "this boardwalk life for me is through", concludes Sandy's lover, and with the restless confidence revealed in 'Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)' – an energetic concert favourite down the years – Bruce, too, would soon be ready to break out of the Asbury Park boardwalks and Jersey streets to construct a record of more universal resonance.
'4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)' – the delicate, warm romance of this track, amidst the images of a decaying town (Bruce's adopted beach home in New Jersey), is subtly orchestrated, complete with Bruce on recorder.
'Incident On 57th Street' – a less frenetic piece than much of the album, this piece has images of street gangs and their accoutrements, but with an air of times moving on for the protagonists. The closing call for Spanish Johnny to make "a little easy money" is taken to a more claustrophobic, intense level in Born To Run's "Meeting Across The River".
'Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)' – one of Bruce's live classics. This energetic, mock-autobiographical lyric of a young musician pleading for the girl he loves to give him a chance against her parents' wishes (they are unhappy "cause I play in a rock and roll band") comes alive when seen in the context of the singer having actually become successful – the ultimate vindication and pay-off!
'Wild Billy's Circus Story' – this is a slight song, a little reminiscent of the debut album's 'Does This Bus ...' in the way it interrupts the themes and, like the earlier song, does so as track four in the running order, lessening the impact of the whole. The playful horn beeping its way through 'Wild Billy's Circus Story' gives this the air of a children's song (although the images are mournful and adult, with a junkie and a lonely-faced clown making appearances), incongruous to the tales of passion and streetlife that permeate through the rest of the album. The final line of "all aboard, Nebraska's our next stop" almost provides a great link to Springsteen's 1982 album. But of course, there would be three more albums before Bruce presented the world with his sparse masterpiece, and his writing had by then far outgrown this burlesque lyric.
Key Missing Tracks:
'You Mean So Much To Me' (appears on Tracks) and 'Thundercrack' (Tracks) – two epic, funky tracks that were concert regulars at this time and that could have easily taken the 'Kitty's Back' spot on the second album, and perhaps injected more straight-ahead energy than the skewed jazz of the song that made the final cut. The former was eventually donated to Southside Johnny who recorded it for his I Don't Want To Go Home album, with Ronnie Spector guesting at the invitation of earlier acquaintance, Jukes producer Steve Van Zandt. 'Thundercrack' was often the finale to Bruce shows in the early 1970s, but was superseded by the tighter and more satisfyingly rounded 'Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)' that became something of an anthem, closing scores of shows until Springsteen adopted classic rhythm and blues numbers to fill the spot.
Excerpted from Bruce Springsteen by Peter Basham. Copyright © 2005 Peter Basham. Excerpted by permission of Oldcastle Books.
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Table of Contents
1. Jersey Nights,
2. Dark Currents,
3. Fistful Of Dollars,
4. Walking Like A Man,
5. Shadows And Ghosts,
6. Rising Star,
7. Blood Brothers (And Sisters),
8. Paying Tribute,
9. Proving It All Night,
10. Bruce And The Silver Screen,
11. Official Videos And DVDs,