This isn’t a great record, I want to make that clear. My dad might disagree – this and The Wild, The Innocent, & The E Street Shuffle are his favorite Bruce records, and he has fond memories of seeing the man play a very early solo show in a high school in New Hampshire. (He and his brother immediately predicted that he’d be huge, apparently.) To me, it’s just a preview of the kind of epic, blood-freezing melodrama, slice of life songwriting he’d perfect so beautifully on Born To Run and Darkness On The Edge of Town, the songs I’ve listened to over and over prior to dates or even just drinking a beer, ruminating over the romance and mundane desperation of life. Every lyric is packed too tight with beatnik vocabulary and overwriting – the songs feel like packing crates that got stuffed full and are about to break apart from the strain.
The point though is that the songs have greatness within them – hell, I think “Spirit In The Night” and “It’s Hard To Be A Saint” are great songs unto themselves. This is the work of a young guy, in love with Van Morrison and Dylan and Curtis Mayfield alike, and he’s trying to mash all of those styles together, but that means he can’t quite keep control of everything he’s doing. The songs are long, rambling, rollicking, and fun. Famously he chafed against being called “the next Dylan”, but then Bruce sure did invite some of that name didn’t he? Here’s a chunk of “Lost In The Flood”:
His countryside’s burnin’ with wolfman fairies dressed in drag for homicide
The hit-and-run plead sanctuary, ‘neath a holy stone they hide
They’re breakin’ beams and crosses with a spastic’s reelin’ perfection
Nuns run bald through Vatican halls, pregnant, pleadin’ immaculate conception
Might as well try to throw a medley of “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” into the mix.
Greetings then is the folkiest album Springsteen made until Nebraska – where Dylan robbed traditional song and contemporaries for melodies, the Boss instead used the jammy, jazzier style of his early bands like Steel Mill and put it together with a soft folk-rock-soul sound. That means the songs go far longer than they really should. “Mary Queen of Arkansas” is probably my favorite on the album (I’m a complete sucker for “Thunder Road” and this is its earliest precursor) and it still should be about 30 seconds to a minute shorter. Bruce hadn’t yet learned how to edit, and how to rock out. Even “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” needed a 1974 David Bowie cover to add some real bite, some juice to it. (Bowie’s vocals are an odd fit for Springsteen’s lyrics, but he tears into the point of view of Bruce’s jaded New Yorker with gusto.)
With all of these criticisms however, this is still a really good one. One of Springsteen’s greatest virtues (even if others thought it was some kind of flaw) is his total sincerity, his commitment to the stories he tells and even to the concerns that trouble him, and this was the first showing of that to a wider audience. (And it’d eventually earn him a devotion from fans that literally spans generations, as my dad and I show.) Songs like “Lost In The Flood” don’t reach the barbarous yawp that Springsteen would get to soon enough, but they’re still exciting as hell, epics of the street life and the chaotic joy of American living.
On that note the best song on Greetings is still “Spirit In The Night”, and it’s no coincidence that it was cut after the primary recording was done when album execs wanted a single. It’s the song with the least fat on it, five and a half minutes of a solid, even sultry groove milked by Clarence Clemon’s glorious saxophone; you can hear Bruce grinning through the call and response chorus “Like spirits in the night!/All night!” and the funny, horny story the narrator retells of that one perfect summer night, the one that only hurts because it couldn’t last forever: “Me and Crazy Janey was makin’ love in the dirt/Singin’ our birthday songs/Janey said it was time to go/So we closed our eyes and said goodbye to Gypsy Angel Row.” (Wild Billy will be back on the next album too, as if he carries on completely apart from whatever Springsteen sings about him.) It always seems to me like the first real Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band song, the way “Space Oddity” is for Bowie.
The record didn’t really do as well as hoped – it was maybe a little too folkie, too groovy compared to the Aerosmith, T-Rex, and even Temptations records coming out that year. The next album expanded the E Street Band, going deeper into funk and a doo-wop, jazzy influence. “New York City Serenade” would be the last completely folkish Springsteen song for quite some time, and on Born To Run the man created a juggernaut of pop longing, momentum, grandeur, and breathtaking rocker feeling. He would finally find the right balance of influence by Dylan, but also take in Roy Orbison and the other Fifties rockers he absolutely worshipped. The first album was never forgotten though – it’s been reissued over and over, and Manfred Mann had a number one hit with their cover of “Blinded By The Light”. Springsteen played Greetings in full on a recent tour with the band too – he certainly didn’t leave “Growin’ Up” and “Saint” behind, telling stories of his teenage years and his early New York residence before playing them live. They sounded richer, bigger, more themselves than they did on record.
With Springsteen, he taps into certain feelings, problems, romanticisms that make fans latch onto the songs, treasure them for articulating things they couldn’t always describe adequately. God knows I’ve listened to “Badlands” and thought, Yep, I’m there, I know. On Greetings From Ashbury Park, N.J. Springsteen was getting there, little by little, and listening to his slow inch towards that revelation, that ability is still never a waste of time.