Greetings Again From Asbury Park, N.J.

Bruce Springsteen’s debut LP, 50 years later

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. ad (Image,: Reddit)

Imagine for a moment that it’s a cool afternoon in January 1973. You’ve just returned from the store where you bought your records (in my neighborhood, it was Korvette’s) with a fresh new album in your hands.

Maybe you were attracted by the colorful giant foldout postcard that was the cover. Maybe you heard about this guy from the Jersey shore who put on amazing live shows, so you figured you’d give his first record a try. Maybe you bought into the hype and, like Columbia Records, you were searching for The New Dylan, too.

So you unwrap Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (released January 5, 1973), place the vinyl on your turntable, and drop the needle onto side one. Nice sound. Catchy. Bit of sax. All right, let’s hear what he’s got.

“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…”

Holy crap, you think, maybe this guy IS the new Dylan!

Up comes the second track, “Growin’ Up,” and you connect with another Dylanesque flood of lyrics that distills adolescent rebellion into a glorious expression of personal freedom: “When they said sit down, I stood up” … “the flag of piracy flew from my mast” … “I broke all the rules, strafed my old high school, never once gave thought to landing.”

Okay, you think, maybe there’s something here.

Then Springsteen hits the brakes … hard. “Mary, Queen of Arkansas,” the first song he recorded for the album, slows the pace down to a crawl. It probably doesn’t hit you that the song is about a drag queen (confirmed by Springsteen in 2014, as noted in 2021 by E Street Shuffle), but the album’s momentum has evaporated, so your ears start to wander elsewhere.

Bruce Springsteen Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., Columbia Records 1973

Side two begins with “The Angel,” another excruciatingly slow track that probably should have been buried as the side’s closing track. (It includes a lyric, “the interstate’s choked with nomadic hordes,” that two albums later gets refined into the iconic “the highway’s jammed with broken heroes.”) By the end of the side, you’ve probably decided that this 24-year-old kid has some potential, he’s maybe worth keeping an eye on, but there’s nothing there particularly notable, much less extraordinary.

Besides, there’s plenty of other new music released January 1973 commanding your attention, including a new band called Aerosmith and Elton’s John’s follow-up to Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I’m Only the Piano Player.

Had Springsteen not been as intensely focused and driven in his career as he was, Greetings… might have faded into the landscape of 1973 debut albums along with Two Sides of Peter Banks; No More, No Less from Blue Ash; and First by David Gates of Bread fame.

But he was, and it didn’t.

And over time, despite Manfred Mann almost co-opting the record entirely by covering not one, not two, but three songs (“Blinded by the Light,” which hit #1 in February 1977, “Spirit in the Night” and “For You”), Greetings… became something more than just another debut album from a major artist.

It became a keystone of the Springsteen mythology.

The album title itself speaks to the synonymous nature of Springsteen and Asbury Park. You can’t go to the Wonder Bar for a burger or the Stone Pony for a show without hearing patrons chattering about whether Bruce is going to show up. (My last time at the Wonder Bar, I was in the restroom and the guy next to me said, “I wonder if this is the same urinal Bruce pissed in.” Not kidding.)

“Growin’ Up” was a staple of his live shows in the ‘70s and ‘80s, during which he would tell tall tales of his youth and his father complaining about “that goddamn guitar” (this July 1978 version, released on Live 1975/85, is a prime example). More recently, the tune opened up all 267 performances of Springsteen on Broadway, setting the stage for arguably the most intimate, personal, and compelling shows by any rock star in history.

“Spirit in the Night” has become another remarkable set piece over the years. Hearing the band vamp while Bruce asks, “can you feel the spirit?” raises crowd anticipation sky-high, as it does in this June 2016 version from Sweden. The song is anything but a relic from the ‘70s as the E Street Band nearly doubles the original’s length to over nine minutes. It’s a great example of how Springsteen performs decades-old tunes with relevance, not nostalgia.

According to Setlist.fm, “Growin’ Up” and “Spirit in the Night” both fall into Springsteen’s top 20 most-played songs of all time – played more often than “Glory Days” or “Brilliant Disguise,” both of which fall into the 21-30 zone. 

Back cover of Greetings (Image: Discogs)

Meanwhile, “Lost in the Flood” has aged extremely well over the years and grown into a hardcore fan favorite, one of those songs many hope to hear in concert but seldom do (it was played only 9 times on the 2016-2017 River tour). Fans at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey lucked out on August 25, 2016 and the performance – 43 years after the song’s release – was exceptional, with Bruce taking a shredding stroll into the guitar spotlight that he usually leaves to Nils Lofgren. 

Casual Springsteen fans may be surprised to hear that Clarence Clemons appears on only two of the album’s nine songs: “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night.” The “Big Man” got the opportunity to perform the entire album on November 22, 2009 in Buffalo, New York, the last night of Springsteen’s Working on a Dream tour, when the Greetings… album was played in its entirety for the very first time. By all accounts, it was a remarkable performance, with Bruce speaking about the record’s place in the band’s history: “This was the record that took everything from way below zero to… one.” 

As Chris Phillips wrote for Backstreets, “Whatever particular significance the night’s album choice might wind up having — in terms of ending where they began, if tonight was indeed any kind of ending — went unspoken.” It was indeed a kind of ending: It was the last time Clemons played with the E Street Band before his death on June 18, 2011.

The spirit of Greetings… has continued through to Springsteen’s latest studio album with the E Street Band, 2020’s Letter to You. It includes three songs — “Janey Needs a Shooter,” “If I Was the Priest,” and “Song for Orphans” – that, as Wayne Robins noted in his review of the album, “were all from the demo recordings Springsteen made for Columbia Records’ John Hammond preceding the recording of Greetings.” It’s a safe bet those tunes will be making appearances on the 2023 tour that begins February 1 in Florida. I wouldn’t expect “Growin’ Up” or “Spirit in the Night” to completely disappear from the setlists, either.

Yep: The keystone is as solid as ever.

 

Craig Peters

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Craig Peters

Craig Peters has been writing about music, pro wrestling, pop culture and lots of other things since the Jimmy Carter administration. He shook Bruce Springsteen’s hand in 2013, once had Belinda Carlisle record the outgoing message on his answering machine, and wishes he hadn’t been so ignorant about the blues when he interviewed Stevie Ray Vaughan in 1983.

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