Friday 6 August 2021

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use. - Ernest Hemingway[1]

I am happy to be a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen's work. His music and themes dig into an emotional core of mine, even though he sings of scenarios and situations very foreign to me. I did spend a year working in a warehouse so perhaps I do recognise things when Bruce sings on Factory:
End of the day, factory whistle cries
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes
We didn't have State Troopers or turnpikes in South Manchester, and I didn't know anyone who worked "for the county out on 95" [Working on the Highway (1984)]. I assume 95 is the titular highway, and it has more musciality than "I work for the council out on the M56", but despite the specific themes being a fairly foreign concept, the songs were underscored by a humanity, a decency, and a belief in things like working hard, falling in love, family, duty and the challenges of life.
Musically, the Boss doesn't stray too far from the lexicon of bar band rock and roll, although the neat touch of Clarence Clemons' saxophone adds a soulful elegance that most bands can't touch. Throughout his career he has led a fantastic band, usually the E Street Band, but even solo he produces wonderful performances and recordings. What is interesting in the noticeable change in his songwriting from his earlier, loquacious work, to his more stripped down tracks. The three years between Born to Run [1975] and Darkness on the Edge of Town [1978] changed Springsteen, his approach to songwriting and his performance. In many ways the change can be seen on his face: the sprawling, wispy, straggly beard disappears, replaced by a lean, masculing, clean jaw. What I want to do over my next few blog posts is discuss the sprawling, wispy, straggly songs he wrote and released in the first few years of his career

The album

This wonderful record starts with an archetypal early Springsteen track. The twisting high guitar lines that are joined by a wailing sax line lead into a lyrical blunderbuss of a track: Blinded by the Light. Bruce uses internal rhymes throughout the song
In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat...
Some brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone preacher from the east
He says, "Dethrone the dictaphone, hit it in its funny bone, that's where they expect it least"
It's a joy, and it's worth saying that it is much better than the godawful cover by Manfred Mann from 1976. As I said, it's the archetype of this time: lyrically dense, musically diverse and energetic. What he would do further would add more sections to his songs so they felt like a meeting point of different tunes. The next tune on the record, Growin' Up, is similar, the internal rhymes crossing over each other in this tale of coming of age.
And I pushed B-52 and bombed 'em with the blues with my gear set stubborn on standing
I broke all the rules, strafed my old high school, never once gave thought to landing
It came from the ashes of an earlier song, Eloise, which obviously sound the same but isn't quite as dense in it's language [I only know of that 1 minute outtake so who knows if there's more than this]. Musically it's fairly simple, originally rolling around a picked and then strummed pattern around F, C and G for the most part, which David Sancious copies on piano, and it was one of the songs that sold Columbia on signing him. It's blasted out by Springsteen, and became a focal point of live concerts [Brucebase has it being performed 606 times at the time of writing], including the famous 1978 version with the long spoken section for his parents ["Hey, Ma, give it up!"].

The Dylan influence

These songs of mine, they’re like mystery stories, the kind that Shakespeare saw when he was growing up. I think you could trace what I do back that far. They were on the fringes then, and I think they’re on the fringes now. - Bob Dylan[2]
Springsteen was signed partly on the strength of some acoustic solo performances and this is seen on Mary Queen of Arkansas. It evidences the influence of Dylan on his work, I think, and is a powerful song, hinting at the dreamer that would be more evident in his later work ["Oh, the big top is for dreamers, we can take the circus all the way to the border"].
Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? is a joyful song, taking this rhyme-dense approach about as far as it can go. Look at the rhymes and half rhymes that litter the first verse, for example:
Hey bus driver, keep the change, bless your children, give them names
Don't trust men who walk with canes
Drink this and you'll grow wings on your feet
Broadway Mary, Joan Fontaine, advertiser on a downtown train
Oh, Christmas crier bustin' cane, he's in love again
I don't know how long he could keep this up for before he literally runs out of words to rhyme, but the next album saw a slightly different approach to his songwriting as we'll see. It's an enjoyable song. Interestingly, it wasn't performed live from 1976 until early 1993.

Springsteen's imagery

Lost in the Flood is a brilliant song, and one I can't imagine Bruce writing post 1978. It's a bursting with interesting and strange imagery, most of which I think he uses because it sounds good rather than having any deeper meaning ["And everybody's wrecked on Main Street from drinking unholy blood/Sticker smiles sweet as gunner breathes deep, his ankles caked in mud"]. The band kicks in as Springsteen sings "Jimmy the Saint" and they sound great. A piano driven song centred around a few simple chords, Springsteen uses it to paint a dramatic picture ["Hey kid, you think that's oil? Man, that ain't oil, that's blood"] and the music works perfectly.
The Angel and For You which follow are both great numbers, different in their approach. The Angel is another Springsteen acoustic number, whilst For You is a piano led four piece rock song, but they share flamboyant lyrical flourishes like alliteration ("hubcap heaven", "precious pavement", "humpin' his hunk metal whore", " I stand stuffed like some soldier undaunted").
Up next, we see the return of Clarence and his sax with Spirit in the Night. I think this track points to the expanding storytelling of the next albums, full of characters like Crazy Janey, Wild Billy and G-Man and their adventures up at Greasy Lake. Live it often expands into a longer performance, slowing down to almost full stop in the middle, like the amazing performance at the Hammersmith Odeon, 1975.

The album is completed by the superb It's Hard to be a Saint in the City, a song that rolls around dark alleyways, revving its engine, until it burst out onto the street ["I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra"] snarling and vicious, lyrically explosive and plosive ["I was the prince of the paupers crowned downtown at the beggar's bash"]. Bowie had a go at this, which doesn't work to my ears, but it's always worth revisiting.
From this partially solo album Bruce's backing band were emerging properly. The E Street band, who had been backing him for a good year or so, were given the chance to appear on his next record.

Get the album

Or you can download it or stream it.


[1]: Alleged response by Hemingway to a comment by William Faulkner, circa 1947
[2]: Speech given at the MusiCares Person of The Year award, February 2015

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. Bu...