Bruce Springsteen emerged as such an all-American archetype of the blue-collar troubadour that he was rapidly promoted to the title of ‘The Boss’ like a bourgeoise banker’s son. However, he was such a uniting force of solidarity that the peak of the gingham hierarchy never quite suited him. Surely ‘The Comrade’ or ‘The Compatriot’ would’ve been a more befitting moniker. Over the years he has tried to stay true to this philosophy of music as a unifying weapon, as he says himself: “The great challenge of adulthood is holding on to your idealism after you lose your innocence.”
That idealism came to the fore when Springsteen’s beard was still patchier than Dylan’s and his arms too stringy to stop his rolled-up cuffs from descending, in the form of his triumphant debut record, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. Sadly, the album initially flopped so flounderingly that it no doubt took all of his considerable fortitude to stop his idealism from following it down the gutter. The LP peaked at a disappointing 60 in the US and failed to travel overseas. Most of this, however, was due to a marketing disaster rather than a reflection on the quality of the album itself.
The energy of Springsteen’s debut album soared on a societal diatribe akin to the songwriting that had first flung him up by the bootstraps and ushered him towards entering music. As he recalls in his autobiography: “Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing It All Back Home were not only great records, but they were the first time I can remember being exposed to a truthful vision of the place I lived… The world he described was all on view, in my little town, and spread out over the television that beamed into our isolated homes, but it went uncommented on and silently tolerated. He inspired me and gave me hope.”
In fact, when Bob Dylan first heard ‘the next Bob Dylan’ he announced with an ironic vein of self-reflection: “He better be careful, or he might go through every word in the English language.” As it happens, Springsteen’s debut was even presented to the world with the PR tagline of ‘the next Dylan’. The issue was that Dylan had hardly gone anywhere and if there was to be a ‘this town ain’t big enough for the both of us stand-off’ then only one winner was assured.
Ultimately, aside from the fact that Dylan and Springsteen were fellows from the same figurative side of town and pondered the whys and wherefores of American society in some of their songs, the difference between them was marked. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. is crammed full of Springsteen’s individualism and the sort of visceral energy that has always gave even his most tender songs a thundering undercurrent.
Tracks like ‘It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City’ might contain uncomfortably dated language, but the artistry registered on David Bowie’s radar, and he declared it one of his favourite tracks of the era and this helped to bring publicity to Springsteen after the album initially flopped. Bowie even went on to cover the track ‘Growin’ Up’ from the album, identifying with the song’s cacophonous melody, post-modernist poetry and introspective look at the world, all riding on a wave of performative bravado.
The album might have announced Springsteen tentatively in a commercial sense, but ultimately, it contains all the tenets of his work to come. It has the usual singalong chorus in the form of ‘Blinded by the Lights’, the solemn reflection of the scintillating ‘Spirit in the Night’ and the ballad stylings of ‘The Angel’. Everything yet to come from Springsteen was laid out in style, and this in itself is not only indicative of a great debut album but the creative sincerity of an artist who would later connect with millions and never lose sight of the idealism that spawned his stirring work.