New York stands as the metropolis, a concrete embodiment of urban splendour and squalor. Whether it’s Tom Waits hollering about the moody goings-on downtown or Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s evocation of inner-city pressure, New York has always been portrayed as a city of extremes. No wonder so many great songwriters have felt its pull. Indeed, one of David Bowie’s favourite songs by the great Bruce Springsteen paints an incredibly dangerous portrait of the city.
As the name of his 1973 album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. makes abundantly clear, Springsteen is a New Jersian through and through. Of course, like any ambitious musician trying to catch a break, the singer-songwriter spent a lot of time in the Big Apple when he was getting started, making long drives into the city to perform and record. The album was actually recorded in Blauvelt, New York, about 25-miles north of Manhattan.
Living in one place for too long makes you blind. Perhaps that’s why the most insightful portraits of cities and nations come from outsiders, visitors and exiles. As a casual observer of New York, Springsteen saw the city in a unique way. This detached perspective allowed him to imagine it from a birds’ eye view and capture the essence of the urban sprawl below.
Perhaps the greatest evocation of New York on Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint’. The track sees Springsteen take on the role of a Midnight Cowboy figure, a Brandoesque, leather-clad cool guy looking to find his place in the swirling city, one filled with pimps, prostitutes and paupers. That’s to say nothing of the muggers who roam the subway tunnels late at night.
It’s a story we all recognise: the small town mouse swallowed up by the big city. It must have had a real impact on David Bowie because he recalled the track decades later: “Here is a great writer,” he said of Springsteen, “And I don’t like what he is doing very much now. I loved this album when it came out. It was Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. and after I heard this track I never rode the subway again, it’s called ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’. That really scared the living ones out of me.”
The song also made an impact on John Hammond. It was the first song Springsteen played for the Columbia A&R boss during his audition in 1972. The meeting was supposed to last no longer than half an hour but turned into a two-hour audition. Hammond was so impressed by ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint’ that he signed Springsteen there and then. Bowie would go on record a cover version of the track in 1974, which you can listen to below.