Bruce Springsteen, affectionately known as ‘The Boss’, has come to be defined as a voice of a generation, one that encompasses hard-working Americans of humble beginnings, with songs that tell the stories of these people. He is not unlike Lou Reed – his repertoire is made up of simple yet fiery songs. Springsteen’s voice, however, is made up of the same material as that of the hands of blue-collar working people, an aspect that separates him from all his contemporaries.
Born in the USA, released in 1984, was his commercial breakthrough record, with an essence of patriotism but one with an inquisitive mind that questions why something should be patriotic in the first place. He’s never been the kind of artist to purposely wax the poetic for the sheer sake of doing so; there is intention in his message; every lyric and guitar stroke he chimes out on his battered tan Fender Telecaster is knowingly placed with an all-seeing eye, one that suggests that he has been there and done that and knows the answers to your puzzling questions about the meaning of life.
While Springsteen is a true songwriter, he is also a consummate performer; his shows will often go on for 3-4 hours. In the early days when he was struggling to break into a semblance of a music career, Springsteen performed in and around the Jersey Shore, which greatly informed the songs on his first official release, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.
During these formative years, as he was developing his voice and songwriting craft, Springsteen caught the attention of many critics who frequently compared him to Bob Dylan. Springsteen would eventually get signed to Colombia Records – the same label that Dylan was signed to a near-decade earlier.
Springsteen’s debut was produced by his manager at the time, Mike Appel and Jim Cretecos at a low-budget studio, 914 Sound Studios. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J was Springsteen’s first solo record and marked a new approach for the Jersey-born singer. His previous band, Steel Mill, was more of a team effort and exhibited more musical exploration in terms of improvisation. Steel Mill would not prove to be successful, however.
Instead, Springsteen began to explore his lyrical writing and to take advantage of his ability to be verbose and write image-heavy songs. This is the album that produced the singles, ‘Blinded by the Light’ which would be made more famous by The Manfred Mann’s Earth Band later on – it also featured ‘Spirit in the Night’ – both songs were added later to a new revision of the record.
When Springsteen and Appel delivered the first version of the record to the President of Colombia Records, Clive Davis, he thought it unsatisfactory, as he thought it lacked singles. Springsteen, in a show of perseverance, took a positive attitude and went home and wrote the two songs. Upon hearing the new version of the album, Davis was personally pleased with the way Springsteen responded.
“Most of the songs [on Greetings] were twisted autobiographies,” he wrote in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run, according to Rolling Stone. “‘Growin’ Up,’ ‘Does This Bus Stop,’ ‘For You,’ ‘Lost in the Flood’ and ‘Saint in the City’ found their seed in people, places, hangouts and incidents I’d seen and things I’d lived. I wrote impressionistically and changed names to protect the guilty. I worked to find something that was identifiably mine.”
Greetings was the stepping stone – ironically, Springsteen’s Dutch name means just that: a builder of stepping stones – to his eventual 1984 critical hit, Born in the USA. In the beginning, Springsteen threw a lot of musical ideas at the wall and over the years, more and more ideas began slipping away until he sculpted a sound more refined and specific. Greetings was the beginning of this process, an album that featured heavy instrumentation, funky breaks, and complicated lyrical phrases. A lot of the cause for why the songs on Greetings were very busy was also because of Mike Appel’s production style.
“I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I lived in,” Springsteen wrote in Born to Run. He added about his refocusing of his energy from a band context to songwriting, “So I knew in 1972 that to do this I would need to write very well and more individually than I had ever written before – for the first time in my life I stopped playing with a band and concentrated on songwriting. At night in my bedroom with my guitar and on an old Aeolian spinet piano parked in the rear of the beauty salon, I began to write the music that would comprise Greetings from Asbury Park.”
While Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s version of ‘Blinded by the Light’ in 1976 became a massive hit, Springsteen’s own version would enter the charts for the first time when his commercial breakthrough came in 1975, with Born to Run – three years after its original release.
Initially, Colombia Records, as well as Mike Appel, envisioned Springsteen’s debut as an acoustic singer-songwriter project. When he went to audition for Colombia in front of John Hammond, a renowned A&R guy who discovered Bob Dylan, Springsteen performed ‘It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City’. Hammond was instantly sold solely on the strength of Springsteen’s ability as a songwriter and as a solo performer on his acoustic guitar. On the other hand, Springsteen wanted it to be a full band project. The two sides reached a compromise, splitting it into 50/50 – part solo, part band-led songs.
While Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J wasn’t a commercial success, it sold well in the regional area and has, over time, aged well as an indicator of Springsteen’s folk/Americana roots.
Revisit the album, below.