Forcing a Light – Bruce Springsteen One and Two

Reid Dickie

“Sandy, the fireworks are hailin’ over Little Eden tonight, forcing a light into all those stony faces left stranded on this warm July.” – Bruce Springsteen

My high school English teacher, Mrs. Smith, along with my teacher Mom, instilled in me a deep appreciation of images conjured out of mere words and the power that ability holds. They made me realize that to stimulate the imagination of others using language carries a mysterious power, creates a direct bond between people and satisfies our need to share experiences. I have pursued the satisfactions of words ever since, in what I write, what I hear and what I read. I am always listening for an original turn of phrase, a dazzling metaphor, an unexpected linkage of images to include in my writing. I admire writers who do this with alacrity and clarity. Annie Proulx’s best work is a cascade of exciting and unexpected images. Almost every page of her fiction offers something that makes me think, ‘Yes, that’s a unique way of expressing it.’ Annie intimidates me and inspires me with her imagery.

Songwriters have garnered my admiration for their abilities to build pictures with words, especially Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Tom Waits and Bruce Springsteen. Last summer, when I listened to music on my travels in the mighty Avenger, it was almost always Bruce Springsteen’s first two albums, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ and The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, both released in 1973, the year Bruce turned 24. That year I started at CFRW-FM in Winnipeg doing a free-form evening radio show that often spun tracks from Greetings… When the second album came out in the fall, it became a huge hit on my show with listener requests every night. The Boss had arrived!

This revealing picture of Bruce was taken by Lynn Goldsmith and appears in her 1995 book Photodiary. Opposite the full page picture the copy reads: “Once during a studio shoot Bruce started taking off his clothes. I yelled at him to stop. He thought it was funny. I was angry. I told him that if he ever took his clothes off for any photographer he’d be putting himself in the position where one day the pictures could be published.”

 The work on Bruce’s first two albums reflected and, to a degree, created American mythology, some of it dredged from adolescent fantasies, some captured from flocks of fresh and fleeting visions in the form of stream of consciousness rants.

ONE

Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.

released January 5, 1973

Greetings… consists of nine songs, all written and arranged by Bruce. Every song is infused with youthful vigour and keen enthusiasm, images tumble by as a peculiar cast of characters emerge, live their short urban lives then recede only to be followed by others. The album quickly, and somewhat justifably, earned Bruce the title of “the next Bob Dylan,” an endless quest of 1970s rock journalists. Bruce’s encyclopedic knowledge of 1950 and 60s rock and roll combined with the heavy influence of American movies meant the images from Bruce’s first album already felt familiar. Most songs on Greetings…, especially Lost in the Flood and The Angel, have great cinematic flare. Bruce writes what he knows. His milieu is the big city and seaside resort as experienced by a bright curious American boy. Right from the album title through the postcard cover design to the last track, Bruce invites you into his world. His vision has knowable, safe parameters and sources; he is confident that his world is worth visiting and he is ready to show the rest of the world why.

I always like to know the first words of an artist’s career, meaning the first lyrics they sing on the first track on their first album. In Bruce’s case, Blinded by the Light kicks off Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. with these words: “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.” That’s a helluva start to a career! And only the beginning as a rampage of characters follow. In 1977 Manfred Mann’s Earth Band had a #1 hit with their dreadful version of this tune but you need to know the original. It is Bruce’s first song.

Growin’ Up is a wistful mid tempo rocker that demonstrates Bruce’s evolved perspective on vanishing youth. Bruce was 23 years old when this album was recorded.

Mary Queen of Arkansas appears to live on Dylan’s Desolation Row having just returned from My Last Trip to Tulsa on Neil Young’s first album. Harrowing, sparse and personal yet lyrically opaque, Mary has just enough ambiguity and heartbreak showing through to make us yearn along with the poor confused boy.

Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street? One of rock’s great question songs, it’s a peon to entertaining yourself by people watching while riding the bus. A favourite line is, “Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope.” Bruce conjures another wild cast that build to a gorgeous cinematic finale.

“Everybody’s wrecked on Main Street from drinkin’ unholy blood,”  – an apt description of the misfits and cops who populate Lost in the Flood. Three things about this track: it has some of Bruce’s most dramatic poetic images that build in an enticing musical and lyrical swell, Steven Van Zandt makes his first appearance on a Bruce album providing “sound effects” (he’d next appear on Born to Run two years later) and I love this track. It takes me there every time! Back in the day, that was the end of Side One of Greetings…

The Angel is the outline for a movie, sung plaintive and plain with a denouement I wish I’d thought of. It demonstrates that right from the get-go Bruce wasn’t afraid to use quiet strings and solo piano to frame his stories.

For You is another cascade of brief but urgent glimpses into the psychic field between devotion and rejection, disease and healing and all the angst contained therein. Bruce and the boys relay the emergency convincingly.

One of Bruce’s sexiest grooves, Spirit in the Night is my favorite track here. Today Martin Scorsese would direct the movie in which this is but one marvellous scene. The characters are high, happy and horny and the events at Greasy Lake are your basic orgy on the beach. Body and soul unite in a magical sex flight “where the gypsy angels go. They’re built like light,” one of my favourite Bruce characterisations. Clarence, who is under used on the album, establishes and maintains the bubbling groove and reenforces it with a fine break. Wild Billy has “a bottle of rose so let’s try it” which I take to mean Wild Irish Rose, a long-time harsh and cheap bum wine. The hint of sadness in Bruce’s voice in the last verse when they leave Greasy Lake makes me feel very nostalgic for youth, for the freedom the unknowable future encourages.

As if he foresaw or richly imagined the life and work ahead of him, such as  becoming a Planetary Treasure, It’s Hard To Be a Saint in the City is tongue-in-cheek bluster from one of the coolest guys Bruce ever described. Pumping along, high definition city core images arise then sink back into the steam in the street. The tune and album end with a burbling fadeout.

The E Street Band was in its formative stages on Greetings… The only players here who became permanent band members are saxman Clarence Clemmons and Garry Tallent on bass. The album suffers from muffled production by Mike Appel and Jim Creteros. The biggest drag on the band is the ham-fisted drumming of Vincent Lopez, one of rock’s worst over-drummers. Otherwise the playing is worthy of the songs, Bruce the lone guitar on the entire album.

In order to save some of the cash Columbia Records had advanced to Bruce, Greetings… was recorded quickly in an inexpensive studio in Blauvelt, N.Y. and it sounds like it. The tunes and the songs are there, the talent is evident and the whole album has the feeling of being just the tip of a very large iceberg but the production detracts more than it should. Nonetheless an auspicious beginning!

The album only sold about 25,000 copies in the first year of its release, but had significant critical impact. On its 2003 list of the 500 greatest albums of all time, Rolling Stone ranked it #379. It’s #57 on my list.

TWO

The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle

released September 11, 1973

This was the convincer for me. Like Axis: Bold As Love, Hendrix’s second album, The Wild… proved without doubt Bruce was a force that the future required, beckoned, quickened. Although again produced by Appel and Cretecos and recorded at 914 Sound Studios, the same studio as the first album, this outing is less muddy than the debut, in fact almost throughout it’s downright bright. Future permanent E Streeter, Danny Federici, turns up on keys, everything’s bigger, even Vini Lopez steps up a little – maybe it’s just how he was recorded this time. Again Bruce is the only guitarist on the album. The Wild… is attractive, convincing, eloquent, beautifully sequenced so every song complements and contrasts the ones around it and Clarence gets to wail!

The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle kicks off the escapade with clattery horns resolving into a smooth groove maintained by Clarence that bounces around under a story of sexy youthful diversions performed by a fleeting cast. The last minute and a half feature a sweet guitar break followed by a funky percussion workout to the fade. Sweet and a perfect introduction the next track.

One of my all-time favourite Bruce songs, 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), like all great rock and roll, is about fucking and the pursuit thereof. It’s Sandy’s big chance for sex with the needy poet boy from the beach. The fireworks of the first line promise orgasms later. Throughout he’s telling Sandy what he thinks she’ll buy, what will make her sexually sympathetic to him. He mentions getting stuck on the tilt-a-whirl, shares boardwalk gossip, explains his break-up with his waitress girfriend, tires of the factory girls who tease him, generally uses all his “lines.”  To create empathy, he tries to explain that he and Sandy are the same stuff, know the same lives.  I like how during the line “And the wizards play down on pinball way” Bruce’s acoustic guitar imitates Pete Townsend’s work on Pinball Wizard. Near the end of the song Bruce promises that if she loves him tonight he’ll love her forever. The delivery of the word forever is truly marvellous – a mixture of sexual urge, youthful promise and doubt with a huge scary question mark beside it which acknowledges the understanding between he and Sandy on this potentially special night! Beautiful! But he’s quitting the beach scene and encourages Sandy to do the same, to give up the “carnival life.” Although the song ends without a denouement, I like to think it all worked and they had mad, once-in-a-lifetime sex under the boardwalk that night creating more fireworks as promised.

Kitty’s Back is the perfect companion piece to Sandy, filled with seaside characters and their relationship to Kitty. Bruce’s sweet guitar playing sets the tone for the piece which has a free-for-all break that allowed most of the band members to improvise during concerts. This tune and Rosalita were the album’s most requested songs on CFRW-FM. 

Continuing the fast-slow-fast-slow flow of the album, Wild Billy’s Circus Story ends side one with a delightful visit to the circus and some brief glimpses of its odd denizens. Garry Tallent pumps the tuba, Federici provides accordian and Bruce strums guitar and mandolin to create a midway atmosphere so pure and convincing you can smell the hot dogs, taste the cotton candy and hear the screams of the roller coaster riders. Bruce writes what he knows yet the tune only hints at the drama that awaits us.

Side two consists of three epics starting with Incident on 57th Street which features Spanish Johnny and his adventures in bed and out on the street. Here’s Bruce’s opening description of our hero: “Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night with bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat-up old Buick but dressed just like dynamite.” The whole song could be the outline for a great movie script. The track is dominated by gorgeous piano and organ work from Federici and David Sancious and a bunch of tedious over-drumming from Lopez.

Fuelled by Clarence’s sax and Sancious’ organ, Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) rocks! A long-time concert closer, it’s the story of our poor boy pursuing beautiful Rosie, his “stone desire,” against the strong will of her parents. He’s sure things will work out because “The record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!” – one of Bruce’s happiest deliveries.

New York City Serenade offers romantic mythology couched in dramatic piano work from Sancious. The entire epic floats, buoyed by Sancious’ piano and string arrangement and Clarence’s sexy sax wail. A new cast arises, starting with Billy and Diamond Jackie getting it on in the backseat of Billy’s Cadillac at “midnight in Manhattan” with hookers, jazz musicians, small time crooks in “a mad dog’s promenade.” Clarence’s contributes glorious sax throughout. On a personal note, there are two lines from this song that I have said aloud to myself every night for the past 20 years just before I fall asleep. These words have become my day-ending mnemonic device to induce sleep: “Shake away street life, shake away city life.” Works every night.  Thanks Bruce!  

In 2003, The Wild… was ranked #132 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. On my personal list, it’s #17.

FM radio caught on to Bruce right away. He was hopeful, humorous, intense and great fun! For me, from the beginning, he was a breath of fresh and honest air in a growing sea of mediocrity dominated by phony bands like Kiss.

Bruce Springsteen changed my life. Find out how in this post https://readreidread.wordpress.com/2011/02/05/linda-and-the-boss/

Next my Bruce post is Born to Run. Coming soon to blog near you.   

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Filed under BEAUTY, Family, Hope, Linda, Love, Music, Old Souls, Spirit

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