The name of this blog is not a throwaway line — I literally can’t get The Music out of my head. (A theme that I will devote a post exclusively to, one of these days. It’s been on the list for a long time, so don’t hold your breath …)
Lyrics (mostly, because that’s how I’m wired) and musical bits bob to the surface of my mind, often randomly and seemingly without reason. One of those, surfacing yesterday, was a line from Bruce Springsteen’s “For You,” from The Boss’s first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ.
That LP came out four and a half decades ago earlier this year, and was the work that brought Springsteen to my attention, and that of many rocks fans. (But not enough, it seems — it wasn’t a commercial success, at least initially.)
The artist later-ly known as The Boss first caught my ear, as did so much of the music I like, on Radio Free Madison, WIBA-FM in Wisconsin’s capitol city. No doubt, cruising the streets of the Mad City in my Yellow Cab, listening to a transistor radio.
It’s 45 years and change(s) since then, and memories fade, but I’d wager that it was “For You” that attracted me to Greetings. The lyrics came at you machine-gun style, but from all angles and elevations, and I probably needed to buy the vinyl in self-defense, just to figure out what this new dude was saying.
I was also a regular reader of Rolling Stone, at the time, eagerly picking up the latest edition at the PDQ on University Ave. during my night-shift lunch break, grabbing fast food at the nearby Burger King and heading for Hoyt Park. There, overlooking the nightscape of Mad City’s west side, I would refuel and read about the music I loved.
It was there that I probably read that Springsteen was the new, or next, Dylan. (Interesting, because we weren’t done with the old Dylan — although Mr. Zimmerman was in a bit of a lull at that time. The two albums he released that year offered little original material and basically stiffed; Blood on the Tracks, which I thought marked the return of the Dylan of the Early Electric Era, was still two years in the future.)
I remember where I lived when I brought the record home, the awful apartment on Madison’s mid-east side, so bland that I never gave it a name, as was my wont for abodes. But it contained my (not-so-much-audiophile) stereo system, so that’s where I first dropped the needle on Greetings, and found out that “For You” was not the only song of its type on the LP.
“Blinded by the Light” and “Growing Up” lead off the album, and are in much the same vein as “For You”: images and alliterations delivered a mile-a-minute. Ditto for “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”; also, albeit at a slower pace, “Lost in the Flood” and “Spirit in the Night.”
The songs on Greetings that don’t fit that mold point to one of the album’s interesting back stories. The LP was supposed to be divided evenly, five cuts apiece, between songs done by Bruce and the band (apparently not called E Street at that point), and solo numbers by The Boss.
The former were the faster-paced pieces like “Growin’ Up” and “For You”; the latter included “Mary Queen of Arkansas,” “The Angel” and three others. But the president of Springsteen’s record label, Columbia’s Clive Davis, though the LP lacked a hit single, so the artist came up with two more songs, “Blinded” and “Spirit.”
Those two numbers, done with a smaller backing band — two musicians from the earlier recording were unavailable — replaced three of the solo-Bruce cuts. The latter joined five other unreleased outtakes, the start of Springsteen’s practice of writing and recording more songs than would fit on his albums.
Most of those outtakes, although bootlegged, were never officially released. Makes you wonder what they were like — although, if they were like the solo-Bruce numbers that made his first release, they would also be my least favorite on the album.
Clive Davis’s hitmaker ploy turned out not to work; “Blinded” and “Spirit” were released as singles, but neither charted. At least not for Bruce; Manfred Mann’s Earth Band covered “Blinded,” and that (inferior, in my opinion) version became a 1977 No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Wonder why Columbia didn’t try “For You”?
(Another interesting piece of the album’s history is where it was recorded. 914 Sound Studio was a low-cost option chosen in part so the artist could keep more of the advance money paid by Columbia Records.)
Springsteen’s backing band on the album, although it didn’t have the name yet, did have one of musicians that would later be a mainstay of the E Streeters — but maybe not the one you expected. Anyway, I was surprised to see that Clarence Clemons played on Greetings, in part because of that reference on a later album to “when the Big Man joined the band.”
I like Greetings better than some of Springsteen’s later work, and that statement also applies to his follow-up album, The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle. The latter is almost as lyrically complex as its predecessor, but has a fuller, rock and roll sound to it, like The Boss’ later projects.
But unlike Springsteen’s subsequent LPs, the first two — although the critics agreed with me — were not commercially successful. It took Born to Run, a six-times platinum record and No. 3 on the album charts, to slingshot the earlier LPs into FM radio popularity.
The rest as they say, is history: Springsteen has sold more than 135 million records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling artists of all time. And to think it all started with a song that to this day I Can’t Get Outta My Head …