How Clive Davis, Partridge Family songwriters and more helped shape the songwriter’s scrappy 1973 debut
“Bruce Springsteen is a bold new talent with more than a mouthful to say,” raved Lester Bangs in his Rolling Stone review of Springsteen’s 1973 debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. “He’s been influenced a lot by the Band, his arrangements tend to take on a Van Morrison tinge every now and then, and he sort of catarrh-mumbles his ditties in a disgruntled mushmouth sorta like Robbie Robertson on Quaaludes with Dylan barfing down the back of his neck. It’s a tuff combination, but it’s only the beginning. Because what makes Bruce totally unique and cosmically surfeiting is his words. Hot damn, what a passel o’ verbiage!”
Indeed, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. was packed to the gills with wild rhymes, humorous asides, vivid characters and breathless stream-of-consciousness imagery, most of it drawn directly from Springsteen’s personal experiences. “Most of the songs [on Greetings] were twisted autobiographies,” he wrote in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run. “‘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.”
Recorded on a shoestring budget at 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, New York, the quirky yet ingratiating Greetings was a commercial disappointment at the time, but it the stage for Springsteen’s long and glorious career. “Spirit in the Night,” “Growin’ Up” and “For You” would all become dramatic highlights of his dynamic live sets, while “Blinded by the Light” would become a massive international hit via a 1976 cover version by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Greetings also introduced the world to the talents of drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, bassist Garry Tallent, keyboardist David Sancious and saxophonist Clarence Clemons, all of whom played on the record, and who would soon coalesce as members of Springsteen’s original E Street Band.
In honor of its 45th anniversary, here are 10 things you probably didn’t know about Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.
1.The album’s lyric-intensive songs were a significant departure from the music Springsteen had made before.
Heard only within the context of Springsteen’s 1970s discography, it’s easy to view Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. as the work of a Dylan-influenced acoustic troubadour trying to find his feet in the rock world. In reality, Springsteen had already been playing in rock bands for years; and after Steel Mill – Springsteen’s hard-rocking, jam-oriented band that also included future E Street Band members Vini Lopez, Danny Federici and Steve Van Zandt – failed to achieve anything beyond regional success, the 23-year-old musician felt it was time to take a different approach.
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“I wanted to be a voice that reflected experience and the world I lived in,” he wrote in Born to Run. “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.”
2. The album’s final track, “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” was the song that landed Springsteen his deal with Columbia Records.
On May 2nd, 1972, Springsteen and his manager Mike Appel arrived at Columbia Records’ headquarters in New York City for an audition with legendary A&R man John Hammond. Just having the opportunity to play his songs for the man who had previously “discovered” Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Billie Holiday was a total mind-blower for Springsteen. “I had just finished reading Dylan’s biography, and now I find myself sitting in Hammond’s office with my beat-up guitar, and like the whole thing I’ve been reading about is about to happen to me,” he told Rolling Stone in 1973. But he managed to keep his cool, introducing himself with “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” a swaggering song packed with vivid urban images.
“John later told me he was poised and ready to hate us,” Springsteen recalled in Born to Run, “but he just leaned back, slipped his hands together behind his head and, smiling, said, ‘Play me something.’ I sat directly across from him and played ‘Saint in the City.’ When I was done I looked up. That smile was still there and I heard him say, ‘You’ve got to be on Columbia Records.’ One song – that’s what it took.”
3. Greetings was co-produced by two guys who wrote songs for the Partridge Family.
Mike Appel was already a music-biz veteran when he signed Springsteen to a management contract in 1972, having played guitar with one-hit mid-Sixties wonders like the Magicians (“An Invitation to Cry”) and the Balloon Farm (“A Question of Temperature”); he’d also co-written and co-produced Kingdom Come, the 1970 debut album by proto–stoner rockers Sir Lord Baltimore, with his partner Jim Cretecos. But at the time they were co-producing Greetings, Appel and Cretecos were best known in the music industry for having written songs for the Partridge Family, including the TV bubblegum group’s “Doesn’t Somebody Want to Be Wanted,” which made it to Number Six on the Billboard Top 100 in the spring of 1971.
While Partridge Family songwriters might not have seemed the ideal choice at the time to co-produce an album by an earthy and verbose singer-songwriter, Springsteen had faith in Appel. “The bottom line was I liked Mike and I knew he understood what I wanted to do musically,” Springsteen wrote in Born to Run. “We were aiming for impact, for influence, for the top rung of what recording artists are capable of achieving. We both knew rock music was now a culture shaper. I wanted to collide with the times and create a voice that had musical, social and cultural impact. Mike understood that this was my goal.”
4. Columbia Records envisioned Greetings as an acoustic, folk-oriented record, à la James Taylor and John Prine, but Springsteen had other ideas.
Springsteen’s desire to have future E Streeters Clarence Clemons, Vini Lopez, David Sancious and Garry Tallent play on Greetings met with significant resistance from both his management and record label, who saw him as part of the singer-songwriter boom of the early Seventies. “John Hammond, Clive Davis and Columbia had thought they’d signed a folk singer-songwriter,” Springsteen recalled in Born to Run. “Mike Appel had never seen me play with a full band in front of an audience until after we recorded Greetings, so my own main man was clueless about what I could do.”
An uneasy compromise was eventually reached, wherein the record would be evenly split between band songs and solo acoustic numbers, with Springsteen’s electric guitar only audible via a few brief licks on “Blinded by the Light.” Springsteen wrote in his memoir that when he played the finished record for his roommate, Big Danny, “He liked it but he had just one question: ‘Where’s the guitar?’ I was the fastest guitar player alive … in Monmouth County, and there was no guitar to be found on my record.”
5. Greetings marked Steve Van Zandt’s first appearance on a Springsteen record, more than two years before he became an actual member of the E Street Band.
A loyal pal and sometime bandmate of Springsteen’s since the 1960s, Miami Steve Van Zandt (later known as Little Steven) officially joined the E Street Band as a guitarist in the summer of 1975. But during a June 27th, 1972, recording session at 914 Sound Studios, Van Zandt made his first recorded contribution to a Springsteen album – albeit not one that involved singing or playing an instrument.
After Mike Appel nixed Van Zandt’s attempted slide guitar part on “For You” for being “too busy,” Van Zandt made himself useful in the studio by manhandling the reverb unit on Springsteen’s Danelectro amplifier during the recording of “Lost in the Flood,” creating a brief but ominous rumble at the beginning of the song. “I punched the amp,” Van Zandt explained last year on the Rolling Stone Music Now podcast. “In those days, [amps] had a built-in reverb, and it made the sound like thunder or something. It was a cheap special effect!”
6. “Blinded by the Light” and “Spirit in the Night” weren’t included in the album’s original track listing.
In keeping with the concept of a 50/50 split between band and solo songs, the original version of Greetings was supposed to contain “For You,” “Growin’ Up,” “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” “Lost in the Flood” and “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” (all of which featured future members of the E Street Band) and the folky, acoustic-oriented songs “Mary Queen of Arkansas,” “The Angel,” “Jazz Musician,” “Arabian Nights” and “Visitation at Fort Horn.”
But when Springsteen and Appel gave the completed album to Columbia, label president Clive Davis rejected it, saying he didn’t hear a hit single. Duly chastened, Springsteen went home and wrote “Spirit in the Night” and “Blinded by the Light,” which were then recorded and substituted for “Jazz Musician,” “Arabian Nights” and “Visitation at Fort Horn.” “Clive made Greetings From Asbury Park a much better record simply by making that request,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 2016. “Take Greetings without ‘Blinded by the Light’ and ‘Spirit in the Night,’ it’s a slightly different record. They pointed towards my next record already. And I found Clarence, who had been missing in action. I got him [to play saxophone] on those two cuts and I got an electric guitar on ‘Blinded by the Light,’ which wasn’t on the rest of the record. And I wrote this sort of jazzy R&B thing for ‘Spirit in the Night.’ So Clive did me a great service at the time by giving me the record back.
7. “Spirit in the Night” was written with Joe Cocker’s voice in mind.
A soulful, sultry, sax-driven tale of a motley Jersey crew searching for Saturday night kicks, “Spirit in the Night” was also something of a nod to gravel-throated English singer Joe Cocker, who was enormously popular in the U.S. in the early 1970s. “For some reason, I always imagined Joe Cocker doing ‘Spirit in the Night,'” Springsteen recalled in a November 1974 radio interview with DJ Ed Sciaky of Philadelphia’s WMMR. “When I wrote that song I had his kind of voice in mind, which is something I rarely do.” Cocker never covered the song, but “Spirit” would become a staple of Springsteen and the E Street Band’s live sets, and it remains one of his best-loved tracks from the Seventies.
8. Columbia wanted to promote Springsteen as an artist from New York City – which is one of the reasons he called the album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.
“I’ll admit it seems a little weird the way these record company guys operate,” Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 1973, and Columbia’s initial plans to promote their new signing as a singer-songwriter from New York City may have been one of the things he was referring to. Perhaps the company was just working off of the Big Apple references in songs like “Lost in the Flood” and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” or maybe it was because a NYC origin story better fit their conception of Springsteen as “the new Dylan”; in any case, Springsteen pushed back by naming the album after the town its songs actually hailed from.
“The main reason I put it on that first album [as the title] was because [Columbia] were pushing for this big New York thing,” Springsteen told Melody Maker in November 1975. “I said, ‘Wait, you guys are nuts or something. I’m from Asbury Park, New Jersey. Can you dig it? NEW JERSEY.’ I said, ‘I want this on the album cover.’ They fought and fought, but we finally got it put on. And it’s a part of my thing, it’s like – I’m from New Jersey! It’s important for people to get a clear picture of me.”
9. Greetings sold poorly at first.
Clive Davis and Columbia Records put a significant amount of money and muscle into the promotion of Greetings, making it clear that Springsteen was a major priority for the label. As Rolling Stone‘s April 1973 Springsteen piece recounted, “A member of the press would get a phone call from the publicity department at Columbia and be told he would receive an advance copy of a record by a new artist (not unusual), and after he had a chance to listen to it, President Clive Davis would appreciate a call to get his reaction. … Meanwhile, visitors to the CBS Building encountered publicity personnel and suited executives alike greeting people with the question, ‘Hi … have you heard Bruce Springsteen yet?'”
But despite (and possibly because) of the hype, the album pretty much stiffed upon its initial release, selling less than 25,000 copies. Even in Springsteen’s hometown of Freehold, New Jersey, the album wasn’t exactly flying out of the shops: “I sold more Partridge Family albums than I did of Bruce that first day [Greetings was released],” Freehold record store owner Victor Wasylczenko told Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin. Greetings wouldn’t even enter the Billboard charts until the summer of 1975, when – like its follow-up, The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle – it finally began to sell amid the excitement surrounding Born to Run‘s impending release. Greetings would achieve gold certification from the RIAA in November 1978, eventually reaching the multi-platinum mark in April 1992.
10. “Blinded by the Light” remains the only Springsteen song to top the Billboardsingles chart, though it wasn’t his recording that hit Number One.
Released as a single in February 1973 (with “The Angel” on the flip side), Springsteen’s raucous recording of “Blinded by the Light” failed to click either with radio programmers or record buyers; so few copies of it were sold at the time, in fact, that stock copies of the original 45 are now among the rarest and most sought-after items in his extensive discography. But four years after the song’s original release, a propulsive, synth-driven rearrangement of “Blinded by the Light” by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (who also recorded radically re-tooled versions of “Spirit in the Night” and “For You”) hit the Number One slot on the Billboard Hot 100, making it the only Springsteen song ever to attain such lofty heights. (“Dancing in the Dark” made it all the way to Number Two in 1984, but was stiff-armed from the top spot by Duran Duran’s “The Reflex” and Prince’s “When Doves Cry.”)
Though massively successful, the Manfred Mann version also stirred up a fair amount controversy, due to the rewriting of a line from Springsteen’s original chorus – “cut loose like a deuce” (as in, a 1932 Ford hot rod) – as “revved up like a deuce,” which, on the lips of Manfred Mann vocalist Chris Hamlet Thompson, sounded an awful lot like “wrapped up like a douche.” In a 2008 interview with Classic Rock, Mann recalled people telling him, “‘You know why that record was such a hit, don’t you? Because everyone was trying to figure out if it was ‘deuce’ or ‘douche.'” Springsteen joked about the controversy surrounding the song in 2005, during his taping of the song for VH1’s Storytellers. “One version is about a car, the other is about a feminine hygiene product,” he mused. “Guess which the kids like to shout more?”