In 1973, Bruce Springsteen’s Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. would have seemed to be an unlikely album for people to still be talking about, 50 years later.
During the making of the low-budget album, “We did not have money for hotels, so we went to the studio and we pitched tents in the backyard and we slept in ’em; it was crazy,” said Springsteen in an interview filmed at his home studio in Colts Neck, excerpts from which were shown at a 50th anniversary symposium on the album presented by the Bruce Springsteen Archives & Center for American Music at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, Jan. 7.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of studio experience among any of us … we were just making it up as we went along,” said bassist Garry Tallent, who spoke at the symposium with fellow original E Street Band members David Sancious and Vini Lopez and joined them, and other Jersey musicians, for a symposium-ending mini-concert at the university’s Pollak Theatre that featured all of the album’s songs.
Mike Appel, who managed Springsteen at the time of Greetings and co-produced the album, also appeared on two panels, adding to the symposium’s abundance of first-hand stories.
As Appel and others discussed, sales and radio play for the album were weak, though the album did have some supporters, including WMMR-FM (Philadelphia) DJ David Dye, who appeared on two panels. Music journalist Peter Knobler, who appeared on the “Setting the Scene” panel with Dye and others, wrote in Crawdaddy magazine, at the time, that Springsteen “sings with a freshness and urgency I haven’t heard since I was rocked by ‘Like a Rolling Stone.’ ”
Greetings is not Springsteen’s crowning achievement. It is, honestly, not even in my personal Top 5 of Springsteen’s albums. But there are flashes of genius, of course, on songs such as “Spirit in the Night,” “Blinded by the Light,” “For You” and “Growin’ Up.” That “freshness and urgency” that Knobler wrote about is palpable, though it also seems to me that Springsteen, still a shy young man in some ways, was sometimes hiding behind his heady wordplay rather than using his lyrics to speak from his heart, as he would on later albums.
Greetings also has some tracks that are considered weak, even by many of Springsteen’s most ardent fans. Dye and other members of the symposium’s panel discussion on the songs themselves struggled to find anything good to say about “Mary Queen of Arkansas” and “The Angel.”
That said, Anthony D’Amato and the duo Max & Jenaé did a good job of breathing life into these two songs, respectively, at the symposium’s mini-concert. Jake Thistle embraced the brash spirit of “Blinded by the Light,” and Williams Honor provided one of the mini-concert’s most imaginative reinterpretations with a slowed-down, soulful “Growin’ Up” (see video below). Pat Guadagno, joined by occasional Springsteen collaborator Richard Blackwell on percussion, nailed the tense melodrama of “Lost in the Flood,” and the group Jackson Pines turned in an ingratiatingly folky “Spirit of the Night” (see video below), backing their vocals with standup bass, acoustic guitar and mandolin.
Pat Roddy sang “For You” and also got a taste of what it feels to be an E Street Band frontman when he sang the mini-concert’s last two songs, “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” (see video of both below), with Sancious, Tallent and Lopez, with the three effectively re-creating the loose, jazzy chemistry of the band’s early days.
Guadagno, before performing “Lost in Flood,” spoke about seeing Springsteen all the way back with his mid-’60s band The Castiles, and how The Boss made a big impact on him right away and has served as his musical role model ever since.
Other symposium presentations included:
• “The Story Behind the Photographs,” featuring Peter Cunningham, who took some of the earliest professional photos of Springsteen, for Columbia Records.
• “A Conversation With Nicki Germaine,” also a photographer, whose new book, “Springsteen: Liberty Hall,” includes many remarkable photos of Springsteen and the E Street Band captured during a four-night stand at Liberty Hall in Houston, in 1974. (Visit springsteenlibertyhall.com.)
• “Bruce Springsteen Archives Curators’ Presentation,” featuring videos and audio from the Archives’ vast collection, including a great 1973 performance of “Thundercrack” and audio from a demo of the “Growin’ Up” forerunner, “Eloise.”
• “The Importance of ‘Greetings,’ ” a discussion putting the album into historical context, by three Monmouth University professors.
The album “was very much reflective of a very uncertain time: Watergate revelations were starting to unfold, there was a lot of disillusionment, there was a lot of angst about where the country was going … not dissimilar to what’s happening now,” said history professor Kenneth L. Campbell.
“When I teach Bruce, which I’m fortunate to do every spring, I find that a lot of what we talk about with the first album is the Singer-Songwriter Era, which we all know and love, and of course was a great blossoming of original songwriting that, in a way … is the flowering of the promise of The Beatles,” said English and popular music history Kenneth Womack. “Original music. Reaching for great artistic heights, etc.”
The symposium was sold out, with an attendance of 600.
“The Bruce Springsteen Archives is now in the 50th anniversary business,” said Robert Santelli, the organization’s executive director. He added that a symposium focusing on The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle — Springsteen’s second album, released on Nov. 5, 1973 — will take place at some point in the fall.
Santelli also said that a mini-documentary on Greetings will be posted on the archives’ website, springsteenarchives.org, about two weeks from now.
Here is the mini-concert’s setlist (the album’s song order was tweaked to have the two Sancious/Tallent/Lopez songs at the end).
“Blinded by the Light,” Jake Thistle with Rob Dye and Zack Sandler
“Growin’ Up,” Williams Honor
“Mary Queen of Arkansas,” Anthony D’Amato
“Lost in the Flood,” Pat Guadagno and Richard Blackwell
“The Angel,” Max and Jenaé
“For You,” Pat Roddy with John Sciarappa and Larry Hart
“Spirit in the Night,” Jackson Pines
“Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?,” Pat Roddy with David Sancious, Garry Tallent and Vini Lopez
“It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” Pat Roddy with David Sancious, Garry Tallent and Vini Lopez
And, finally, are some videos from the mini-concert:
“Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” and “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City,” Pat Roddy with David Sancious, Garry Tallent and Vini Lopez
“Growin’ Up,” Williams Honor
“Spirit in the Night,” Jackson Pines
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