Revinylization #50: Bruce Springsteen's Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. at 50

In Jan Swafford's excellent 2020 Mozart biography The Reign of Love, he intimately weaves the composer's life story with the music he created. Along the way, he confirms a legendary scene. Played to the hilt in Amadeus, Milos Forman's 1984 film adaptation of Peter Shaffer's play, the then-reigning Hapsburg monarch, Joseph II, rushes backstage after the premiere of Mozart's first operatic blockbuster, The Abduction from the Seraglio, and opines, "Too beautiful for our [Viennese] ears, my dear Mozart, and monstrous many notes." Sassy by nature or perhaps just stung by the implied criticism, Mozart supposedly replied, "Exactly as many as necessary, Your Majesty."

That quote rings in my head each time I listen to Bruce Springsteen's still-astonishing 1973 debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., which has just turned 50 and been reissued in Mobile Fidelity's Ultradisc One-Step series.

After seeing The E Street Band and its skinny, bearded, live-wire frontman play in 1973, I was eager to hear this oddly titled first album. After I ripped off the shrink and flipped back the postcard packaging, it became clear immediately that the eager, urgent 23-year-old urban poet from Long Branch, New Jersey, suffered from a malaise similar to Mozart's: in this case, too many words. But it's precisely that detailed verbal fury—the energetic sense of an ambitious street poet who occasionally got carried away—that animates Greetings and makes it such a rich masterpiece. From the opening stanza of the album's first song, "Blinded by the Light," it's clear that this kid from North Jersey is a lyrical gunslinger with aspirational chops: "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."

The album's other single, "Spirit in the Night," recorded with just Springsteen, drummer Vini Lopez, and a newly arrived Clarence Clemons, is nothing less than a psychedelic word storm. Springsteen populates a wild night of teen abandon with his first set of mythical characters, including Wild Billy, Hazy Davy, Crazy Janey, Killer Joe, G-Man, and Mission Man. Some of the album's best lyrical moments follow: "By the time we made it up to/Greasy Lake I had my head out the window and Janey's fingers were in the cake/I think I really dug her 'cause I was too loose to fake/I said, 'I'm hurt.' She said, 'Honey, let me heal it.'"

In Greetings's most obvious love song, "For You," there's the whiff of Rosalitas to come as he pushes his lyrical gifts to the edge: "Didn't you think I knew that you were born with the power of a locomotive/able to leap tall buildings in a single bound/And your Chelsea suicide with no apparent motive/ you could laugh and cry in a single sound."

The word maelstrom reaches its peak in the rousing closer, "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City." A character we associate with the songwriter sings in a tough growl about his "skin like leather" and his "diamond-hard look of a cobra." Then he swaggers, "I could walk like Brando right into the sun/Then dance just like a Casanova" before shifting to more of a whisper as the language throws the sparks: "With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet/Silver star studs on my duds just like a Harley in heat." The whisper returns several times before this "backstreet gambler with the luck to lose" adds the punch line: "It's so hard to be a saint when you're just a boy out on the street."

One of the current vinyl reissue boom's most enduring mysteries is why neither of the first two entries in Springsteen's hallowed catalog has ever had individual Columbia/Sony deluxe-LP reissues. Nor, until now, has Greetings or The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle ever been licensed to a high-quality audiophile label for reissue, as Born to Run was to Classic Records in 2005. The lack of reissues with upgraded sonics may be related to the long-time controversy over the dodgy, at times muddy sound of those first two albums, a condition usually traced back to 914 Sound Studios in Blauvelt, New York. A converted gas station, owned by Brooks Arthur, Phil Ramone, Art Ward, and Don Frey, "914" (after the area code) was abandoned for The Record Plant in Manhattan after the recording of the single, "Born to Run." Bruce's then-manager Jon Landau was unimpressed by the studio's facilities, gear, and piano that wouldn't stay in tune.

The first Greetings remaster was by Bob Ludwig in 2014; he remastered all the early albums for The Album Collection, Vol. 1 1973–1984. This new 180gm One-Step LP was mastered by Krieg Wunderlich and Shawn R. Britton; MoFi prominently displays its mastering chain: "¼" / 15ips analog master to DSD 256 to analog console to lathe." The new record has clearer sound, an airier presence, and marginally more punch than several original pressings I own or the 2014 remaster. The low-end, always a glaring sonic flaw in this recording, has been audibly improved. Beautifully pressed and packaged in a thinner and less-grand slip case, that takes up less room on your shelf, this new One-Step is the best sounding Greetings yet.

As Springsteen artistically toggled between wanting to be an urban troubadour in the mold of Bob Dylan and a sweat-drenched, R&B rocker willing to turn up the electric guitars and connect with an audience, Greetings was his first attempt to capture some of both on a recording. This debut album is most essential as audible evidence of the boy before The Boss, still innocent but growing miraculously as a person and songwriter. As he sings in "Growin' Up," the LP's second song, this is where he's discovering that balance where "my feet they finally took root in the earth but I got me a nice little place in the stars.

PeterG's picture

Agreed! And doubly important since, as you say, the previous versions are so weak. Given that so many of Bruce's releases are plagued by muddy recording and/or too much compression, this may be the best sounding Springsteen album available. Let's hope the MoFi crew walk all the way through the catalogue!

2_channel_ears's picture

insert smiley emoji