Bruce Springsteen’s character sketches: Welcome to Asbury Park N.J. (1973)

Posted on Thu Sep 13 2007 at 9:28 am in the category 1970s, Springsteen, Bruce -- Copyright notice

Listen as you read (live version of “Lost in the flood”, Hammersmith Odeon, 1975):

With Bruce Springsteen’s new studio album (Magic) due out on October 2nd, what better time is there to post on the boss’s songwriting (official Springsteen website).

I am a relatively new fan of Springsteen. This shift was thanks, in part, to my friend Dan. Dan and a few others of us were sharing a few beers at an academic conference about six years ago when the Manfred Mann’s Earth Band version of “Blinded by the light” came on (you know, the version you always hear). Dan stated (perhaps bet his life) that the tune was written by Springsteen and a debate ensued (I didn’t doubt Dan’s clear answer of Springsteen as much as some others did). This inspired me to look into Springsteen further. Sure, I had heard all of the “hits” from Born in the USA — I was fifteen in 1984, after all — and had since become familiar with some of the earlier tunes (Springsteen’s version of “War . . . what is it good for?” was a favourite of mine: my five year old son now breaks into that song out of the blue sometimes–a pacifist’s dream come true). But I did not yet have a full appreciation for Springsteen’s music and, especially, his writing.

That changed quickly once I started listening. I first picked up Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973, © Columbia Records) and was quickly hooked. Little did I know that one of my favourite Bowie tunes, “It’s hard to be a saint in the city” was also on this first of Springsteen’s albums (along with “Blinded by the light”).

The thing that struck me most about the album was the raw and direct way in which Springsteen’s writing and performance draws me into the life situation of the “fictional” characters in his songs. In a realistic way, Springsteen can sketch out (or take on the persona of) a dozen or more characters or life-situations on an album (or sometimes in a song). His performance further brings out the emotions and, often, tragic experience of these characters. His ability to take on a persona and express that person’s life circumstances is impressive, even if this sometimes happens at lightning speed in terms of the lyrics.

Lost in the Flood” is one of those fast-paced character sketches that nonetheless really pulled me in (something, but not all, is lost without hearing the entire performance by Springsteen himself, of course–do listen to the little clip, though):

That pure American brother, dull-eyed and empty-faced
races Sundays in Jersey in a Chevy stock super eight
He rides ‘er low on the hip, on the side he’s got Bound For Glory in red, white and blue flash paint
He leans on the hood telling racing stories, the kids call him Jimmy The Saint
Well the blaze and noise boy, he’s gunnin’ that bitch loaded to blastin’ point
He rides head first into a hurricane and disappears into a point
And there’s nothin’ left but some blood where the body fell
That is, nothin’ left that you could sell
just junk all across the horizon, a real highwayman’s farewell
And he said “Hey kid, you think that’s oil? Man, that ain’t oil that’s blood”
I wonder what he was thinking when he hit that storm
Or was he just lost in the flood?

Eighth Avenue sailors in satin shirts whisper in the air
Some storefront incarnation of Maria, she’s puttin’ on me the stare
and Bronx’s best apostle stands with his hand on his own hardware
Everything stops, you hear five, quick shots, the cops come up for air
And now the whiz-bang gang from uptown, they’re shootin’ up the street
And that cat from the Bronx starts lettin’ loose
but he gets blown right off his feet
And some kid comes blastin’ round the corner but a cop puts him right away
He lays on the street holding his leg screaming something in Spanish
Still breathing when I walked away
And somebody said “Hey man did you see that? His body hit the street with such a beautiful thud”
I wonder what the dude was sayin’ or was he just lost in the flood?
Hey man, did you see that, those poor cats are sure messed up
I wonder what they were gettin’ into, or were they just lost in the flood?

(© Bruce Springsteen (ASCAP) / Columbia Records)

These impressionistic descriptions go well beyond the individual characters to evoke images of an entire setting. I begin to have a feel for some real-life setting from these impressions and I wince when Springsteen utters the unfeeling statements of on-lookers (“that ain’t oil that’s blood”, “His body hit the street with such a beautiful thud”).

I soon went out and bought more CDs but I was more fond of the acoustic ones at first (Nebraska [1982] and Ghost of Tom Joad [1995]), where these character sketches were not comprimised, so to speak, by a band. Even with a band, I did find his memorial album to 9/11 victims, The Rising (2002) particularly evocative in terms of the many different perspectives it takes on this renowned event. His more recent Devils and Dust (2005) was a welcomed return to the more folky and evocative side of Springsteen.

Since I’ve been into vinyl, I’ve been keeping a hawk-eye out for more Springsteen. Born in the USA albums are a dime a dozen, so I had no trouble there. However, I was especially pleased to find a mint copy of the ground-breaking Born to Run (1975), which I will post on soon.

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3 Responses to “Bruce Springsteen’s character sketches: Welcome to Asbury Park N.J. (1973)”

  1. JET Says:

    It’s sad to see a Gensis and Yes fan all under the spell of the pedestrian, conservative and lowest-common-denominator rawk of the stark naked emperor they call Bruce Springsteen. Surely there must be 100 albums that came out in 1973 that were more expressive, interesting, stimulating, challenging and intelligent than Greetings from…? From Museo Rosenbach, Marvin Gaye, Gentle Giant, Donovan, Sly and the Family Stone to Brian Eno and beyond there have to be things more worthwhile listening to than this deliberately knuckleheaded tripe designed to be folksy and anti-intellectual.

    “Man, that ain’t oil, that’s blood”. That’s just embarrassingly juvenile. Betcha he has some song about a guy who has diesel in his veins or somesuch too.

    To each his own, obviously, but it seems an impossible wide gap to bridge. Once you’ve seen the wider horizons, tasted the sweeter fruits, how can you go back to the narrow-minded and limited focus of this? Ah, well…

  2. pharland Says:

    Hello JET,

    To each his or her own. There’s sweet fruit, and then there are other things to chew on too.


  3. pharland Says:

    Forgot to say: don’t be sad.