Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Asbury Park and What Might Have Been

Well, my plea for Bruce Springsteen recommendations certainly didn't fall on deaf ears. Quite a few people responded, and while Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town certainly had their champions, the most heavily-recommended album was Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, Springsteen's 1973 debut.

And that's a twist I didn't see coming. I was under the impression that Asbury Park was like Springsteen's Pablo Honey, a false start that barely even hinted at the riches to come (I suppose this analogy makes Born to Run his equivalent of OK Computer). But a cluster of glowing, tweet-length reviews persuaded me to pick it up, and what do you know? That cluster was onto something!

What first struck me about this album was how much Bruce Springsteen used to sound like Bob Dylan. Listen to the song above and tell me that the line about "very unpleasing wheezing and sneezing" wasn't cribbed straight from Dylan's notebook. I'm not sure exactly what it reminds me of, but it definitely reminds me of something and it's definitely something by Bob Dylan.

Having said that, I can definitely hear the beginnings of that signature Boss sound, even if the lyrics are a little more flowery and the compositions a little more free-form. Bear in mind that Born in the USA was my first taste of Springsteen, and on some level I still expect whip-tight pop like Dancing in the Dark from every corner of Bruce's discography - as you can imagine, Mary Queen of Arkansas came as something of a shock to the system.

So that's my distinctly green review of Asbury Park. Now that that's out of the way, let's move on to the really interesting topic: the album that Asbury Park could have been.

Apparently, this record was originally going to have ten songs: five full band tracks, and five Springsteen solo numbers. But Columbia wanted a hit, and so The Boss wrote Blinded by the Light and Spirit in the Night to satiate the label's lust for, y'know, singles.

But now they had another problem: the album was too long. To make room for the two 'hits' mentioned above, no less than three of the album's original ten tracks were dropped, and all three were culled from the reflective solo half of the record. Jazz Musician, Arabian Nights (sadly not a cover of the opening song from Aladdin) and Visitation at Fort Horn all failed to make the final cut, and these tracks didn't resurface until many years later.

Here's the thing: I've listened to that trio of rejected songs on YouTube, and their presence (along with the absence of Blinded and Spirit) would have made Asbury Park a completely different album. Have a listen to Jazz Musician, my favourite of the three:

I feel like that song would have fit right in amongst the stark, stripped-back sketches that were all over Nebraska. In fact, I'd go further - if Jazz Musician and the other two hadn't lost their spots on the Asbury Park tracklist, Nebraska probably never would have happened.

(A disclaimer: I've still only heard a slender slice of the Springsteen songbook, and so most of my points from here on out will be based on guesswork and assumptions.)

See, Nebraska was remarkable because it was so completely unlike what the record-buying public had come to expect from Bruce Springsteen. Nobody thought that boisterous, big-chorus Bruce would shoo The E Street Band out through a side door and record a whole album on a four-track with little more than a guitar and a harmonica to accompany him. The record before Nebraska was The River, a full-blown rock double album that pulled out all the stops; imagine your favourite artist going from this... this...

...and imagine the bad case of ear-whiplash that would leave you with. Nebraska was a very deliberate antithesis to the established Springsteen sound as it stood in the early eighties, and even if he went straight back to blockbusting business as usual on the mega-selling Born in the USA, it showed us all that The Boss could surprise us if he wanted to.

But what if Columbia hadn't demanded a hit back in '73? What if his very first album had been equally divided between E Street jams and Nebraska-esque sparsity? Springsteen might never have wholly committed to the whole 'broken hero on a last-chance power drive' thing if he'd had his way in the first instance. He'd be an even split between that for-the-masses persona and a more thoughtful, less accessible troubadour type. Oh, and the startling contrarianism of Nebraska would never have been necessary - that side of Springsteen would have been evident from the start.

Seriously, some of the stuff that was scrapped from Asbury Park makes Nebraska look like a Pet Shop Boys album.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, hell of a backstory! I love Jazz Musician. Suppose it's the rare case of a music label meddling working out a treat - no Nebraska would have sucked!