When Mike Appel – Bruce SpringsteenFirst Producer and Director – At first hearing the 22-year-old Boss in November 1971, he wasn’t impressed.
“He sang a couple of songs on the piano … and they were two songs that were just idiocy, nothing,” Appel told The Post of Springsteen’s audition. “I said, ‘Is that all you’ve got?'” He says, “Well, that’s all I have for now.” I said, “Well, if you want to do an album, you’re going to have to get more songs—and they have to be better than these.”
Three months later, Springsteen returned to Appel’s Laurel Canyon production office in midtown Manhattan, strapped on his guitar and a bunch of new tunes. He is the first to play “It’s hard to be a saint in the city” Abel said. It broke me. It was love at first hearing because the lyrics were so special. And I said, ‘You have to sing this again,’ because I want to make sure you say what you say.”
“It’s Hard to Be a City Saint” would turn out to be a real godsend for Springsteen, who recorded the poetic tune for his debut album, “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ” — released 50 years ago on January 5, 1973. It launched a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame A career still going strong 20 LPs later for the 73-year-old New Jersey native.
But on “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ,” you hear the growing up of a young genius who shows his age and ambition in songs that range from “Growin’ Up” for longing “for you.” “What’s great about it,” Abel said, “is that it’s not too much, it’s not too little.” “That’s where you are at that point, Bruce. That’s you.”
The LP’s title was inspired by the beach town where Long Branch native and freehold native Springsteen received a rock education as a teenager playing in clubs such as Student Prince, Sunshine In and Upstage Club. The last place is where Springsteen came into contact with some of the “Greetings” players – the keyboardist David Sansiosand guitarist Garry Tallent and drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez — who went on to become original members of the E Street Band.
In fact, Sancious played a major role in devising the band’s legendary moniker. “That was the street I grew up on in Belmar, New Jersey,” Sanchez told the newspaper. It was very ethnically and religiously mixed, but it was very peaceful. My mother used to let us practice there [at home] once in a while. And I think he liked her voice.”
After playing in the Steel Mill band (originally called Child) with Lopez and other future E Streeters Steven Van Zandt (guitar) and Danny Federici, Springsteen was signed as a solo artist to Appel’s Laurel Canyon Productions and then Columbia Records – by the legendary music man Clive Davis – in 1972. The label gave its new artist and producer, Appel and his then partner Jim Cretecos, space for creativity.
“I’ve got carte blanche,” Abel said. “And I thought what we could do was get Bruce’s music writing to get to where the lyrics were, so that the arrangements would be a little bit more complex and more creative and more identifiable.”
Although Springsteen was originally cleared as “Next Bob DylanDavis suggested that they beef up the arrangements. Clive said, “You’ve got a lot of songs here just with Bruce Acoustic.” “There’s no reason why we can’t possibly have a little band behind Bruce,” said Appel.
Enter E Street Band. Lopez recalls receiving the fateful call from Springsteen to play in his debut. “I used to work in a boatyard,” Lopez told The Post. And the owner comes in one day, and he says, ‘Hey, there’s this guy Bruce on the phone’…and he says, ‘Hey, I got you a record deal. We will record now. Well, do you want to do that? I said: sure! “
But Mr. Van Zandt hasn’t cut the guitar for a long time. “Stevie Van Zandt Abel said. “But then, I think Bruce, he thought he was going to play the lead, so Stevie wouldn’t be necessary… Bruce is a pretty competent electric guitar player, so I didn’t know what this guy was necessarily going to do.”
Lopez remembers pulling double duty with the saxophonist Clarence Clemons On some androgynous backing vocals: “Singing with Clarence spirit in the night … Everyone thought there were girls in the band sometimes, but there weren’t. It was Clarence and I.”
Appel tricked the big guy into chilling out at 914 Sound Recording Studios in Blauvelt, New York, where the album was recorded over a period of five months. “His saxophone was squeaking all over,” he said. “I isolated Clarence where everyone else was [else] He was in the control room, and so I said to myself, “He might be one of those guys who has to play his parts with the other guys. So leave all the other guys’ microphones off, and you’ll only have his microphone on.”
Although Springsteen has “never been so stressed in his life,” says Appel, who went on to produce The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle for 1973 and 1975 “Born to run.”
He added, “He was the boss.”
In fact, it was Chief who had Abel sing on the first single “Blinded by the light.” “Shut up: Mike, why don’t you come out here and sing it with me?” And we two sing in unison on the choruses.”
Springsteen was in such control that he came up with the famous album cover design. “He’s walking into the office one day and he has a postcard from Asbury Park,” said Appel. He handed it to me, and said, “What do you think of this for the cover?” I said, This is nice and cheap and slick and boardwalk. This is rock and roll.”
And “Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ” helped give New Jersey a more recognizable place on the music map.
“It’s the soul of the Jersey Shore,” said Elaine Chapman, director of the Bruce Springsteen Archives and Center for American Music. At Monmouth University’s 50th Anniversary: Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ Symposium on Saturday. “I think that [inspired] Not just Jersey pride, but pride that someone we’ve known has actually had the opportunity to do what they love. There was a lot of pride in Bruce.”