Like everyone else here at EMP, I’ve probably spent thousands of hours listening to thousands of songs of varied genres. Recently, I had the opportunity to return to Newark, Delaware and drive by the record store where I purchased my first album. To my great surprise, the store was still there and looked just as run down as it had in the 1980’s, though they’ve managed to take down the promo posters for Van Halen and Prince and replace them with Beyonce and Nelly, et. al. In my pre-teen years, I’d scrap up and save and ride my bike down to that store to buy albums, then run home and listen with reverence to whatever I had purchased. Some of that adoration was clearly misplaced (Billy Squier leaps to mind), but much of it formed a significant part of my personality (the Motown box set purchase was a game-changer).
The Fourth of July always brings me back to one particluar album: The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. Springsteen’s second effort, released in 1973, is a Jersey Shore version of Van Morrison’s seminal portrayal of Belfast in Astral Weeks. It was the second album I ever purchased (Born to Run was the first) and thirty years later it remains on my “Desert Island” list of records I’d take with me. To be sure, much of my adoration for the album stems from the fact that I practially grew up on the Jersey Shore, had relatives at the Shore and knew most of the places the Boss was singing about. But the album is clearly Springsteen’s “jazziest”, and the propulsive force behind it is the piano/organ of David Sancious (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Sancious), who left after the completion of the album to pursue a solo career. It’s also the album from which I plucked my nom de cyber, Wild Billy’s Circus Story.
Like all great albums, it’s best to listen to from start to finish and I do just that twice a year, the Fourth of July being one of those days. The other day is when I make my annual visit to the Shore to visit family: I pop that disc in and drive up Ocean Avenue through the small towns of Sea Girt, Spring Lake, Deal, Belmar until I end up in Asbury Park. My favorite song on the album (and possibly my favorite Springsteen song of all time) is “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”. To me, it just sounds like the Jersey Shore: Danny Federici’s cascading accordian representing the cresting and crashing of the waves, Sancious’ piano fills sounding like the water running up the sandy slopes then crawling back to the sea and Clarence’s saxaphone intoning the carnival commotion on the boardwalk. The lyrics describe familiar places, most famously Madam Marie’s (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marie_Castello), the long-time fortune teller located on the boardwalk.
My parents described Asbury as a resort paradise in the 1940’s and 50’s, but white flight and the race riots of the sixties left it a burned out shell of it’s former vibrancy. By the 1970’s, it was the nerve center of the Jersey Shore music scene, but not much else. Despite efforts to revive the town, it still has not recovered any of its former glory. While he often references various places in Asbury in his songs, “Sandy” and “My City of Ruins” are his only songs that exclusively address the town as a whole. But “Sandy” depicts the inhabitants (the greasers, the invading New York hordes, switch-blade lovers) with loving resignation. Critic William Ruhlmann opined that the album, “contain[s] the best realization of Springsteen’s poetic vision, which soon enough would be tarnished by disillusionment. Later, he would make different albums, but he never made a better one.” The song’s protagonist — ironically cataloging the goings-on of his “Little Eden” — soon experiences the dissatisfaction and desire to escape that forms the basis of Springsteen’s next album, Born to Run.
My buddy Mike always says that every true music fan has his “guilty pleasure” albums/artists, ones that we love disproportionately to their impact. I suppose Springsteen will always be my guilty pleasure. But when I come home from the Cubs game today and the sun sets, I assure you I’ll be out on my back deck listening to The Wild, The Innocent & the E Street Shuffle” from start to finish…and feeling homesick upon hearing the first chords of “Sandy“. Here’s a twenty six year old Boss performing it on his first ever trip to London: