Listen to this track by Once-And-Future-Boss and game-changing singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen. It’s “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City”, a tale of machismo, morality, and a retelling of the hero’s quest. The song serves as the closing track to Springsteen’s first album, 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, released on January 5 of that year.
This song was an early composition of Springsteen’s, relatively speaking. He’d done time fronting a number of New Jersey-based bands from the mid-to- late-60s, including The Castiles, Earth, Steel Mill, and Dr. Zoom & The Sonic Boom (featuring Steve Van Zandt and Southside Johnny), plus a number of related groups in addition to his sideline as a solo artist.
All the while, he’d put in considerable effort in honing his craft as a singer-songwriter, particularly as a lyricist, concurrently developing his established skills as a guitar player and front man of rock and R&B-oriented bands around town. The balance he’d look to strike would be with his abilities to craft songs to be easily interpreted in a solo setting, but with enough musical juice to be applied to a larger ensemble, too. This is a direction he’d been moving in intermittently even before he got his record deal.
It was this song included among a others that made the impact he needed to get there. And it would be some important people who would first hear the song that would get Springsteen’s burgeoning career into motion.
One such person was the man who would become his manager, producer, and early champion Mike Appel. Springsteen would be introduced to him through his former Steel Mill manager and friend Carl “Tinker” West in 1971. Springsteen would then meet up again with Appel the following year when the young songwriter had worked up new material, including this song.
At the time of the meeting, both Appel and his associate Jim Cretecos had straight jobs as writers for the TV show The Partridge Family. This was a stable, and lucrative position for both, at a time when that TV show was at the height of its popularity. But, when Springsteen played this song to them and to song plugger Bob Spitz, they knew that they’d all have to quit their jobs and manage him.
They knew too that legendary Columbia A&R man and talent scout John Hammond had to hear this new artist too. Hammond was the man who’d discovered a number of era-defining artists ranging from Robert Johnson to Bessie Smith, Benny Goodman to Count Basie, Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin, and of course Bob Dylan who he’d discovered a decade before Springsteen. Appel and Cretecos knew that Springsteen fit into that class easily, with the sheer ambition of the material and the distinctiveness of an artistic voice matching the levels of talent Hammond looked for and had signed in the past.
On this song alone, we get a whole American myth re-interpreted and uniquely encapsulated inside of three-minutes and change; a street-wise kid trying to find out who he is, all the while assailed by the forces of evil trying to pull him, literally, underground. It could havebeen autobiographical, a portrait of a young man trying to find success in a competitive, and even hostile setting. That would certainly mark the times for Springsteen, a hard-jobbing musician still paying his dues, wondering what the future would hold.
But, more importantly, this song touches on a universal pattern of storytelling and narrative that had the potential to appeal to a lot of people, and sell a lot of records. A major label of Columbia’s reach was a perfect fit, and seeking out Hammond’s vision for the next big thing was the next logical step.
Springsteen auditioned for John Hammond in May 1972. Appel and Springsteen made their way to John Hammond’s office in New York after the former had muscled his way onto Hammond’s appointment schedule. Full of passion and fire surrounding his charge, Appel talked up the young, scruffily dressed, scraggily-bearded, and guitar-toting Springsteen, to the point that the young songwriter was worried that he’d been oversold, with Hammond visibly annoyed at Appel’s aggressive and even belligerent attitude.
But, then Springsteen started playing, opening with this very song – “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City”. The outcome was inevitable.
After a long session of playing in Hammond’s office trying out different songs, the impresario took Appel and Springsteen down to a local club that very evening, The Gaslight AuGogo no less, to get a feel for how Springsteen’s music impacted a live crowd. Another skillset was then revealed; Springsteen’s magnetic stage presence, impressive instrumental prowess, and easy way with a crowd. The next stop was a visit to Clive Davis’, then head of Columbia/CBS and with the power to actually sign a young Bruce Springsteen to the major label. Bruce was signed by June.
By January 5, 1973, Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ was released with a cover derived from an actual postcard Springsteen had found in his New Jersey stomping ground. The rule for debut albums on Columbia/CBS at the time was that the cover had to feature an image of the artist. But, the humble seaside postcard image spoke volumes about where the artist, and his music, had come from. Springsteen insisted that it had to be the cover. And so it was.
It seemed that even this early on, Springsteen was the Boss.
To learn more about Bruce Springsteen, be sure and check out the new Bruce Springsteen biography Bruce, by Peter Ames Carlin. Thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada for sending along a copy for me to preview. You can buy the book on Simonandschuster.com.
Among other stories like the one above, the book contains the last major interviews by E Street Band stalwart and Springsteen musical soulmate, saxophonist Clarence Clemons. The book also includes interviews with friends, family, bandmates, and of course the Boss himself.