Boss Songs Part III: Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: Chalkie Davies, Getty Images
Image Credit: Chalkie Davies, Getty Images

Song – “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” Album – Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ 

This song is three minutes of pure bravado that concludes the album in a way that must’ve left initial fans clamoring for more. It’s also another example of Springsteen’s superfluous yet pleasing rhyme, reminiscent of “Blinded by the Light”, a song also included on Greetings but later popularized by Manfred Mann. The speaker of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” is a young man who demonstrates a sort of hyper self-awareness, knowing right from wrong. Yet his hand is forced by circumstances beyond his control in the predatory city, a theme often visited in Springsteen’s songs. The most often noted lines in the song are chilling: “The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street / Showin’ me a hand I knew even the cops couldn’t beat / I felt his hot breath on my neck as I dove into the heat / It’s so hard to be a saint when you’re just a boy out on the street.” Since it was recorded before Clarence Clemons joined the band, the album version is mostly guitar and piano, but watch the video of the band performing it at the Hammersmith-Odeon in 1975. This utterly enthralling live version is everything a live rock song performance should be. It includes a ragamuffin Springsteen looking every bit like a “king of the alley” who “could talk some trash.” Clarence Clemons, bedecked in an all-white suit, uses his saxophone to add an eerie tension that is sorely missing on the album. Roy Bittan is caught repeatedly manhandling the keys of the Steinway, and right around the three and half-minute mark Steve Van Zandt dares to duel the Boss and his Fender Telecaster. If the performance wasn’t so quintessentially rock-and-roll it could pass as punk before there was punk. Watch it here—you won’t regret it.

Song – “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” Album – Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ

Like “Lost in the Flood” here’s another Springsteen song without a chorus. Instead, we see a typical Springsteen collage of images and fanciful characters (interstellar mongrel nymphs), but the grim reality that pervades many of his songs is absent. Although there’s no real story here, the Boss keeps it freewheeling and upbeat as he describes the cityscape with a barrage of allusions (Joan Fontaine) and quirky rhymes, with Mary Lou telling the Daily News, “Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope.” The music is pared down, the song is over before it hardly begins, and it can’t be slowed down. I’ve never heard of Bruce playing this song live, but if so I’d pay a fortune to see him perform this two-minute romp in a blazing sixty seconds of stream-of-consciousness rock.

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