In the early Seventies, Bruce Springsteen was just a young guy. One of the first songs he wrote among those that were later released on the first album, Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., was Growin’ Up. In its bare guitar-voice version it was one of the songs that Springsteen presented at the audition on May 2, 1972 in front of the legendary CBS talent scout, John Hammond. Although the lyrics of Growin’ Up are full of metaphors and fanciful images, the inspiration was strongly personal, in reaction to the institutions, especially the schools he attended as a teenager. The escape route wasn’t even far away: Asbury Park, the landing place on the Atlantic Ocean where to pursue his rock dreams, was a few kilometers from Freehold, his hometown. Growin’ Up is so autobiographical that it will be the first of the small number of songs included in the show Springsteen On Broadway (2017/2018), from which Springsteen has extracted a record and even a film.
Growin’ Up is a song of rebellion. Not the political rebellion that the Sixties protest songs had been about, because Springsteen‘s political awareness will only emerge years later. Instead, it is the generational clash that led a maladjusted boy, full of energy and dreams, to collide with the school, the first bulwark among those institutions that wanted to put him down. Springsteen chose to tell the story in first person, but in the past tense, precisely to represent a period of his life, his adolescence, lived in the aspiration of escaping elsewhere. A theme, the escape from places that he felt like cages, which will heavily accompany his music in the following years as well.
BETWEEN FALL-OUT ZONES AND SPACESHIPS
In Growin’ Up Springsteen‘s writing shows the creativity and generosity of words and images that characterize the first two albums. The youthful exuberance, the search for freedom and, inevitably, the rebellion against school impositions are described with the use of metaphors that transform the protagonist into a sort of superhero. First he takes the shape of a gang leader who, wounded, crosses radioactive areas, re-emerging unharmed. Then he becomes an imaginative aviator who destroys his high school by bombarding it with music. Finally he turns himself into an astronaut boy who, after taking a ride among the stars, returns to earth and puts his whole life into the engine of an old car.
THE JUKE-BOX PLANE THAT SHOTS THE BLUES
Springsteen juggles figures of speech with the wisdom of seasoned poets. In the second verse of Growin’ Up the boy sets sail on a pirate ship in the company of a girl who can sing divinely. Then with a jukebox airplane he shoots and devastates his high school. It’s not a real bomb, but it’s a bomb nonetheless: the blues. Springsteen plays by matching the pressed key, the B52, with the name of the famous American bomber plane. That is a strong reference to that shy and introverted boy from Freehold, N.J. who at school parties shook the walls of gyms and auditoriums with his guitar.
THE SALVIFIC VALUE OF MUSIC
It was immediately clear to the young Springsteen how much music restores freedom, especially from the rigid schemes of school teaching. A topic that will stay in his head for a long time. For example, over ten years later, he will write No Surrender and the famous lines “We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school”. However, the parallel between Growin’ Up and No Surrender is not limited to this quote. Just compare the “nice little place among the stars” where the young protagonist of Growin’ Up gets with music to the little place that the young men of No Surrender want to carve out with their drums and their guitars. Finally, to complete the parallel, people against whom the young man rebels by standing up when asked to sit down in Growin’ Up are none other than the fools whom the boys of No Surrender wanted to escape from.
BRUCE AND THE CAR ESCAPE
Growin’ Up is also the first Springsteen song to focus on the automobile as a means of escape. After singing of aiplanes and spaceships, he finds the answer beneath the hood of a car. That pivotal line (“I swear I found the key to the universe in the engine of an old parked car”) is reflected in the later masterpieces of the Born To Run record. In Thunder Road, mostly, that guy tells the girl that “all the redemption I can offer, girl is beneath this dirty hood”. Thus, that old parked car becomes the means to leave the town full of losers. And towards the sun, where he aims to go in Born To Run. Then, however, in Darkness On The Edge Of Town, the album of disillusionment, that car will be transformed for his characters into a means of sustenance or to move aimlessly among so many broken dreams.
FROM THE DYLANIAN ACOUSTIC TO THE LIVE FULL-BAND ELECTRIC
The youthful poetry of rebellion in Growin’ Up is accompanied by a song that is born acoustic, based on a simple arpeggio of just three chords. Compared to the guitar-only version of the CBS audition, Springsteen added the piano scores, which became the dominant instrument, and the rhythmic basis. The eclectic piano solo, played by David Sancious before the last verse, will later be replaced by a beautiful combination of guitar and saxophone in the live rock versions. Over time, in fact, Springsteen added further arrangements and instrumentation, transforming Growin’ Up into a very enthralling rock piece. Furthermore, right at the end of the aforementioned solo, Bruce began to insert live speeches on many occasions, in which he narrated stories and anecdotes from his youth. Among the main topics, the clashes with his father (“there were two things that were unpopular in my house. One was me, the other one was my guitar”) and the total dedication to rock (he said that maybe in the audience there are future lawyers or book authors but “tonight are you both just gonna have to settle for rock ‘n’ roll”). The interludes that Springsteen will introduce during the majestic Born In The USA Tour are also very hilarious. In one of the best known, Bruce himself and Clarence Clemons pretend to get lost in the dark of a wood with their car broken down, but the arrival of two bears with a guitar and a sax will save them. The salvific value of music returns.
David Bowie recorded a version of Growin’ Up in the recording sessions for Diamond Dogs (1974). This recording remained unreleased until 1990, when the White Duke decided to include it as a bonus track on the reissue of the album Pin Ups (1973).
Next review – Monday, 26 June 2023 – Mary Queen Of Arkansas
READ ALSO: REVIEW GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK, N.J.
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