It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City is one of the songs that Bruce Springsteen brought to the May 1972 audition in front of the famous CBS talent scout, John Hammond, and then entered in the first album, Greetings Form Asbury Park, N.J.. It was just It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City that impressed Hammond, who believed he had discovered the new Bob Dylan, a decade after discovering Dylan himself. That recording, just acoustic guitar and vocals, will appear on Tracks (1998), while a full band version ended up on the disc, played by the embryonic E Street Band (along with Springsteen, David Sancious, Garry Tallent and Vini Lopez play). It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City is a milestone in the early Springsteen discography. At the time, many referred to this song in indicating Bruce as a rising star in the panorama of American popular music.
THE SUBURBAN EPIC
With It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City Springsteen inaugurated the vein of the (sub)urban epic to which Kitty’s Back, Incident On 57th Street, New York City Serenade and, lastly, Jungleland also belong. In the early 70s Springsteen began to frequent New York because he managed to get his first engagements in the legendary clubs of the metropolis (the Cafe Wha and other clubs in Greenwich Village and lower Manhattan). He was also busy with auditions and early recording sessions. Then Springsteen, who traveled mainly by public transport, began to write down everything he observed and developed an impressive “visual writing”. Thus were born some songs by Greetings Form Asbury Park, N.J., including It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City. Differently from the other songs quoted here above, the narration is in first person: Bruce identifies himself with one of his first splendid slum characters: “the prince of the paupers, crowned downtown at the beggar’s bash”.
SPRINGSTEEN’S FILMS IN MUSIC
Springsteen excels, among other things, for his descriptive ability. His lyrics capture images and return them in words and music. It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City is full of these moving sequences. A sort of short movie, in which the protagonist tries to assume a dominant role in the world of the outcasts: a sort of first of the last with two alternative destinies, to succumb or remain anonymous. A boy who, despite the hardships of a city district, experienced a golden moment, in which he was “the king of the alley” to whom respect and admiration were due. He sees himself as a Marlon Brando or a Casanova, of which he was probably never even a draft. After all, he has nothing to lose. When luck turns away, all that remains for him is to return to the surface and try to survive. The scene in which the protagonist tries to get out of the subway, being pushed back under by the crowd and risking asphyxiation, is so real that it seems to live it. Even the musical arrangement helps to feel the tension of the moment.
JESUS AND THE DEVIL
The title of the song, It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City, already suggests something: how is it possible to stay righteous if you come from the slums and want to emerge? How not to fall into the temptation of easy money and the lure of an underworld that can get you out of the sewers? Springsteen describes the thin line between good and evil through the Devil’s attempt to masquerade as Jesus, hidden in the vapor rising from the underworld. It seems to see that moment: in the darkness of an alley and in the gloomy fumes of the submerged city, a man appears from the darkness in the Jesus’ shape but, in reality, he is the Devil himself. Here is the border between good and evil, often blurred and deceptive.
A BLUES-ROCK FROM THE UNDERWORLD
Although it does not differ from the predominantly acoustic sound of the rest of the album, It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City has a stronger blues-rock timbre that will emerge in all its power in the live versions of the following years. There are only four elements involved and each of them does an amazing job. Mad Dog Lopez on drums reminds us of jazz with very fast bass drum/snare plays and light touches on the cymbals. Garry Tallent proves himself a great bass player. Springsteen spins on acoustic guitar strings like an expert bluesman. David Sancious confirms to be a talented keyboardist, perhaps the most eclectic in the history of the E Street Band. If the whole song is noteworthy, the ending is striking and perfectly in line with the meaning of the song. While the volume fades, the rhythm accelerates, the piano draws a mysterious theme and the guitar enters to generate tension. In the following years the rousing live versions will arrive. In them Max Weinberg, who took over from Vini Lopez, will show all his skill and power (it is not for nothing that they began to call him Mighty Max). For their part, Springsteen and Steve Van Zandt will inaugurate a guitar duel that will set fire to the American stages in the fiery instrumental finale.
“NOT A COMMON MUSICIAN”
After listening to It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City, David Bowie declared his admiration for the young Springsteen, saying that “this song can’t be written by a common musician“. Later the White Duke decided to record a cover of the song in his Station To Station sessions (1975). This version will not be released then, but then revived in 1989, when it was included in the Bowie anthology, entitled Sound + Vision.
Read also: Spirit In The Night, Growin’ Up
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