Spirit In The Night is the eighth track of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., Bruce Springsteen‘s debut album (1973). It was one of the last songs to be composed for the record and was included on it for two purposes. On the one hand, in order to have a song with a greater commercial impact to offer to the radio stations. On the other hand, in order to favor, with his soul and blues sounds, the entry of Clarence Clemons into the first nucleus of the E Street Band. Spirit In The Night failed in its attempt to distribute a greater number of copies of the album, whose sales results were disappointing. But it was fundamental because, together with Blinded By The Light, it moved the sound of the record from Dylan-inspired folk-rock towards the dawn of that soul rock that would become the Asbury Sound. Spirit In The Night also had a remarkable live performance and was used by Springsteen at various times to make his audience dance.
WELCOME TO GREASY LAKE
Spirit In The Night tells a nocturnal raid of a company of friends in the countryside of New Jersey on the occasion of the birthday of a member of the company. It could be the narrator’s or the one of the only female component of the group, Crazy Janey, the girl with whom the narrator himself establishes a promiscuous relationship of friendship and sex. Everything happens along the shores of Greasy Lake, a place of pure fantasy, considering that the lakes formed by the many rivers of the Garden State are often marshy (in Rosalita Springsteen speaks of “swamps of Jersey”). Yet, in Springsteen‘s imagination and in the fantasies of his fans, even Greasy Lake has become legendary also for a certain aura of mystery. In fact, it is inhabited by gypsy angels who roam like spirits in the night. Then, if you want to reach it, you have to travel along the darker side of the Route 88.
SPIRITS AND ANGELS
Spirit In The Night finds its natural parallel in Rosalita (Come Out Tonight), composed in the same period but included in the second album, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. As in Rosalita, here too there is a group of friends with weird and imaginative names. In the company of the glittery lake we find Crazy Janey, Wild Billy, an unspecified G-Man, Killer Joe and Hazy Davey. Also in Rosalita the narrator flirts with a girl. The fundamental difference between the two texts is that while in Rosalita the story is aimed at the conquest of the woman and the dreams of the protagonist in the musical field, here the plot takes the form of the night itself, between mudball battles, night baths and sex outdoors. Meanwhile, the gypsy angels watch over the company, more like guardian angels than evil spirits.
YOUNG SPRINGSTEEN’S WOMEN
It is interesting to compare some female characters that came out of Springsteen‘s pen in his first compositions. While Kitty, Diamond Jackie and Puertorican Jane are girls from the suburbs of New York, looking for a future between clean life and the underworld, Rosalita, Crazy Janey and the girl from For You live in the province where Bruce himself comes from. The last of them makes history in itself, lost in its weaknesses and indecisions. Rosalita is a Hispanic girl struggling to free herself from her parents’ strict control. Janey, on the other hand, is the most emancipated and transgressive. We find her in the alleys making deals with a mysterious mission man. Then she takes the initiative with the protagonist: she puts his fingers in the cake (metaphorically: she puts his hands on his prey) and then kisses him passionately. Finally she makes love to him in the mud. A singular and fascinating figure in the dense community of Springsteen characters.
BLUES BLENDS WITH ROCK AND SOUL
Spirit In The Night is a rock song, in which rhythm & blues accents meet soul sounds. Over a rhythmic base characterized by breaks and backbeats, conducted by Vini Lopez and by Springsteen himself in a surprising role of bass player, the structure of the song is based on a remarkable piano score, performed by guest musician Harold Wheeler. In fact, Springsteen, thinking he had already finished the recordings of Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., had already dismissed his musicians, but the request from CBS to record two more songs that could represent potential hits forced him to schedule new recording sessions, attended only by Lopez, Wheeler and a saxophonist who for the first time entered a recording room with Bruce: his name was Clarence Clemons. The sax comes powerfully in the song sound. In the total absence of guitars, it is Clemons who accompanies the harmony with continuous riffs during the verses and choruses and then releases his inspiration in a solo, the very first of a long series along Springsteen‘s discography. The chants do not go unnoticed. During the choruses they perform a “chat and response” that rock and soul had borrowed from the gospel, then Springsteen devised a sort of “counter-solo” on the sax, performed by the backing vocals of Bruce himself, Clemons and Lopez. A finesse that, unfortunately, over time Springsteen abandoned in live performances, in search of a more powerful sound.
A STATISTICAL CURIOSITY
The extraordinary live performance of Spirit In The Night live is also testified by the statistics of its live performances. In fact, the song appears in the twentieth place among the most played songs by Springsteen in his concerts. A presence that was condensed for the most part in the tours up to 1978, but which then was not lacking, even if with less frequent frequency, in many other tours. The live success of the song is not only due to its rhythmic pull, the excellent instrumental performance of the E Street Band and the engaging lyrics, but also to the sketch that Springsteen conceived in the first tours, descending into the audience during the last verse, followed by Clarence Clemons. At this juncture he sang the follies of the company of friends along the shores of Greasy Lake and especially emphasized the moment in which the narrator had sex with Crazy Janey in the mud.
READ ALSO: BLINDED BY THE LIGHT, GROWIN’UP
Next review – IT’S HARD TO BE A SAINT IN THE CITY – 14 August 2023
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