Madman drummers bummers and Indians in the summer with a teenage diplomat
In the dumps with the mumps as the adolescent pumps his way into his hat
With a boulder on my shoulder feelin’ kinda older I tripped the merry-go-round
With this very unpleasing sneezing and wheezing the calliope crashed to the ground
When Bruce Springsteen recorded his first album in 1972, Columbia Records President Clive Davis said it contained no hit singles. Springsteen retreated to his bedroom with a rhyming dictionary and emerged with Blinded by the Light (and also Spirit in the Night, a much better song.) Blinded… was Springsteen’s first-ever single, his worst-ever single, and his only song to chart #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Another group scored the hit, in 1977. Manfred Mann’s Earth Band dropped several verses and changed the line “cut loose like a deuce” to “revved up like a deuce,” universally misheard as “wrapped up like a douche.” In 2005, Springsteen wryly noted the song wasn’t a hit until it became about a feminine hygiene product.
Blinded by the Light is kaleidoscopically over-written, clocking in at 528 words and understandably fueling the “next Dylan” hype Springsteen says he hated. (Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, which Blinded… resembles, is just 328 words.) The album version runs 5:04, the single/radio version was trimmed to 3:58. The most interesting thing about the song is the triple internal rhyme in most of the verses; these act as placeholders in the meter (the lines might otherwise be unintelligible.) Springsteen says the lyrics are autobiographical; it’s true in a “Where’s Waldo” kind of way, if you identify “Madman Drummers” as Springsteen’s then-drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, and “Indians in the summer” as his old little league team. The best one can say about the adolescent poetry is that it paints a word picture of Springsteen’s mile-a-minute spaz brain at the time, a persona that electrified audiences and would settle down and create better songs as the decade progressed.
The album Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. was long notorious for its poor audio quality. It was refreshed in 2014, working wonders for many of its songs. Not so much Blinded by the Light. The drums are a mess: they contribute little to the rhythm and have no punch. Vini Lopez adds too many fills, giving the impression he’s trying to mimic the over-the-top lyrics. Things improve on the bridge, which has some driving force. Springsteen played all guitars on the song, and one might wish he’d invited bassist Garry Tallent to the sessions – although none of the playing is exceptional (it feels perfunctory, even in the remastered version), the bass is particularly unimaginative. Clarence Clemons fares best on the track – the saxophone dances around the singer and offers a kind of playful commentary.
A more successful version of Blinded by the Light was recorded by Springsteen’s Sessions Band and released on the Live in Dublin album (2007). The sax is replaced by violin, an even wilder commentary. The percussion drives the song in a klezmer frenzy, and the full horn section and backup singers maintain a disciplined rhythm that highlights the lyrics from a different perspective. Springsteen cuts verses and allows the accompaniment to shine. Best of all, he nails the final couplet, which has never sounded better:
Mama always told me not to look into the sights of the sun
Whoa, but mama that’s where the fun is