The predominant tension on Bruce Springsteen’s first album was between the acoustic singer-songwriter John Hammond thought he’d signed and the rock ’n’ roll bandleader Springsteen wanted to be. The album didn’t resolve in either direction; it feels compromised. Growin’ Up is one of the just-finished songs Springsteen performed for Hammond during their first meeting, May 2, 1972. A formal audition was recorded the next day, just Springsteen accompanying himself on acoustic guitar; much later, that version of Growin’ Up was released on the Tracks box set in 1998. It has a kind of coiled energy that makes one realize what Hammond heard in the 22 year-old Bruce.
Lester Bangs wrote about Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. in July 1973, six months after the album was released. In a positive review, he said “[Springsteen] sort of catarrh-mumbles his ditties in a disgruntled mush mouth sorta like Robbie Robertson on Quaaludes with Dylan barfing down the back of his neck.” A great sentence, but it didn’t help sales – Greetings… sold just 25,000 copies the first year.
Growing’ Up was initially recorded on June 7, 1972, Springsteen’s first day in the studio as a Columbia recording artist. That version was solo acoustic, like the May 3 audition. On June 27, Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, Garry Tallent and David Sancious added drums, bass and piano. The piano sketches a repetitive dreamlike pattern, drifting to “once upon a time.” Springsteen has used it as a backdrop for rambling stories over the years, both to introduce the song and in the middle section, before the third verse. The piano and acoustic guitar on the album version have been polished recently, but the bass and drums are still disconnected, like a 60’s folk song dubbed for rock (i.e. Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence.)
The lyrics are charming as nostalgic adolescent fantasy:
The flag of piracy flew from my mast, my sails were set wing to wing
I had a jukebox graduate for first mate, she couldn’t sail but she sure could sing
And I pushed B-52 and bombed ‘em with the blues with my gear set stubborn on standing
I broke all the rules, strafed my old high school, never once gave thought to landing
My favorite official version is from Live 1975/85, recorded in 1978 during the Darkness… tour. Springsteen tells his story mid-song, about a motorcycle accident and his father wanting him to become a lawyer and his mother wanting him to “write books.” As Roy Bittan noodles on the piano, Springsteen declares “Tonight, you’re both just gonna have to settle for rock ’n’ roll” as Roy Bittan hammers the keys, Clarence wails the sax and Max Weinberg kicks the downbeats. In that moment, nothing matters but the transcendent power of music.
I took month-long vacations in the stratosphere and you know it’s really hard to hold your breath
I swear I lost everything I ever loved or feared, I was the cosmic kid in full costume dress
Springsteen has called Blinded by the Light autobiographical, but Growin’ Up is several steps beyond that song, despite being written earlier. It’s about youth and defiance, and the possibility that becoming a rock star might be the answer to everything. Two songs in, and already a classic.