Song of the Week: “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” – Bruce Springsteen
Jul 2013 04

Whenever there’s an excuse to celebrate something, I like to get in on the fun, so this Independence Day we’ll dig into a song about the Fourth of July by that great voice of the American everyman, Bruce Springsteen.

“4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” (Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band)
From the album Live/1975-85, released 1986
Words and music by Bruce Springsteen

This terrific song first appeared on the Boss’s second album, 1973’s The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.  The version we’ll listen to this week is from the concert retrospective set Live /1975-85.  The classic E Street Band lineup had solidified by this point (the performance in question hails from December of 1980), and the band brings the summer carnival atmosphere to life in a fuller, more muscular way than the original studio version.  Even the first twenty seconds of the tune, before the vocals enter, rely on the band to set the scene of hazy days and muggy nights of teenage wonder on the Jersey shore.

The late Danny Federici’s swirling accordion brings to mind a carousel the way the pump organ does on the Beatles’ “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”  Just that sound conjures sweat and the taste the hot dogs and cotton candy (or whatever you eat at the beach).  And listen to how Garry Tallent’s bass goes from chugging on the root of the chords to climbing into a melodic yet understated upper register line, implying the sort of ascension from the mundane encapsulated by the whole song (and much of Springsteen’s catalogue).

But then, everyone hush!  The Boss is here to tell everyone a story.  And you know it, because the rhythm section drops out, and it’s just that accordion ringing out, so you really hear the lyrics.  It’s early Bruce at his finest; like I said, we’re elevating the everyday to the exotic.  “Little Eden” really sounds like the Garden when sung with Bruce’s reverence, and “shirts open like Latin lovers along the shore” sure gives you a new perspective on what a lesser writer might call “a bunch of douchebags running around with no shirts trying to pick up chicks.”)  Bruce makes you LOVE these guys.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: at 42 seconds, the piano entrance takes us from the pure ethereality of the accordion into the kind of dreamy street ballad that Springsteen became known for following Born to Run.  The tempo locks in, and we’re moving, walking — but gently.  We’re still appreciating the “switchblade lovers, so fast, so shiny and sharp.”  It bears repeating: the man, even early on, could write a damn lyric.  You can feel him guiding you along the beach to each spot he describes.

And listen to that voice!  Not just here, but throughout the song, as Bruce rides the dynamics up and down.  Springsteen’s singing is a make-or-break for a lot of listeners.  Sure, it’s not a thing of beauty, but much like Springsteen’s idol Bob Dylan, the passionate delivery helps bring the story to life.  You really believe it, which is one of Bruce’s most valuable assets as a performer.  One could argue that the occasional vagueness of his pitches helps make the song feel more “common,” more “of the people,” to make less ostentatious the meticulous craft behind its construction.

And I do mean meticulous: listen, for example, after 1:12, when the bass and cymbals come in, readying you for a full return to backbeat for the chorus.  When it comes at 1:23, there’s the expected build and push — but notice how the tempo pulls back just a little bit.  Though the drum kit puts the kick back into the song, the subtle change of speed follows the lyrics and takes us from the forward-moving sense of exploration and discovery into a place where we’re reveling in the moment.  We are with our would-be lover, present in the hot, thick summer air and noticing “the aurora … rising behind us” . . . “a carnival life forever.”  It’s the butting together of a seemingly endless moment of joy with the crushing realization that “I may never see you again.”

This is brilliant: you get a clear, visceral sense of the fleetingness of not only a summer romance, but the bigger picture of those teenage summers pre-adulthood.  A personal moment in the midst of observing the world around the narrator.  However, though it is a more intimate scene, the chorus also taps into a more universal emotion than a listener gets from the location-specific painting of boardwalk life in the verses.  Clever, clever.

And Bruce really drives it home by letting the resolution of the chorus work like the intro: wordless.  There’s nothing to say after that moment of intense emotion, so just let the music take over.  Appreciate the sound of summer.  Steve Van Zandt’s tremolo guitar lines are an added feature at this point, throwing a bit of ’60s surf music into the mix.

And then we’re back into the verses, with drums this time, and our friends are “getting busted for trying to sleep on the beach all night.”  There are really too many great lyrics to talk about — and all so evocative.  My personal favorite: “the cops finally busted Madame Marie for telling fortunes better than they do” (4:57).  Especially since that seemingly off-beat anecdote lets us transition to the chorus through the much more personal “this boardwalk life for me is through / maybe you oughtta quit this scene too.”

Throughout the song, pianist Roy Bittan, proves himself a master the piano as a lead instrument in guitar-centered music.  At 3:32, dig his Latin-tinged triplet figure over the second chorus. His flourishes only get more striking as the song goes on (5:40; there’s a good one).  He knows how to take harmonically simple music without a great deal of chord changes and continue to not only vary it, but build it.  Surely he’s one of the most iconic elements of the classic Springsteen sound.

I should mention before we finish: one thing that is very hard to pick out, but you can hear on other live versions, is Clarence Clemons’s baritone sax chugging along with the rhythm section, coloring the sound, giving it warmth and muscle.  I’d hate to write about Springsteen without giving the Big Man a shoutout.

In David Remick’s 2012 profile of Springsteen for the New Yorker, Springsteen said, “I’m a theatrical performer. I’m whispering in your ear, and you’re dreaming my dreams, and then I’m getting a feeling for yours. I’ve been doing that for forty years.”

You really get that here: he’s talking to Sandy, and you buy it.  But the listener, the audience, really becomes the stand-in for Sandy here, and you also buy that.  And maybe, just maybe, a few of us relive some moments during the song where we were that narrator.  I’d buy that.

The final chorus ends with a laugh at the fact that the narrator is cavorting with “my old boss’s daughter … well, he ain’t my boss no more, Sandy!”  I love the implication of that romantic, rock ‘n’ roll idea of attaining the unattainable in the face of disapproving authority, of having the longings of your youth sated.  Not bad for a muggy 4th of July.  In New Jersey.

Enjoy the music, enjoy your holiday, and enjoy any freedoms that you feel particularly grateful for today (and every day).  Peace and love!

Leave a Comment