Early Springsteen is such a different beast from later Springsteen. Almost unrecognizable when compared with the (largely) by-numbers stuff he’s been putting out this past decade. Yet, even though the breathlessness of his first couple of records may come off a tad too Dylan/Morrison derivative at times, the energy and melodrama are all vintage Bruce. Nebraska notwithstanding, I prefer his first three records, hands down, to the rest of his catalog, with E Street Shuffle on par with Born To Run as his best. This is pre-muscles Bruce, pre-BRUUUCE Bruce for that matter – he’s just this slinky street-rat hipster with a silly hat, backed by a bunch of ‘New Jersey cats’ in leisure suits. If you only grew up with the former (like me), it’s a bit of a leap to accept him as the latter. But without that period, his legendary reputation simply doesn’t make sense.

If you’ve ever been to a Springsteen show, you know that it’s self-consciously designed to be a worship experience, with the man himself in the role of Pentecostal revivalist. He courts it all happily, launching into faux-preacher speak constantly and talking endlessly about “the gospel of rock n roll.” He’s aiming at something transcendent, something to lift people out of their daily grind and help them forget their troubles for a while, and 50,000 people singing the same chorus usually does the job nicely. His anthems may have been used in the service of self-aggrandizement – ahem, Reagan, ahem – but most of the lyrics celebrate redemption that’s found outside a person, either in the form of romantic love or escape from circumstances or even a renewed perspective on one’s lot. That said, they can also get pretty blustery and over-earnest. (For kids reared on ironic detachment, Springsteen definitely represents a bit of a leap). But when his fun side and his epic side meet, the results can be very exciting.

Of his early rave-ups “Rosalita” is the one that apes gospel music most successfully, with its multiple key changes, call-and-response vocals, extended dramatic passages and revival-like tempo shifts. “Blinded By The Light” and “Spirits In The Night” probably take second and third place in this regard. But all the seeds of the Springsteen gospel are there in “Rosalita” (Rosalita’s parents representing the Law obviously), and nowhere is this more evident than in his 1975 performance at the Hammersmith Odeon in London. Enjoy:

While we’re at it, from the same concert, the Mbird-friendly titled “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In The City” off Springsteen’s overlooked and terrific debut record, Greetings From Asbury Park. High time for that one to be reissued, btw: