This week Bruce Springsteen turned 65… and I was born in '65. Coincidence? Actually, yes. I don’t know where I was going with that. Anyway, Bruce has been performing for around 50 years, and released his first album 41 years ago. I became a fan about 30 years ago with the release of the Born in the USA album, then quickly bought his entire back catalogue and everything he has recorded since. I was hooked. He has been a large part of the `soundtrack of my life' and has been along for the ride, the good bits and the bad, even though he knew nothing about it.
The problem with putting together a Top 10 of someone so prolific is that it’s hard to narrow down a short list. I struggle to name his best 10 albums… or even the best 10 songs from his third and fourth albums (Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town) let alone all of his songs from his entire career.
When I look at the list of songs I haven’t included, it's every bit as good as this one, maybe better… and I could make five more similar lists. Where is the River? Or My Hometown? Badlands, Promised Land, Land of Hope and Dreams? Or Fire? Or I’m on Fire? Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, not chosen. High Hopes, gone. Briliant Disguise, cut. Tom Joad, missing. Philadelphia, ommitted. Even Hungry Heart. EVEN HUNGRY HEART! Man, I love that song. How could I leave it out? I don’t expect anyone to agree with my list because now I’m not even sure I agree with it.
So, with apologies to all of the songs I DIDN’T include, many of which I think are in the Top 10 for other reasons, I’ve concentrated on ones that have made a lasting impression on me. That still comes to a lot more than 10, so hopefully this does the job.
10 Waitin’ on a Sunny Day
This song snuck in mostly because it’s my daughter’s favourite Springsteen song. I dragged her along to the Springsteen concert last year, and then this year she came along enthusiastically and without prompting. One of life’s great joys is not just seeing your kids discover something you love for themselves, but in getting to rediscover those things through their eyes. Even though I already knew the song and liked it, I’ve fallen in love with it all over again. It’s an up tempo and positive number, all about getting through life’s tough times and making it through to the good bits. When he does this live, he typically grabs a kid from the audience to sing along with him. The results may vary musically but it’s always a crowd favourite.
9 Mary Queen of Arkansas
This song comes from Bruce’s 1973 debut album… Greetings from Asbury Park. It’s often overlooked for more well-known tracks like Blinded by the Light, Growin’ Up, Hard to be a Saint in the City and Spirit in the Night… but it’s a little gem and a hint of some of the themes he would return to many times. The lyrics are open to interpretation. Some suggest the song is about two illegal Mexican immigrants who’ve fallen in love, some suggest it’s about a black slave and his white mistress. In any event, the guy wants the girl to run away with him for a life together and the girl, though she loves him, can’t commit to just him. Even in this very early piece of Bruce song-writing, he provides a glimpse of the poetry his songs would feature, including this lyric: “On your back, Mary, I can see the shadow of a noose… I don’t understand how you can hold me so tight, and love me so damned loose.” It’s raw, and simple, and beautiful. And it's just Bruce, a guitar and a harmonica.
8 Candy’s Room
There’s a touch of unrequited love in this one too, but it’s a hopeful song and not at all sad because this time the central character’s in with a chance. He loves Candy, but EVERYONE loves Candy. Guys are always ringing her and buying her things, and that’s how she likes it. But when he is alone with her, he knows it’s something special, something the other guys can’t compete with. This song features the driving drumbeat of the mighty Max Weinberg throughout and a sensational guitar solo by Bruce himself. He may be surrounded by incredible guitarists like Stevie Van Zandt, Nils Logfren and more recently Tom Morello (formerly of Rage Against the Machine), but when you listen to this solo, you realise he’s earned the title of “The Boss.”
One of Bruce’s most epic stories. It could be a movie. It SHOULD be a movie. From the 1975 Born to Run album, it begins with the Magic Rat and the Barefoot Girl who meet randomly and “take a stab at romance”. When Bruce performs the song live and implores us to take our stand, you know the audience is all-in when they yell back their response “Tonight. In. Jungle.Land.” The story drags us into the violent gang-world the Magic Rat inhabits. It mixes in even amounts of dreams, hope and despair, but through it all an unwillingness to surrender to fate. The characters are vivid, the final scenes like a mix of the movies The Warriors and West Side Story. SPOILER ALERT: It doesn’t finish so good for the Magic Rat, but worse still is the fact that his passing is largely unlamented and that the Barefoot Girl mourns him alone. Roy Bittan’s initially delicate and later driving piano, Clarence Clemons’ searing saxophone solo and Bruce’s vocals, at times little more than a whisper, drag you in to a world of people just trying to get through the day. It's one of the best examples of Bruce's story-telling abilities, and one of the all-time great rock epics.
6 Dancing in the Dark
This song was the breakaway hit from the Born in the USA album. One of the catchiest songs Bruce has ever penned or performed, it is often regarded as populist and pop and sometimes judged harshly or dismissed by critics for its very popularity. After the critically acclaimed and acoustically spare Nebraska album of 1982, Bruce’s friend, manager and producer Jon Landau told Bruce he needed a successful album, and to do that he needed a hit song. Landau (the man who once wrote for Rolling Stone magazine “I have seen the future of Rock and Roll, and it is Bruce Springsteen”) told Bruce that even John Lennon and Paul McCartney would joke, when they’d written a song they thought might be a hit, that “that’s a new swimming pool.” Born in the USA was going well, but in Landau’s words, it had nothing that would buy them a new swimming pool.
Writing just to get a hit was anathema to Bruce who become frustrated by the focus on success, and that frustration is evident in the lyrics. “I get up in the evening, and I ain’t got nothing to say, I come home in the morning, I go to bed, feeling the same way”. He was “sick of sitting around here trying to write this book(song)” and couldn’t write a song without a spark of inspiration. In detailing his frustration, ironically, he came up with the most successful hit on the most successful album of his life.
When he heard it, Landau said “I think we have a swimming pool”. It’s also remembered as the video in which a young Courtney Cox is pulled up, supposedly at random, from the audience to dance with Bruce and to this day he still picks girls from the audience to dance with him. Sadly the video clip is also responsible for the dance moves of every guy who was out and about dancing in the 80s. In 1984 I had just left school and moved to Sydney and like every young school leaver was still figuring out what I liked and looking for some sort of identity. I heard this song, bought the album, and the rest is history. And like him, I’m still frustrated sitting around here trying to write this book. But it’s coming. One day.
5 If I should fall behind
I wanted this song at my wedding but my wife didn’t… and you know that whole “it’s the bride’s day” stuff that people say? Well I backed down. It’s now on the shortlist for my funeral but with my luck I won’t get a say what’s played there either. This song has also been covered by artists such as Faith Hill and Linda Ronstadt. It tells the story of how relationships can ebb and flow, and how we can lose track of each other if we're not careful. It's also a vow to always be there for loved ones, and when needed, to wait for them to catch up. The song is from the largely overlooked Lucky Town album that he did in a break from the E Street Band, but this video version features most of the band (at least those members that can sing a bit) joining in with a verse each.
4 Atlantic City
Nebraska. One of the bravest albums of Bruce’s career. His third album, 1975’s Born to Run, showcased his rock and roll bona fides to the world and the fourth album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, which came out three years later, showed that it was no fluke. 1980’s double album The River built on his now solid reputation with hits like Hungry Heart, The River and Cadillac Ranch and then he decided to go off in an entirely different direction. Recorded on a cassette-based portable studio, he had intended the recordings to act as demos for the E Street Band to record but ended up so happy with the results he released them as is. Sparse instrumentation, mostly just Bruce and a guitar, it’s a dark album with some of the despair of his other works but very little of the hope.
This album, and the single Atlantic City, are regarded by many critics as his very best work with its bleak, unrelenting catalog of outsiders and sad stories that reflected the America Bruce found himself in. This song has been covered by many artists but few have captured the haunting feel Bruce has here with his own backing vocals. Despite all of that, for me, Atlantic City does offer some hope. The narrator details the run of bad luck and bad decisions he’s experienced, but suggests that, while “everything dies, maybe everything that dies one day comes back.” He decides to take one last throw of the dice, literally, urging his best girl to “Put [her] makeup on and do her hair up pretty, and meet [him] tonight in Atlantic City,”, the casino mecca of America’s east coast, which also happens to be in the Boss’ home state of New Jersey. It doesn’t sound like it’s going to end well for the pair, but I guess there’s a chance.
3 Born to Run
Many fans list this is Bruce’s greatest rock and roll song, some suggest it is the greatest rock song of all time. In any event it’s a story of a young guy who wants to spread his wings and take his girlfriend away from this town that “rips the bones from your back” and is a “death trap, it’s a suicide rap.” Curiously, depite those descriptions the state of New Jersey actually wanted it as their state song. Only in America! Bruce had intended to give the song to someone else to record but Jon Landau insisted this was “the one”. To this day, Bruce admits to still trying to come up with a song that will make his fans forget Born to Run… not because he hates it but because he doesn’t want to face the idea he peaked 39 years ago. It was his shot at the title, his chance to write the perfect rock song. You be the judge. There are some versions of the song as a pared back acoustic where Bruce ponders about all the people he put on all of those roads and where they eventually ended up. And in this particular video version, it features the introduction that I have made into a poster in my room “Remember…in the end, nobody wins unless everybody wins.” Words to live by.
2 Racing in the Streets
God I love this song. It showcases the poetry of his lyrics, a complexity of emotions and a haunting melody that stays with you long after the music stops. The second Springsteen album I bought was Darkness on the Edge of Town and I played it (and this song in particular) until the cassette was eventually chewed up in the car stereo. Then I bought it again. And then on CD. This particular song has so many layers to it. On one hand it’s an homage to Dancing in the Streets by Martha and the Vandellas, and even features some of the lyrics… “Summer’s here and the time is right,” and “Calling out around the world.” But this song isn’t joyous. It’s a perfect snapshot of a theme he has covered so many times in his work. A life of quiet despair, of things that aren’t quite right, of wondering if things will change or if a person can get through it at all... but still with a hope and it might still be salvageable and determination to see it through.
The narrator races cars in the street (surprisingly) and the early lyrics are full of Beach Boys shut-down bravado. Along the way he picks up a girlfriend, and it’s good for a while, but it’s not a sustainable lifestyle. Holes emerge in the relationship. “There’s wrinkles round my baby’s eyes and she cries herself to sleep at night. When I come home the house is dark she sighs `baby, did you make it alright.” And then some of the saddest lines in a Springsteen song “She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house but all her pretty dreams are torn… she stares off alone into the night with the eyes of one who hates for just bein’ born.” Wow.
The tragedy is that the narrator notices her pain and hates it, but can’t seem to make it better or take things back to how they were. What makes the song is the final lines. Things aren’t great, and he doesn’t know if they’ll be good again, but he’s going to try, goddamit. Defiantly he says “tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea, and wash these sins off our hands.” There’s something there for anyone whose life hasn’t worked out the way they wanted but who refuses to give up. Roy Bittan on piano (who also played on the Meat Loaf albums) sets the tone from the very start, but it’s one of those rare songs where the long musical playout, far from being filler, is crucial to the song with its lingering notes of despair, hope and redemption and is as vital as any of the lyrics.
1 Thunder Road
This song should come with the tagline… “If you only listen to one Springsteen song…” It features familiar themes from Born to Run… young guy, gotta get out of this place, asks his best girl to come with him… but there’s just something special about the tune and the lyrics. It's structurally interesting, with no chorus and lots of musical surprises and changes of direction along the way. The narrator is again the everyman, or at least the Springsteen loner version of one. He tries to woo his girl with lines like “Roy Orbison’s singing for the lonely, hey that’s me and I want you only,” although how he win her over with the line “you’re not a beauty, but hey you’re alright,” is anyone’s guess. Incidentally, I suspect many a Bruce fan has tried that line tongue in cheek while proposing to their intended paramour and it would be interesting to know it's success rate. But I digress. Bruce frequently closes his shows with an acoustic version of this, but whichever version he opts for, one of the best crowd participation moments of any Springsteen concert is when the crowd joins in on “Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night.” Yes there is, Bruce. Yes there is.
And, in closing, comedian and TV host Jon Stewart offers a few words about Bruce Springsteen at the Kennedy Center Honors that summarises the man and his career very well.