My Top Ten – Bruce Springsteen

I’ve been gearing up for this one!  The Boss.  The Main Man. Bruce’s music has meant so much to me since the late seventies, when the release of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” drew me in and never let go. More than any other artist, his music has provided a soundtrack to my life. Some of my top ten choices reflect that – they aren’t necessarily the absolute classics that everyone recognises, but songs that resonate with me for special reasons. I’ll explain as I go along. So, somehow I’ve left out “Born To Run”, “The River”, “Dancing in The Dark”, amongst others.  Not because they aren’t absolutely brilliant.  No, it’s just that narrowing to ten is very, very brutal…

(I’m changing how you can listen to the tracks now that I can upload from my own iTunes collection. Just click on the track.  It should open in a separate window, so you can continue reading while listening, should you wish.)

10. The Promised Land from Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

A song that is at once joyous, defiant and angry.  The dogs on main street howl, cause they understand… one of the great Springsteen lines. Ultimately a song about optimism: a ordinary man doing the right thing, hoping, believing that there will be a reward someday. A classic Springsteen theme, and so typical of “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”.  I love it for its upbeat sound and that lyrical defiance. You punch the air as those dogs howl.

9. The Ghost Of Tom Joad from the Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

This is a plaintive song from an album of plaintive, downbeat songs. Bruce at his most contemplative. The resonance of the song comes from a memory: the memory of my time as the father of a young boy, maybe a year old, hurting with the flu, lying asleep on my lap, burning forehead, restless sleep, utterly dependent on my care. “Tom Joad” on the stereo, those whispering emotions, the wrenching harmonica. Right at that moment it was the song of my life. My mission.

8. Highway Patrolman from Nebraska (1992)

Another song with a deep resonance for me. “Nebraska”, the album, was a departure for Springsteen: a suite of mostly acoustic, dark, simple tunes that stripped his music down to its essence.  The anger of the ordinary man was still there.  The battle to make a better life. The sparse sounds brought the sentiments to the fore.  “Highway Patrolman” describes the dilemma of a policeman whose brother, Frankie, is on the wayward side. It’s a song the strikes to the heart in its exposition of family loyalty… man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good. The simplicity of the song makes it easy to play on the guitar: D, G and A. But also incredibly moving, as you repeat those lyrics about the singer and his brother taking turns dancing with Maria, as the band played “Nights of The Johnstown Flood”. I still tingle as I sing it.

7. Born In The U.S.A. [Live] from Live in New York City (2001)

When “Born In The USA” came out, in 1984, I wasn’t that keen on it, though of course I bought it and enjoyed most of the songs. It was the moment – in the UK at least – when the world discovered Bruce, added him to the acceptable music roster.  He’d made the dinner party soundtrack, and I didn’t much like that. Great for him of course: “Dancing In The Dark” was his first big hit single over here. As for “Born In The USA” itself, it was a bombastic tune that was hijacked by Presidents, even though the lyrics were about the sufferings of a Vietnam veteran. But time healed, and when it came to “Born In The USA”, Bruce turned it into an amazing, swampy blues song, full of angst and passion. There are a few versions around, including a great one on the outtakes album, “Tracks”.  But this version here, from “Live In New York City”, is just amazing. The guitars could be Jimmy Page, playing one of his wild blues.  And Bruce just howls.  You know in this version that this is about the dark side of America, but that Bruce is still in love with his country. That’s why he howls.

6. Independence Day from The River (1980)

When “The River” came out in 1980, I was 21 and just leaving university, to embark on the working life in London. In 1981, Bruce played Wembley Arena in London, and to this day I rate it as the best concert I have ever seen. “Independence Day” felt like the song that described the transition in my life.  Not the break from my father, which Bruce sang so movingly about – university had already eased the way. But just the sense of change and the poignancy of the final thrust into adulthood. And such a beautiful tune, so tenderly sung. Topped off with one of Clarence Clemons’ loveliest sax solos.  So say goodbye, it’s Independence Day…. this time.

5. Something In The Night from Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)

“Darkness On The Edge Of Town” is such a powerful album, full of all the anger and frustration that Bruce would have been feeling at the time, with the legal disputes that held up his career for a good three years. As a 19 year old, when I first heard it, the combination of that anger, that frustration, but also that hope and defiance, hit home like an arrow to the heart. “Something In The Night” wasn’t the first song to resonate, but over the years I’ve come to recognise it as one of the most powerful tunes on the album. It builds slowly, edged along by the piano, until Bruce begins to howl.  He does a lot of howling in this song. It’s the pure expression of the rage he must have been feeling at the time. About half way through the song, as he begins, nothing is forgiven and forgotten… things build to an absolute climax and there’s just a big huh! which seems like the moment of pure catharsis. This is the song where Bruce really lets it all hang out.  I’m in awe as he does.

4. New York City Serenade from The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle (1973)

This is a long rambling tune from Bruce’s second, wonderful album. It’s a paean to the small time losers, struggling to make their way in the big city, but full of hope – Bruce’s perennial theme. The main reason I love this tune so much is the extended intro.  The piano that sounds like it could be from “West Side Story”, the Spanish guitars so stirring, a rasping refrain. There’s this sense of sadness, but also majesty. This is a New York City symphony, and I think the prototype for the biggest one of all… to be continued.

3. Thunder Road from Born To Run (1975)

The screen door slams, Mary’s dress waves, like a vision she dances across the floor as the radio plays. Is there a better opening to a song?  Does anything express the essence of pop music better than that? The girl, the radio, the dance, the dress. “Thunder Road” is the the ultimate celebration song on “Born To Run” for me, even more so than the title track. Two people against the world, feeling vulnerable but taking solace from their togetherness. And of course cars and rock’n’roll.  This is classic Bruce after all! “Thunder Road” doesn’t have layers of sound, but it feels like it does.  It is an anthem.  The theme tune of defiance, hope, celebration in the face of adversity. Ending in a sax solo from Clarence that just says, yes oh yes!

2. Racing In The Street from Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)

The song that filtered into my world through a transistor radio in 1978 as I lay in my bed listening to a token pop show on BBC Radio 3, the classical music channel. My entry into the true understanding of Bruce Springsteen’s music. As I lay there in the dark listening to the sentiments of “Racing In The Street”, the darkness, the sadness, but the beauty and the hope, I knew I had discovered a sound that would stay with me forever.  “Racing In The Street” is the centrepoint of “Darkness On The Edge Of Town”, simultaneously its darkest moment and its most uplifting.  Why the latter? Well, the music is just so gorgeous, so singalong, the words so evocative. The girl’s sitting there, on the porch of her daddy’s house. Staring into the night. Cinematic. There’s a ripple of “Then He Kissed Me” through the song, especially the instrumental refrain in the middle. It’s an easy song to parody.  But even more so, an easy song to love from the depths of your heart. I’m rambling. Like the Strokes sang, it’s hard to explain... When it matters so much.

1. Meeting Across The River and Jungleland from Born To Run (1975)

So I’m I cheating a little by having two songs as my number one, but I really do see these two as part of the same New York City symphony, the successor to “New York City Serenade”.  This is the suite that I’ll listen to when I want to celebrate something with a song, or want to listen to something that will give me strength to face an ordeal.  Music that strikes to my soul.  “Meeting Across The River” is a lovely, jazzy prelude. I can see Brooklyn Bridge as I listen.  The small time losers of the song add poignancy and a kind of hope. If they can aspire, can’t we all? And then the magnificent, the awesome, the uncontestable, “Jungleland”.  I don’t know what else to say other than this is the magnificent best of music.  My favourite song in the world. Stirring and celebratory in adversity. Memorable lines… kids flash guitars just like switchblades… and a saxophone symphony from Clarence Clemons, like no other. RIP, the Big Man.

I’ll stop there, as you’ll get my drift. This is the best of the best.

Near Misses

I could start another huge list, but I have to regret finding no room from anything from the first album, “Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ”. “For You” or “Growing Up”. Or anything thing else from the “E Street Shuffle”, like “4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy)”.  otherwise known as “Sandy”!  Anything from “Born To Run” and “Darkness On The Edge Of Town” would be worthy. “The River” has some classics like “Stolen Car” and “Point Blank”, as well as “Hungry Heart”. ‘”Born To Run” has “Downbound Train”, and “Tunnel of Love” the title tune and “Tougher Than The Rest”. As we move into the nineties and beyond, the albums don’t have quite the same visceral attachment, but there are still so many good songs. “The Rising” is a magnificent album, taking its cue from 9/11, and “Magic” has some punching tunes, not least the rather wistful “Girls in Their Summer Clothes”. And the latest album, “Wrecking Ball”, is a wonderful piece, with “Jack Of All Trades” threatening to break in to my top ten. I also nearly put another track from “Live In New York City”, “If I Should Fall Behind” into that top list A lovely sentiment and great the way each band member takes a turn to sing.  Nils Lofgren’s delicate voice especially appeals.

So many great albums and great songs.  My Top Ten errs on the heavy side, emotionally. That’s Bruce’s USP, for me. But I like his rock’n’roll too.  I might just do an alternative top ten of upbeat happy songs. There are plenty!

About John S

I'm blogging about the things I love outside work: music, sport, culture, London, with some photos to illustrate aspects of our wonderful city. And anything else that I happen to think is worth writing about!
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4 Responses to My Top Ten – Bruce Springsteen

  1. dc says:

    you’re right john- bruce is best when he’s down or angry. agree with several of your choices but not born in usa. candy’s room is a goody and of course he gave away some great songs such as fire, because the night and talk to me any one of which would fit the top 10. i’d probably take blinded or growing up from the early days.

  2. John S says:

    All magnificent tunes.

  3. Westside Jonny says:

    Great blog, Johnno. All pretty heartfelt stuff, but, as you say, that’s the way this guy gets to you.

    I was going to agree with DC about Born in the USA until I heard that live version you flagged up. It is indeed astonishing, with barely a trace of the stompy stadium anthem I used to hate. (Though I always loved the fact that Reagan thought it was a song of celebration.)

    Your choices just about mirror mine, and there’s no surprise there. The only difference is that I haven’t followed him as closely as you in recent years. Really ought to rectify that.

    But thanks for a cracking selection, and an equally impressive commentary. Another late-night, Stella-fuelled session, emotional, nostalgic and highly personal! Nice job.

    • John S says:

      Thanks Westside. This was a late finish, but I always have this “started so I’ll finish” mentality when I write these pieces. Hit while the vibe is there. Chardonnay rather than Stella. Now that’s rock’n’roll for ya!

      Do try to check out the “Born In the USA” on “Tracks” too. Again quite different. Pared down, echoey and bluesy. In fact, check out all four CDs of “Tracks”. So many gems.

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