It’s hard to believe I’m nearing two hundred posts and I haven’t done this yet. Springsteen is such an integral part of this blog and yet I have somehow failed to do ‘The List’. We’ll, that is about to be rectified. It’s not easy to reduce a forty year career down to a handful of songs, there are just so many choice cuts. However, I do have some particular favourites that I consider essential. So, here for your delectation, are my personal twenty solid gold Boss tracks.
Cigarettes and a bottle of beer this poem that I wrote for you
This black stone and these hard tears are all I got left now of you
This track is quintessential Springsteen, as understated as it is powerful (actually, it is powerful because of its understatement) it is his tribute to the fallen of the Vietnam conflict. It is also a moving account of what it is to be a survivor and to have to live with the awareness that some of your friends did not survive. There’s bitterness and weight of years here, but also quiet dignity. Springsteen drew upon his personal experience of losing someone:
“It was inspired by my memories of Walter Cichon. Walter was one of the great early Jersey Shore rockers, who along with his brother Ray (one of my early guitar mentors) led the ‘Motifs.’ The Motifs were a local rock band who were always a head above everybody else. Raw, sexy and rebellious, they were the heroes you aspired to be. But these were heroes you could touch, speak to, and go to with your musical inquiries. Cool, but always accessible, they were an inspiration to me, and many young working musicians in 1960’s central New Jersey.”
The road is dark
and it’s a thin, thin line
But I want you to know I’ll walk it for you any time
This ode to pragmatic love has a power and majesty that belies its subject matter. Basically, a pickup line put to music, there is a kind of grace in the overall package. Apparently, it was while performing this song together on stage night after night that the Boss and now wife Patti Scialfa fell for each other. Watch the video, it’s plain to see. That energy right there on the screen killed Springsteen’s first marriage.
Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night
With bruised arms and broken rhythm in a beat-up old Buick
But dressed just like dynamite
Early Springsteen, in love with Dylan and Van Morison, was someone I didn’t come across until really quite recently. The first two albums are wonderful in their almost byzantine layers of sonic and lyrical complexity. This is one of the less complex tracks off the Wild and the Innocent, a simple tale of a Westside Story type romance between Spanish Johnny and his Puerto Rican love, Jane. It all ends tragically but takes a wondrous route to get there. Ah, those romantic young boys….
Well Papa go to bed now it’s getting late
Nothing we can say can change anything now
Because there’s just different people coming down here now
and they see things in different ways
And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away
This, more than any other track, chronicles the fractured relationship between the teenage Bruce and his blue collar father Doug. It’s all here, the inability to communicate in a meaningful way, the barely suppressed resentments, the sheer domesticity of their years-long feud over Bruce’s direction and future.
I visited the house in Freehold where all this took place to get a better feel for the personal history represented in these lyrics. I stood outside the modest house and felt the resonance of too many frustrations and crushed hopes. I marveled at the determination that catapulted the young Springsteen out of this dreamless place and onto the global stage. I marveled also at the fact that having escaped into that wider world, he chose to come back with his own family. Springsteen literally lives twenty minutes drive from his old house.
I hear the guitars ringin’ out again
Ringin’ on down Union Street
I hear the lead singer shoutin’ out girl
I wanna be a slave to the beat
Elvis Costello is on record as stating his early song Radio soul (later Radio Radio) was “as shameless a knock off of a Bruce Springsteen song as you could ever have the misfortune to hear.” I found that an interesting statement since I honestly can’t hear Springsteen in the track. I can, however, hear Costello in this fantastic little gem which, until the Tracks compilation, had remained unreleased.
Here is the Springsteen I personally love the most, the unashamed rock n roll fan. This song is one of the rejects from The River and Springsteen has said several times that he was listening intensely to the emerging new wave coming out of the UK at that time. This was his enthusiasm for the likes of Costello spilling over into the studio. I doubt he ever considered using the cut on the album, he was just blowing off a little fan-boy steam and perhaps charging his batteries before getting to work on one of Rock’s great albums.
The fact remains, though, it is a killer cut.
From Chicago to New Orleans
From the muscle to the bone
From the shotgun shack to the Superdome
There ain’t no help, the cavalry stayed home
It’s no secret that social conscience and shared community are a large part of the Springsteen ethos. No song better illustrates that than this one. Written as a reaction to the government’s appalling response to the plight of New Orleans after Katrina, the anger, bitterness, and despair are present in every line. He uses the same ironic device here that he first attempted in Born in the USA but far more successfully. Here his intent is not at all ambiguous (actually, I don’t think it was then either but it still went over a lot of people’s heads so…). Springsteen really lets them have it with both barrels in We take care of our own. His disgust at the treatment of Veterans also comes through loudly.
Now you check over your shoulder everywhere that you go (oh yeah)
Walkin’ down the street, there’s eyes in every shadow (oh yeah)
You better take a look around you (come on down)
That equipment you got’s so outdated
You can’t compete with Murder Incorporated
This track is in many ways the exact opposite of the last. Where We Take Care of Our Own was deeply political, Murder is pure and unapologetic fun (which isn’t to say it doesn’t include an element of social commentary – it certainly does). Sounding like a synopsis for a speculative gangster movie script, Murder is a foot stomping room shaking anthem delivered as only Bruce and the E Street Band can. His vocal on this one is particularly balls out. Great stuff.
Now everyone dreams of a love lasting and true
But you and I know what this world can do
So let’s make our steps clear that the other may see
And I’ll wait for you
If I should fall behind
Wait for me
There are several recorded versions of this song and I love them all. My favourite, though, is the live version where almost the entire band sings in parts. You can find this version on Live in New York and I’ve linked to the video here. Probably one of the most romantic songs Bruce ever wrote. Both Jersey girl and I absolutely love it.
Had a coat of fine leather and snakeskin boots
But that coat always had a tread hangin’ loose
Well I pulled it one night and to my surprise
It led me right past your house and on over the rise
I’m going down to Lucky Town
Off the same album (it’s the title track) as If I should fall behind, this cut fascinates me. Recorded without the E Street band, this song sounds remarkably like a Joe Grushecky song, and I mean exactly like. Springsteen produced a couple of Joe’s albums and it’s almost as if Bruce became so immersed in The sound they’d created that he couldn’t let it go. I think it’s significant that he disbanded E Street at this time. It’s almost as if he knew they were unsuited to the new sound he had in his head*. I could be reading too much into it but take a listen to American Babylon and see if you don’t find it remarkably similar to Lucky Town.
Strength is vanity and time is illusion
I feel you breathin’, the rest is confusion
Your skin touches mine, what else to explain
I am the hunter of invisible game
This one was a real surprise for me. A beautiful ballad set in a Cormac McCarthy style post-apocalyptic America. The simple beauty of the melody is so at odds with the subject matter that, at first, you don’t fully grasp what is going on in the lyrics. The main theme seems to be the acceptance of that which cannot be changed. The protagonist appears to have made his peace with the broken world he finds himself inhabiting. The almost seductive arrangement manages to emphasize this. I find it a strangely comforting song and Springsteen’s quiet vocal treatment is superb.
That’s the lesser half taken care of. In the next part, I’ll give you the absolute all time favourites; the tracks I simply cannot live without.
*Actually, having compared release dates, it would seem American Babylon is Grushecky’s Lucky Town rather than the other way around. Grushecky’s earlier albums all sound like this too, though, so who knows?