So, I’m beginning with a cheat for number ten. The truth is, it’s impossible for me to separate these two songs, either thematically or emotionally and so equal tenth spot goes to…
And circus boy dances like a monkey on barbed wire
And the barker romances with a junkie, she’s got a flat tire,
And now the elephants dance real funky and the band plays like a jungle fire
Circus town’s on the live wire
Mary Queen of Arkansas, your white skin is deceivin’
You wake and wait to lie in bait and you almost got me believin’
But on your bed Mary I can see the shadow of a noose
I don’t understand how you can hold me so tight and love me so damn loose
From The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and Greetings from Asbury Park NJ, these intertwined tracks from some fever-dreamed alternative Asbury Park are works of poetic genius (how’s that for an overcooked sentence?). This is Bruce the wordsmith at the height of his powers. Channeling Dylan via Joyce, these lyrics take you on a journey you’re only partly prepared for but leave you at the end wide-eyed and mesmerized.
My tires were slashed and I almost crashed but the Lord had mercy
My machine she’s a dud, I’m stuck in the mud somewhere in the swamps of Jersey
Hold on tight, stay up all night ’cause Rosie I’m comin’ on strong
By the time we meet the morning light I will hold you in my arms
This was always going to make the cut. One of the wildest rides you can take on E Street, this song is passion, autobiography, and most of all, unrelenting fun. More than most, Rosalita is a window into what a Springsteen concert is all about.
Sandy the fireworks are hailin’ over Little Eden tonight
Forcin’ a light into all those stoned-out faces left stranded on this Fourth of July
Down in town the circuit’s full with switchblade lovers so fast so shiny so sharp
And the wizards play down on Pinball Way on the boardwalk way past dark
Another one of the great poetic, autobiographical songs that helped put Asbury on the international map. Summer in Asbury Park is magical, even today, but the magic in this song is of the truly mythic variety. Listen to its wistful, wishful guitar, swirling organ, and melancholy accordion and just try to resist the pull towards the boardwalk and “them pleasure machines…”
and Bronx’s best apostle stands with his hand on his own hardware
Everything stops, you hear five, quick shots, the cops come up for air
And now the whiz-bang gang from uptown, they’re shootin’ up the street
And that cat from the Bronx starts lettin’ loose
but he gets blown right off his feet
I came very close to making this equal seventh with Hard to be a Saint in the City, but I suspect that would have been pushing my luck. This track is EPIC! Even cotton balled within that painfully subdued production which almost derailed the first two albums (it’s a testament to the power of Springsteen’s writing that the material rises above the constraints of the recordings); a tale of outlandish grandiosity, writ large and bloody on the outlaw streets of New York. This live interpretation is my personal favourite but, let’s be honest, this song cannot be anything but great.
I’ve done my best to live the right way
I get up every morning and go to work each day
But your eyes go blind and your blood runs cold
Sometimes I feel so weak I just want to explode
Explode and tear this whole town apart
Take a knife and cut this pain from my heart
Find somebody itching for something to start
OK, now things are getting seriously serious. This track off Darkness is, like virtually all of its album-mates, so nuanced, so prescient that it is impossible to listen to it without bias. The emotions are dialed up to ten and Springsteen never gave more of himself than he did right here. Quite simply, this is rock ‘n’ roll perfection from one of the albums (the other being Born to Run) that Richard “Jim” Steinman shamelessly plundered to give Meatloaf his entire musical career.
Outside the street’s on fire in a real death waltz
Between flesh and what’s fantasy and the poets down here
Don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be
And in the quick of the night, they reach for their moment
And try to make an honest stand but they wind up wounded, not even dead
Tonight in Jungleland
This is considered by many to be Springsteen’s greatest song of all time. I love it mightily but it is only my fifth favourite. It has so many wonderful elements and puts Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody to utter shame in the rock-epic stakes. The story it weaves is probably the ultimate pinnacle of Springsteen’s Jersey/NY mythos arc. After this, he moved on to a very different vision. The reaction of the crowds any time it’s played, however, shows the place it has in the hearts and souls of Springsteen’s ‘Tramps’.
But now there’s wrinkles around 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 all right”
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 being born
Let me make this very clear up front, I do not give a toss about cars, drag racing, engines, or testosterone. That said, this song about cars, drag racing, engines, and testosterone is one of the all-time Springsteen classics. Why is this? Because Springsteen is a poet and he can take a subject you have absolutely no interest in whatsoever and make you weep over it. That’s talent. There are two versions of this song, the second is quite different to the first both lyrically and arrangement-wise. Both, however, are excellent.
Now those memories come back to haunt me
they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse
that sends me down to the river
I was going to make Atlantic City number three and then I realised I’d left out the first Springsteen song I ever loved. This is one of the perfect folk narrative songs ever written. Springsteen drew from the experiences of his own sister to create one of the most moving and genuinely universal ballads of all time. I literally get chills each and every time I hear the opening harmonica wail.
You can hide ‘neath your covers
And study your pain
Make crosses from your lovers
Throw roses in the rain
Waste your summer praying in vain
For a saviour to rise from these streets
Well now I’m no hero
All the redemption I can offer, girl
Is beneath this dirty hood
It took a superhuman effort of will to not make this track number one. There is so much here to love. In many ways, this song was the template for a great many other Springsteen classics. Girl next door meets desperate rev-head in Everytown USA. This song is irrepressible and near unassailable. Just listen to the Boss duet with Melissa Etheridge if you doubt what I’m saying. Thunder Road would probably be Springsteen’s greatest achievement were it not for my number one.
One soft infested summer me and Terry became friends
Trying in vain to breathe the fire we was born in
Catching rides to the outskirts tying faith between our teeth
Sleeping in that old abandoned beach house getting wasted in the heat
And hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets
With a love so hard and filled with defeat
Running for our lives at night on them backstreets
Slow dancing in the dark on the beach at Stockton’s Wing
Where desperate lovers park we sat with the last of the Duke Street Kings
Huddled in our cars waiting for the bells that ring
In the deep heart of the night to set us loose from everything
to go running on the backstreets, running on the backstreets
We swore we’d live forever on the backstreets we take it together
Endless juke joints and Valentino drag / where dancers scraped the tears
Up off the street dressed down in rags / running into the darkness
Some hurt bad some really dying / at night sometimes it seemed
You could hear the whole damn city crying / blame it on the lies that killed us /
Blame it on the truth that ran us down / you can blame it all on me Terry
It don’t matter to me now / when the breakdown hit at midnight
There was nothing left to say / but I hated him / and I hated you when you went away
Laying here in the dark you’re like an angel on my chest
Just another tramp of hearts crying tears of faithlessness
Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see
Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be
And after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest
Stranded in the park and forced to confess
To hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets
We swore forever friends on the backstreets until the end
Hiding on the backstreets, hiding on the backstreets
I’m not going to try and defend this choice. I’m sure some of you will be appalled; I don’t care. For sheer emotional impact, this track cannot be surpassed. I have blogged about what this song means to me before, here and here and most of what I have to say about it is already expressed in those posts. This is the one Springsteen song I absolutely cannot imagine never hearing again; simply superb.
Similar tracks: Pretty much the entire Darkness on the Edge of Town album.
Songs that should have made the cut: Atlantic City, Badlands, Stolen Car, Point Blank, The Loose End, E Street Shuffle, Used Cars, Into the Fire, Open all Night, Highway Patrolman, and The Ghost of Tom Joad.
OK, that’s it.
Nooooooooo, you scream. Nothing off Nebraska, Born in the USA? No Tom Joad?! I wish I’d opted for my top forty instead of twenty, but I set myself this challenge and I tried to be as honest about my choices as I could. These are my favourites, they squeeze in past others by a bare whisker but they are the ones closest to my heart.
I hope you enjoyed our little jaunt. I’ll be doing more pieces like this in the near future.
Update: Over at The Music Enthusiast, Jim has posted his own Springsteen top 20. It is, of course, excellent and as one would expect, quite different to mine.