My Springsteen top twenty part 2

Image: Danny Clinch

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…

  1. Wild Billy’s Circus Story / Mary Queen of Arkansas

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.

Similar tracks: Santa Ana, The Angel

  1. Rosalita (come out tonight)

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.

Similar tracks: E Street Shuffle, Spirit in the night

Carousel House and Heating plant, Asbury Park (Image is my own).
  1. 4th of July Asbury Park (Sandy)

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…”

Similar tracks: Kitty’s Back, Growin’ up

  1. Lost in the Flood

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.

Similar tracks: It’s hard to be a Saint in the City, New York City Serenade

  1. Promised land

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.

Similar tracks: Streets of Fire, Adam Raised a Cain, Badlands

  1. Jungleland

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’.

 Similar tracks: New York City Serenade, Meeting across the river, Incident on 57th Street.

  1. Racing in the Streets

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.

Similar tracks: Darkness on the edge of town, Something in the night


  1. The River

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.

Similar tracks: Stolen car, I’m on fire

  1. Thunder Road

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
That’s understood
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.

Similar tracks: Born to run, She’s the one

  1. Backstreets

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.


20 thoughts on “My Springsteen top twenty part 2

  1. What a top 20 list my friend! I can’t say I can argue with any of these. As my one friend says “Bruce has forgotten so many great songs that would be #1’s for other artists” and that’s so true. One of my favorites, that would make a list like this is “Real World,” the acoustic version. But your list is your list and I highly respect that. That said…Backstreets is my all-time, desert island, #1 song by Bruce or anyone else for that matter. In fact, it’s the song that made me become a Springsteen fan. I was pretty ambivalent about him before I moved to New Jersey. Then, back on August 1, 1999, I saw him at Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, NJ, and he opened with Backstreets, a rarity unto itself. That song, in that place, led me down E Street for good. (full setlist from that night: It’s special if I see an ESB show and they do Backstreets. I want to do a photographic interpretation of that song at some point. Oh, and Rosalita…if you’re in a NJ bar, in the summer, and the deep part of the night is upon you, the house band or DJ will surely fire up Rosalita and the whole place will be jumping. Great list!!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I really like Real World too. It did get a mention somewhere in there. I’m glad you agree with my Backstreets choice, that song will always be number one for me.
      We were in a Pub in Lavallette (the Crab’s claw) when I was last in NJ, and the band played She’s the One. That was a terrific buzz for me. Roslita would have definitely had me up dancing. Thanks for the great feedback.


  2. Well, one can hardly argue with your list overall. These are pretty much all time-honored classics both on the radio and in concert for sure. In the way that Backstreets will always be number one for you, Rosalita will always be number one for me. Not only, IMHO, his greatest song, also my choice for sixth greatest rock song of all time. (Although that said, there could be a six-way tie). Yeah, I know it’s not serious or heavy or meaningful or about his relationship with his father. But it’s such a rush and it’s so great to (badly) sing along to.

    BTW, when you said Backstreets I’m pretty sure you actually meant Badlands. Please feel free to correct.


    And of course, you have now forced me to come up with my own Top Twenty List. I don’t mind doing that and in fact, much preferable to, my list of chores.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Working on it. I’ll probably do a fuller post about it on my site, referencing yours as an inspiration. And then if you’d like, I’ll summarize the 20 as a reply on your site if that’s ok.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. A quick glance will tell you that these are mostly all relatively early in Bruce’s catalog. It’s not that I don’t like the newer stuff. It’s just that if I have to narrow it to twenty, this is it. I won’t bore you with my take on each one but rather will save that for a post on my own blog (and bore you there). 😀

    1. Rosalita
    2. New York City Serenade
    3. Tenth Avenue Freeze Out
    4. Badlands
    5. Point Blank
    6. Spirit in the Night
    7. Jungleland
    8. Atlantic City
    9. Kitty’s Back
    10. Born to Run

    11. One Step Up
    12. The Fever
    13. Incident on 57th Street
    14. Detroit Medley
    15. Backstreets
    16. I’m on Fire
    17. Thunder Road
    18. Sandy
    19. If I Should Fall Behind
    20. Streets of Philadelphia

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Nothing boring about this subject; not to me. I think all of these belong in a top twenty – my only quibble would be Detroit medley as it’s made up of covers – that aside, it’s a strong and very worthy list. I look forward to hearing your takes on each.


      1. Yes, agreed totally about Detroit Medley and I struggled with its inclusion. And even though Bruce didn’t write it, he totally made it his own and so I didn’t want to lose sight of it. I have a few honorable mentions and were push come to shove – if the judges ruled ‘no covers,’ I’d probably swap in either Fire or Because the Night.


      2. He certainly did make those songs his own. Just talking about the early stuff reminds me all over again what a phenomenal talent this one guy and his incredible band of buddies have.
        And Because the night is just superb. I prefer what Patti did with it, but what a song.


  4. I was just re-reading both your excellent posts on Backstreets. And so what exactly is going on here do you think? Is it that Terry is a buddy and he’s expressing his hatred for Terry (because he ran off with his girl, if that’s even it) and his father? I’m not expecting that you know the full story. But I’m wondering how you piece it together. I’m intrigued. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. OK, for what it’s worth, here’s what I think.
      This is a string of deep, personal emotions that he tied a loose story around (I think there’s a lot of metaphor here). It’s such an emotional song you can kind of sense that the story is almost secondary.
      I think it’s about being abandoned and that feeling that it happened because somehow you deserved it. It’s tied up with friendships, his father, and probably his relationships with women such as they’d been up to that point.
      Terry is an archetype (probably male) in this particular song. I don’t think much of it is tied to an actual physical event but rather to a bunch of strong emotions he was feeling – defining emotions.
      He’s trying to make sense of his life. Why am I so angry? Why can’t I connect to people? And he’s putting all that into a dream like myth. This is opera, an opera about his emotional self.
      That’s how I see it. Not so much an anecdote as a very intense therapy session put to music.


      1. Interesting. I’m looking for a narrative, you see it as metaphor. Good take on it. I wonder if Terry’s name is ambiguous to keep us guessing as to whether it’s guy or gal. Anyway, thanks for the insight.


      2. Take for instance the line “Sleeping in that old abandoned beach house”. In Jungian dream symbolism, the ‘house’ is always self and the ocean (beach house by the ocean) is always your emotions. The choice of the word abandoned in this context is interesting.
        I’m not saying that was a conscious association on Springsteen’s part but I think that there’s something to it.


      3. “I wonder if Terry’s name is ambiguous to keep us guessing as to whether it’s guy or gal.” Springsteen does that more often than people realise. He’s really a much more complex writer than he appears on the surface.


      4. Yeah, he’s a deep dude. Sometimes I like it, sometimes he wears the weight of the world on his shoulders. But what’s great about him is you can party like it’s 1999 on his stuff or contemplate relationships. It’s all there.


      5. That’s what I love. It never gets boring to me because there’s just so much variety in there.
        If I was stranded on Mars, I’d be fine for entertainment as long as I had his entire back catalogue with me.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Now that we’ve opened this Pandora’s box, I notice there are myriad discussions online about this song. Maybe you’ve seen this one. What’s interesting is that one commenter is convinced that not only is Terry female but she was Bruce’s girlfriend and is also Crazy Janey, Rosalita, and Sandy!


  5. road is my all time favourite.des,my dead muso fiance, courted me with this song.this part of my life also included racing through the pines near scriverer dam…….before they burnt down x m

    Liked by 1 person

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