A few weeks back, Sweetpea and I got into a conversation about our favorite Bruce Springsteen songs. Bruce is an artist we both like a lot, but it’s funny how profound our differences are about what we like.
On her part, she’s into meaningful lyrics, and so favors songs she can sink her brain into.
On my part, I see two distinct Bruces. I tend to favor Loud, Fun, Rock Party Bruce over Mumbly, Introspective, Navel-gazing Bruce. But when talk went to our Top Tens, I found I had a bit of both in there.
Now, I’m sure my list will rile a lot of life-long Bruce fans. I was never one of those. While I liked Born to Run, once I really listened to it, I didn’t give him much more thought until he took over the world with the Born in the USA album. I saw him on that tour in the Pontiac Silverdome and that performance colored my opinions about a couple songs.
So I’m basing my Top Ten not just on the songs alone, but their significance in my life and memories that they conjure up. I’m not saying these are his critical best, but they’re the ones I like best. Now without further ado, or like Bruce, without an opening act, here are my Top Ten Bruce Springsteen songs.
10) “Dancing in the Dark,” Born in the USA album, 1984. No, it’s not the greatest song in his catalog, but it was catchy, fun, and most importantly, hit the country like a nuclear bomb, raining down the magic of Bruce like so much radiation. This album came out at the onset of MVT and this was his first real music video, where he escapes the watch-cap-wearing mumbler image and debuts the buff, energetic all-American guy image. And to kick off the magic Springsteen touch, the cute girl he pulls out of the crowd to dance with him grows up to become Courteney Cox.
He may have been energetic in concert in years before, but only the people in attendance knew about it. This song and video broke him nation-wide, to the point that people from all generations knew about Bruce. The album went on to spawn seven Billboard #1 singles.
9) “You’re Missing,” and” Into the Fire,” The Rising album, 2002. The Rising was Bruce’s 9/11 album, coming out the summer after the twin towers fell. The last thing I wanted was to hear an album about 9/11, so I avoided it for a while. Then one night, I stumbled over a Springsteen concert on TV, in which he was playing his new songs.
Hearing both of these songs moved me to near tears. From the sad violin of You’re Missing to the haunting imagery of Into the Fire, the spare message of unresolved pain was searing. I got up from the couch, went to the computer and ordered the CD that night. These songs are so powerful, I rarely listen to them anymore, but I’ll never forget them. When I hear Into the Fire, all I can think about is this photo:
“Up the Stairs, into the fire…”
8) “Jungleland,” Born to Run album, 1975. I never even heard this song until well into my college years in the early 80s. I was listening to a lot of Meat Loaf at the time and this 9-minute opus seemed to fit right in, with its drastic tempo-changes and rock opera energy. And I loved how Steven King quoted from it and referenced it in the title of perhaps my favorite book of all time, The Stand.
7) “Born to Run,” Born to Run album, 1975. I loved the desperation of the lyrics, the great release of rock and roll energy, and the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink-ala-Phil Spector production. This was Bruce’s Bat Out of Hell. (Like I said, I was listening to a lot of Meat Loaf.)
6) “Badlands,” Darkness on the Edge of Town album, 1978. I was never drawn to this song until I saw it played in concert. It was this one bit that I loved, in the bridge, where at each break in the lyric, drummer Max Weinberg would nail this huge bass drum strike. Like:
“Talk about a dream [BOOM]
Try to make it real [BOOM]
You wake up in the night [BOOM]
With a fear so real…” [BOOM}
I’ll never know how Max gets such a huge sound out of such a tiny drum kit. Good sound tech guy, I guess.
5) “Downbound Train,” Born in the USA album, 1984. Bruce sings the blues. It’s not as rockin’ as I usually prefer but he does such a great job of making you feel the sadness of the character facing the emptiness of his heart. It was riveting in concert.
4) “Stand on It,” Born in the USA album, B-side single, 1984. This was the B-side of the Glory Days single and in my book, far outshines the A-side. Stand on It is a 50s-inspired rock and roll romp, with a bouncy bass line and killer piano laid down by “the Professor,” Roy Bittan. This song would be a natural for swing dancing. Here, see for yourself…
3) “Trapped,” USA for Africa, 1984. This was Bruce’s contribution to the USA for Africa/We Are the World album. It was a song by reggae star Jimmy Cliff, that Bruce did as a live cut. And live is where it thrives. I love the massive volume changes between the soft verses and the slamming chorus. Backup singer and future wife (at the time), Patti Scialfa cuts through the sonic field like a laser with her background vocals.
2) “Cover Me,” Live 1975-1985 box set, 1986. I always liked the original, from the Born in the USA album, but the live version is far more powerful. When I saw it played live, you didn’t even know what song it was from Patti’s “Nowhere to run to baby/Got nowhere to hide…” intro, not until Bruce came in with an echo-effected, strobe-lit “Cover me…”
In the live version, the guitars howl louder, the bass pounds, and the drums thunder, just the way Bluz likes it!
1) “Further On (Up the Road),” The Rising, 2002. Bruce’s 9/11 revenge song, the one that said, after of all the heartbreak and fear, the tears are dried and now it’s time to go and get some.
“Got on my dead man’s suit, and my smilin’ skull ring
My lucky graveyard boots, and a song to sing
Got a song to sing, to keep me out of the cold.
And I’ll meet you further on up the road.”
This one starts starkly, with only Max’s hi-hat and snare drum beat, and as the song progresses, more instruments get laid on until the sonic field is jam-packed with guitars, mandolins, and huge backing vocals.
Other Bruce “Honorable Mention” moments, (in no meaningful order):
1. Contributor, “We Are the World,” 1985. I think his part redeemed the whole thing, because face it, this song was pretty lightweight and sing-songy. Then when it comes to Bruce’s turn to echo the chorus, he brings that lion’s roar of his to the show and provides a little vocal firepower.
2. Backing vocals and guitar on Warren Zevon’s “Disorder in the House,” 2003. When Warren Zevon was diagnosed with a fatal lung disease, he went directly into the studio and began what would be his last album, “The Wind.” His rock star friends came out in force to contribute whatever was needed to the effort.
Bruce showed up to provide vocal accompaniment on Disorder in the House, and play electric guitar, including three long wild-ass solos. After as he wound up his third one, Zevon looked up at him from the control panel and said with mock amazement, “You ARE him!” You can see for yourself right here:
3. My Ride’s Here, (live) “Enjoy Every Sandwich,” 2004. Following Zevon’s death, an album was released of various artists performing Zevon songs. Bruce and the E Street Band contributed a soft, affectionate version of “My Ride’s Here.” You can hear the love for his friend in his earnest introduction.
Note: The album title was taken from a comment Zevon made to his close friend, David Letterman, who asked how it felt to live with a fatal diagnosis. Warren said something like, “It makes you want to enjoy every sandwich,” meaning, appreciate the little things in life.