Last Wednesday was the 66th birthday of a personal favorite of mine, Bruce Springsteen. I could go on and on about why I think he's so great, knowing I'd get a lot of heads nodding in agreement and just as many eyes sarcastically rolling - I understand how split people are about Bruce. It seems like everyone has an opinion, usually strongly held, that he is either a genius or a hack. I am obviously in the first camp.
But enough of that - I thought what I'd do today instead is select what I feel are some of the most underrated songs in the Bruce catalog.
My only rule was to limit myself to songs that have officially been released under his name - this eliminates the hundreds of hours of bootleg recordings out there. I've tried to list them in the order they were recorded, but that gets tough when I include things from Tracks and The Promise, which were released much later than the songs on them were recorded. Also, you might wonder about my criteria for determining what's underrated and what's not; I wonder about that, too. I guess these are just great songs that for one reason or another aren't held in as high regard by the general populous as I think they should be (note: the key words here are "general populous." In other words, not Bruce fanatics. Every Bruce fanatic in the world holds "Incident on 57th Street" in high regard - it only makes my "underrated" list because it's not as familiar to Joe Q. Public as "Born in the U.S.A." or "Badlands," or "The Rising." It's in this regard that I consider the song "underrated.") Anyway, without further ado, here goes:
I've created a Spotify playlist of my selections if you want to listen along as you read; just copy and paste this URL into a window on your browser:
"Incident on 57th Street," from The Wild, the Innocent, and the E-Street Shuffle (1973)
Springsteen found his distinctive voice on this, the fifth track on his second album. It's the best example in his early works of his ability to break down the distance between the performance and the listener. As he tells the story of Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane, it sounds like he's crawled out of your speakers and is in the room with you. It's an intimacy that's rarely experienced, and it's one of Springsteen's greatest gifts.
Live versions close with an emotional and gorgeous guitar solo that reaches into your chest and rips out your heart.
"Restless Nights," from Tracks, recorded in 1977
An outtake from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions, "Restless Nights" is the best portrayal of insomnia ever. The music, dominated by an other-worldly organ riff from Danny Federeci, haunting harmony vocals from Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt, and Springsteen's jittery, strung-out electric guitar is so atmospheric as to be hypnotic. The lyrics feature "whispering trees" and "dark rivers" and work perfectly with the music.
Now I pray darling for the night
we'll dance down these darkened halls
once again to fall
into a dream
"Loose Ends," from Tracks, recorded in 1977
Another Darkness on the Edge of Town outtake, "Loose Ends" features Springsteen's incredible ear as a songwriter. His ability to encapsulate all the rules of different genres into his own unique vision is what sets Springsteen apart from other songwriters. This is where the frequent comparisons to Bob Dylan fall flat and are mistaken - Springsteen was never the poet or innovator that Dylan is. What Springsteen can do so remarkably well as both songwriter and performer is move seamlessly between genres and styles.
It helps to have the great E-Street Band as the instrument through which Springsteen's gifts are expressed. "Loose Ends" may be the band's finest moment, creating a Phil Spector-ish "wall of sound" featuring one of Clarence Clemons' finest sax solos, drummer Max Weinberg's perfect fills, the amazing blend of Roy Bittan's piano virtuosity, and Danny Federici's instinctive organ playing and Springsteen's voice as he sings:
Our love has fallen around us like we said it never could
we saw it happen to all the others but to us it never would
how can something so bad come from something that was so good,
I don't know ...
"Streets of Fire," from Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978
It's easy to criticize "Streets of Fire" for being overwrought and unsubtle, and it's true; in his vocals on this one Bruce does over-emote. But that doesn't change the fact that the song is lean and mean in its description of a guy who's found himself alone in a strange and dangerous place, "strung out on a wire across streets of fire":
I live now only with strangers
I talk to only strangers
I walk with angels that have no place
Springsteen's magnificent guitar solo is one of his best as the song conjures up a world of darkness and menace.
"Talk to Me," from The Promise, recorded in 1978
Bruce plus horns equals magic. "Talk to Me" is another example of Springsteen's mastery of genre, a combination of Tin Pan Alley, wall of sound, frat rock, and blue-eyed soul. It opens with a simple little guitar and drum riff, the guitar is soon joined by piano, and then the horns kick in, and that moment is pure perfection. The hooks in the melody and the tightness of the rhythm section bring to mind the Memphis Stax Records sounds of Wilson Pickett or Otis Redding or Sam and Dave.
"Drive All Night" and "Wreck on the Highway," from The River, 1980
Most of the many critics who dismiss Springsteen are reacting to the broad reach of his anthems, like "Born to Run," "Badlands," and "Born in the U.S.A." Taken out of the context of Springsteen's catalog, they find them to be jingoistic and bombastic exercises in promoting a false mythology. Only when considered within the context of his larger body of work, when the anthems are placed side to side with intimate ballads and poignant stories, does the astonishing range of Springsteen's vision become evident.
"Drive All Night" and "Wreck on the Highway" close out the album The River. "Drive All Night" is an amazing love song, simultaneously epic and intimate, dark and romantic. Springsteen's vocal is pure and heartfelt and gut wrenching, and Clemons' sax solo is possibly his best (right up there with "Jungleland").
"Wreck on the Highway" closes out the album, and takes place in the same dark and rainy night that the singer of "Drive All Night" is trying to drive through. The narrator of the song is telling us about a crash he comes upon while driving on a cold and rainy night. He tries to get help for the "young man lying by the side of the road" even though he knows it's too late for help.
An ambulance finally came and took him to Riverside
I watched as they drove him away
and I thought of a girlfriend or a young wife
and a State Trooper knocking in the middle of the night
to say "your baby died in a wreck on the highway."
Time goes on, and the narrator is still haunted by the images. The song concludes with:
Sometimes I sit up in the darkness
and I watch my baby as she sleeps
then I climb back in bed and I hold her tight
I just lie there awake in the middle of the night
thinking about the wreck on the highway.
Then a couple of drum beats are heard, and the song comes to an abrupt end, only to start again, with just the rainy dark sounds of acoustic guitar and piano fading into the void.
"Used Cars," from Nebraska, 1982
Springsteen has famously written some of his most powerful songs about his relationship with his father, and how his failures and neurosis dominated Springsteen's childhood and shaped how he views the world as an adult. "Used Cars" is a short memoir about his childhood, and the endless parade of cheap used cars his dad would bring home. The song is about the pain and humiliation his father's failures caused:
Now the neighbors come from near and far
as we pull up in our brand new used car
I wish he'd just hit the gas and let out a cry
and tell them all they can kiss our asses goodbye
The song ends with some poignant imagery, and a measure of compassion for his father:
My dad he sweats the same job from morning to morn
me, I walk home on the same dirty streets where I was born
up the block I can hear my little sister in the front seat,
just a-blowing that horn
the sounds echoin' all down Michigan Avenue.
"Valentine's Day," from Tunnel of Love, 1987
This is my all-time favorite love song, even though in the end the narrator's still alone, and it's unclear whether he'll ever reunite with the object of his love.
The song begins with a guy driving alone in a "big, lazy car" at night on a "spooky old highway." He's scared and nervous, with "one hand steady on the wheel and one hand trembling " over his heart, which is "pounding like it's gonna bust right on through." He doesn't know what's driven him out there, other than "tonight I miss my baby, tonight I miss my home." It's clear that he's been apart from both for some time.
Then he reveals what really has him so frightened:
They say if you die in your dreams
you really die in your bed
but honey last night I dreamed my eyes rolled
straight back in head
and God's light came shining on through
I woke up in the darkness scared and breathing
and born anew
After dreaming of his own death, he wakes with images of death fresh in his consciousness. Terrified, it's only memories of love that can still the nightmarish images of dying alone:
It wasn't the cold river bottom I felt rushing over me
it wasn't he bitterness of a dream that didn't come true
it wasn't the wind in the grey fields I felt rushing through my arms
no, no, baby,
baby, it was you
The themes of love, death and loneliness continue in the closing verse, where the key word is "lonely."
So hold me close
honey, say you're forever mine
and tell me you'll be my lonely Valentine
Whether the epiphany experienced by the dream is enough to resolve the differences that split the couple apart is left unresolved. This is testimony to Springsteen's artistic integrity; he prefers to leave the central question the song asks unanswered, rather than tie things up in a nice little bundle.
"Brothers Under the Bridge," from Tracks, recorded 1993(?)
Since the '70s, Springsteen has been a quiet and consistent advocate for Vietnam veterans. Vietnam and its impact on the psyche of the country has been a central theme not only in Springsteen's art but in his life as well, as he lost two close friends, including the drummer in his first band. The disproportionate cost of the war that was paid by the working class has informed the lens through which he views the world.
"Brothers Under the Bridge" is a great example of the cinematic quality of Springsteen's story songs. It is obviously influenced by the work of the novelist Bobby Ann Mason. The song tells the story of a Vietnam veteran who's withdrawn to living with his "brothers" in the "dry brush" of the California hills, and the daughter who's been searching for him.
I come home in
You were just a beautiful light
in your mama's dark eyes of blue
I stood down on the tarmac
I was just a kid
me and the brothers under the bridge
Come Veteran's Day
sat in the stands in my dress blues
I held your mother's hand
when they passed with the red, white and blue
One minute you're right there,
then something slips ...
The music fades and the song ends, again, unresolved, the only explanation that"something slips," and it's another example where saying nothing says everything.
"My Beautiful Reward," from Lucky Town, 1992
One of Springsteen's most poetic songs, about a man searching for, and finally finding, peace. It closes with one of my favorite verses:
Tonight I can feel
the cold wind at my back
I'm flying high over grey fields
my feathers long and black
Down along the river's silent edge I soar
searching for my beautiful reward.
"Highway 29," from The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995
Another of Springsteen's mini movies, this is, simply put, a GREAT song. The scenes we're given and the detailed visuals are amazingly vivid. The story, about a shoe salesman and the higher class woman who have a fling that goes terribly wrong, is complex and suspenseful.
The bank robbery the guy commits is described in images that are incredibly lean and vivid:
It was a small town bank
it was a mess
well, I had a gun
you know the rest
Money on the floorboards
shirt was covered in blood and she was crying
her and me we headed south
down Highway 29
They hit the road, the woman now a hostage, when sudden realization hits the narrator:
The winter sun
shot through the black trees
I told myself it was all something in her
but as we drove I knew it was something in me
Something that'd been coming
for a long, long time
and something that was here with me now
on Highway 29
The song ends with this vivid but enigmatic verse:
The road was filled with broken glass
she wasn't saying nothing
it was just a dream
the wind come silent through the windshield
all I could see was snow and sky and pines
I closed my eyes and I was running
yeah, I was running, then I was flying
"Nothing Man," from The Rising, 2002
The Rising is an album inspired by 9/11 that chronicles the time immediately after, when the trauma was still fresh in our psyche. Songs like the title track "Empty Sky" and "You're Missing" deal with the loss and vulnerability that was felt. "Nothing Man" is often overlooked, and I can't understand why. To me, it's the best song on the album, and one of the best ten or so songs Springsteen's ever released.
"Nothing Man" is told from the point of view of a first responder who is having difficulty dealing with the trauma and guilt he feels. The song begins in the surrealistic days after with the narrator reading about himself and his "brave young life" in his hometown paper. Then he explains, in deceptively simple terms, how profoundly his world has changed in ways that others can't see:
everybody acts the same
everybody acts like nothing's changed
the club meets at Al's Barbecue
the sky is still
the same unbelievable blue
It's that last line, about the "unbelievable" sky, that really resonates. I remember watching the twin towers fall against a perfect blue and cloudless sky, and I remember looking up at the sky here in my Wisconsin home, and it was just as blue and cloudless. I remember that for the rest of the month of September it seemed as if the sky remained unchanged, blue and perfect and devoid of airplanes.
For the narrator of the song, however, everything has changed, and the blue sky only reminds him of the horror he witnessed. Haunted by the images of what he saw and riddled with survivor's guilt, he's coming undone:
You can call me Joe
buy me a drink and shake my hand
You want courage
I'll show you courage you can understand
the pearl and silver
resting on my night table
it's just me, Lord,
I pray that I'm able
Darling, with this kiss
say you'll understand
I am the nothing man
The courage he is praying for is the ability to take the gun on his night table and end his own life. It's heartbreaking, especially when the lyrics are juxtaposed against a lovely melody, and the "doo--doo doo--doos" Springsteen sings in closing the song are pure and haunting.
"All the Way Home," from Devils and Dust, 2005
"All the Way Home" is a simple but effective little rocker that asks the question can romance and innocence survive heartbreak and cynicism? It's about a middle-aged guy trying to pick up a middle-aged woman at a bar, and hoping against all odds to recapture some small scrap of the innocence time has taken from them both.
Now you got no reason to trust me
my confidence is a little rusty
but if you don't feel like being alone
baby, I could walk you all the way home
In the last verse, "closing time" is referring to more than the bar closing. The singer is realizing that time is running out, and there might not be many more opportunities. There's a hint of desperation in his words:
Now it's coming on closing time
bartender, he's ringing last call
these days I don't stand on pride
I ain't afraid to take a fall
so if you're seeing what you like
maybe your first choice he's gone
well, that's all right
baby, I could walk you all the way home
But in that desperation, in the longing for something long lost, there's dignity and heroism. It's the refusal to let past circumstances and future likelihoods destroy his longing. It's hope when all seems hopeless. This is another of Springsteen's recurring themes - the ability of good and simple people to hold on to their humanity against oppressive and corrosive forces of time and fate.
"Gypsy Biker," from Magic, 2007
Springsteen has been incredibly prolific in the 21st century, releasing no fewer than seven albums. My favorite of these is the 2007 release Magic, which I think compares favorably to his best albums from the seventies and eighties. Songs like "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" and "Long Walk Home" are instant Bruce classics. Right up there with them is "Gypsy Biker," a guitar and harmonica blues rocker about the tragic death of a solider in either Iraq or Afghanistan (he does't specify which) and the cost of war to friends and family back home.
After getting word of the death, the motorcycle club the soldier belonged to has their own private ceremony in which they ritualistically say goodbye:
We rode into the foothills
Bobby brought the gasoline
we stood around in a circle
as she lit up the ravine
The spring hot desert wind
rushed down on us all the way back home
The song ends with a description of the effect the death has on those who were close to him:
To the dead it don't matter much
about who's wrong or right
you asked me that question
I didn't get it right
You slipped into your darkness
now all that remains
is my love for you, brother
lying sill and unchanged
To them that threw you away
you ain't nothing but gone
my gypsy biker's coming home
Now I'm out counting white lines
counting white lines and getting stoned
my gypsy biker's coming home
Springsteen has written several songs detailing the difficulties vets have after returning home ("Born in the U.S.A," and "Shut Out the Light" as examples), but "Gyspy Biker" is the first to focus on the survivors of those who don't make it back.
"Hunter of Invisible Game," from High Hopes, 2014
An amazing little gem of a song that manages to be charming and haunting while at the same time describing a post-apocalyptic, dystopian future, Springsteen can't betray his own ultimate faith in the human spirit:
There's a kingdom of love waiting to be reclaimed
I am the hunter of invisible game
"The Wall," from High Hopes, 2014
Springsteen's reaction to Robert McNamara's (Lyndon Johnson's Secretary of Defense during the Vietnam War) apology for his part in perpetuating the disastrous quagmire the war became. To put it bluntly, Bruce didn't appreciate it very much. What he created in reaction is a lovely and heartbreaking short prayer that takes place in Washington D.C., contrasting the halls of power with the names of those lost on the Vietnam War Memorial, "the Wall."
On the ground dog tags and wreaths of flowers
and ribbons as red as the blood
red as the blood you spilled
in the central highlands mud
Now limousines rush down Pennsylvania Avenue
rustling the leaves as they fall
and apology and forgiveness got no place here at all
here at the wall
Well, you've made it this far; I'd love to hear what you think. What did I miss? What did I get right or wrong?
And here's to Bruce: Happy birthday and best wishes for many more. As he once said, we'll "need a good companion for this part of the ride."