In his day Bob Dylan was referred to as the heir to Woody Guthrie. The singer’s early days – simply chorded folk tunes that gave shape to the musical expression of the political fervour of the time – were certainly influenced by the fellow Minnesota native. As the 1960s progressed on into the 1970s, however, Dylan lost that sense of Everyman solidarity in favour of psychedelic word vomit, Nashville love songs, Christian revivalism, and eventually himself. Bruce Springsteen arrived in the middle of this slow transformation bearing more than a bit of Dylan influence on his sleeve; his wordy songs were folk-inflected sketches of regular life in his New Jersey homeland and they reveled in pure language as much as they did in Atlantic seashore touchstones. Unlike Dylan, however, Springsteen never held himself aloof; where Dylan fell into the hype of being THE preeminent poet of the rock ‘n roll generation, Springsteen retained his common touch – his sense of wonder in the ordinary – despite the rapid explosion of his career.
Bruce Springsteen – nicknamed “The Boss” by his bandmates because he was the one who collected the money and distributed the pay – arrived on the scene as one of John Lennon’s Working Class Heroes. His songs were caught up in the struggles of ordinary people and he rarely deviated from this course. He wrote about the American Dream, for sure, studded with muscle cars and aching for the freedom of an open highway, but he also chronicled the collapse of that dream. When the factories began to close down and the good jobs began to flee to places where they could be performed for exploitative levels of pay, Springsteen was there to sing about how hard it was to find work you could support your family on. His characters struggled to make ends meet, got pregnant too early, joined unions, and wrestled with the problems of life as powerless but hopeful people. In an era when rock ‘n’ roll had developed a sense of elitism about itself, he was the antithesis: a working class joe singing about other working class joes with same sort of theatrical flourish that trust-funded hippies used to sing about themselves.
Springsteen, then, could be considered the real heir to Woody Guthrie – at his heart, a folk singer who wears his class and political affiliations on his sleeve and reaches out to everyone in his songcraft. There are a great number of people who don’t really get what the Boss is all about; there are large swaths of the population who think that his biggest hit, “Born In The U.S.A.”, is the same sort of unthinking American jingoist patriotism that Toby Keith is seemingly made out of. The lyrics, of course, prove that to be a lie almost immediately, but it didn’t stop Reagan from trying to appropriate it for a Presidential campaign and it doesn’t stop people from thinking that the man is a flag-wrapped Republican even today. This guide is for those people: the people who need a working class hero, the people who remember the American Dream, and the people who feel that it might be a lie after all.
When I first wrote this guide, eight months ago, I took a trip across the border to buy some crap in Niagara Falls, NY and I stopped at a Days Inn near the border crossing for a quick beer and lunch. The lounge behind the built-in Dennys was this artifact from the early Eighties: the tables and walls were vintage from the late Seventies, and the atmosphere screamed “we just banned smoking indoors yesterday”. There was a pinball machine on one wall, and next to it an aged jukebox, which was playing Born To Run.
I kind of had to at that point.
Greetings From Asbury Park N.J. (1973)
Released January 5th, 1973 on Columbia Records
After kicking around the New Jersey rock circuit for five years, Springsteen was offered a record deal with Columbia. The album was originally recorded quickly and cheaply, so that as much of the major label advance could be pocketed as was possible. The result is a folky, roots-inflected rock ‘n’ roll album with a lyrical and vocal style that is heavily reminiscent of Bob Dylan. Columbia president Clive Davis gave the usual complaint that he “didn’t hear a single”, however, so the band wrote and cut two of the best tracks, “Spirit In The Night” and “Blinded By The Light” last minute. It’s a tribute to the boundless energy and resilience of youth, with a steely-eyed sense of humour and a busy rush of imagery that carves out an image of a time and a place as well as any novel about the Jersey Shore in the early 1970s ever could.
The original never graced the charts once, although Manfred Mann of course took their cover of it to #1 late in 1977.
A slow, aching ballad that unfolds like a dream. “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 loose”
That smooth sax intro is the most startling thing on the album, aside perhaps from the narrator and Crazy Janey makin’ love in the dirt.
The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle (1973)
Released September 11th, 1973
The second album followed the same commercial fortunes as the first: it was critically acclaimed, but sold in middling-at-best quantities. It was quite a bit different from the debut, however: it cuts down a bit on the folk influences, adds in elements of jazz, funk, and R&B, and stretches out in a big way. To say that the album sprawls is a bit of an understatement; several of the songs top seven minutes, and the closing track, “New York City Serenade”, runs just shy of ten minutes. In retrospect, it loses focus here and there, but the the standouts here are some of the best work ever made in the world of rock ‘n’ roll. It was a grand statement, a kiss-off to the Jersey Shore scene he’d been birthed from and a summation by a man who would soon leave to find his own way in the world.
A long tribute to love, freedom, youth, and the boardwalk scenes that he’d grown up in.
Nearly eight minutes of teenage-dramatic switchblade-studded street fight poetry
A swinging number that used to close out the band’s concerts until the mid-1980s.
Born To Run (1975)
Released August 25th, 1975 on Columbia Records
Peaked at #36 UK, #3 US
The juggernaut that really launched his career, Born To Run took forever to record when compared to the first two albums. The studio sessions were reportedly tense and Springsteen was angry that he couldn’t properly translate the sounds he was hearing in his head to what was coming out on tape. In the end, though, they nailed it: there is a wild, free sound prevalent through the album that makes you want to clutch a fist to your chest and fall to your knees. The characters on Born To Run are drunk on possibilities and all too aware of their own failings. Salvation, when it even can be found, lies in the prototypically American freedom of an open road and a fast, muscular car that can take you anywhere in that wide-open land. In the end, though, that freedom of youth and possibility ends in darkness and despair: see the side-closers, “Backstreets” and especially the epic “Jungleland” for further details.
I keep coming back to this song, over and over again. Whenever anything seems overwhelming, or whenever life seems to be heading down a downward spiral, I put “Thunder Road” on. It offers hope, after a fashion: the only salvation that is offered lies beneath this dirty hood, so let’s just get in the car and **drive**. Destination not necessary.
Notable for the sax work of the late Clarence Clemons and for the first appearance of Steve “Little Steven” Van Zandt, who helped arrange the horn section on this track.
“The highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive / Everybodys on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide”
About as theatrical as Springsteen has ever gotten, the closing track on Born To Run is an epic sweep of desperate characters trying to make good one last time and getting cut down for it. “Outside the street’s on fire / in a real death waltz / between what’s 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” was the first encounter I ever had with the Boss, as it’s used for artistic effect as a poem at the beginning of the unabridged version of The Stand.
Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)
Released June 2nd, 1978 on Columbia Records
Peaked at #5 US
This is where the endless dreams of youth ended for Springsteen’s characters. They’re still desperate to grab life and shake it for all it’s worth, but life has already grabbed them and is in the slow, painful process of wearing them down. Idealism and dreams turn to sour betrayal: the hardships of love, the drudgery of the factory life, the terrible things you sometimes have to do to make ends meet. There can be redemption, in the end, but it has to be worked for, and in the end it may not even be worth it. Still, you work it, because in the end there’s nothing else you can do. It was aided by Little Steven’s tight production work, which brought the edge out with a vengeance. Tellingly, while the album sold (and continues to sell) quite well, there weren’t any real hit singles: the buying public of the disco era wanted nothing to do with any song that wasn’t starting a party.
“You spend your life waiting for a moment that just don’t come / Well, don’t waste your time waiting”
The band evokes every bit of tension and longing implicit in the lyrics with just hi-hats and piano for the first 45 seconds.
One of the two epic side-closers on this album, “Racing In The Street” tells the tale of what happens when the fire that runs through the blood sacrifices everything, even love.
“Everybody’s got a secret, Sonny / Something that they just can’t face / Some folks spend their whole lives trying to keep it / they carry it with them every step that they take / ’til some day they just cut it loose / cut it loose or let it drag ’em down / Where no one asks any questions / or looks too long in your face / in the darkness on the edge of town” – My favourite song they do, by a country mile.
The River (1980)
Released October 17th, 1980 on Columbia Records
Peaked at #2 UK, #1 US
The River is a stretched-out double LP that combines two disparate albums: one, a collection of songs that continue the hard-luck, working-class hell stories of Darkness On The Edge Of Town; and two, a collection of songs that feel lighter, poppier, and more like the fun and joy-filled moments that made their contemporary live shows such a sprawling blast. The two combine to make something epic, mature, and capable of salvation; the expert mixture of the light and the dark evokes a more three-dimensional view of the world that Springsteen’s characters inhabit. The world isn’t all fun and games, but neither is it a working-rut drag of bad luck and hard money. The result is a disillusioned yet gentle playfulness that struck a delicate balance amidst a brutal recession on the cusp of the Reagan Eighties.
Originally, the album was supposed to be a single disc (the post-Darkness album) and this was to be its title.
I’ve always thought of this track as the lighter flip-side/precursor to Nebraska‘s “Atlantic City”
The band’s biggest hit to that point in time, it hit #5 on the U.S. singles chart. Not bad for a song that had originally been written by Springsteen for the Ramones.
The most emotionally effective song on the album, by far. “Then I got Mary pregnant and man that was all she wrote / And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat”
Originally recorded for the Darkness sessions, although it comes off as too weary and gentle for that album, in the end. Still, “There’s a darkness in this town that’s got us too”
This song would later go on to inform the writing sessions for Tunnel Of Love; it was also used in Cop Land, if you remember that movie.
Released September 30th, 1982 on Columbia Records
Peaked at #3 UK, #3 US
Nebraska is a haunted album, driven by the ghosts of petty criminals and murderers and sung in a hushed tone. It’s also a rather large anomaly in the band’s career: Springsteen recorded the demos for the album at home on his 4-track, and the band later cut several of the tracks in full arrangement. The decision was reached to use the demos, instead; apparently a full-band recording of the album exists somewhere, but it reportedly pales in comparison to the version that was released. Nebraska is simply Bruce Springsteen and an acoustic guitar, and it is probably the most powerful record he has ever released. It brings a cap to the dark path his writing had been going down ever since the Rat was gunned down in the tunnels uptown in the climax of “Jungleland”; Charles Starkweather rampages through and is exectued at the end of the title track, the no-good relatives of police officers cause problems, criminals are caught and put away for life, and a man shows up at his father’s door only to find that his father had been gone for years. It was the direct opposite of the radio-buster that would come two years later.
The darkest thing the man has ever recorded, following the exploits of mass-murderer Charles Starkweather
Mob trouble on the boardwalks of Atlantic City, and all our protagonist wants is to carve out a life for him and his girl. Too bad he’s got debts that no honest man can pay. This has been covered about a million times.
Sometimes, you just have to cover for family. Nothing feels better than blood on blood.
I don’t get to spend nearly as much time with my father as I’d like, so this one always hits me like a slap in the face.
Somehow, after all the drudgery that gets thrown their way, these characters seem to still have faith and hope. This would be the final remark for the album, and it’s theme would continue on into the next.
Born In The U.S.A. (1984)
Released June 4th, 1984 on Columbia Records
Peaked at #1 UK, #1 US
“Cover Me” (#16 UK, #7 US)
After the dour, dark days of Nebraska, Born In The U.S.A. was a massive, modern rev of the E-Street Band engine. The production took a leap into the Eighties, with massive synths, huge drums, and a larger-than-life approach to Springsteen’s songwriting. In contrast to those earlier albums, the songs here featured characters who had come through the fire and were still willing to keep going, with their verve and humour intact. It exploded in the mainstream radio of the day, shooting off hit singles like a heartland rock ‘n’ roll Thriller. It was designed to appeal to everyone, and it did, becoming a cultural touchstone for the Eighties like no other. It would be the height of their commercial success; the next twenty years would see them fade into the background as Generation X took hold of the mainstream, with Springsteen transforming into a sort of elder statesman of rock.
Reagan didn’t get this song, for whatever reason, and tried to co-opt it, much to the amusement/horror of Springsteen, a staunch Democrat and unionist. On the surface, if you just listen to the chorus, I guess you could mistake it for an ultra-patriotic song. It is, but not for the reasons that people often think. It examines the legacy of Vietnam, and of the veterans who came back to no jobs and no hope. Sadly still relevant today.
Has that good-time vibe like one of the upbeat tracks from The River, but it ends with one of the characters chained to a state trooper’s car.
More hard-luck, world-weary lyricism, like Darkness or Nebraska, but the state-of-the-art studio work made it sound like the most massively exuberant story of being left by your wife ever.
About as intimate a song of desire as you can get with slam-bang Eighties production.
No retreat baby, no surrender. You may remember this one from John Kerry’s 2004 Presidential campaign.
Ah, to be young and in love again. Now I’m just sort of young and in love.
Nothing’s worse than reliving old memories because you don’t have anything new to relive. Great song about the people who peak in high school.
Courtney Cox, come on down!
It will have been twenty years since this song next year and it still holds true.