The death last month of Clarence Clemons, the iconic sax player of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, has affected me even more than I appreciated at the time. To sit down and listen intensely to Springsteen records wasn’t that much of a change from what I usually do – I usually play some Springsteen record on my Ipod every other day, anway – but still, it felt different now. Like I tried to articulate in my obituary, Clemons in many ways personified the energy and attitude of Bruce Springsteen’s entire act, and letting myself get immersed in those classic records to an even greater extent than usual, I was suddenly struck by a sense of loss that extended beyond that of losing an iconic sax player. It felt like I was bidding audieu to the very idea that Springsteen could ever again strive for the greatness that he captured with the E Street Band.
I was probably overstating the consequences a little, but o come to terms not only with this vague sense of impending loss, but also to take stock of what it is I love about Bruce’s music, I decided to repeat an exercise that worked well for me when I tried to assess my Hanson fandom; so I created a list of my favorite Springsteen songs. His output is not only vast but also remarkably consistently good, so for a moment I considered doing something like a Top 50 list, but I soon decided that would take some of the point out of the exercise. A Top 25 list would pose more a challenge, for at least two reasons. One, if I had fifty places to fill, I would to some extent be able to get around what’s actually most fun about making these lists; the killing of darlings (This is where I stop for a moment to mourn the absence of Rosalita, Incident On 57th Street, Atlantic City, Independence Day, The Promise, When You’re Alone, etc, etc. Second, a shorter list would change focus from the ranking of songs in competition with each other, and toward what songs were include and not. To make it onto a Top 25 is an act of canonization in itself, regardless of whether Land of Hope and Dreams is objectively a better song than The River. I’m not endorsing a relativist strategy in music criticism, but since I love both songs very much, I find an either/or discussion relatively pointless.
One of the questions that inevitably came up when I tried to assess which Springsteen I was so afraid of losing, was the fundamental what kind of a Springsteen fan am I? I made an attempt to answer it in my Clarence Clemons obituary, and my answer back then was that, like so many others, I particularly liked the Springsteen of 1975 to 1984, spanning the muscular E Street arena rock sound of Born To Run, The River and Born In The USA, as well as the less bombastic Darkness On The Edge Of Town and Nebraska. This still holds true. Songs like She’s The One, Out In The Street or Born In The USA, to name just a few, contains the essence of the Springsteen/E Street experience; effective storytelling combined with a hard-hitting beat that threatens to go on forever out of sheer force and confidence.
Putting together a list of songs like this was hard in itself, because to me, Bruce has always fundamentally been an album artist. Luckily, he has largely steered clear of the ham-handed concept album so popular with some of his contemporaries (although a record like Nebraska has a clear sense of place and style, as has later albums like Devils & Dust and The Ghost of Tom Joad), but over the course of my relationship with him, I’ve come to appreciate the songs in the order that they had on the albums, and my experience of them is not easily separable from that of the entire album. Nowhere is this sense stronger than on Born To Run, not just my favorite Springsteen album, but possibly my favorite album of all time. I mean, Thunder Road leads into Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out, which leads into Night, which leads Backstreets, which leads into Born To Run, which…you get my drift. That album, as an original construct, is in my bloodstream. Unsurprisingly, it dominates the list, however painful it was to evaluate these songs against one another. I know some critics consider Born To Run more of a harbinger of great things to come than a great record in itself; a little to invested in the romantic mythologization of an all-American folk hero to be taken completely seriously as a deeply personal work of art. I agree, up to a point, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. Sure, his voice as a storyteller is more well-rounded on songs like Factory, from Darkness On The Edge Of Town (my runner-up for best Bruce album), or the titular track off The River, but don’t ask me to discount the raw energy and simple yet affecting storytelling of BtR classics like Jungleland or Backstreet. I won’t do it.
The nature of songs vs. albums also means that there might not be a perfect correlation between my favorite albums and how well-represented they are on a list of my favorite songs. Although I enjoy them both very much, neither Born In The USA (1984) nor The Ghost Of Tom Joad (1995) are among my favorite albums, but both are represented with several songs on the Top 25 list (Bobby Jean, My Hometown, Tom Joad, Youngstown. In the case of Tom Joad this goes to illustrate that while I am deeply attached to the albums, I also respect Bruce tremendously as a performer. Based on the album versions alone, Youngstown and The Ghost Of Tom Joad wouldn’t have made the cut, but the more muscular live versions of these songs, helped by the presence of the ever reliable E Street Band, pushed them into new and interesting territory. At the other end of the scale, 1987’s Tunnel Of Love has become a contender for my top five of Springsteen albums, but that owes more to the totality of the album than a string of individual songs. Sure, I could named Valentine’s Day, When You’re Alone or One Step Up, but in the end, only Walk Like A Man and Tougher Than The Rest made it onto the list.
The examples of Tom Joad and Youngstown illustrate two other points about my relationship with the Springsteen catalogue. One, although I generally consider 1975-1984 to be his best years, I’m not interested in any rigid split between core Springsteen and everything else. Second, while my sentimental connection with a particular song may have to do with the album version, that version isn’t always my favorite. Even for a classic like Thunder Road, whose album version helped making me a Springsteen fan in the first place, today I actually prefer the stripped-down version that was released on Hammersmith Odeon ’75 live album. And although this lists skews heavily toward the classic E Street sound, I didn’t mean to suggest that Bruce isn’t also capable of making truly haunting ballads and bare-bones solo material. You’re Missing, a hidden treasure on 2002’s The Rising, remains the single most moving manifestation of the post-9/11 experience, and songs like Drive All Night and If I Should Fall Behind highlight how unflashy Bruce can be if he wants to.
If his massive success in the 1980s did in any way damage him, it has to be if some people still believe that his only mode is the energetic arena rocker of Dancing In The Dark. I hope that the list below, though fundamentally compiled based on my personal preference, could also serve as a quick introduction to the many facets of Bruce. When it’s a little light on the classics, it’s not because I don’t like them, nor is it because I strive to be contrarian. Rather, many of the classics have been played so many times that they simply don’t feel as fresh to me anymore. For the classics that made the cut, like The River and Thunder Road, it’s a testament to their quality that they made it despite having been everywhere, all the time, since the minute I started to listen to music.
Without further ado, the list:
- My Hometown
- Thunder Road
- Land of Hope and Dreams
- Walk Like A Man
- Jersey Girl
- Tougher Than The Rest
- The River
- Darkness On The Edge Of Town
- The Ghost of Tom Joad
- 4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)
- Where The Bands Are
- She’s The One
- Drive All Night
- You’re Missing
- Two Hearts
- Bobby Jean
- Out In The Street
- Prove It All Night
- My Love Will Not Let You Down
- Lost In The Flood
- If I Should Fall Behind
I feel bad that I hardly recognize any of these titles! Guess I’ve just never gotten into Bruce the way everyone else has even though I see his talent :)
we can’t all like the same things, can we? One of the many reasons why I love Bruce is that he’s one of those artists who has appeal across generations. He’s the kind of artist that I can have detailed conversations about with my dad.
I’ve only listened to his first album and I ilke a handful of tracks like “Growin’ Up” and “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City.” Now I know I have loads of other great songs to look forward to!
“Greetings” is not among my favorite Bruce albums, but if this list can serve as inspiration for you to go check out other songs of his, that makes me happy.