He started out as the poor man’s Bob Dylan, with his songs that often revolved around the life of the working man and the problems and issues they faced. Today, he occupies a place in rock and roll that is very much his own, and some would say is on the same level as Dylan himself. The man many in the world of rock call “The Boss” turns 67 today. And what better way to pay tribute to Bruce Springsteen than to showcase ten songs that we think sum up the man and his work the best (in ascending order of importance, according to us):
Born in the USA
Perhaps the best introductory song to anyone who has never heard Bruce Springsteen, the defiant, rocking Born in the USA evokes the despair of the eighties in the US, with industries shutting down and war veterans scattered all over the nation (“I had a brother in Khe Sahn/ Fighting off the Viet Cong/ They’re still there, he’s all gone”). Springsteen screams right through the song, whose beat became iconic in the eighties. Some might find it a bit too loud by classic Springsteen standards, but it sounds fantastic
If Born in the USA showcases the raw energy of Springsteen that lent an edge even to despair, the River is perhaps one of his most melancholy songs and shows his storytelling at its best. Springsteen’s sister got married when she got pregnant in her teens and her husband took a job as a construction worker. The River is inspired by them, and their trials and tribulations, and sees Springsteen varying his tone from the sad to the despairingly belligerent, as the tempo switches. Beautifully written, beautifully sung – “I come from down the valley/ When mister when you are young/ They bring you up to do/ Just like your daddy done…”
Watch : The River
We can hear some people going “what!” on the selection of this song. Well, because firstly not too many have heard of it and secondly because it is not a Springsteen song in the classic sense. It is actually based on an Irish folk song about a mother who after being convinced to send her son to the army, sees him return without his legs. Springsteen’s version makes it to this list simply because of the rendering of the song, with its blend of Irish Folk and American Rock – there is a violin, there is even a jig towards the end, and then there is typical Springsteen defiance: “I would rather have my son as he used to be/ Than the King of America and his whole navy.” Sure enough, it is a cult anti-war song in its own right now, and in our opinion, one of the most melodious Springsteen numbers.
Watch: Mrs McGrath
Rosalita (Come out Tonight)
This song about a young man asking a girl to come out to meet him was perhaps the first really popular Springsteen song. And its near breathless exuberance reflects the early Springsteen – a person in love with his music and his life, well before the shadows crept in. You cannot help but smile as Springsteen declares to his lover’s father: “Tell him this is his last chance/ To get his daughter in a fine romance/ Because the record company, Rosei/ Just gave me a fat advance.” They still shout for “Rosie Come out Tonight” at his concerts. He still sings it. And when he does, it suddenly seems like 1973 once again!
Watch: Rosalita ( Come Out Tonight)
Many identify with good, old-fashioned, classic rock but there is a very ‘folksy’ and country side to Springsteen as well, and it comes to the fore in the largely acoustic Atlantic City. Springsteen sings of an industrial city that has been shut down because of bad times and describes it in aching detail. And yet, he refuses to give up hope: “Everything dies, baby/ That’s a fact/ Maybe everything that dies/ Some day comes back”
Watch: Atlantic City
In most of his songs, Springtseen prefers to narrate rather than philosophise. Human Touch was one of the few times when he actually got well, a little preachy perhaps. And many of his fans never forgave him for that. We, however, simply adore the song, for its unusually soft melody and sheer simplicity. “It is Springsteen trying to sound like Richard Marx,” we remember some people complaining. Our response? “Yes. And he sounds better than Marx.” He does. He is the Boss, after all – you would need to have a heart of stone not to get moved when he says “I ain’t looking for prayers or pity/ I ain’t coming around/ Searching for a crutch/ I just want someone to talk to/ And a little of that human touch…”
Watch: Human Touch
American Skin (41 shots)
Perhaps the most controversial Springsteen song ever, it was written in response to the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant. Diallo had been spotted by the police because of his resemblance to a criminal and when he was asked to ‘show his hand’, he tried to pull out his wallet. The police thought he was reaching for a weapon and shot him. 41 times. A shocked Springsteen sings: “Is it a gun/ Is it a knife/ Is it a wallet/ This is your life/ It ain’t no secret my friend/ You can get killed for just living/ In your American skin.” Many police organisations objected to the song, and particularly its chorus of “41 shots.” Springsteen just sang it. Again and again. With chilling effect.
Watch: American Skin
He is not known as being much of a love song singer, but Springsteen has sung of the softer sentiment. And seldom has he done so as beautifully as in Brilliant Disguise, a song about a relationship that is being plagued by suspicion. The thudding percussion, the slight quaver in the voice and the hint of doubt right that runs like poisonous smoke right through the lyrics – “So tell me who I see/ When I look in your eyes/ Is it you, baby/ Or just a brilliant disguise…” – all blend to make this a very unusual Springsteen classic.
Watch: Brilliant Disguise
Born to Run
For many people, this is THE Bruce Springsteen song. It is a song that so identifies him that Springsteen has even titled his recently released memoir (yes, we will be reviewing it shortly as well) Born To Run. The reason for this is simple: it exemplifies all that is considered good about Springsteen – a brisk tempo, sadness blended by defiance, and a will to walk the highway of life with his love or on his own if need be. It has been more than forty years since it was first played, but you cannot help but feel a thrill course through your veins when Springsteen sings, varying his words from whispers to a shout: “I wanna die with you, Wendy/ On the street tonight/ In an everlasting kiss” because “Tramps like us? Baby, we were born to run!” The Springsteen anthem!
Watch: Born to Run
Dancing in the Dark
Some might accuse us of pandering to the popular rather than the profound in our choice of the greatest Springsteen song, but our logic for picking Dancing in the Dark is simple: it is the best Springsteen song to listen to, at any time. No, its lyrics are not as moving as Atlantic City. No, it does not have the despair of Born in the USA or The River. And no, it does not even have the anthemic brilliance of Born to Run. What it does have is an insanely infectious rhythm and words that have rendered by a voice that is clearly smiling and laughing as it sings them. “You can’t start a fire/ Worried about your little world falling apart/ This gun’s for hire/ Even if we’re just dancing in the dark.” Listen to it at any time. Tap your feet. Smile. Laugh. What better way to think of The Boss?
Watch: Dancing in the Dark
Happy Birthday Bruce !