Long before Chris Christie was plugging up political opponents and their citizens on the highway, Bruce Springsteen was jamming the New Jersey turnpike with broken heroes on a last chance power drive.
There tend to be two groups of people when it comes to Bruce Springsteen: those that love him, and those that think he is overrated but inevitably doesn’t his music well. For most music folks I know, there tends to be a bit of light bulb moment when you just get what Springsteen does. Whether it’s finally seeing his immaculate gift of storytelling, prophetic understanding of American culture, or you just caught him live and felt his magic (as I did), something just sinks in.
It’s not that I love everything the Boss does though. His latest, High Hopes, finds Springsteen trying to create definitive versions of his best rarities (like “Ghost of Tom Joad” and “Harry’s Place”), but I myself am not a tremendous fan of the treatment of these songs, which I think came out overcooked and lose some of the freewheeling spirit of earlier versions. I will avoid an all-out album review, as Austin proved with a skewering song review of “High Hopes” not to mess with Boss fans, or they’ll mess you up real good. So instead of focusing on his letdowns, I will instead give you 5 songs that I think are pure unadulterated Boss.
“I’m On Fire”
The real oddball on Born In the USA has to be “I’m On Fire”, and on an album that largely doesn’t speak to me, this song is as sultry and as cool as Bruce gets. Musically, it’s kind of the forbearer to “Streets of Philadelphia” in its gentle pacing, but where “Streets of Philadelphia” is a yearning synth contemplation, “I’m On Fire” is minimalist rockabilly.
Having four brothers, not a lot of songs pull on my heart strings more than this Nebraska gem. “Highway Patrolman” tells the tale of Joe and Frankie Roberts, with the former being a police officer and the latter being a repeat offending criminal, which is pretty much straight out of an Elmore Leonard novel. The song is told from Joe’s perspective and talks about the conflict he feels in picking up his brother and not wanting to turn him in, saying “Man turns his back on his family well he just ain’t no good,” speaking perfectly to the grace vs. tough love conflict so many of us feel.
In the holy trinity of “land” Springsteen songs (“Promised Land”, “Jungleland”, and “Badlands”), I think “Badlands” reigns supreme. For a guy with clear convictions, “Badlands” has to be one of his most defiant songs, the closest a heartland rocker is going to get to punk rock.
“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
If you ask me, I think this is the best song Springsteen every created. It’s got all the E-Streetisms all dialed up to 11: a peppy sax line from Clarence Clemons, a playful and pressing vocal performance from Bruce, plenty of wonderful instrumental breaks, and a propulsive build that leads to maybe the most dramatic of all dramatic Boss finishes. It’s pretty much a live band’s dream closer.
I included this last one in honor of folk legend Pete Seeger, who passed this past week, and in his 94 years, did about us much with music politically as anyone. If you have never seen the documentary Pete Seeger: The Power of Song, be sure to pick it up this week and witness what a big cog Seeger was in the development of folk, rock, and blues. On 2006’s We Shall Overcome, Springsteen took on a handful of Seeger anthems, with “Jacob’s Ladder” being perhaps my favorite, with Springsteen turning it into a New Orleans brass band raveup.