Here’s a story. And I don’t know if I’m getting it right or even that it’s true – although here’s a report from around that time to suggest it might be – but it goes like this. Bruce Springsteen once met some fans of his, near a movie theatre. Not only did he stop and chat, he sat with them in the cinema. Then he went home with them and met their parents. After that? Well, he continued sticking around. He just wouldn’t leave.
Why would he do something like that? Well, there’s a reason they call him ‘The Boss’. Whatever it is Bruce does, he gives it everything he’s got. There’s a single-minded devotion at play with Springsteen which, at times is darn near psychotic. But at the end of the day, when it comes down to it, there’s not a single person in the business who’s ready to give you more.
When Springsteen takes the stage, he’s there to prove it to you all night. He isn’t going to stop, not until he’s wretched every last rung of feeling up and out of those Jersey guts. He’ll empty himself of everything he has to get there. His recorded music, ditto. Here are 10 of his essential tracks.
1. Thunder Road, Born To Run (1975)
Bruce had been cutting albums and struggling to get by long before Born To Run. His dedication to his art was total, but he and the band never seemed to be able to make the kind of record capable of reaching past their small but dedicated following. Recorded under the guidance of upstart-rock-critic turned manager, producer and confidant, Jon Landau, ‘Thunder Road’ was a turning point. While Bruce had more or less completed the song, Landau’s simple observation that the band should move the sax solo from the middle to the song’s end was revelatory for the obsessive Bruce. Springsteen had been given one last chance to make it real and you’d better believe he took it. With ‘Thunder’ it all clicked, Bruce’s immense creative energy, reverence for rock ‘n’ roll, and songwriting instinct all fell into place not just within his own head but with the music loving public as well. The world was ready for Bruce Springsteen.
2. Born To Run, Born To Run (1975)
It feels crazy to say this but all of the ups, the downs, the joy, despair and ambition which defines Bruce seems to arrive bundled into the first few 12 seconds of ‘Born To Run’. If everything that Bruce Springsteen stands for could be broken down to a singular musical moment, it’s those opening chords. And then the lyrics hit.
3. Badlands, Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)
When the Bossman is singing ‘Badlands’, ‘Streets of Fire’ or any other songs off of Darkness At The Edge Of Town he’s often slurring and moaning them like a barroom drunk. Which seems to suggest at this point that he was still very much that eager-to-please kid from Jersey, playing at being a tougher than life, streetwalking New Jersey devil and coming off as more of a rock hero than he really is because that’s how he wants it to be more than anything else. It’s difficult to resist that charm.
4. Adam Raised A Cain, Darkness On The Edge Of Town (1978)
Springsteen didn’t get along with his father. His dad wanted him to be a lawyer, Bruce wanted to play guitar. Teenaged Springsteen would come home to his house later at night and there in the kitchen sitting next to a six-pack of beer, smoking with the lights out would be his old man. You can probably guess what happened next. So many of Bruce’s songs deal with this relationship, ‘Independence Day’ and ‘My Father’s House’ too. But when it comes to the fiery tension which lays at the core of it ‘Raised A Cain’ sums it up best.
5. The River, The River (1980)
As with so many of Bruce’s songs, ‘The River’ is character driven. And as per usual, Bruce’s protagonist is trapped. They’re experiencing that sinking feeling, the dread and hopelessness that comes part and parcel with working-class existence. In telling this story, Bruce is doing everything he can to make sure that you’re right there with him as he documents these grim realities. He’s singing about the kind of life he’s spent the entirety of his own trying to escape.
6. Atlantic City, Nebraska (1982 )
‘The River’ was Springsteen’s first number one record. Riding high on that success, Bruce retreated to a rented New Jersey bedroom with a four-track recorder and not much else. Cloistered away, he created a series of demos and played the $10 cassette he’d collected these recordings on back to himself again and again. In the days that followed, he fell deeply in love with what he had created. Not only the songs but the performance too. Bruce began rehearsing the songs with the E Street Band with a view to record this new material ‘properly’ but it soon dawned on him that had no other choice but to release them as they’d originally been made. Given how interlinked the album’s narratives are, taking any of Nebraska’s songs in isolation is an almost criminal. But of them; ‘Atlantic City’ seems as good as any as a reflection of the record’s grim, unrelenting and claustrophobic energy. And does any song sum up this record’s themes of crime, poverty and haunting despair more than this? You wonder why the critics love it…
7. Dancing In the Dark, Born In The U.S.A. (1984)
Born In The U.S.A. is the pop record. Bruce didn’t just make this one for the rock fans or the critics either, he made Born so that everybody else could get up and dance. And for this reason, there’s a very good chance it might be your mother’s favourite Springsteen record.
8. Radio Nowhere, Magic (2007)
Look at Bruce on the album cover of Magic. Look at him! They’re almost cropped out of the picture but check those quads. He might be older than the stringbean you met on such covers of Born To Run and The River but he’s gotten around that by buffing up. We’re talking about really working out here. ‘Radio Nowhere’ hits as one of those classic E Street Band workouts but at the same time it subtly updates The Springsteen Sound for a new decade. This is the birth of modern Bruce and the announcement is one which plays out in a way so effortlessly cool. Amidst it all, is Bruce’s haunted voice, lost, lonely and desperate as ever.
9. Because The Night, Easter (1978)
Bruce has a nasty habit of flubbing some of his greatest songs in the studio then having other acts sweep in and claim them as their own. Manfred Man’s ‘Blinded By The Light’ is one case in point and Patti Smith’s ‘Because The Night’ is another. When Patti really gets burning on ‘Because The Night’ it sounds like she’s doing an even better job at being Bruce than Bruce Springsteen. What gives? Sometimes it just feels like he’s giving them away.
10. Hello Sunshine, Western Stars (2019)
Springsteen’s albums bring something different to the table every time. But even then, there are those who play it a little closer to the straight ‘n’ narrow and those which don’t. It’s these more idiosyncratic statements that often turn out to be some of his most memorable and deeply personal moments. Fresh off of his Springsteen on Broadway caper, in 2019 Bruce has decided to go cowboy. The Boss of ‘Hello Sunshine’ sounds mellower but beneath it all, there’s still that restless hunger, the one that prevents this man from lever lingering on his laurels or just about anything else for long. He’s restless. Even though he may now be an institution, he’s fiercely determined to remind you that he’s still an artist too. What his future holds is yet to be revealed but don’t think for a second that he’s anywhere close to stopping.
Bruce Springsteen’s brand new, 19th studio album, ‘Western Stars’ is out today via Sony Music Australia.