Throughout my career I’ve been required to wrestle with the written word. Some days “thoughts arrive like butterflies” while on others it’s akin to wading through waist-deep mud with no solid ground in sight.
Perhaps that’s why I appreciate a great lyric in a song, the knowledge that it doesn’t always come easy and what sounds so beautifully simply more likely than not took a lot of work and refinement. Meanwhile, my love for the written word has also meant that I always seek out those lyrics and love a good ‘story’ song.
Bruce Springsteen has written more songs than it’s possible to count. For every song that has been released on each album there’s a good five or six that didn’t make the cut and, even when they’re released on archival products such as Tracks, The Promise or The Ties That Bind, there are still countless others that remain locked in vaults.
From a songwriting point of view I’d rank Springsteen as one the greatest in terms of both qaulity and consistency – certainly equal to Dylan and, while he has just wrapped up his equivalent to a Vegas residency, Bruce has yet to resort to churning out nothing but albums of cover songs. His lyrics have tackled everything from the circus to war, New York to front line in Iraq , love, birth, death, cunnilingus and lobbing it up the wrong’ un.
So, I thought it was time to put together a list of my favourite Springsteen songs from a lyrical perspective. This is Part One with Two (and the Spotify playlist) to follow as time allows. While not necessarily my favourite Springsteen songs full stop, from a lyrical point of view, these take some beating. In no particular order….
“I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry”
Asking if Springsteen’s got any good ‘Nam songs is like wondering whether a bear defecates in wooded areas. From ‘Lost in the Flood’ to the tubthumping ‘Born In The USA’, you could easily make a great compilation album of his songs that use Vietnam as a touch stone, but for me the most poignant lyric is to be found on an album that’s otherwise stuffed with re-heated leftovers, melodies with stapled-on effects and Tom Morello wankfests. Yup; I’m talking about High Hopes. ‘The Wall’ is one of the most personal and affecting of Springsteen’s many Vietnam songs as Bruce – against minimal musical backdrop, sings a ‘short prayer’ inspired by the memory of his friend Walter Chichon, who taught guitar to Springsteen but would die in the Vietnam War at around the age of 19.
The deeper I get into Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War series the more I understand just how horrifying and wide-reaching it was and just why Springsteen – and others – found it such a source for lyrics and stories.
As such, the more I listen the more the line “I read Robert McNamara says he’s sorry” just kicks me each time. When parents like Carol Crocker say how they chose to have their sons buried at Arlington because she ‘feared that if he had been buried closer to home, she would claw her way into his grave to once again “feel his warmth.”‘ it’s hard to fathom that much pain and loss but, hey, McNamara says he’s sorry… “apology and forgiveness have no place here at all.”
“The world came chargin’ up the hill and we were women and men”
Springsteen wrote ‘Blood Brothers’ on the eve of working with the E Street Band again for the Greatest Hits album and it’s just full of great lines. He’s stated that it’s filled with ‘the ambivalence and deep affection of revisiting a relationship spanning twenty-five years’. For me the lyrics feel like an acceptance of life’s inevitable changes, the trade off that’s required between fantasy and reality, of how ‘the hardness of this world, slowly grinds your dreams away’, and ‘we lose ourselves in work to do and bills to pay’.
Yet it’s an optimistic song too, one of togetherness that was fitting for the band’s reunion and as a final song – some five years later – on their reunion tour, it’s almost like it became the story of the band’s friendship: “I’ll keep movin’ though the dark with you in my heart, my blood brother.”
“Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true, or is it something worse”
The River, while an extension of the themes explored on Darkness on the Edge of Town, marked a big change in Springsteen’s song writing: “my first attempt to write about the commitments of home and marriage.” While given a hard kick up the arse by the rockers, the album’s story songs are huge: ‘Point Blank’, ‘Stolen Car’, ‘Wreck on the Highway’… but ‘The River’ is just an out and out classic and one who’s lyrics are just so ridiculously well written it stands as his benchmark ‘story’ song for me.
Springsteen took his inspiration from reality – the crash of the construction industry in the late 1970’s and the impact it had on his sister and her family: “I watched my brother-in-law lose his good-paying job and work hard to survive without complaint”. This was the song that sold Springsteen to me when I first heard it on Greatest Hits, at the time I would’ve been reading Steinbeck for school and it felt like an extension of that classic American literature style story telling. Springsteen had hit a rich vein for songwriting inspiration and would continue to tap into it with great results for the rest of his career.
Long Time Coming
“Well if I had one wish in this god forsaken world kids, it’d be that your mistakes would be your own”
Dating back to the Ghost of Tom Joad era, ‘Long Time Comin’ is one of the standout tracks on 2005’s Devils and Dust album. The song marks the first use of the word ‘fuck’ on any of his records (let’s not talk about ‘Reno’ here) in what is a great song about redemption that bounds along and is shot through with great, joy-infused lines – including a sly nod to his own past with “it’s me and you Rosie” – but it’s the “if I had one wish in this god forsaken world…” line about not passing your own baggage on that stands out for me.
Bruce felt so strongly about it that it was selected for the ‘soundtrack’ album to his autobiography Chapter and Verse and would – during his his Broadway show – explain that it was inspired by a visit from his father just before the birth of Bruce’s first child “to warn me of the mistakes that he had made and to warn me not to make them with my own children, to release them from the chains… that they may be free to make their own choices and live their own lives.”
Racing in the Street
“Some guys they just give up living and start dying little by little, piece by piece”
What I really enjoy with Springsteen’s ‘archival’ releases like Tracks and The Promise is listening to earlier takes of songs and tracks that didn’t make the cut at the time and hearing him try out different lyrics, evolving them, seeing if they fit in this song, then that and then, finally, they appear fully polished on the album version.
‘Racing In The Street’ is one of the greatest songs on the best Springsteen albums, Darkness on the Edge of Town. I love the “give up living” but if you listen to the ’78 version of the song on The Promise, it’s not there. That great line doesn’t appear anywhere in ‘draft’ form, I get the impression it arrived like a bolt of lightning and really moves the song into a different place.
American Skin (41 Shots)
“If an officer stops you promise me you’ll always be polite, that you’ll never ever run away, promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”
“I had the title and a few stray lines, an idea for a song about American identity, sitting in my workbook for six months…” It would, as with The Rising, take a tragedy to spur Bruce into writing a powerful song that would reaffirm his place as a songwriter able to tap into the public consciousness again. While the reunion tour had seen new songs like ‘Land of Hope and Dreams’ and even ‘Further On Up The Road’ show that Springsteen still had new songs up his sleeve, ‘American Skin’ was the one that showed he could still take a step back and then come up with something unexpectedly hard-hitting in its lyrical content and relevance. The lyrics are hard-hitting without being exploitative and remain evocative with repeated listens, best heard delivered live and never really captured effectively in the studio as the genie had already been let out of the bottle.
Born To Run
“Beyond the Palace hemipowered drones scream down the boulevard”
A first-person love letter to a girl called Wendy. A song about busting out and making a break “on a last chance power drive”. It’s a refined, more direct blast of power than Springsteen’s previous work. It’s got the same passion but there’s a sense of dread and more urgency in the need to escape than on, say, ‘Rosalita’, but, for me, the album and song still contains as many evocative lines as those on its predecessor and there’s just something about that line… I mean, how many other rock songs or radio hits have used a phrase like ‘hemipowered drones’?
Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)
“Windows are for cheaters/ Chimneys for the poor/ Closets are for hangers/ Winners use the door”
Before there was ‘Born To Run’ there was ‘Rosalita’ and The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle is just full of Bruce’s poetry in full swing. Shorn from the inhibitions of his debut and flowing wonderfully throughout, it’s tough to pick out anything specific but I love the humour of this, Springsteen’s autobiographical ‘getting out of town’ preview for his next album, and the poetry in…
Wild Billy’s Circus Story
“The runway lies ahead like a great false dawn”
‘Circus Story’ is stuffed to the rims with great lines. It’s a “black comedy” of a song in which Springsteen uses his memories of the circuses that would visit Freehold during his childhood to paint a romantic picture of “the seduction and loneliness of a life outside the margins of everyday life” like that of a musician on the road, say.
“Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold but with you forever I’ll stay”
For all the power and fun of The River‘s rockers, Springsteen’s next move would be to veer toward the more serious side of his song-writing, to tap further into those characters and ideas established in its story songs.
With Nebraska, Springsteen would create songs written quickly and recorded (as demos) with minimal musical backing. There’s a direct line between the sense of misfortune stories on The River and Nebraska – the young couple who escape to Atlantic City only to continue to struggle and, in the line “with you forever I’ll stay” a continuation of Springsteen’s exploration of marriage and commitment that would thread through into Tunnel of Love‘s documentation of his own, an album which I think this lyric would be equally at home on,