Bruce Springsteen’s greatest songs: 11-20

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My own personal and arguably perverse but I really don’t think so list of Springsteen’s 50 greatest songs is headed for its dramatic climax! But not today, so hold the livestock of your choice (horses; bunnies; kudu; who am I to judge?) and let’s thrill our way through the bottom half of the top 20!

20: It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City – Another Greetings track that sounds cramped in the mostly-acoustic-band setting of the debut album (they were trying for Cat Stevens’ studio sound, I kid you not!) but exploded to life once the fully electrified band hit the stage. Lots of nice versions from ’73 and ’74 and even early ’75 but my favorite recorded versions always include Steve Van Zandt in the role of rival/supporting guitar-slinger. (e.g., the ’78 Roxy cut on Live 75-85.) But that said, don’t ignore what a wonderfully written tune it is, and how the lyric combines sidewalk realism with the nightmare vision of the subway and, of course, Satan himself rising out of a manhole to reveal the truth of the situation…

19: She’s the One – Love, lust, kick-ass boots and the great Bo Diddley beat. The Born to Run original is perfect, and I can’t think of another recorded live version that disappoints. But is he easy to break or too tough to snap? Bruce seems to change his mind from night to night.

18: Born to Run –  No explanation necessary.

17: Tougher Than the Rest –  Love, renewed faith and the dreamiest of dreams written, played and sung just as straight as the thin, thin line it describes. Kills me every time, just like all the other songs on Tunnel of Love that make clear that real love and commitment can never really be that simple.

16: Your Own Worst Enemy – In which the singer sees into the heart of Magic‘s GW Bushian antagonist and finds sympathy — and maybe kinship — in the terrors that inspire men to remove the mirrors from their walls. Dressed up with bells, timpani and particularly rich vocals, the blend of political commentary and emotional insight seems somehow churchly.

15: County Fair – Speaking of places of worship, what could be holier than a summertime evening that begins on the rides and ends up at an open-air dance featuring James Young, the Immortal Ones and ther two guitars, baby, bass and drums? Recorded on a warm night in his home studio in Rumson, NJ, this swaying little tune features Bruce in an unexpected duet with the neighborhood crickets, plainly audible through the open windows. Struck by the sound, Bruce sent an assistant out to record even more crickets, whose voices were overdubbed onto the finished track.

14: New York City Serenade – Possibly the greatest of the early-career epics, “NYC…” opens in the dark grandeur of David Sancious’s spectacular piano intro, tumbles into Springsteen’s Bowery boy opening verse and heads uptown through the subway stops, street pimps and hookers until finding transcendence in the satin-clad figure of the singing junk man. In a class by itself. Should have been tops on my list — how’d it end up all the way down at 14? Must be some great songs to come…

13: Thunder Road – Like this one. In a whole other class all by itself. If only for the closing sax-and-guitar instrumental piece that sounds like the music the American spirit would write if it owned a guitar and had a friend who could play the sax.

12: The Promise – A requiem to a dream so beautiful and aware that it gives birth to a whole new dream. Best heard in the spare piano version Springsteen recorded for Tracks in ’98, but lovely enough to shine in any circumstances.

11: This Hard Land –  Three chords, a harmonica and America’s once and future frontier. Woody Guthrie could have written it; Henry Fonda might should have sung it. If you can’t make it stay hard, stay hungry, stay alive and meet me in a dream of this hard land…

TOMORROW: The top ten, and the number one Bruce Springsteen song, will be presented in Mary Magdalene’s saloon, with Sheriff Jesus in attendance…