Bruce Springsteen’s greatest songs…the exciting climax!

Dec20-1978rexRystedtAnd now we reach the Top Ten.

Not of Rolling Stone’s actual Bruce Springsteen’s 100 Best Songs list, but of the jury ballot I sent into the mix of opinions.

You’ll find some quirky choices up here. I did that on purpose, hoping to draw attention to some truly great songs that don’t get nearly as much attention as their more popular brethren and sistren.

It’s not a dark ride, but some of those track repairs we mentioned earlier might not hold as well as we, and certainly you, might wish.

10: The Land of Hope and Dreams – When the E Street Band reunion tour got rolling in 1999 no one knew if it would mark a new beginning for the 11-years-gone band or just one last sweep of the global marketplace. All doubts were laid to rest at the end at the end of the show when earthquake drums, chiming mandolin and guitar amplitude heralded this paean to spiritual connection. First released on the Live in NYC set released in 2000, but also as a rejiggered studio recording on Wrecking Ball. I prefer the former, but do I complain when the latter comes on? No, I do not.

9: The Ghost of Tom Joad – The spirit of John Steinbeck’s Depression-era hero returns to Southern California six decades on and discovers that nothing has changed. The original acoustic version from the 1995 album it named is plenty good but again, the song really discovers itself in the electrified live version released on the Magic Tour Highlights ep released 15 years later. Tom Morello shares the vocals and lead guitar, but it’s Tom Joad’s famous recitation that crowns the piece: Mom, wherever there’s a cop beatin’ a guy/Wherever a hungry newborn baby cries/Where there’s a fight against the blood and hatred in the air/Look for me, Ma, I’ll be there.

8: Lost in the Flood – The scourge of war as experienced on the oil slick roads of the homefront. Still another Greetings tune brought to full life on the concert stage. Great versions abound, but my absolute favorite is the 2000 live recording on Live in NYC.  His body hit the street with such a beautiful thud – I wonder what the dude was saying?

7: Atlantic City – Back to the Jersey shore (and the Carlin family’s ancestral homeland) for some old-fashioned organized crime, in all its legal and counter-legal glory. Pushed to the brink, the narrator prepares to join the underworld with his faith shattered, but still breathing. Barely, and not for very much longer given the song’s original home (on Nebraska) and the outraged snarl in the wildfire live arrangement. Sounds great on the Other Band In Concert release, but temblor-tastic on the ESB’s Live in NYC collection.

6: Backstreets – Innocent love, lust and friendly neighborhood gangs dare speak their names and get torched with the rest of the town. Even the wordless cries at the tune’s climax speak volumes.

5: Incident on 57th Street – Spanish Johnny and Puerto Rican Jane star in an allegorical rock noir tale of love, faith and incipient doom. Even the other side of town (steps from paradise!) offers no guarantees beyond the shakiest promise Johnny can muster: We may walk until the daylight, maybe. I love every version I’ve ever heard, but the one that really kills me is the violin-led acoustic version that opens the Main Point show in February, 1975. If only for the perfectly timed police siren wailing outside the club just as the song, and Johnny & Jane, depart the screen.

4: The Promised Land – Some days I think this is the clearest mission statement in the catalogue. Most days, even. Especially when I’m feeling so weak I just wanna…

3: Racing in the Streets – From the gearhead’s 7-11 parking lot to the Godhead’s purifying waves of the Pacific,Transcendent. Probably my biggest favorite of them all.

2: One Step Up – Possibly an overstatement on my part, but then, this is a pretty fantastic song. For that elegantly simple chord progression (so good it turns up again, more than less, in “Rocky Ground”) and also, mostly, for the lyrics that function both as declarative descriptions (the stalled car; the dead furnace; the birds on the wires) to metaphor – particularly in the chorus when even the lovers’ dance floor reunion becomes another exercise in motion that eventually leads nowhere. As the evening sky turns black, even.


But first, this message:


Hey look, it’s the cover of the about-to-be-released paperback edition of my biography Bruce.  You can buy it then, or else buy it today, and then again tomorrow, and the day after, and so on. If only to get all the domestic and foreign editions, some of which are in completely different languages. You can find them at your fave bookseller, including…

purchase at Amazonpurchase at Indie Boundpurchase at BAM!purchase at Amazonpurchase at iBooks

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1: If I Was The Priest – Yes, yes, I know. It probably isn’t his greatest-ever song. But it’s still a great tune, from the early-Elton John gospel/folk piano arrangement to its wildly cinematic presentation of Jesus as the itchy-fingered sheriff of a corrupt frontier town where the virgin Mary shoots smack and both runs and serves at the Holy Grail saloon/whorehouse and the Holy Ghost presents the burlesque show. Post-Catholic bitterness doesn’t come any more visionary than this, and yet it’s nowhere close to sounding overwrought. Instead, it’s the second big clue (following “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City”) to where the very young (at 22 years old) Bruce was headed. And me, I got scabs on my knees from kneeling way too long/I gotta take the stand, be the man, up where you belong, he sings, and you can feel his marrow rippling with every syllable. Sheriff Jesus pulls his six-gun but the singer stares him down. He’s not going to spend his life wielding his gun for anyone else’s tawdry justice. He’s striking out on his own…in fact, he’s already overdue in Cheyenne. He got there, eventually. And a good distance beyond, too…

Bruce Springsteen’s greatest songs: 21-30

bs bent Hey look, man, I’m not trying to diminish your favorites or convince you that “Lizard Lips and Chicken Hips” doesn’t contain the purest essence of the man’s philosophy and artistry. But it doesn’t. It really doesn’t.

But whatever. I have no idea what Rolling Stone’s fully tabulated 100 Best Springsteen songs list is going to be, but here comes my ballot, from #30 to #21.

30: I’m On Fire: Quoting Brian Fallon and Gaslight Anthem: “Sometimes I wake up with the sheets soaking wet/That’s a pretty good song, maybe you know the rest/Baby, you know the rest.” Indeed, tense and horny love songs don’t come as spellbound, and spellbinding, as this one. Good enough to write a whole other song about it.

29: Shackled and Drawn: Freedom, son, is a dirty shirt. And as this gospel-folk stomper shouts to the skies everyday labor can, and should, come with just as much joy — and twice the glory — as all the riches raining down on Banker’s Hill.

28: The Wrestler: Spare, aching, frightfully honest. The life of the broken-down fighter sheds light into the darker reaches of his portraitist.

27: Rendezvous: Especially the live version on “Tracks.” No, ONLY the live version. The ’78 outtake — released on The Promise — only sketches what the performance ignites into being.

26: Randolph Street: Written in 1970 or ’71 and demoed twice in ’72, a loving portrait of life in the crumbling home of grandparents Fred and Alice Springsteen. Haunted, surreal and honest portrayal of the long-destroyed house he still calls the place he loved the most. “Love was crazy and I had it in my marrow.”

25: The River: Another heartbroken family portrait, written for — and entirely about — the elder of his two little sisters, whose teenaged pregnancy led to a rough road made worse by social and economic strictures.

24: Badlands: The will to fight as its own triumph. Doubled down with the most precise description of the American power structure ever written: “Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/And a king ain’t satisfied ’til he rules everything.”

23: Save My Love: A Darkness-era tune uncompleted ’til 2010, but still electrified by the realization that the prayers going coast to coast have not only been heard , but also understood. “So turn on your radio and I’ll save my love for you.” Actually, the radio is the real focus of his ardor but there’s meaning and poetry in that kind of love, too.

22: American Land: From deep in his Irish/Italian soul, the American story from the bursting heart of the hardworking, wild-dreaming immigrant. You know, the muscle and spirit of the nation’s future, a/k/a the folks on the far side of the walls and border patrol rifles. But as this musical hurly-burly of drums, fiddles, whistles and shriekback guitar (on the Wrecking Ball version) makes clear, desire trumps hate every time.

21: Long Walk Home: Written in the post-glorious America of the early 21st century, a letter home to the place where nobody crowds you and nobody goes it alone. It’s a long journey back, but as long as you keep moving you know you can get there.

TOMORROW: A special guest appearance from James Young and the Immortal Ones.

Bruce Springsteen’s greatest songs, 31-40

The second installment of my 50 choices for Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Springsteen songs list picks up at #40 and doesn’t pause to wonder how anyone could presume to rank aesthetic creations in terms of objective quality.

40: You Mean So Much to Me: Although never recorded, this 1971 r&b gem was a live favorite from its 1971 unveiling by the Bruce Springsteen band (think Van Morrison meets the Allman Brothers) to acoustic-live-radio performances to-rave-up performances with the first three iterations of the E Street Band.

39: Cadillac Ranch: Four-on-the-floor rocker from The River, and either a shallow tribute to various race car drivers/action movie stars or a top-speed meditation on the finish line we all must cross. Wonder which one? The lyric sheet’s big picture of the Ant Farm’s sculpture of the same name — in which half-buried Caddies look just like tombstones — might be a clue.

38: Girls in Their Summer Clothes: I’m surprised I didn’t rate this higher, given my adoration of this 2007 tribute to nights, loves and possibilities now disappeared…but always on the horizon. The aging dreamer is in great voice, but it’s the triple-layer cake-with-frosting track that knocks me out the most, from Max Weinberg’s awesome pick-up at the end of the bridge (just after “…my boy Bill…” to the subtle-but-crucial shift in the chord structure that sweeps the closing choruses into the heavens.

37: Kitty’s Back: The early E Street Band at its jammiest elevates this r&b bad girl portraiture into a musical joyride that is both the first and last of Bruce’s studio-recorded guitar epics. Which is both disappointing and fascinating when you recall that he made his bones as the hottest guitar in New Jersey, and that nearly every band song he wrote from 1968-1972 served as a delivery system for his crazy-wild fretboard adventures. Go to the Shore today and you’ll find legions of old-time fans who swear Springsteen’s best work was done before songwriting and singing became his central focus.

36: Chimes of Freedom: Bob Dylan cover recorded in Stockholm during the Tunnel of Love tour in 1988. The performance heralded news that Springsteen would join the Amnesty International concert tour that fall, and more subtly, the show he was about to play for tens of thousands of Soviet-blocked Germans in East Berlin. Based on the Byrds’ arrangement, but with the temperature turned way, way up.

35: Darkness on the Edge of Town: Well, of course I threw in the big ones, too. I’m not an animal.

34: Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?: A great song in any arrangement, but the original down-shifted version on 1973’s Greetings From Asbury Park doesn’t come close to the rolly-coasty live performances that followed. Still waiting an official release of a good live take (Philadelphia, 12/31/75, for example) but faith springs eternal and the Last Tango in Philly bootleg is always out there…

33: Something in the Night: All dark skies and empty highways, the dead ends and the two-bit bars.

32: Follow That Dream: Not a cover of the Elvis schlock-movie song as much as a portrait of the spirit the King could have inhabited had he not become the Sucker in Chief in Col. Tom’s circus sideshow. Recorded in the mid-80s, performed every so often but never released. Not yet, anyway.

31: Lucky Town: C’mon Shane, here we go…The title track of the 1992 album sounds fine on its own album but bursts wide open on ’93’s In Concert album, with Other Band guitarist Shane Fontayne trading barbed wire solos with his employer, who adds fistfuls of nails and broken glass into the mix.

TOMORROW: 30-21, where the hound dogs play and beer flows from every faucet…


Bruce Springsteen’s 50 greatest songs?


Asked by Rolling Stone to join its panel of voters charged with creating a Top 100 songs list for their Springsteen special issue (available this week!) I instantly shrugged off my hatred of such things and pounded out a list.

The magazine sent me a ballot with 50 empty slots. My job was to fill them in in ascending order — when they tallied the votes my #1 selection would count for more than my #50.

But how to build a list? Should I go straight to the usual Born-to-promised-thunder-in-the-10th-USA-badlands-night-night-night heart-stoppers? Or try to find a whole other golden thread running from the Left Foot to the land of hope, dreams and 41 shots?

Here are my selections from #41-50. I’ll post the rest in the next four days.

50: Highway Patrolman – Man turns his back on his family, well, he just ain’t no good. No matter what they’ve done.

49: Tunnel of Love: Ablaze in neon and draped in shadow, the midway reveals the secret to keeping love alive: You’ve got to learn to live with what you can’t rise above. Easier said than done, though.

48: Pink Cadillac: The Garden of Eden as viewed through the steamy windows of a big-ass automobile. With an assist from Vince Taylor and the Playboys, the theme to Peter Gunn and, I have to think, the Clash.

47: Santa Claus is Coming to Town: Live from 1975, with joy, sleigh bells, a killer backbeat and the Big Man’s jolly guffaws reducing the singer, momentarily, into helpless giggles.

46: How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?: Recorded just post-Hurricane Katrina with the Seeger Sessions band, a rewritten version of Ry Cooder’s arrangement of Blind Alfred Reed’s Depression-era lament. Elegant, clear-eyed and absolutely seething, with George W Bush as the heedless doofus who pledges his support then leaves the city to drown.

45: Jersey Girl: Live at Giants Stadium at the 1985 height of Bruce-mania, the best Springsteen song he never wrote. Here Tom Waits’ ballad sways gently in the breeze with sha-la-la-la-las as sweet and sad as the end of summer.

44: Breakaway: A meditative Darkness outtake set on the blacktop of busted engines and blown chances.

43: Johnny Bye-Bye: A man on the radio says Elvis Presley’s died.

42: Lonesome Day: Fiddle-led rocker in which a jilted lover stands in for post 9/11 America, with a pain in the heart and an unsettling appetite for revenge.

41: Death to My Hometown: Military drummers, pipers, banjos and chanting hordes bear witness to the devastation borne by for-profit moralists. Mind the muskets, sir, no way of knowing where they’re pointed…

TOMORROW: Does this bus stop at Lucky Town?