And 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.
AND NOW….THE #1 BEST BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SONG, ACCORDING TO MY SELF-CONSCIOUSLY QUIRKY ENTRY INTO ROLLING STONE’S 100 BEST SPRINGSTEEN SONGS LIST FEATURED IN THE BRUCE SPECIAL ISSUE WHICH HAS EITHER JUST BEEN RELEASED OR WILL BE IN THE NEXT FEW DAYS, I’M NOT SURE…
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…
SO NOW….MY NUMBER ONE BEST BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN SONG.
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…