Sunday, April 3, 2011

Five Bruce Springsteen Songs.

I spent a decent amount of time in Jersey growing up, admittedly mostly during drives from my hometown in the Poconos to "the city" (New York) or during drives to the Jersey Shore. (While I do not associate my memories with Snooki, J-Woww, GTL, cabs being here, or anything of the like, I do not judge. Except when it comes to hating Ronnie and Sammi with a fiery passion as some of the most horrible and boring people alive. Then I judge.) When I think of Jersey, I think of a few things: The Bagel Station in Sparta. Johnny's Hot Dogs in Buttzville, as shown above in a classic pic of me and Joe Gruber. (I love that kid.) "Livin' on a Prayer" playing during my cousin Chris's wedding in south Jersey a few years ago, during which my cousin Greg ran around the dance floor screaming indiscriminately, "JERSEY! JERSEY! JERSEY!" I also think of Bruce Springsteen. Springsteen for me is like wine, or cheese: the flavors mature and grow, slowly, sneakily, inside of my gut each year. I don't even notice it, until, out of nowhere, one Sunday morning I'm listening to the radio while doing dishes and I hear a cover of Atlantic City and it suddenly makes me cry.

* Since VEVO won't allow me to embed any official videos, you're getting all live versions for this one. I mean, not that that's necessarily a bad thing, but as I'm writing, I'm listening to the polished studio versions that my ear is used to hearing to access the full amount of my nostalgia. Also, after actually watching all the official videos, there is so much good stuff in them that it pretty much breaks my heart, so I will ramble about them anyway.

Born to Run

The highway's jammed with broken heroes
on a last chance power drive
Everybody's out on the run tonight
but there's no place left to hide
Together, Wendy, we'll live with the sadness
I wanna love you with all of the madness
in my soul
Someday, girl, I don't know when
We're gonna get to that place where we really want to go
and we'll walk in the sun
'Till then, tramps like us
Baby, we were born to run

I know this is a "well, duh" moment, but I'm going to say it anyway: This is one of the greatest songs that has ever and will ever be written. Ever in the history of music, in the history of mankind. Nothing else will ever capture the dreams, the passion, the idealism, the trappings of youth as these five minutes do. There is no greater use of the phrase "tramps like us." There is no greater "Who-oooaahhhhh!" than the Boss's, 50 seconds in. There is no other song that greater captures my desires to jump in a car and drive around the country for the rest of my life, listening to music with the wind in my hair, that ran rampant through every cell of my being in high school. There is no greater song about the American dream. I'm just going to say it: Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run IS the American dream! The first dramatic chords, that sax solo! I love this song so much that even Jimmy Fallon/Glee's rendition of it during the opening of the Emmy's last year made me bawl like a baby. You must watch the official video, which is merely a miraculous collage of sold out stadium shows, cut off t-shirts and arm muscles, backwards baseball caps, joyful E Street Band jamming, sweaty locks, fist pumps and air kicks, all ending with a freeze frame of Springsteen jumping into the air, while 'Thanks to all our fans!' scrolls on the screen. If this video doesn't make you feel like life is worth living, you are a horrible person.

Atlantic City

Everything dies baby that's a fact
Maybe everything that dies
someday comes back
Put your makeup on
Put your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City

I know I just rambled about how great Born to Run, including the lyrics, was/is, but now I'm going to say this: there is no greater chorus than this one. I don't know. Something about it just gives me the chills. I love this song something fierce. The official video is full of black and white images which perfectly match the spare, lonesome feel of the original Nebraska version. I've mentioned several times in the past how much I like storytelling in music; this song is a perfect, and wonderous, example. From the memorable first line: Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night, yeah they blew up his house too, you are taken along in this story of a guy who's just trying to scrape along and make his way in this heavy, bleak world. The last line we know of his story goes as such: I'm tired of coming out on the losing end, so last night I met this guy and I'm going to do a little favor for him. This is a story, we know, that is not going to end well. The only thing left to say is, girl, put your hair up pretty, meet me for a night in Atlantic City. It is as hauntingly human as it is beautiful.

Streets of Philadelphia

I was bruised and battered
I couldn't tell what I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
I saw my reflection in a window
I didn't know my own face
Oh brother, are you going to leave me
wasting away
on the streets of Philadelphia?

So, in case--just in case!--Philadelphia wasn't already one of the most depressing films of all time, Bruce allowed us one of the most appropriately depressing soundtrack songs in history. Take that amazing feeling of triumph you felt during Born to Run, flip it over, and smash it on the ground under your boot a few times, and you have the Streets of Philadelphia. But, from the beginning drum beat and the steady synthesizer throughout, it is pretty much pitch perfect. (I also can't really deal with the waving, smiling children in the streets in the official video.) Again, it is hard to listen to this song without chills.

The Rising

Sky of blackness and sorrow
Sky of love, sky of tears
Sky of glory and sadness
Sky of mercy, sky of fear
Sky of memory and shadow
Your burnin' wind fills my arms tonight
Sky of longing and emptiness
Sky of fullness, sky of blessed life

After September 11th, there pretty much wasn't anything a politician could say that wouldn't make me angry. There were only two people who were appropriately eloquent--and also close enough to the life and heart of the city as to be authentic--on the subject: Jon Stewart, and Bruce Springsteen. The entire album of The Rising in 2002 (his first studio album in seven years; his first one with the E Street Band in 18!), regardless of whether every song on the album was meant to be or not, read like an elegy to the event, and to the city, and to the country. Springsteen was able to voice the dreams and the angst of America's soul in the 70s and 80s, and he was able to voice what America needed post-9/11. Along with heartfelt sorrow, he did it with light and with hope. The chorus with the "li, li, li, li"s in this title track feel positively chock full of optimism and camaraderie. Feeling moved by this album makes me feel similar to the way I felt in front of a classroom in the Netherlands full of angry European university students during the second Bush presidency, when I told them that I loved my country and they asked me why. I felt kind of embarrassed, and my answer was bumbling and insufficient and they gave me a look full of skepticism. Listen, I know it sounds cheesy, but there it is, and I know it's the truth. I love America, and this is a moving album.

Radio to Nowhere

I want a thousand guitars
I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices speaking in tongues 
I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear some rhythm
I just want to hear you swoon

To bring things full circle and end on a happier note: I know this is Older, Middle Aged Springsteen, okay, and I know--and he knows--that there is no physical way this can compete with 1970s Born to Run Springsteen. This is proved by the Today show crowd in this clip: full of women in their 40s and a spattering of a few balding dudes. Like, really, just sad. But hear me out: this is still a great song! It's full of classic Springsteen spirit, and it even has a great sax solo! For an old dude who's been making music for decades now, I think this is a pretty fantastic effort. I can think of tons of other old dudes his age who should've given up the act a long time ago, but he is still full-out kicking ass. It is impressive! And it's full of the same classic ideas: he's still "searching for a world with some soul." Sweet mercy, I'm glad you are, Bruce. We need it. I love the repetition of "I just want to hear some rhythm": I heard this song on the radio a few years ago, and I said, shit, Bruce! I want a thousand guitars, I want pounding drums, I just want to hear some rhythm! Who doesn't!

(Just to let you know, I started writing this entry well over two hours ago. It might've only taken you a few minutes to read through it, but I've spent my entire morning listening to Springsteen songs instead of doing other things I need to do. Should I feel bad about this? I sort of do, and I also sort of don't.)


  1. Did you know that the "blew up the chicken man" thing is based on an actual event, namely this crazy cult of people living in Philadelphia (who I think had chickens?) that the police basically firebombed out of their compound? Because it is.

  2. I wouldn't expect Bruce to lie to us, but I didn't know the full story. Ah, Philly. Whatta town.