The Pickled Priest Guide to Bruce Springsteen's Best Lyrics
Bruce Springsteen's songwriting has evolved dramatically over the course of his epic career. He started out, or so he claims, sitting on his bed with a rhyming dictionary, attempting to become the Jersey Shore's answer to Bob Dylan. While likely said in jest, it's doesn't seem far from the truth. Very quickly, however, he developed several distinct and original voices and became the personification of everything that America is about in the process. He was a true believer and a staunch realist simultaneously. In the second half of his career, he often went Biblical, giving everyday events a dramatic sweep, complete with Shakespearian weather forecasts and enough cosmic references to make Galileo ejaculate onto the lens of his telescope. While I'm oversimplifying his creative arc in the interest of time, an analysis of his songwriting at each station of his career does reveal some clear, identifiable tendencies. He has often said his songs are all part of a lifelong conversation with his fans, which explains why he's often traveled in new directions, adopted different voices, and explored different themes in the last 50 years or so. We all evolve as we get older, so that makes sense. But it is also safe to say that none of us are always in top form throughout our entire lives and Bruce is no exception. We've looked at every Springsteen lyric penned since 1973 and compiled our own list of our 50 all-time favorites. Next week, we'll post our list of 25 of his most wince-inducing clunkers just to demonstrate that nobody's perfect, not even the Boss. The selections here will tell a story, I'm sure, but which one?
Notes on selections:
1. We made no mandate that lyrics from each part of his career be represented here, although we did assess every song on every album and beyond.
2. The lyrics chosen could not be part of the song's chorus or title. Our goal was to get deep into the verses and not into the more anthemic hooks or sing-along choruses. That's a different list.
3. In the interest of variety, we limited any one song to two sets of lyrics. Some songs obviously have more than two amazing lines, so we probably didn't pick your favorite in many cases. If we didn't put a lyric cap on, we could've ended up with seven entries from "Born to Run" or ten from "Queen of the Supermarket."
4. We limited the length of each lyric selection to one to four lines. Otherwise, we'd just be tempted to type all the lyrics to one song and call it a day. We wanted to make tough decisions between many of our personal favorites. Needless to say, many great lyrical moments were left out. As was most of the last two decades of Bruce's career. That's just how it played out.
TOP 50 BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN LYRICS
Sometimes we'd go walking down the union tracks
One day I looked straight at her and she looked straight back
"Working on the Highway"
The dramatic and the profound dominate this list, but there has to be room for some seemingly tossed-off brilliance as well. This is one of those lines that has always stuck with me, and when this song plays, I wait for it specifically each and every time. I've often wondered why. What is it about this short moment that resonates with me so deeply? Then it hit me. How many times have I found myself covertly looking at someone else without their knowledge? Sometimes assessing them, maybe compelled by affection or attraction, but usually it's because I'm gauging a reaction to some shared experience. But what happens when, unexpectedly, the person is checking on you at the very same time? It's an unspoken yet magical moment when you are truly with someone and they with you. Perhaps profound and dramatic after all.
Now your death is upon us
And we'll return your ashes to Earth
And I know you'll take comfort in knowin'
You've been roundly blessed and cursed
It's well known that "Terry's Song" is a tribute to Terry Magovern, Bruce's personal assistant for over two decades. In truth, it's not a great song, but the sentiment is mostly what matters. The lyrical hook is based on the old "When they made you, they broke the mold!" trope, and I've always found it a little disappointing that Bruce didn't deliver something a little more substantial for his old friend. That said, the captioned line above is easily the song's true highlight. Funerals are often a sanitized affair, with revisionist history in ample supply, but for those with an appreciation of honesty and perspective— Terry apparently one of them—who prefer to go out with a realistic assessment of their time on Earth, this is a refreshingly frank and welcome take. It lets us know the depth of understanding between two old friends.
Side Note: It says something about the lyrics from the second half of Bruce's career that this is one of the two most recent songs on this list (along with #48 from 2002). Each later-period album was scoured for material, I assure you, but when you're limiting the selection to fifty exhibits of lyrical brilliance, spots get taken up faster than in a mall parking lot at Christmas. Unfortunately, that trend will be reversed when we post the forthcoming list of Springsteen's 25 Worst Lyrics next week.
Coffee cup's on the counter, jacket's on the chair
Paper's on the doorstep, you're not there
Everything is everything
Of all the songs written about 9/11, this tonally perfect tribute to a lost husband and father really seems to boil down the tragedy to its raw essence. For those who lost someone that day, the reminders are everywhere, in everything. We often think in grand, dramatic terms, but the reality is that even the most taken-for-granted details of an ordinary life suddenly take on profound importance when the person associated with them is removed from the picture.
Now you hung with me when all the others turned away
Turned up their nose
We liked the same music, we liked the same bands
We liked the same clothes
If you choose, or are compelled to pursue, a life that points you in a direction that most would dismiss as foolish or delusional—and in almost every case they might be right—then having a soul mate riding shotgun who believes in you (and vice versa) means everything. This song has always given me the image of two rebellious high schoolers sprung from their cages, out on Highway 9...well you know how it goes. We all know this story ends well, but it works in micro situations as well. I've spent a good portion of my youth flying down the streets and highways of Chicago—going nowhere by design—cranking my favorite music with a likeminded companion and there's no substitute for that kind of kinship.
Now judge, judge, I got debts no honest man could pay
The bank was holdin' my mortgage and takin' my house away
Now I ain't sayin that makes me an innocent man
But it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand
The lyrics in the first line above were so good Bruce used them in two different demos for Nebraska ("Atlantic City" being the other). Demos that were so raw and powerful he just released them as is, hence the duplication. When you've got a line like that you're gonna use it somewhere, so I don't blame him for trying it out in different contexts. I like that unpolished quality of Nebraska.* Like the song "Nebraska," here Bruce again explores the root causes of violence. He seems fascinated by the reasons people snap and seems well aware that anyone could be pushed to their own limit at any given time. What's your breaking point? Mine is when music websites wish albums a happy anniversary. (Happy 10th Anniversary to the Black Keys' El Camino! et al)
*The most egregious duplication on Nebraska is the shared stanza "In the wee wee hours, your mind gets hazy / Radio relay towers, lead me to my baby" that appears in its entirety on both "Open All Night" and "State Trooper."
There's a girl across the bar
I get the message she's sendin'
Mmm she ain't lookin' too married
And me, well honey I'm pretending
"One Step Up"
How will you rationalize your actions? How will you account for your time? Do you even care to do either anymore? There's a lot to think about in this line-crossing moment. And two years into Bruce's first marriage this would qualify as a red flag to say the least. Even if Bruce is writing about relationships generally here, I would think Julianne Phillips might've done a double-take upon hearing this one back in 1987. Bruce, we need to talk. There's so much to contemplate in this short exchange it's impossible to sort it all out in the time it takes to sing it.
Well I jumped up, turned around, spit in the air, fell on the ground
Asked him which was the way back home
He said take a right at the light, keep goin' straight until night
And then boy, you're on your own
"Blinded By the Light"
What an unproductive exchange. This is what qualified as a conversation in the early-70s I guess. Greetings is dominated by this kind of madcap energy throughout, which can be both a blessing and a curse depending on the situation. While the delirious absurdity that populates many of the songs is easy to get caught up in, and a blast to sing along with, at times it gets a bit much. The more I dwell on it, there's wisdom in the existential directions given here. Especially if you're under the impression that home isn't used in the traditional way here, and a spiritual home is implied instead. Then everything makes perfect sense.
Well my feet they finally took root in the earth
But I got me a nice little place in the stars
And I swear I found the key to the universe
In the engine of an old parked car
Like just about every song on Greetings, "Growin' Up" has any number of choice lines that could qualify as a fan favorite depending on the moment. Bruce was flying at a breathless pace in 1973 that he couldn't keep up for long, and he was smart to hit the ejection button before his B-52 bomber slammed into the side of a mountain, words strewn everywhere.* Granted, he had us mortals gasping for our own breath with hands on knees by the end of the record. At times, like this moment in "Growin' Up," we get to hear him figure things out a little bit. In this case, how a Jersey boy from a small town might actually be able to unlock a world of his own making.
*Bob Dylan, upon hearing Greetings, famously remarked that Bruce should be careful or he might run out of words to use. (Paraphrased)
They declared me unfit to live
Said into that great void, my soul'd be hurled
They wanted to now why I did what I did
Well, sir, I guess there's just a meanness in this world
In America, we're more obsessed with why you did it than on how to stop things from happening again. Every Friday night, there's a new supply of true crime stories dramatically narrated for desensitized, voyeuristic couch potatoes. "Nebraska" is admittedly dramatic, but it's not sensationalistic. And it's certainly not desperate to keep your attention past the next commercial. It unfolds at a pace suitable for its titular state. It's the harrowing story alone that draws you in, raw and believable, needing no embellishment to sustain interest. And there's good reason for that. It was famously inspired by a killing spree undertaken by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend Caril Anne Fugate back in 1958. The lyrics are simple, to the point, and stark (which seems appropriate). No matter that they aren't factually accurate, they were never meant to be. It's more an aggregation of influences, from a true-life Natural Born Killers to the Flannery O'Connor novels Bruce was thumbing back then. Bruce conveys the whole story economically, with not a word wasted. It gets to the heart of our current America in four well-crafted lines.
Well if it was any other man
I'd put him straight away
But when it's your brother
Sometimes you look the other way
- "Highway Patrolman"
Like so many Bruce songs, there's a movie to be made from "Highway Patrolman." This set of lyrics alone could act as the skeleton for a pitch meeting in some Hollywood executive's office. The whole plot is right here for someone to flesh out. Sean Penn in the title role. Or as the brother for that matter. He's versatile.
I don't understand how you can hold me so tight
And love me so damn loose
"Mary Queen of Arkansas"
While this song ranks as one of my least favorite from Springsteen's early period, that doesn't mean there still aren't moments of brilliance to be found. Here's an example of a line that almost single-handedly justifies the existence of the song for me. The rest of the song suffers from with dubious wordplay that can challenge the tolerance of even the most loyal Springsteen apologists out there. But this one simple exasperated sigh of a line to a departing lover says so much.
What I got I have earned
What I'm not I have learned
Desire and hunger is the fire I breathe
Just stay in my bed till the morning comes
"Because the Night"
When accounting for your life, what have you earned? What have you learned? The answer in both cases can be good news or bad news depending on your perspective. Understanding your limitations is fine, but what if that stifles your dreams? Taking responsibility for your actions is generally a positive step, too, but that doesn't mean you're free of the ramifications. At no time are these types of existential questions more suffocating than in the middle of the night, when your brain doesn't charge a cover for troublesome thoughts and even inflates them as a courtesy for maximum impact. That's when it helps to have someone to hold onto until a new day breaks.
And some kid comes blastin' round the corner
But a cop puts him right away
He lays on the street holding his leg, screaming something in Spanish
Still breathing when I walked away
"Lost in the Flood"
I love the cinematic quality that courses through the verses of this classic song. This one sounds like a debrief from an eye-witness, perhaps recounted for the benefit of a half-circle of open-jawed friends at some tavern later that night. This is how we told stories before we filmed everything on our iPhones and I've got to say, I like this medium a lot better.
Whenever somebody's fightin' for a place to stand
Or a decent job or a helpin' hand
Whenever somebody's strugglin' to be free
Look in their eyes, ma, you'll see me
"The Ghost of Tom Joad"
Bruce was doing a lot of heavy reading around the time The Ghost of Tom Joad was written and it shows; the obvious inspiration for the title track coming from John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath. Bruce boiled down the feel of that book, updated it for the present day, and came out with something all his own on the other end. The sad fact is the plot wasn't really that different. Same issues, different people, different time. But the spirit of Tom Joad was still around looking out for the oppressed and downtrodden in his spare time. The only thing that could make it any more powerful, apparently, is a five-minute Tom Morello guitar solo as witnessed on Springsteen's 2014 hodge-podge album, High Hopes, and the subsequent tour.
Well the cops finally busted Madame Marie
For tellin' fortunes better than they do
This boardwalk life for me is through
You know you ought to quit this scene too
"4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)"
The shift in songwriting style from Greetings to The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle in just nine months time remains one of the most radical creative transformations in music history. From dizzying rhymes to sweeping narratives in the time it takes to conceive and have a baby. This now iconic line about Madame Marie was from the audio equivalent of a boardwalk postcard and captures the same feeling as the end of The Flamingo Kid, where the staff is putting away the patio furniture at summer's end. There's a sense that everything is coming to an end and maybe that's a good thing. Time to move on, memories in hand.
The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street
Showin' me a hand I knew even the cops couldn't beat
"It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City"
This early Bruce cut would've been a killer rap song if it had been released by Def Jam in the mid-80s. It's packed with colorful boasts, street hustlers, and enough urban poetry to draw a teeming crowd to a Bronx street corner. The rhymes come fast and furious, but these two lines sound like the moment of truth, when adversity turns to advantage for those willing to seize the opportunity.
Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says "Son if it was up to me"
Went down to see my VA man
He said "Son, don't you understand now"
"Born in the U.S.A."
The plight of the Vietnam vet in four economical lines. Considering our current "Thank you for your service" approach, it's hard to imagine a time when backs were turned on our returning military men and women. But here it is laid bare, and it's a gut punch.
She asked if I remembered the letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old
Bruce's sequencing of The River, particularly its second half, was borderline sadistic. Sandwiched between the goofy "I'm a Rocker" and the thinly-veiled double entendre "Ramrod" were the doomed-romance novels "Fade Away" and "Stolen Car." Every time you think the party has finally started for good, a few moments later you find yourself in a roadside ditch pleading for your life. It's no way to live. On the other hand, it does reflect the rollercoaster nature of life while also demonstrating the scope of Bruce's songwriting abilities. This line from "Stolen Car" is classic Bruce, the entire essence of an eroding relationship captured in one late night conversation and, let's face it, there doesn't seem to be a fighting chance that there's still time to turn things around. I should also add that "Stolen Car" has one of Bruce's best final couplets of any of his songs, "But I ride by night, and I travel in fear / That in this darkness, I will disappear." OK folks, "Ramrod" coming up next!
I got God on my side
I'm just trying to survive
What if what you do to survive
Kills the things you love
"Devils & Dust"
Bruce's run through this song's lyrics on his VH1 Storytellers episode was worth the price of admission all by itself. Bruce admitted that the meaning of some of his most profound lyrics don't reveal themselves until after he's written them. So we are left to assume that such penetrating words pour out instinctively, channeled from some higher source. The claim of many a pretentious songwriter, but for Bruce entirely believable. How else do you put together the thought that the things you do to survive could also kill the things you love? It makes sense when it is right there in front of you, but to craft them from scratch? That's God-given talent. He told us so right in the first line.
Running into the darkness
Some hurt bad some really dying
At night sometimes it seemed you could hear
The whole damn city crying
Now that I pull it out of context, it almost sounds like this could be a song from The Rising, but we all know its real location nestled at the end of side one of Born to Run, moments before we surf the thunder of the title track on side two. In retrospect, it seems impossible that the lyrics of "Backstreets" could be written by a 25-year-old. There's unearned nostalgia and untaught life lessons coursing through its veins that seem out of reach for someone so young.
We gotta stay cool tonight, Eddie
Cause man we got ourselves out on that line
And if we blow this one
They ain't gonna be looking for just me this time
"Meeting Across the River"
I've always wondered what Eddie's side of this story would sound like. He's got to use his own money to get to a meeting he didn't even set up, he has to secure a ride, he doesn't get to say anything, he can't smile, he's got to pretend he's got a gun in his pocket, and despite substantial stress he's got to keep his cool. And on top of that, he's got to put on a fresh dress shirt. And what does he get for his trouble? If things go south, the bad guys are going to hunt him down in the streets. Even if it does, by some chance, go well, it sure sounds like he's not getting a payday. There's no mention whatsoever about Eddie's cut. In fact, it appears the real benefactor is some chick named Cherry, who is not only going to roll naked in two grand in small bills at the end of the night, but she's also going to get her radio back from the pawn shop in the bargain. To me, all reasons not to go along with the plan as laid out. Logistical incongruities aside, the whole song is a fucking masterpiece for many reasons—lyrically, musically, atmospherically—and there's not a line out of place. I chose one of my favorites, but the whole thing is a set piece, unwilling to be sold for parts.
End of the day, factory whistle cries
Men walk through these gates with death in their eyes
And you just better believe, boy
Somebody's gonna get hurt tonight
This is such a darkly beautiful song. It's often overlooked next to the many classic Boss tracks that populate Darkness on the Edge of Town. Thematically, it seems related to several songs on Nebraska, where financial stress, dim prospects, and life on the wrong side of that line eventually takes its toll, pushing some to do things they never imagined. Steam blows when things overheat. It's a scientific principle. If "Factory" didn't precede "Out in the Street" by two years, you'd almost think it was the same wild man twenty years down the road, beaten down by life. A sequel of sorts.
When I die I don't want no part of heaven
I would not do heaven's work well
I pray the devil comes and takes me
To stand in the fiery furnaces of hell
"Youngstown" went from a harrowing Rust Belt folk song to a devastatingly powerful live showstopper thanks to Bruce's detailed account of the inner workings of an Ohio steel mill that once made cannonballs during the Civil War, and a molten-hot Nils Lofgren guitar solo that could almost melt your mind with its whirling ferocity. This is one of Bruce's non-classic period masterpieces and exudes a distinctly blue collar mentality where your job often defines you, even well after you're gone.
Everybody's got a hunger, a hunger they can't resist
There's so much that you want, you deserve much more than this
But if dreams came true, oh, wouldn't that be nice
But this ain't no dream we're living through tonight
"Prove It All Night"
Bruce has spent a fair share of his career singing about that distinctly American trait of dreaming of something bigger and better for yourself and/or your family. There was "Book of Dreams," "Working on a Dream," "I'll See You in My Dreams, and "Land of Hope and Dreams." And those are only the songs where he used the word in the song title. Dreams are everywhere in his work. Even his solo tour encore was Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream." Darkness on the Edge of Town opens with "Badlands" where he's talking about a dream and trying to make it real and it ends with the title track where lives are on the line where dreams are found and lost. He's the dream weaver, but he can't get you through the night. You've got to do that for yourself
Tonight our bed is cold
I'm lost in the darkness of your love
God have mercy on the man
Who doubts what he's sure of
Tunnel of Love gets better and better as I age. I didn't fully understand it when I was 22, even though I thought I did. But now, let's say "several" years later, its honesty is striking, its revelations uncomfortable. The older you get the more reality you're exposed to. Couples you thought were rock solid aren't—people you thought were a time bomb waiting to blow are still together. In this passage, we listen in live on a moment of truth for at least one, and maybe two, different people.
Sheriff when the man pulls that switch sir
And snaps my poor head back
You make sure my pretty baby
Is sittin' right there on my lap
The second appearance by "Nebraska" on this list is perhaps the most memorable single line on the entire album, which is saying something. As if the tale itself isn't harrowing enough—"ten innocent people died" after all—here we see Charlie Starkweather showing no mercy to the one person you would think he would spare. I guess there's just a meanness in this world.
And don't call for your surgeon even he says it's too late
It's not your lungs this time, it's your heart that holds your fate
There's a lot to unpack in "For You", one of Bruce's wordiest songs ever, not to mention one of his most dizzyingly clever. But despite the steady diet of seemingly nonsensical couplets, the song still has enough moments of clarity to offer up something resembling a discernible narrative. We sense, despite claims to the contrary, that something important is at stake, something urgent. We also know that, in spite of the madness, there's someone for everybody who will come for you when things are at their worst.
By the time we made it up to Greasy Lake
I had my head out the window and Janey's fingers were in the cake
I think I really dug her 'cause I was too loose to fake
I said, "I'm hurt," she said, "Honey let me heal it"
"Spirit in the Night"
In a five-minute narrative which takes place during a single night shared by a group of friends, Springsteen manages to write the script for a compelling short film, complete with developed characters you actually care about, or at least can visualize. It's amazing how quickly Bruce captures your imagination and almost makes you feel you are along for the ride, an unmentioned character riding shotgun or skinny dipping in the lake.
Upstairs a band was playin'
The singer was singin' something about goin' home
She whispered, "Spanish Johnny, you can leave me tonight
But just don't leave me alone"
"Incident on 57th Street"
"Incident" is nothing less than Springsteen's own West Side Story, a sprawling, romantic epic worthy of a Broadway stage. Let's hope it never comes to that. A recurring theme in Bruce's music is loneliness. When you're alone, you ain't nothin' but alone, he sang years later on Tunnel of Love. In "Thunder Road," Roy Orbison sings for the lonely and Bruce identifies with the song, "Hey, that's me and I want you only." In "Two Hearts" his mantra, he clarifies, is "Two hearts are better than one." So, the plea in the final line here is as real as real gets.
Now I been lookin' for a job but it's hard to find
Down here it's just winners and losers
And don't get caught on the wrong side of that line
Sometimes the best lyrics are about the most obvious concepts, just sitting there in plain sight waiting for someone to point them out.
Show a little faith, there's magic in the night
You ain't a beauty but hey you're all right
Oh, and that's all right with me
Bruce can be funny sometimes, particularly onstage. But his humor on record isn't always on point and rarely does it have the intended shelf-life, as you will see when we do the Worst Bruce Lyrics list next week. Still, he nails it every now and then like he does here. In one of his greatest songs he manages to toss in this little aside that is downright offensive when you dwell on it, but it still works nonetheless. I imagine Bruce didn't even consider this funny when he wrote it—but I don't know for sure. If I was Mary, this insult would make me run back inside after all, but societal backlash aside, there's no denying it is a great and humorous line.
They left their homes and family
Their father said, "My sons, one thing you will learn,
for everything the north gives
it exacts a price in return"
This is more timely now than ever before, the wisdom contained devastating.
Papa's on the corner waitin' for the bus
Mama she's home in the window waitin' up for us
She'll be there in that chair when they wrestle her upstairs
'Cause you know we ain't gonna come
"Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)"
To quote Kiss: "Flaming youth will set the world on fire." In a way, that entire Kiss song mirrors the sentiment of "Rosalita" albeit at a fifth-grade level. Kids want to be kids, they want to get away from their parents, break free from what holds them back, and live their own lives and dream their own dreams. I love young, restless Bruce; there's a boundless energy to his first two albums that bottles up all of that unbridled romance and passion. Here, they're jumping out the windows and staying out all night. Parents will worry as all parents do, and so will Bruce and Rosie someday, but for now, they're all just thinking of themselves and nobody else, as kids are wont to do. Not even a fucking phone call.
It ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough
Man meets woman and they fall in love
But the house is haunted and the ride gets rough
And you've got to learn to live with what you can't rise above
"Tunnel of Love"
Most of the lyrics on this list build to a profound moment of truth by the end. The path to that point is also important, but that payoff is what makes the prior moments seem more profound than they really are. There is such wisdom in the final line here that isn't foretold in the previous three lines Anyone could write the first two lines, nothing special really. Even the third line is logical when you spend a little time thinking about the analogy he's using. Any country songwriter could've pieced that together. It's the final statement that shows insight beyond his experience (he was only married to his first wife, Julianne Phillips, for two years when he made the record). How would he know this at this point? Where did this thought originate? It takes the whole song into an even dark place, a wrong turn in the tunnel of love.
She sits on the porch of her daddy's house
But all her pretty dreams are torn
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born
"Racing in the Street"
It's just heavy, is all. I think I've seen this look a few times before, most recently in the face of a gas station cashier in a small Southern Illinois town I rolled into for a moment. Her eyes said, "I'm stuck here, I've got no real way out, and I don't know how to change that."
Now I think I'm going down to the well tonight
And I'm going to drink till I get my fill
And I hope when I get old I don't sit around thinking about it
But I probably will
For the first two-thirds of the song, Bruce seems to pity those stuck in the past pathetically recounting old stories. The genius of the last stanza is the realization that they, and he, aren't much different.
We busted out of class, had to get away from those fools
We learned more from a three minute record than we ever learned in school
There's a reason I subtitle this blog "Records as Religion." It's because the keys to almost everything can be found in a well-written song. You just have to know where to find them and be willing to do the work. I've spent my share of time in school and I've spent my share of time in church. And for some people, that's not where their divine inspiration comes from.
There's a sadness hidden in that pretty face
A sadness all her own
From which no man can keep Candy safe
Bruce can say so much in such a short time. He starts "Candy's Room" with the tale of a local prostitute negotiating a steady stream of Johns who all want to feel like they, and they alone, have the one real connection with her. It's the equivalent of that guy who thinks he really had a connection with that stripper last night. But Bruce's genius is that he doesn't forget about Candy's humanity. And he does so in a few simple lines that hang with you for the rest of the song. Nothing else matters after we hear this.
Beneath the city two hearts beat
Soul engines running through a night so tender
In a bedroom locked, in whispers of soft refusal
And then surrender
Outside the street's on fire in a real death waltz
Between what's flesh and what's fantasy
And the poets down here don't write nothing at all
They just stand back and let it all be
What's the best line in "Jungleland"? There's no real answer. Either you buy the whole overdramatic Broadway-worthy story or you dismiss it as a bombastic passion play with a killer sax solo. It's your choice. There are two parallel themes to navigate in either case. One is the street drama complete with car chases and guitars flashing like switchblades, and the other is what happens in the shadows, beneath the city, and out of view of the cops and poets both. In the first set of lyrics here, we see the latter, an intimate face-off, but no less important. In the second set, we see the former, with life writ large, set on a Hollywood lot, cameras rolling, capturing it all for posterity
Taconite, coke and limestone
Fed my children and made my pay
Them smokestacks reachin' like the arms of god
Into a beautiful sky of soot and clay
What makes this set of lyrics so indelible is their combination of specific details and powerful imagery. A folk song, and that's what this is, doesn't hold back on specifics, they're what adds color and credibility to the tale being told. So, in this case, we hear about the natural resources that fuel a dirty American industry while also providing a life for those brave enough to toil in the belly of the beast for decades. On the other hand, the life-shortening smokestacks polluting our normally blue skies with soot and clay are glorified as being akin to the arms of god. It's an indelible image, both majestic and tragic.
But I gotta know how it feels
I want to know if love is wild babe
I want to know if love is real
"Born to Run"
In reality, love is neither, but try and tell that to young kids chasing a dream. Still, in this short little mountaintop declaration, even the most jaded of us might believe, one last time, in the power of love. And I'd rather Bruce make me feel that way and not Huey Lewis.
In the Bible Cain slew Abel
And East of Eden he was cast
You're born into this life paying
For the sins of somebody else's past
"Adam Raised a Cain"
Because in four lines, you find out everything you need to know. Well, at least for another two years, until Bruce released "Independence Day," the healthier, albeit still profoundly sad, manifestation of the borderline violent rage expelled here. We all grow up and we all have to reconcile our parental relationships to some degree. Some of us figure it out on our own, some find our way with therapy, some of us carry it with us with every breath we take, wanting things that can only be found in the darkness on the edge of town.
I want to sleep beneath peaceful skies in my lover's bed
With a wide open country in my eyes
And these romantic dreams in my head
There's a hint of "The River" in "No Surrender," but this time the dream isn't yet a lie and youthful defiance still runs hot in the bloodstream despite enemy advances on one mental battleground after the next. The renegade spirit of "Bobby Jean," the song it precedes on Born in the U.S.A., courses through the song as well. We're best when we lean on each other to get through the stormy nights; that's the way it should be. And we don't give up. We never give up.
Poor man wanna be rich
Rich man wanna be king
And a king ain't satisfied
Till he rules everything
Where do you fall in this pecking order? More than 99% of us enter in the first line. A select few make it to line two. And only one at a time, most recently a silver-spoon blowhard with orange skin and a laughable combover, makes it to the finale. Even then, the hold is tenuous. Bruce basically summarizes the American ruse in less than 19-words during "Badlands" and proves that there's no hope for all of us if we don't reorder our priorities.
In the day we sweat it out on the streets
Of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory
In suicide machines
"Born to Run"
I know, a bit obvious. But it's an iconic opening that gives everyone goose bumps every time it kicks in. I've put myself in a corner by allowing only four lines of lyrics at a time, which is futile when considering Bruce's most legendary songs. "Born to Run" is perhaps the quintessential example. It defies segmenting, and when it is, there's no pleasing everyone. There's one moment of euphoric release after another, ending prematurely with our heroes running toward something intangible yet romantic at the same time. I have always been a big lover of first lines—songs, books, poems, movies—and "Born to Run" makes an immediate, not to mention desperate, first impression. Our protagonists are already in motion—they were born that way, after all—and we hear the reason why in the first two lines. Americans are giving up their dreams and the only way to not fall prey to the same fate is to outrun it.
Now I don't know what it always was with us
We chose the words, and yeah, we drew the lines
There was just no way this house could hold the two of us
I guess that we were just too much of the same kind
"Independence Day" is a tearjerker. If you're not moved something is wrong with you. When I first heard it as a 15-year-old if floored me and changed everything I thought a song could convey. Even now, each and every verse stacks on top of the last, reducing my ability to breathe as it progresses—and I had a good relationship with my father! The whole song is one long, dimly lit, complicated discussion around an old formica kitchen table in Freehold, New Jersey and there's no turning away.
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse
Now all those things that seemed so important
Well mister they vanished right into the air
Now I just act like I don't remember
Mary acts like she don't care
To me, there's no song in Bruce's catalog as front-to-back perfect as "The River." Its existence is argument alone to forgo a list of this nature. The song hits close to home for so many because it viscerally depicts the erosion of promise and the mounting reality that settling for something less is inevitable sometimes. The first set of lyrics here is the marquee moment of the song because it reads like the soul-crushing last line of a particularly disheartening memoir.* There's really nothing more to say after such a realization. The only thing left is a wordless ride back to the place where those very dreams might be still floating in the ether somewhere.
While it's hard to imagine any lyric surpassing that staggering revelation, I think the true genius of the songwriting on "The River" comes at the end of Act III, where the coping mechanisms of a husband and wife (in reality, the song was written about Bruce's sister and brother-in-law) are revealed. How many of us have done the exact same thing in our own unique way? We bury something in lieu of dealing with it. It's a moment that can drop you to your knees if you're not ready for it and retains that very same power for me a thousand listens later.
*Any self-respecting critic would've used "bildungsroman" instead of "memoir" in this instance but I just couldn't do it and look myself in the mirror with a straight face afterward.
The screen door slams
Mary's dress sways
Like a vision she dances across the porch
As the radio plays
First: the elephant in the room. There's been a little controversy lately around whether Bruce sings "sways" or "waves" in the second line, but the word choice is somewhat irrelevant since the song is perfect either way (personally, I've been singing "waves" at his concerts for my whole life). That said, Jon Landau settled it by making a definitive pronouncement, based on original lyrics written by Bruce himself, that it is, and has always been, "sways." He even had a correction made on Bruce's website, where he apparently has admin rights over content. Of course, all this could've been avoided if the Born to Run album didn't itself use the word "waves" on the inside gatefold, hence causing me to sing the first lines of my all-time favorite song incorrectly for decades! The only remaining question is if the word will be altered on future copies of the record (unlikely). That settled, we move on to the iconic opening lines of "Thunder Road," which rank as the greatest couplet in Bruce's esteemed catalog.
The opening moments of "Thunder Road" are unlike any in Bruce's catalog—a catalog now seemingly available for purchase for anyone with $415-million to blow. Too rich for the Priest's modest budget, but I wonder how much the first thirty-seconds of "Thunder Road" would cost me. I'd settle for just that small patch of real estate. In that relatively small window, we follow the path Mary traces with her lithe dancer's gams (my image) as she sashays to Roy Orbison's "Only the Lonely," her dress SWAYING behind in futile pursuit of Mary's twirling hips. In no other song does Bruce set the scene with such poetic economy. His writing here is more akin to the opening stage directions of a Tennessee Williams play than it is to a conventional rock and roll song. In a couple lines, Bruce has turned a front porch into a stage and, seconds before he enters to make his bent-knee invitation, we imagine the setting in our mind's eye. And everything that follows becomes more vivid as a result.