No Retreat, No Surrender

The 10 best Bruce Springsteen songs of all time: Bowing out as an HBO documentary beckons

The 10 best Bruce Springsteen songs of all time: Bowing out as an HBO documentary beckons

After 20 weeks, 190 songs, countless debates and hopefully plenty of insights, The Ultimate Springsteen Countdown is down to the final 10 — the very best Bruce Springsteen tunes of all time. When this odyssey began on CultureMap, the Houston Rodeo had just wrapped up, when it ends the infamously waffling corpse flower is long gone and a diva summer is hitting its stretch run.

It seems fitting that end of the countdown comes on the same weekend that news of a new Bruce Springsteen HBO documentary comes out. Promise: The Making of Darkness on the Edge of Town, offers an inside look at the production of the iconic 1978 album and one of the most tumultuous periods of Springsteen's career through footage that's gone largely unseen for more than 30 years.

There are three songs from one Springsteen album in this final 10. Maybe, you can guess the No. 1 song? But what about No. 2? And where does "Rosalita" fit in?


Song 10: “Independence Day”

Album: The River

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It’s the stuff of myth: The son who steps away from his father to fulfill his destiny. But it’s usually much messier than all that, fraught with emotions that build up over a lifetime and stay unresolved. The father sacrifices the years of his prime to difficult labor and is rewarded for it by being abandoned by the son; the son’s capacity to understand such sacrifices often arises only when it’s far too late for it to be properly communicated to the father.

All of these difficult feelings bubble to the surface on the staggeringly great “Independence Day," a ballad by Bruce Springsteen included on 1980’s The River. We’ve delved plenty into his relationship with his father in this countdown, and all of those other references seem to coalesce here into this emotionally raw, brutally frank, and undeniably heartfelt track.

Set against a tender treatment by the E Street Band, which recedes into the background and lets Bruce’s lyrics and melody work their magic, “Independence Day” finds the roles reversed from what we normally expect. Here, the son is putting the father to bed. He is also saying goodbye, but not before he gets a few things off his chest.

The conversational style of the lyrics never stints on the psychological accuracy of this powerful moment. Some of the words toe the line of being hurtful, like when he insinuates that his father was weak for being crushed by his job, and that he wouldn’t allow that fate to befall him as well. But this is not just a farewell to one person. It’s a farewell to a whole way of life, as Bruce’s protagonist realizes that his father’s old-fashioned, simple world is fading fast.  

Most painful of all, the realization that his dad’s devotion and obligation to him limited his opportunities in life ultimately elicits some sympathy and even remorse from the narrator: “Papa now I know the things you wanted that you could not say/But won’t you just say goodbye it’s Independence Day/I swear I never meant to take those things away.”

Those are the final lines of the song, so it ends with forgiveness and understanding winning out over rebellion and rancor. With all of that water under the bridge, that might be the best this pair can do. Maybe not a happy ending, but one that feels true, which is in keeping with the rest of this beautiful song.  

Song 9: “Born In The U.S.A.”
Album: Born In The U.S.A.

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I was at a fireworks display over the Fourth of July, and there, playing on the P.A. amidst the boom of the M-80’s and rat-a-tat of the multicolored mushrooms of spectacular colors, was “Born In The U.S.A.”  Twenty six years after it gained a reputation as one of the most misconstrued songs in rock history, it was still being used to elicit pride in the stars and stripes.           

My point is that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Yes, the song is loaded with anger and disillusionment. But the song is so profound that it allows for pride to enter the picture as well.  

Maybe if Bruce had kept the song in its original Nebraska-style folk format, that wouldn’t be so. But he chose instead that stirring, downright patriotic rock background.

Roy Bittan’s synthesizer riff that drives the song sounds like it could have been the brainchild of Souza. Even as Bruce’s lyrics remind you of all the mistakes that have been made, that riff keeps pulling your hand unwittingly toward your heart to pledge your allegiance.

I don’t see the music, which is also notable for Max Weinberg’s colossal drumming, as ironic so much as contrasting. The music and lyrics play to the dichotomy that Springsteen sees at the heart of America: The fact that a country that prides itself on its protection of liberty around the world has increasingly lost its way in terms of looking out for its own.  

Anyone who thinks that the song is anti-American is missing the point just as much, if not more, than those who hear the song as a flag-waving anthem. What the song is determinedly against is the way that Vietnam veterans were treated upon their return home.

After risking it all for their country, they often returned to scorn because of the way the tide of public sentiment had turned against the war. Their efforts to rebuild their lives were met with clichés from employers like “Son, if it were up to me.”

What’s worse is that the particular horrors of that war left these men in need of a grateful nation more than any soldiers in the country’s history. Instead, they were left alone to deal with their memories, which left men like the protagonist here with “nowhere to run, ain’t got nowhere to go.”

And for what? A stalemate. Or, as this vet sings about a fallen comrade in contrast to the enemy:  “They’re still there/He’s all gone.”

All of the outrage on display in no way mitigates this guy’s love of his country. When Bruce sings the chorus, there are elements of everything this guy feels hidden in his voice:  Confusion, fear, isolation, ire, and, yes, even pride. “Born In The U.S.A.” doesn’t expect you to stop loving this country of ours. It simply asks you to realize that experiencing all of those disparate emotions are a part of the bargain.     

Song 8: “Backstreets”
Album: Born to Run

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To me, Terry is a guy. I know that there’s a live version of the song in which Bruce indicates otherwise, but, in terms of the song as it was recorded on Born To Run, this song is about the deep friendship between two youths and how that friendship is eventually torn apart by both the harsh pressures of their environment and some momentous, unspecified event.

That some of their exploits are described in romantic terms does not preclude this view, because these two young men have a bond as strong as any love affair.

Does it work with Terry as a girl too? Sure. It doesn’t really matter.

What matters is that in the course of “one soft infested summer,” two lost souls briefly found an all-consuming camaraderie, “a love so hard and filled with defeat,” that it was destined to flame out. They traveled the symbolic titular avenues and briefly found a home, and, even after it all collapsed, they cling to the memory of that fleeting season as the only real truth in their lives.

But it wouldn’t be the song it is without one of the E Street Band’s most stunning performances. Roy Bittan’s piano is nothing short of majestic; the thrilling open was once likened by Greil Marcus to what the beginning of The Iliad might sound like.  That’s just the start of Bittan’s efforts though. He seems to add another hook with every new line of music.  

Max Weinberg also delivers his first signature performance with the band, relying on an unusual thumping beat that frames the song.  Add in the precise guitar work of Bruce and Garry Tallent’s instinctively creative lines on bass and you start to realize that this momentous piece of music was made by just four men.

It’s probably a good thing; if Bruce had figured out a way to work in Clarence’s sax, our collective heads might have exploded.

The song’s final few lines resound with all of the confusion and heartbreak that occur when the heady dreams of youth are thwarted: “And after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest/Stranded in the park and forced to confess/To hiding on the backstreets.”

How good is Bruce Springsteen that he’s produced seven songs better than this?

Song 7: "Lost in the Flood”
Album: Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.

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The Ragamuffin Gunner. Jimmy The Saint. Bronx’s best apostle.

Upon a glance at these names, you might expect one of Springsteen’s ramshackle, benevolent tales of harmless spirits in the night. Instead, in “Lost In The Flood,” you get Bruce’s version of “Desolation Row,” a place from which few escape and ever fewer emerge unscathed.  

Springsteen seems to be taking on the aimlessness of a whole generation by using these dead-end characters who lash out in random acts in vain attempts to prove their existence. The title is telling, because Bruce portrays the hopelessness of the world creates as a problem of Biblical proportions.

The first sound you hear on “Lost In The Flood” is thunder, signaling the storm to come as the ominous piano chords second that emotion.

Much of the music on Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. lags behind the lyrics, partly because the lyrics are so overwhelming, partly because some of the music is uninspired. But, for once, there is a perfect marriage of the two on this song.

David Sancious delivers not only the piano but also the organ, which veers from wistfully distant to aggressively proggy. Vini Lopez gives his one of his best efforts with drums that show restraint in the verses before flaring up with rat-a-tat snares in the powerful refrains.

Springsteen’s narrator walks among the carnage like the last sane man, cautioning the characters about their exploits.

The surreal imagery of the Gunner’s section gives way to the Saint’s flame-out, “a real highwayman’s farewell” that’s rendered no less senseless by its spectacular nature. In the final verse, all hell breaks loose, as a shoot-out takes place with no apparent motives.

As the bodies fall, Springsteen relates it all like a war correspondent. And yet, at the end, an onlooker finds the mowing down of a character downright alluring: “Hey, man, did you see that?/His body hit the street with a beautiful thud.”

Another future victim, no doubt.

“Lost In The Flood” creates such a vivid picture that it’s easy to get lost in its intricate detail and memorable characters. But it’s a cautionary tale, first and foremost, and it stands as one of the first recorded testaments to the genius of its creator.  

Song 6: “Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”
Album: The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle

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When you think about it, “Rosalita” took some big-time stones. Here was Bruce Springsteen, before he’d ever succeeded on anything resembling a major level, taking a victory lap.

It was as if he was going to try to transmit the powerful belief he had in himself out to his audience, and, in turn, they would believe in him right back.

And it worked. Granted, it took the massive success of the next album, Born To Run,  to truly break Springsteen through, but “Rosalita” has a lot to do with the way that his popularity sustained over the years, becoming the legendary closing song and unofficial poster child for Bruce’s amazing live performances.

The reason that Bruce crowing about getting a big record deal in the song doesn’t seem like braggadocio is because his built-in charm has you rooting for him all the way. The character he’s created is hard to deny, as nothing will stop him from his appointed rounds with his girl, neither car troubles, nor Rosie’s reticence, nor, most daunting of all, a pair of overprotective and disapproving parents.

He’s quite the sweet talker here, not afraid to get a little bit risqué (“The only lover I’m ever gonna need is your soft, sweet little girl’s tongue”), able to lay on a few 10-cent words (“I’m coming to liberate you, confiscate you”), but most of all unwavering in his persistence.

You get the feeling that even the National Guard couldn’t keep this guy away.

Bruce also went all-out with the music, constructing the kind of daring show-stopper that was guaranteed to bring down the house even if you were listening in your living room. He utilized the unique talents of Clarence Clemons brilliantly, keeping him at the forefront most of the way. The arrangement toys with the tempo, freely skirts different styles of music (at times it’s a soulful rave-up, at times it’s a flamenco, and at times it’s grinding rock ‘n’ roll, propelled by Bruce’s reckless guitar), but never loses the forward momentum that mirrors the main character.

And let’s not forget Bruce’s breathless vocal. I dare you to try to sing along in the car radio; you’ll be gasping for air and your vocal cords will be strained past the limit.  Everything just coheres here in a way that few magnum opuses ever do.

By song’s end, Bruce may not yet have Rosalita, but he’s got whoever’s listening in the audience for good.

Song 5: “Brilliant Disguise”
Album: Tunnel of Love

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Despite pitch-black subject matter, “Brilliant Disguise” infiltrated the pop charts to the tune of a No. 5 ranking upon its release. That’s a testament to how tight the song is musically. It churns along like classic Elvis in the verses, before ascending into Roy Orbison territory in the choruses and bridge. The instrumentation is subtle, almost elegant, covering up all the messy terrain that lies beneath.

If you don’t parse the song too deeply, it would be easy to see it as a diatribe against an unfaithful woman. The chorus, at least until the final refrain, seems to place the burden of proof solely on her, as Bruce asks her point-blank if the persona she’s showing is indeed her true self.

But a closer reading reveals that this guy has issues of his own that may even outweigh the ones he’s accusing his spouse of having. Even while locked in a seemingly idyllic dance to start the song, he can’t let well enough alone (“What are those words whispered baby/Just as you turn away”).

With each passing line, the lack of self-esteem that so often accompanies a lack of trust rears its head more and more.  “I want to know if it’s you I don’t trust/’Cause I damn sure don’t trust myself,” he sings.  

In the final verse, he asks his wife to play along with the masquerade, as if facing the truth of this relationship would be too much to bear. When he turns the last chorus around to put the spotlight on himself as the possible instigator of doubt, it’s now clear that they are the past the point of no return. The relationship is over; it’s just that the audience knows it before the participants do.

In an inspired touch, Bruce adds an epilogue to let us know how the young lovers are faring, a parting glimpse into “the darkness of our love.” In a closing line so profound it should be carved in stone, the singer lays it all on the line:  “God have mercy on the man/Who doubts what he’s sure of.”  

It’s tempting to simply read this song as Springsteen’s commentary on his own crumbling marriage, and there’s no doubt that some of his personal experience filtered into it. But such a narrow reading short-changes just how insightfully “Brilliant Disguise” dissects the counterintuitive but common conundrum that trips up so many relationships: How two people can be deeply in love and still not believe in each other.

Song 4: “Darkness On the Edge of Town”
Album: Darkness On the Edge of Town

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Bob Dylan, one of Bruce’s biggest influences, once sang, “When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose.” The character in the title track and closing song of Bruce’s stunningly powerful 1978 album can relate.

He gives away everything good in his life in one fell swoop of self-destruction for an urge that he can’t even properly articulate. You just have to be there.

When Bruce gets to the build-up to the chorus in this song, he doesn’t sing so much as howl. It’s a primal sound, and it fits this character well. After all, this guy doesn’t so much make wrong choices as he’s an unwitting victim to some innate desire.  When he talks of his wife’s aversion to street racing, he says that it was because “that blood it never burned in her veins.” Clearly, it burned in his though, overwhelming any common sense.

The dichotomy of this guy’s persona is reflected in the music. At times it’s soft and reflective, but then it surges into some of the E Street Band’s toughest rock and roll ever.

Remember that punk was all the rage in 1978, but none of those whippersnappers had anything on the assault Bruce and the boys show here. Bruce’s precise solo is a thing of cruel beauty, and Roy Bitten plays his piano like a mad scientist. All restraint is left behind.

“Darkness On The Edge Of Town” is a marvel because it mines deep psychological territory with a relatively small amount of words.

Bruce brings it all home in the final lines, following up his admission that even the loss of his money and his wife had little effect on him, as if they were just shadows from a dream, and every line is fraught with meaning: “Tonight I’ll be on that hill ‘cause I can’t stop.” (Again, the lack of control over his self-sabotaging ways.) “I’ll be on that hill with everything that I got.” (Which, at that point, is practically nothing.) “Lives on the line and dreams are found and lost.” (The stakes couldn’t be higher.)  “I’ll be there on time and I’ll pay the cost.” (Even knowing these stakes, he’s ready to dig in his heels and take whatever comes.)  For wanting things that can only be found/In the darkness on the edge of town.”  

In many ways, this song is Bruce putting the charming gang members and street racers of his early songs to bed once and for all. These characters that once seemed so romantic, even when they were coming to bad ends, morph into this man-child, who can’t leave that life behind even though it costs him every important thing he has.

It’s suddenly not very romantic anymore.  It was also Springsteen’s way of letting go of an archetype which had served its purpose brilliantly, but would have seemed exceedingly silly had he continued to write those songs into his 30’s and 40’s.  

It all coalesces into the unflinching portrait of one man on his last chance, ready to fulfill his destiny, however aimless and ineffectual it might be. It turns out that the darkness was his home all along.
Song 3: “Incident on 57th Street”
Album: The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle

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To casual Bruce Springsteen fans, his career begins with "Born to Run." If they’re aware at all of his output before that time, they might know “Rosalita” and, if they’re aware of the fact that he actually released two albums in 1973, they might labor under the misconception that these albums are somehow inferior to the rest of his catalog.

Of course, that’s not true, but if you play them just any random song off those first two albums, you might not convince them otherwise. Where are the big anthemic moments, they might think.  Why does everything sound so muddled, they might ask.  Why does Bruce sound so different, they might query.  

So my advice to you, the hardcore Bruce fanatic, is that, if you want them to join your legion, you should play them “Incident On 57th Street.” This song is the bridge from the ’73 Bruce to the one who conquered the world. He couldn’t have created Born to Run without this dry run, albeit a dry run that came out perfect.

Like so many songs on Born to Run, “Incident” starts out with a piano intro, seconded in this case by some elegiac guitar from Bruce, that promises something big.

In this case, it’s the quintessential love story against a backdrop of violence, but Springsteen’s innovation is in the way he leaves out the big ending, where the two either get away or tragedy strikes. What he does give us are the moments in between that tell us everything we need to know about these two people, and that makes them feel like real, common human beings even in this outsized milieu.

They are flawed and make poor choices, but we root for them because their connection feels rare and true, something that even a violent end couldn’t really ever destroy.

“Spanish Johnny drove in from the underworld last night/With bruised arms and broken rhythm but dressed just like dynamite.” With those two lines, Bruce has given us a fully-formed, fascinating character that your average novelist couldn’t conjure in 400 pages of prose. Seemingly down to his last chance in this hard world of pimps and gangsters, he finds redemption in just three words from the heroine, Puerto Rican Jane: “Johnny, don’t cry.”   

With that line, the music, which had been a gentle mid-tempo rumble distinguished by Vini Lopez’s hiccupping beat, explodes into life, propelled by Danny Federici’s swirling organ. Johnny explains that Jane has to share him with the “golden-heeled fairies” who “pull .38’s and kiss the girls good night.”

Jane can accept this bargain, only if Johnny makes the impossible promise that he somehow emerge unscathed. As she says, “Spanish Johnny you can leave me tonight but just don’t leave me alone.”

After the music has built up into a thunderous frenzy, it suddenly dissipates, leaving just Garry Tallent’s bass to accompany Bruce as he meticulously depicts the two lovers rising after a moment of passion. (It needs to be noted here how brilliant Tallent is in this section, the ever-steady sideman shining in the limelight.) Johnny wistfully watches the kids on the street, seeing in them a familiar rebelliousness. He also watches Jane sleep, knowing that as much as he loves her, that street will soon beckon.   

He leaves, as Jane knew he would, but not before setting a rendezvous for the next night he knows he might not be able to keep: “We may find it out on the street tonight, baby/Or we may walk until the daylight maybe.” The refrain is repeated three times: The first is a whisper, the second is more assertive, and the third is a maelstrom of sound, Springsteen singing with majestic desperation as the band crashes all around him.

Eventually we’re left with just David Sancious’ piano. I’ve always imagined that melancholy, circular figure to be a music box in Jane’s bedroom, her only accompaniment as she waits for Johnny to return. She still waits there to this day, a symbol of the sacrifice that love demands even when it can promise no recompense.

It’s a thrillingly told tale, accompanied by an endlessly inventive musical arrangement. The music is majestic and ambitious; the lyrics are subtle and concise. There are hooks at every turn, and a refrain that soars into your consciousness. That all sounds like the Bruce Springsteen of Born to Run and onward, doesn’t it?  So when you’re defending those first two albums, let “Incident On 57th Street” represent. I guarantee you it won’t disappoint.

Song 2: "Jungleland”
Album: Born to Run

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The word “epic” is thrown around a lot these days. If a movie is over two hours and 15 minutes, it’s an epic, even if it’s a giant piece of festering trash quality-wise. Same thing with books: Just write a doorstop that weighs more than it means and you’ve got yourself an epic.

Some people may even be foolhardy enough to call this undertaking an epic. Heartfelt? Sure. Long-winded? Most definitely. But an epic? Not by any stretch of self-delusion on my part.

I prefer to reserve the term “epic” for those things that truly deserve it.  And I can say, without reservation, that “Jungleland” is an epic. Yes, it’s long, but that’s not the reason it deserves the appellation.

It’s epic because it creates an entire world in a relatively short time, and yet it still leaves enough open space to fire the imagination. It’s epic in musical scope, an endlessly inventive arrangement that showcases every one of the members of the E Street band while also stressing their whole-is-better-than-the-parts aesthetic. Most of all, it’s an epic for its fearlessness, the way that Springsteen attempts something on such a grand scale and knocks every bit of it out of the park.

That’s why, for such a long song, you still have the urge to cue it up again when it comes to an end.

Suki Lahav’s violin is the first thing you hear, quickly joined by Roy Bittan in a stately dance tinged with melancholy. The violin soon leaves town, just Bittan and his scurrying runs remain.

It’s not long before Bruce introduces his two protagonists, the Magic Rat and the barefoot girl. We meet them both through their automobiles, the Rat driving his “sleek machine” to a gang assembly, the girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge. Soon, without even a word passing between them, they are riding off together into a bursting night.

Danny Federici now subtly sneaks in as it’s revealed that the Rat has a posse after him. But his organ thunders into prominence, ironically, on the line “From the churches to the jails tonight all is silent in the world.” Up ‘til now, the song is a pure ballad, but that changes when Bruce sings the lines: “As we take our stand/Down in Jungleland.”

The E Street Band is now fully engaged, and the brilliant rhythm section of Garry Tallent and Max Weinberg propel the action into hyperdrive.

It’s fitting that the architectural centerpiece of this world is the sign of an oil company, since these ruffians are defined by their cars. Bruce’s lyrics get more streetwise poetic as the music gets tougher: “There’s an opera out on the turnpike/There’s a ballet being fought out in the alley/Until the local cops’ cherry top/Rips this holy night.”

This is where Springsteen begins to draw parallels between the heightened fantasy world he has created with the fantasy world of rock ‘n’ roll that he lives every day: “The hungry and the hunted/Explode into rock and roll bands.” Bruce realized that without his talent he could have been one of the live fast/die young characters populating his songs. As if to punctuate this point, he lets loose a furious guitar solo heading into the bridge.

These kids, like shadows, up and disappear at the end of the bridge. They need to clear the area for possibly the most momentous saxophone solo in the history of the world. Springsteen reportedly drove Clarence Clemons to the brink of exhaustion trying to get the perfect feel, but damn if it wasn’t worth it.

Beginning with a sustained note that’s like a clarion call for all the wounded souls to rally, Clarence somehow manages to play with both force and restraint at the same time. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other top rock band that has a saxophone player as a regular member. After hearing this majestic solo, it’s easy to see why. It’s already been done, and no one can top the Big Man.

When the dust clears, we’re left with just some lonely piano chords, and Springsteen’s voice is a wrecked shell of the powerful instrument it was in the previous parts of the song. He quietly takes us into a random bedroom and its “whispers of soft refusal and then surrender.” But such a soft ending is not in the cards for our hero and heroine. “In the tunnels uptown/The Rat’s own dream guns him down,” one more indication of Bruce’s theme of the dangerous hangover left behind by the drunken dreams of youth.

What’s even more tragic is that no one in Jungleland seems to care, rendering The Rat, for all his charismatic bravado, just another victim in an unforgiving world, indistinguishable from the rest.

Bittan begins to play with unstoppable power now, and Bruce laments the senselessness and indifference of the scene, bringing a close to a once-in-a-lifetime set of lyrics: “Outside the streets 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/And in the quick of a knife, they reach for their moment/And try to make an honest stand/But they wind up wounded, not even dead/Tonight in Jungleland”

But Bruce isn’t done, and as the music flares up again with Bittan’s fast-fingered trills and Tallent’s ominous bass notes, he lets forth some guttural cries that seem to come out of every character in his repertoire. In those cries, you can hear Go-Cart Mozart’s insane ramblings, the Ragamuffin Gunner’s jaded fatalism, Crazy Janey’s healing sweet nothings, Zero and Blind Terry’s ghostly laughter, Madame Marie’s foreboding warnings, Spanish Johnny’s tragically romantic serenade to Puerto Rican Jane.

They all, all denizens of Jungleland, come out to join the Rat and the barefoot girl for one final bow, and the curtain closes.

Is that epic enough for you?

Song 1: “Born to Run”
Album: Born to Run

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I know what you’re going to say, so don’t bother. You’re going to say, “Could he be any more obvious? I mean, any moron could come up with “Born to Run” as the best Springsteen song. Hell, the guy’s been playing it at every concert for a billion years. Way to be original, pal.” Or something like that.

The problem with the most popular songs is that people hear them so many times that they start to lose their impact. They tend to tune them out without giving them the kind of attention they did when the song captivated them the very first time. It’s human nature, I suppose.

I’m asking you now to listen to “Born to Run,” really listen to it once again. Take out a pair of headphones and drink it in all of its multi-tracked glory. Listen to the lyrics, not just as familiar sounds you’ve heard blasting out of your car speakers for so many years, but as words fraught with so much meaning that their writer seems to almost burst while delivering them.  

Start with Ernest “Boom” Carter’s opening drum shots, and then marvel at the fact that the guy played on all of one Springsteen recording and it turned out to be “Born to Run.” Then stand back and prepare for that first crash of sound that hits you with reckless impact. Seemingly a thousand instruments coming at you at once, even though the album credits list a mere six players contributing to the track.

Now, listen, really listen to that opening riff again. Listen to how it seems to bust down walls, break invisible chains, clear your sinuses, and promise nothing short of infinity. And, hey, keep in mind that Steve Van Zandt, fittingly, made an unsung contribution to the track by altering Springsteen’s initial riff simply because he misheard it.

Bruce liked the riff the way Steve heard it better, and that became the riff etched in the annals of rock history.  Who knows what might have happened if he hadn’t happened along in the studio that day, but that’s part of Steve’s indefinable genius, isn’t it?

OK, now the lyrics begin, and you need to hear how Bruce nails the existence of an entire generation in two electric lines: “In the day we sweat it out on the street of a runaway American dream/At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.”

Do you notice how his description of these folks is peppered with such explosively active phrases? “Sprung from cages on Highway 9/Chrome-wheel fuel-injected and stepping out over the line.” There is so much motion and potency in these words, a dead-on depiction of frustrated youth afraid to stand still because they might never be able to start again.  

At this point, take into account how Bruce’s narrator has an ulterior motive with all of this fancy talk: He’s trying to convince his girl, Wendy, to join him on an escape from “this town,” which he describes as if it were a living entity, a remorseless Terminator programmed to grind down hope and promise. As David Sancious’ piano swirls all around him, Bruce gets to the point of his argument: “We got to get out while we’re young/’Cause tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.”

A couple things you need to consider at this point. First of all, what a pinpoint choice of words when he calls himself and those like him “tramps.” He could have said “bums like us,” but “tramps” has just the right tinge of romance clinging to it, more apt to the ebullient music.

Next, think about how endlessly profound the phrase “Born to Run” is.  Born to run from their problems. Born to run because it’s in their nature, an instinct no different than a shark’s single-minded quest to eat. Born to run because inertia is tantamount to death. Born to run with all of the grace and beauty of a gazelle, and born to run in a desperate, messy gait to escape the hellhounds of the past.  

As the next verse begins, it’s time for you to hone in on Garry Tallent’s burbling bass underpinning the entire grandiose structure of the song. But try also to notice how Bruce balances a genuinely heartfelt and chaste promise to Wendy with some bawdy talk to appeal to her more prurient side: “Wendy, let me in, I want to be your friend, I want to guard your dreams and visions/Just wrap your legs round these velvet rims and strap your hands across my engines.”

But for all of that bravado, this guy quickly reveals himself to be vulnerable: “I’m just a scared and lonely rider” who wants to know “if love is real.” The multi-faceted nature of this character is part of what makes this song so enduring.

OK, time for Clarence. Just sit there with your jaw open at his lightning quick solo. Ain’t nobody running anywhere faster than that. But prepare for a change of pace, because now the bridge arrives, and the music has an almost dreamlike quality. All the better to accompany Springsteen’s description of the nightlife. He highlights its allure, from the picturesque scenery to the sounds of the traffic to the boys and girls. (Don’t forget it’s OK to blush knowingly when you consider how he dissects the difference between the genders: Girls worried about their hair, boys worried about their, um, stick shifts.)

You can also appreciate, especially in this period in which we live when irony rules and all genuine gestures are vied suspiciously, the unabashedly romantic nature of the line that ends this section: “I want to die with you, Wendy, on the streets tonight in an everlasting kiss.” With that, the reverie is shattered by a blistering drag race between Bruce on guitar and Clarence on sax, all leading to the drum-rolling, instruments-poised-to-strike crescendo.

I can’t begin to calculate the number of times that I’ve listened to “Born to Run,” and, let me tell you, the moments following that crescendo give me chills every time. The main riff returns, this time embellished by all of the Spectorian grandeur surrounding it, and Bruce bursts out in a voice so cathartically desperate it practically cracks with the immortal couplet: “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.”  

Consider now how those lines may have resonated with their creator, and how that desperation wasn’t a put-on. Springsteen was putting everything into this song, because it might very well have been his last chance. With two mediocre-selling albums in his rear-view that didn’t come close to matching the hype his record company heaped on him, had Born to Run flopped, Bruce likely wouldn’t have been given another shot to go this big again. His career was at stake; talk about rising to the occasion.

It should all be gravy from here, but rest assured that Bruce isn’t going to mail it in.  Because in the final lines, you realize that these two might never get out, grounding this song in a sorrow that runs counterpoint to the lofty optimism.  It deepens the entire enterprise when the narrator qualifies his final promise to Wendy with “I don’t know when.”  But, then again, as we are reminded three times in increasingly impassioned refrains, “Tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.”  

Now savor every second as the E Street Band, albeit one with a one-off lineup containing Sancious and Carter, brings it all home with gusto as Bruce gives his “Whoa-ohs” every last ounce of energy he has.  As the reverb of the final note dissipates, how do you feel?  Exhilarated?  Heartbroken?  Blown away?  Inspired?  Spent?  If you feel all of the above, then you’ve followed my instructions to the letter.

“Born to Run” is a song that keeps on growing with me. It makes sense to me even though I’ve never felt the need to escape my hometown as Bruce felt the need to escape his, which was the impetus for the song’s creation.

Blessed by the love of a rare and wonderful woman, a ridiculously amazing daughter, and too many special family members and friends to do justice to here, and divested (for the most part) from past sorrows and youthful insecurities, I feel like I’ve made it out from my own death trap. I feel like I’ve reached that place where I walk in the sun.

So I would ask you, if you’re skeptical about this ranking, to please listen to “Born to Run,” the song that best summarizes the Boss and all he’s about, just like it was the first time. And, while you’re at it, why not take another leisurely stroll through the songs in this countdown and enjoy the singular, immense talent of Bruce Springsteen.

I know that’s what I plan to do.

<<SONGS 20-11

Bruce Springsteen - goodbye
After 20 weeks and 190 entries, it's time to go out on the Top 10 Bruce Springsteen songs of all time.
Bruce Springsteen - greatest hits
These can't fit into any easy album.
Springsteen Rolling Stone
When you're dealing with the work of Springsteen — who's seemingly been in the spotlight forever — it's much more complicated than that.
This Ultimate Countdown started shortly after the Rodeo cowboys left town.
dead corpse flower
And ended even after the waffling, forever-lasting corpse flower expired.