Tramps like us – five essential Bruce Springsteen songs


It seems like half the population of Ireland has seen Bruce Springsteen at this stage. Springsteen is a great leveller, uniting rock fans, pop fans, parents and kids, hardcore fanatics and the one gig a year squad. He’s back in Dublin this weekend for two shows at Croke Park, and he could’ve sold it out a few more times over.

Just as Bruce attracts the most diverse crowd of any rock show in the world, there are many versions for fans to project onto – he’s been a ragamuffin New Jersey beat poet, a blue-collar everyman, fist-pumping rock’n’roll Boss man, political activist, honky-tonk goofball rocker, folk balladeer, preacherman and leader of “the heart-stopping, pants-dropping, hard-rocking, booty-shaking, love-making, earth-quaking, Viagra-taking, justifying, death-defying, legendary E Street Band”.

I’ve been a Bruce follower since my parents bought me a cassette of Born in the USA for my seventh birthday, and I’m well into double figures with Bruce gigs, so an objective top five is impossible. But these songs still stop me in my tracks after hundreds of listens and wearing out of tapes, records and hoarsely singing them at gigs over the years. And even if there’s a few different versions of Bruce here, the one constant is his gift for devastating stories.

Lost in the Flood (Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ, 1973)
Over the decades, Springsteen has become a master of broad stroke sweeping gestures and archetypes, but his 70s albums are full of epic character studies of the bums, grifters, greasers and chancers he’d see knocking around the New Jersey boardwalk.

His earlier records had an extended cast list of extras, with brilliantly evocative names like The Magic Rat, Crazy Janey, Weak-Kneed Willie, Big Balls Billy, Sloppy Sue and dozens more.

But while other songs wallowed in boisterous, balmy, sweaty-vest revelry, Lost In the Flood is Springsteen’s first tragedy, ending side 1 of his debut LP in a hail of bullets and violent religious imagery.

America’s post-Vietnam decay is a recurring theme throughout the first half of Springsteen’s career, and the fallout is first touched on in Lost in the Flood.

The song itself is split into three acts, with the first two following war vets — the “ragamuffin gunner” and Jimmy the Saint – and the third a fatal shootout involving the cops, the “Whiz-Bang Gang” and a kid who gets caught in the crossfire.

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Beginning in a thundery rumble of feedback and stark solo piano, the tension finally gives in, as the ragamuffin gunner stalks the streets, “his ankles caked in mud”, and Jimmy the Saint crashes his car in a street race that leaves “junk all across the horizon” and the realisation that “man, that ain’t oil — that’s blood”.

On verse three, Bruce flips from cautionary storyteller to eyewitness, reporting from a chaotic and senseless late-night shooting, with a kid “holding his leg, screaming something in Spanish”, the victim of trigger-happy cops.

“His body hit the street with such a beautiful thud,” is one onlooker’s grisly observation, as stuttery drums and spiralling organ try to catch up with Springsteen’s agonised howl at the end.

Jungleland  (Born To Run, 1975)
Jungleland could well be the E Street Band’s most epic widescreen tale — with the whole crew playing at superhuman levels on Born To Run’s 10-minute curtain closer.

It’s one of the band’s most overblown productions, with four separate acts, strings, church organs, tempo changes and late sax player Clarence Clemons’ longest and most beloved solo.

Once again he makes an epic tale out of small bit-players — the Magic Rat driving his “sleek machine over the Jersey state line” and the enigmatic “barefoot girl”, who we meet “sitting on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain” — one of Springsteen’s most enduring images.

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This being a Springsteen song, it doesn’t stay a straight outlaw love song for long — the Rat’s being chased by a gang, as well as the cops. His “own dream guns him down” in an uptown tunnel and he’s shuffled off to the morgue without a blip in the town’s late-night heartbeat — “no one watches as the ambulance pulls away”. It recalls the death of Omar in The Wire — the demise of the show’s anti-hero reduced to a three-paragraph brief in the paper the next day.

As Springsteen sings, “The poets down here don’t write nothing at all, they just stand back and let it all be”, he steps in to give the Rat a proper mythical send-off, along with the other tragic souls who’ve got lost in the flood.

State Trooper (Nebraska, 1982)
Nebraska is Springsteen’s most minimal, sparse album, and State Trooper is its most minimal song — just the insistent pulse of a chord strum and a rudimentary melody inspired by synth-punk act Suicide’s Frankie Teardrop (Springsteen later covered Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream on his 2014 album High Hopes).

“I don’t know if it’s even really a song or not… it’s kinda weird,” Springsteen wrote in a note to producer Jon Landau at the time. The song, and the wider album, surely polarised fans who’d lapped up the rock operas and 50s rockabilly of double album The River two years previously.

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The feral shrieks and howls that cut the song in two are the most harrowing moments on any Bruce record. And while most of his highway songs are about escaping or having one last shot somewhere else, State Trooper is his most grim, with no chance of redemption — a dead-end criminal speeding to nowhere in the rain, just repeating the phrase, “Mr state trooper… please don’t stop me.”

The singer tells the notional state trooper that he’s got nothing to lose, while the cop may have a kid and a “pretty wife”, an ominous warning to leave well alone, as his “mind’s gone hazy” and he’s living on his “last prayer”.

The River – live with intro story (Live 1975-85)
Springsteen’s first-person stories are often composites or archetypes, but the characters at the centre of The River are based on his own family — namely his sister Ginny who got pregnant at 18 and jumped into marriage with her young boyfriend.

It’s become one of Springsteen’s most iconic songs, with its themes of lost innocence, taking responsibility and fear for the future on a predestined path: “I come from down in the valley/ where mister when you’re young/ They bring you up to do, like your daddy done.”

It’s also Bruce’s most famous harmonica line, which cuts through the gentle strum and underlying piano.

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The River album has a lot of Springsteen’s rock’n’roll fluff, like the cheesy honky-tonk of tracks like Crush On You and You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), but songs like The River, Independence Day and Wreck on the Highway were precursors to Nebraska’s tales of melancholy and desperation.

This live version of The River was recorded in 1985 on the Born in the USA tour and doubles up on the family drama with a lump in the throat intro, as Bruce tells a story about the fractious relationship with his father. Douglas Springsteen would tell the young Bruce he couldn’t wait till the army got him: “They’re gonna cut off all that hair and make a man out of you.”

Bruce recalls going for a physical exam for the Vietnam draft and not telling his father until he came home: “I remember coming home after I’d been gone for three days, walking in the kitchen. My mother and father were sitting there and my dad said, ‘Where you been?’ I said I went to take my physical. He said, ‘What happened?’ I said they didn’t take me. He said… ‘That’s good’.”

Douglas Springsteen was the awkward muse for many of his son’s songs, notably Adam Raised a Cain, My Hometown and Independence Day, but he’s never tackled their relationship in such a tender way.

Tougher than the Rest (Tunnel of Love, 1987)
Bruce’s best love songs are always about people trying to fix each other. Even his epic runaway songs like Thunder Road and Born To Run feature hesitant lovers and anti-heroes who just about settle for each other: “There’s magic in the night… you ain’t a beauty but hey you’re alright.”

Compared with the freewheeling dreamers on his 1970s albums, the characters on Tunnel Of Love have lost a bit of their fizz, weary of let-downs and too many wrong forks in the road.

Tougher Than the Rest is a real tear-jerker — with the singer admitting he’s no “sweet-talking Romeo… but round here baby, I learned you get what you can get”.

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The stakes aren’t so high this time — he’s not asking the girl to pack up and leave with him on a one-way journey out of town, just that she’ll give him a chance and dance with him at some roadhouse bar.

It doesn’t matter that they’ve both “been around”, he’s a grafter who won’t bail like her other boyfriends. He’s a classic Springsteen character – the unassuming honest John who’ll work for your love.

The 80s booming snares and overly reverbed synths leave the production a bit over-egged, but there’s still enough melancholy and straight-talk yearning to hit you in the gut.