The hungry and the hunted: Bruce Springsteen the storyteller in 10 songs

In a memorable episode of his Revisionist History podcast, Malcolm Gladwell asks why the greatest country music is so sad, and came to the obvious answer that it’s all about the details. “We cry when melancholy collides with specificity and specificity is not something every genre does well,” he says, referencing the family life reportage of artists such as Tammy Wynette, John Prine and George Jones.

“One half of the country, the rock music part, wants their music to be hymns to extroversion. The other half wants to talk about real life dramas and have a good cry. I don’t get it,” he adds.

For many, Bruce Springsteen’s greatest moments are indeed these hymns to extroversion, transcendence, escapism and widescreen optimism, with his live shows shot through with a giddy rock’n’roll religiosity.

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But for every grandiose mission statement, Springsteen has a left-field character study, vivid snapshot or moment of introspection. And if you want details, Springsteen’s songbook is overflowing with bit-part actors, with him playing roles such as New Jersey beat poet, blue-collar everyman, fist-pumping rock’n’roll Boss, political activist, honky-tonk goofball rocker, folk balladeer, preacherman and band leader.

Springsteen’s greatest gift has always been for telling stories through song, and in more recent years, through his Born To Run memoir and the Springsteen on Broadway. Here’s an attempt to dig into the themes and arcs that are scattered through his songs.

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”.

Later, 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.

Tenth Avenue Freeze Out (Born To Run, 1975)

In Springsteen rock’n’roll mythology, there’s no bigger story than the forming of the “heart-stopping, pants-dropping, house-rocking, earth-quaking, testifying, death-defying E Street Band”.

Tenth Avenue isn’t a real New Jersey street, but as with many of Springsteen songs, the story is better than the actual truth. It follows a band leader called Bad Scooter (check the initials) as he hustles around the boardwalk “searching for his groove”, trying to recruit a badass group of musicians. The song marks guitarist Steve Van Zandt’s first attempt at arranging and it’s one of the most iconic productions on E Street, with blistering, dirty soul horns that are stretched and improvised to breaking point in shows to this day, as Bruce does the introductions.

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Bruce tightened up his writing on Born To Run to make the album more accessible, avoiding a lot of the site-specific NJ references that danced off the map on Greetings From Asbury Park and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle. But while ‘Tenth Avenue’ is a made-up street, the verses here are an amalgam of all the greaser joints, bright sidewalks and radios blaring on his earlier records.

In his memoir, Springsteen describes the miraculous effect sax player Clarence Clemons had on the E Street Band, and the Big Man was his right-hand man for decades, from the Born To Run album sleeve up until his death in 2011. The third verse line, “And the changes was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band” is followed by a solo burst from Clarence which always got the biggest cheer in live shows, sadly now accompanied by a video tribute to Clemons and organ player Danny Federici.

As a rock icon, Clarence has a pretty big pair of shoes to fill, but in recent years his nephew Jake Clemons has been playing his parts live, and ‘Tenth Avenue’ always ends in a big hug from his uncle’s partner in crime.

Meeting Across the River (Born To Run, 1975)

Springsteen’s songbook is full of last chancers and no-hopers, and the guy in ‘Meeting Across the River’ is a tragic case of desperation and delusion, a wide-eyed petty criminal trying to rope his mate into a life-saving heist or drug deal.

The three-minute vignette is a warning shot before Born To Run’s epic curtain closer ‘Jungleland’, with twinkling piano and a drifting trumpet lament. And even as the B-side to the ‘Born To Run’ 7-inch, the chrome-wheeled, velvet-rimmed, fuel-injected American dream is way out of reach. For a start, the dude doesn’t even have a car – he begins the song with a plea to his mate Eddie for a few bucks and a ride to the other side of the river.

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“Word’s been passed this is our last chance,” he warns, with a hint that they’ve fucked up other deals, or owe money to some bad cats. As an extra kick, his girl Cherry is “gonna walk” because he pawned her radio. The odds aren’t good – the guy he’s meeting “don’t dance”, and there’s a half-assed attempt to stuff something in their pockets to look like they’re packing a gun.

He can’t see past the “two grand practically sitting here in my pocket” and the notion that he’ll go home and throw the cash on their bed and she’ll forgive him. But you can’t shake the feeling that he won’t come back over the bridge that night.

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 finale. 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.

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.

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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.

Spare Parts (Tunnel of Love, 1987)

“Bobby said he’d pull out, Bobby stayed in… Janey had her baby, wasn’t any sin.” So begins the story of an unwanted pregnancy, a deadbeat deserter and a depressed mother unravelling.

‘Spare Parts’ is maybe let down by the over-egged 80s rock production and wailing guitar solos, but underneath the bluster lies a desperate cry with some of Springsteen’s most vivid and tense imagery. It’s a pity he’s all but ditched the song, as a new arrangement or even a Nebraska-style lo-fi retelling would add a timeless vigour.

After having the baby, Janey paces up and down in a back room in her mother’s house, cut off from the “party lights”, while hundreds of miles away, Bobby swears “he ain’t never going back”, leaving her with a wedding dress gathering dust.

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Janey gives in to her darkest thoughts after hearing of a woman who got rid of her problem by drowning her baby in a river. Janey is on her knees in tears beside her boy’s crib, but still takes him down to the riverside. She’s up to her waist with her son in her arms but is somehow brought round by the sun shining on the pair of them. There’s no divine intervention moment or rush of maternal magic, she just can’t go through with it.

Later as he’s sleeping she takes her wedding dress and engagement ring and finally brings it to the pawn shop and walks out with some “good cold cash”. It’s an exorcism rather than any plan for the future, but at least it’s a start.

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 booming snares and overly reverbed synths do sound a bit dated, but there’s still enough melancholy and straight-talk yearning to hit you in the gut.

My Hometown (Springsteen on Broadway, 2018)

At one point in his memoir, Springsteen riffs on the escapism in his early songs, in a self-deprecating deconstruction of his own mythology. When he presents the story on Springsteen On Broadway, he explains that “Everybody has a love/hate relationship with their hometown… it’s just built into the equation of growing up.

While some early Springsteen tracks like ‘4th of July Asbury Park’ and ‘Wild Billy’s Circus Story’ are sprinkled with fond boardwalk and beach surrealism, by Born To Run, Freehold New Jersey was merely a “death trap” for a couple of tramps to flee.

“Listen to the lyrics,” he says. “I gotta get out, I gotta hit the highway, I’m a roadrunner, man. I’m gonna bring my girl and I’ve had enough of the shit that this place dishes out.”

The punchline is that 40-odd years later he lives 10 minutes from his hometown: “Born To Come Back… who’d have bought that shit?”

On the Born in the USA album, ‘My Hometown’ has a sombre minimalism, floating on Danny Federici’s organ, as Springsteen traces his relationship with Freehold, from early memories of being eight years old driving around in a “big old Buick” with his father telling him to take a look around and remember where you’re from, to race riots in 1965, then recession.

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By 1984 it’s all “whitewashed windows and vacant stores” and foremen laying workers off, including the rug mill where his dad worked when Bruce was a kid. The song finishes with the narrator at 35, driving around with his own kid, giving him the same man-to-man talk. He has a vague idea that he’ll maybe pack up and move his wife and kid to an unspecified “south”, but you know the family’s trapped.

In Broadway, Springsteen transfers ‘My Hometown’ to solo piano, and even with the humorous set-up and major chords, the melancholy and inertia still hang heavy.

Western Stars (Western Stars LP, 2019)

It’s way too early to think about where Western Stars fits in the overall Springsteen canon, but at 69, he’s released another outlier as initially evocative as Nebraska, The Ghost of Tom Joad or Devils and Dust. His new album is another solo effort, but while the above records are stripped-back, introspective works, Western Stars opens up a whole new palette for Springsteen, with gilded widescreen orchestral country arrangements that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Lambchop or Gram Parsons record.

Of course, he knew the type of characters he was after in the casting call for an album set in the archetypical American West – isolated and brittle males running out of fuel, trying to get their stories out.

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In the title track, an ageing Western movie extra shuffles into his day with a shot of gin, two raw eggs and a “little blue pill that promises to bring it all back to you again”. You can guess his age when he namedrops being shot by John Wayne once, a story that’s bought him “a thousand drinks” as he drifts around bars.

He has ideas of himself as a cowboy hanger-on, driving east to the desert on Sundays to go riding. He lives where the desert blurs into the edge of town, at one point staring down a “coyote with someone’s Chihuahua in its teeth”. It’s a violent, grotesque image that’s just shrugged off. After all, this old dude once faced down John Wayne, even if now he’s just happy enough to wake up with his boots still on.