Bruce Springsteen is a working man’s hero. He’s known for singing songs about his hometown of New Jersey, and despite his rise to rock star status, he’s never forgotten his roots and continues singing songs for those whose voices would never be heard otherwise. Sometimes his songs are just kind of fun and silly, but many of them are grave and touching social commentaries, revealing the sufferings of the lower class, telling the stories that otherwise would go untold.
1) Johnny 99:
What a sad and powerful song this is, despite it’s quick and upbeat tune. If you ignore the lyrics, it’s a fun, rollicking song to sing along to. But the lyrics are somber and beg to be listened to; they tell the story of a man who has turned to crime because of his circumstances and manage to make the listener sympathetic to a character who would usually be the antagonist. It’s a sympathetic look at crime and criminals in this country. “A fist fight broke out in the courtroom, they had to drag Johnny’s girl away. His mother stood up and shouted, ‘Judge, don’t take my boy this way!'”
2) American Skin (41 Shots):
This one tells the sad and true story of a man who was fatally shot 41 times by the police. The man, Amadou Diallo, an immigrant from West Africa, was standing in the doorway of his house and was simply reaching for his wallet when the police, under the assumption he was reaching for a gun, shot him repeatedly. At a New York concert, this song was met with controversy from the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, a large order of police officers who called for boycotts and protests of the show. This did not stop the concert from sellling out, nor the crowd form cheering supportively throughout the song. Amadou Diallo’s mother, Kadiatou Diallo, was at the concert and was hopefully comforted by the fact that someone cared enough to stand up and tell her son’s story. “41 shots, they cut through the night. You’re kneeling over his body in the vestibule, praying for his life.”
3) Streets of Philadelphia:
This is another tragic one (don’t worry, they won’t all be sad). Featured in the movie Philadelphia, this song is an amazingly sympathetic account of a man dying of AIDS. The tone is grave and solemn; desperate and haunting. To listen to it, you’d think it was written by someone who truly was dying of AIDS. How Bruce manages to capture it so perfectly, I don’t know. I do know it’s a beautiful song that everyone should hear. “I was bruised and battered and I couldn’t tell what I felt. I was unrecognizable to myself. Saw my reflection in a window, I didn’t know my own face. Oh brother, are you gonna leave me wasting away on the streets of Philadelphia?”
4) Atlantic City:
Ah, yet another song of desperation and poverty, of doing whatever it takes to change one’s situation. This is a bleak but likable song that takes place in and around Atlantic City, NJ. The narrator of the song has some characteristics in common with Johnny 99; in fact, there is even a phrase that is found in both songs, a phrase that pretty much sums up the tone of the songs: “I got debts that no honest man could pay.” Despite the dark lyrics, the melody is enjoyable and there is the slightest sliver of hope within the song. This one has also been covered favorably by the Counting Crows. “Well our luck may have died and our love may be cold, but with you forever I’ll stay. Goin’ out where the sand’s turing to gold, put on your stockings babe, ’cause the night’s getting cold…”
5) Reason to Believe:
This is a simple, bittersweet song about the human spirit, and people’s ability to keep believing despite all the reasons not to. Its simple chorus proclaims, “Still at the end of every hard earned day, people find some reason to believe.” It’s touching and sincere. “Like if he stood there long enough, that dog’d get up and run…”
6) Does this Bus Stop at 82nd Street?:
This one is a fun one, upbeat for most of it, though the tone drops and the pace slows at the very end. Still, it’s a short, quick, entertaining song that I always wish would last longer. Filled with allusions that only hint at the stories behind them, the song gives the listener the feeling that he or she is riding in fast bus, watching little slices of life go by through the window. “Where dockworker’s dreams mix with Panther’s schemes to someday own the rodeo…”
7) Rosalita (Come Out Tonight):
This one is upbeat, rocking, and fun the whole way through. It tells the lighthearted story of a boy who wants to pick his girlfriend up for a crazy party in their hometown, despite her parents’ mutual disdain of him. The end of the song is especially great, because it builds to a fabulous crescendo of speed and noise and music. “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny. But now you’re sad, your Mama’s mad, and your Papa says he knows that I don’t have any money. But tell him this is his last chance to get his daughter in a fine romance, because the record company, Rosie, just gave me a big advance!”
8) Incident on 57th Street:
This is a sweet love story (kind of), featuring two people who throughout the song are only referred to as “Spanish Johnny” and “Puerto Rican Jane.” But it’s also the story of a town, a town with “hard girls over on Easy Street” and “barefoot street boys” and “kids playing down the street,” not to mention, “those romantic young boys” who “all they ever want to do is fight.” It paints a colorful picture of a long, hot summer in a town trapped in poverty and full of crime and characters. The pace is moderate and the tone is upbeat and hopeful.”Spanish Johnny drove in from the Underworld last night, with bruised arms and broken rhythm and a beat up old Buick, but dressed just like dynamite…”
9) The E Street Shuffle:
Yes, Bruce loves his songs with “Street” in the name. This one is a great one to dance to; it’s fast and full of energy. Imagine all the characters from the two previously mentioned songs, young and wild, all coming together on a sticky summer day to laugh and dance, and then you’ll get the general feeling of this song. It’s yet another one that celebrates a certain town, and even more specifically, a certain street, with all the stories it holds and the people it has known since their birth.
10) Born to Run:
Yeah, I had to put it on here. Where would a Bruce Springsteen list be without Born to Run? For those of you who have never actually heard it, Born to Run is an inspiring song about freedom, youth, possibilities, and the call of the open road. Though it can be assumed that the song is referring specifically to New Jersey, it has become an anthem for people everywhere that long to leave their hometown and never return. Those who feel that they were never meant to stay. “Baby this town rips the bones from your back, it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, we better get out while we’re young…because tramps like us, baby, we were born to run.”
I know all you Bruce Springsteen fans out there may have different ideas about what constitutes a top ten list of his songs. I do not claim that this is an objective list of his ten best, or anything like that. These are just songs by him that I think are interesting and/or powerful, and that I think people should hear. And for those of you not familiar with Bruce, I would suggest the album The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle.