Bruce Springsteen: 100 Greatest Songs of All Time - Rolling Stone
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100 Greatest Bruce Springsteen Songs of All Time

An expert panel of writers and artists pick Springsteen’s best songs, from “Rosalita” to “Wrecking Ball”

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 12: Bruce Springsteen performs onstage during 'Springsteen On Broadway' at Walter Kerr Theatre on October 12, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Kevin Mazur/Getty Images)

Bruce Springsteen performs onstage during 'Springsteen on Broadway' at the Walter Kerr Theatre on October 12, 2017 in New York City.

Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

In the 41 years since the release of his debut, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., Bruce Springsteen has built up a catalog of songs nearly unrivaled in the history of rock, from the streetwise drama of his early work, through to the stadium-shaking heights of Born in the U.S.A., and continuing on to his recent socially and politically impassioned efforts like the new High Hopes.

Such sustained greatness makes choosing highlights a deeply subjective job, but we’ve given it our best shot. Selected with the help of a panel of writers and artists, here are our picks for Springsteen’s 100 greatest songs.

The panel: Win Butler (Arcade Fire), Andy Greene (Associate editor, Rolling Stone), Dr. Lauren Onkey (The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum), Jackson Browne (singer-songwriter, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer), Mikal Gilmore (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Christopher Phillips (Editor and publisher, Backstreets magazine), Peter Ames Carlin (Journalist, Springsteen biographer), Brian Hiatt, (Senior writer, Rolling Stone), Rob Sheffield (Contributing editor, Rolling Stone), Bethany Cosentino (Founding member, Best Coast), Alan Light (Journalist and author, The Holy or the Broken), Steven Van Zandt (Actor, guitarist, E Street Band member), Bill Flanagan (Executive vice president, MTV Networks), Edward Norton (Actor-director, two-time Oscar nominee), Warren Zanes (Founding member, the Del Fuegos), David Fricke (Senior writer, Rolling Stone), Tom Morello (Solo artist, Rage Against the Machine guitarist)

Rock Legend Bruce Springsteen Performs at a Huge Campaign Rally For Democratic Candidate For United States President Barack Obama in Des Moines Iowa Usa 05 November 2012 After Nearly 18 Months of Campaigning and After an Estimated Billion Dollars Spent United States President Barack Obama Faces Republican Candidate For United States President Mitt Romney in the National Election on 06 November 2012 United States Des MoinesUsa Elections 2012 - Nov 2012

Rock Legend Bruce Springsteen Performs at a Huge Campaign Rally For Democratic Candidate For United States President Barack Obama in Des Moines Iowa Usa 05 November 2012 After Nearly 18 Months of Campaigning and After an Estimated Billion Dollars Spent United States President Barack Obama Faces Republican Candidate For United States President Mitt Romney in the National Election on 06 November 2012 United States Des Moines Usa Elections 2012 - Nov 2012

Steve Pope/EPA/REX/Shutterstock


“Death to My Hometown”

Wrecking Ball, 2012

“It sounds like an Irish rebel song, but it’s all about what happened four years ago,” Springsteen said to Jon Stewart in 2012 about the fiery third single from Wrecking Ball, a devastating indictment of a society that no longer cares about the working class. Springsteen sings some of his angriest lyrics ever over a Celtic-rock stomp, indicting “the greedy thieves who came around/And ate the flesh of everything they found.” The musical adventurousness fit a theme he wanted to run through Wrecking Ball. “I used a lot of music from the 1800s and the 1930s to show these things are cyclical,” Spring­steen explained at the time. “The album is resonant with history.”

bruce springsteen

Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


“Johnny 99”

Nebraska, 1982

In September 1984, after Ronald Reagan misappropriated “Born in the U.S.A.” for his re-election campaign, Springsteen took his revenge onstage. “The president was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been,” he said in Pittsburgh one night. “I don’t think it was the Nebraska album.” Then he ripped into “Johnny 99” – the pitch-dark tale of a laid-off autoworker who kills a man in a moment of drunken despair, then begs a judge for understanding. “Johnny 99” is supposed to inspire empathy, not horror: “You kinda just gotta know what that feels like, somewhere,” Springsteen said of the song.

(EXCLUSIVE, Premium Rates Apply) Bruce Springsteen taking a break from the soundcheck at Alex Cooley's Electric Ballroom (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)

Tom Hill/WireImage


“Growin’ Up”

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973

Few songs in rock capture coming-of-age swagger and wonderment like this ode to Springsteen‘s adolescence – that period when he was, as the song goes, “the cosmic kid in full costume dress.” And the music, pushed along by David Sancious’ elegant piano and Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez’s drums, is a heady rush. This was one of the handful of tunes Springsteen played for Columbia Records honchos during his 1972 audition for the label, and he would often preface it in concert with a wry take on that meeting: “There was Clive Davis, the head of the company, dressed in a white robe and a wreath on his head. I fell to my knees and played the guitar.”

Editorial use onlyMandatory Credit: Photo by Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock (1172505a)Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van zandtBruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, America - 1970s

Editorial use only Mandatory Credit: Photo by Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock (1172505a) Bruce Springsteen and Steve Van zandt Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, America - 1970s

Andre Csillag/REX/Shutterstock


“Lost in the Flood”

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973

With its images of returning veterans, Chevy races and post-Vietnam America beginning to erode, this grand, apocalyptic parable foreshadows themes Springsteen would explore throughout his career. It was, he says, about “trying to get a feeling for . . . the forces that affected my parents’ lives . . . the whole thing of the wasted life.” (Tellingly, he performed it during the Vote for Change concert in 2004.) The recording also marks Van Zandt’s first appearance on a Springsteen album: Although he didn’t play guitar, Van Zandt supplied the sound-effects blast that opens the song.

bruce springsteen

Diana Scrimgeour/Redferns/Getty Images


“This Hard Land”

Greatest Hits, 1995

“We recorded about 80 songs for Born in the U.S.A. Some of them are great,” said Max Weinberg. “‘This Hard Land,’ which didn’t make it on the record, is just fantastic. That’s probably my favorite song we’ve done.” The song’s mix of stark Dust Bowl folk and swirling Jersey Shore barroom rock is a perfect split between that LP’s rave-up Americana and the dark acoustic demos of Nebraska. It didn’t appear on either album. But it became a concert staple and was rerecorded in 1995 for Greatest Hits; the folk-rockier, superior original surfaced later on Tracks. “I don’t understand how I could let it be unreleased for so long,” Springsteen said in 1998.

bruce springsteen

Michael Putland/Getty Images


“Candy’s Room”

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

Darkness on the Edge of Town is full of morose and lost characters, but Candy may be the saddest. In interviews, Springsteen refuses to admit that she’s a prostitute, but it’s pretty clear why she has “fancy clothes and diamond rings” and “men who give her anything she wants.” (In “Candy’s Boy,” a tortured ballad Springsteen demo’ed during the Darkness sessions, he sings from the perspective of Candy’s jilted boyfriend.) “Candy’s Room” has torrid guitars and a tightly coiled beat that brings out its dark urgency. “There’s something really romantic about that one,” says Craig Finn of the Hold Steady. “It’s like a rocket ship that blasts out of somewhere private into the world.”

bruce springsteen

Peter Carrette Archive/Getty Images


“Downbound Train”

Born in the U.S.A., 1984

Like “Born in the U.S.A.,” “Downbound Train” was a song from the Nebraska demo. Yet despite a slow, hard-bitten feel that’s keeping with the mood of Nebraska, it was actually first written as a jumpy rockabilly tune, over which Springsteen dubbed an echoing moan. The slowed-down version he eventually went with brings out the desolation in lyrics about a guy bouncing from job to job as he ­watches his life fall apart. The song was recorded at New York’s Power Station studio during one of the early Born in the U.S.A. sessions, with the demo’s moan mirrored in Roy Bittan’s brooding synth. “It has a kind of plainspoken poetry that ties it to great country music,” says Melissa Etheridge.

Bruce SpringsteenBruce Springsteen and the E Street Band in concert, Palais Omnisports de Paris Bercy, Paris, France - 04 Jul 2012

Geoffrey Robinson/REX/Shutterstock


“Wrecking Ball”

Wrecking Ball, 2012

Bruce wrote this song for our final shows at Giants Stadium in 2009 before they tore it down. It’s one of those road songs written for the band. They tend to take on a very comfortable arrangement because they’re being written for the live band and with the live band. It’s not like he’s going home in between and writing it and demo’ing it and showing it to the band later. He’s playing us the song backstage on his acoustic guitar, just like the old days. Songs like that take on a different sort of immediacy because they’re literally being worked up at soundcheck.

But it’s become a bigger song than merely about a physical wrecking ball. We had a long conversation about whether it should be the title of our last album. I thought once it’s elevated to the title of the album it actually will take on an additional metaphorical significance that can turn around the defensive negative implications of a wrecking ball smashing a structure or metaphorically smashing one’s past or history or dreams. There’s some of that in there. The song begins to say, “We are now the wrecking ball. We’re out here wrecking your passivity. We’re wrecking your acceptance of mediocrity. We’re out here living it with you in the pouring rain, we’re not afraid of anything. Bring on the wrecking ball.” In order to be reborn, one must die. That’s what it became.

I think it’s a great example of how good craft becomes art. I really believe that is how most of it happens. It’s rare that someone sets out to do something that is great art and actually succeeds at it. Most of the time that’s not the thought. Bruce certainly does that more than most.

By Steven Van Zandt

Bruce Springsteen performs at Alex Cooley's Electric Ballroom in Atlanta, GA, 1975. (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)

Tom Hill/WireImage


“Meeting Across the River”

Born to Run, 1975

Springsteen dashed off “Meeting Across the River” in “about an hour.” But he wasn’t that fond of it. His then-manager Mike Appel claims he had to lobby to get the song on Born to Run. “That’s a great song,” he told Springsteen. “Reminds me of Naked City.” Roy Bittan’s somber late-night piano figure and Randy Brecker’s noir trumpet back a short, open-ended tale about small-time hoods going across the Hudson to do a deal. “That two grand’s practically sitting here in my pocket,” Springsteen sings, though you get the sense that’s not how the night will end. The suggestive track even birthed a 2005 short-story collection in which various authors took inspiration from Springsteen’s shadowy tale.

bruce springsteen

Keith Meyers/New York Times/Getty Images


“If I Should Fall Behind”

Lucky Town, 1992

As hushed and solemn as a hymn, Springsteen‘s ballad from Lucky Town was a tender letter of devotion to wife Scialfa, as they navigated a new life (the couple had their first child in 1990 and were married in 1991). “You and I know what this world can do/So let’s make our steps clear that the other may see,” he sang. As Springsteen told a 1992 crowd in California, “This is my best song about making even small connections.” To achieve that intimate feel, Springsteen played every instrument himself on the track save for the drums, which fell to ex-Steve Miller Band member Gary Mallaber.

Danny Federici, Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic



The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995

Springsteen’s response to the economic devastation of the Reagan years came in the form of this tense portrait of an unemployed steelworker who sees the opportunities of his father dying away. The lyrics were inspired by the book Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass: “I put it down and I laid awake and I thought, ‘What if somebody came and told me that the one thing I could do, well, that wasn’t necessary anymore and how would I come home at night and face my family?'” The arrangement, featuring pedal steel guitarist Marty Rifkin and Soozie Tyrell’s haunting violin, is as intensely brooding as Springsteen’s lyrics.


Peter Pakvis/Redferns/Getty Images


“My City of Ruins”

The Rising, 2002

Springsteen debuted “My City of Ruins” in December 2000 at a pair of Christmas shows in his adopted hometown of Asbury Park, which had fallen on hard times since its heyday as a picturesque beach town. But the song took on a new meaning when he performed a gospel-tinged rendition (with just a few lyric tweaks) at a TV telethon for the victims of 9/11, and it served as a devastating closing track to The Rising, recalling the Band’s “The Weight.” In 2012, the song took on yet another meaning when it became a nightly tribute to Clemons on the Wrecking Ball tour. The “City of Ruins” was now the E Street Band itself.

bruce springsteen

Tom Hill/WireImage


“For You”

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973

An early example of Springsteen’s gift for character-driven story-songs: In the back of an ambulance, the narrator talks with his girlfriend, who may have attempted suicide. Some believe it’s based on his ex Diane Lozito; Springsteen – who calls the song one of his “twisted autobiographies” – says he “changed names to protect the guilty.” Onstage, he introduced it by saying, “Back in 1971 . . . I was breaking up with this girlfriend of mine, and when I was away one weekend, she came and painted all the walls of my room black. . . . That’s not true . . . she painted ’em all blue.”

Legendary rock star and icon Bruce Springsteen performs during his Born in the U.S.A. tour in Philadelphia (Photo by Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis via Getty Images)

Brooks Kraft LLC/Corbis/Getty Images


“No Surrender”

Born in the U.S.A., 1984

Springsteen recorded this defiant anthem at the very end of the Born in the U.S.A. sessions, but he was hesitant to include it on the album, feeling its lyrics were misleadingly romantic. “You don’t hold out and triumph all the time in life,” he said. “You compromise, you suffer defeat.” But Van Zandt convinced him otherwise. “It had a little bit of the ‘Born to Run’ swagger, if you will, and he was concerned he was being a little bit redundant with it,” he said. “I just said, ‘Look, there are certain things, certain themes, certain emotions that it’s OK to be redundant with. . . . Rock & roll is redundant by definition, to be honest.'”

American group Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band perform in concert, circa 1984. (Photo by Larry Busacca/WireImage)

Larry Busacca/WireImage


“Shut Out the Light”

Non-album B side, 1984

For anyone wondering if “Born in the U.S.A.” was an endorsement or a condemnation of the American dream, all they had to do was flip the single over and play its gripping B side. “Shut Out the Light” took inspiration from the book Born on the Fourth of July, by Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic. Over a supple acoustic backdrop and Soozie Tyrell’s violin, Springsteen sings about Vietnam’s hellish psychological aftermath. (He removed two verses, one of which alluded to the protagonist’s drug problem.) Performing the song in stadiums during the Born in the U.S.A. tour, he said, “This song is about leaving home and not being able to find your way back.”

bruce springsteen

Jan Persson/Redferns/Getty Images


“Tougher Than the Rest”

Tunnel of Love, 1987

Night after night, on the Tunnel of Love tour, this subtle ballad made for a singularly intimate duet between Springsteen and his future wife, Patti Scialfa. “I couldn’t have written any of those songs at any other point in my career,” Springsteen said at the time. “I wouldn’t have had the knowledge or the insight or the experience to do it.” Spare and tense, “Tougher Than the Rest” is about an emotionally bruised couple meeting at a bar, each hoping this time will be different. “This song is unusual in that it applies this macho way of talking to something sensitive,” says Win Butler of Arcade Fire. “But it’s even better hearing Patti sing it live with Bruce.”

bruce springsteen

Larry Hulst/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


“Adam Raised a Cain”

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

“I don’t make ’em up,” Springsteen said in reference to the songs he’s written about conflicts with his father, Douglas – a withdrawn working-class guy who shared Bruce’s struggles with depression. “Adam Raised a Cain” is a pile driver, featuring a remarkably heavy groove and some of Springsteen’s most searing guitar work. The bitter lyrics (partially inspired by Elia Kazan’s 1955 film East of Eden) give father-son tension an almost biblical depth: “You’re born into this life paying for the sins of somebody else’s past,” he sings. Before his death in 1998, the elder Springsteen was asked which of his son’s songs he liked best. “The ones about me,” he answered.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


“Spirit in the Night”

Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J., 1973

When Columbia Records president Clive Davis asked Springsteen to write more radio-friendly tunes for his debut, he quickly came back with two songs: “Blinded by the Light” and this teenage fairy tale about kids escaping out to Greasy Lake. Of all the tracks on Greetings From Asbury Park, “Spirit” hints most closely at the (still-unnamed) E Street Band’s future direction, thanks to the nearly nonstop use of Clemons’ saxophone – until these final sessions for the album, Springsteen hadn’t even been able to locate Clemons to get him into the studio. The song’s swaying bass line was played by Bruce himself.

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 30:  Bruce Springsteen and Patti Smith performs on stage during the 25th Anniversary Rock

Kevin Mazur/WireImage


“Because the Night”

The Promise, 2010

In 1977, Springsteen was working on an early version of this cathedral-size passion play when Patti Smith, recording in the same studio, heard about it from producer Jimmy Iovine. Iovine, who was working with both musicians, brought Smith a demo of the song, and Smith added her own lyrics, recording it for her album Easter, and scoring her first and biggest hit single. “Bruce did the hook, Patti the words and we [the Smith band] gave it the cannon-blast beat,” said Smith’s guitarist Lenny Kaye. Springsteen’s excellent studio version wasn’t officially released until The Promise, more than 30 years later.

bruce springsteen

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images


“New York City Serenade”

The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, 1973

“My romantic ideas and fantasies of New York City,” was how Springsteen described this song and “Incident on 57th Street.” The 10-minute epic – the longest track on any Springsteen studio album – combined fragments of two earlier songs, “New York City Song” and “Vibes Man” (the latter of which contained images of domestic violence that Springsteen edited out). Arranged by David Sancious, who played its sweeping, jazzy piano lead, it’s full of Mean Streets imagery, spooled out over a song that bridges Dylanesque storytelling, doo-wop and Latin jazz via Richard Blackwell’s subtle conga playing.

Clarence Clemons, Bruce Springsteen, Gary Talent and Miamia Steve Van Zandt performs at The Spectrum on December 8, 1980 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Mark Weiss/WireImage)

Mark Weiss/WireImage


“Wreck on the Highway”

The River, 1980

This song takes its title and some of its lyric inspiration from country singer Roy Acuff’s 1940s car-crash parable. It portrays the aftermath of an accident from the point of view of a witness who ponders the loss experienced by “a girlfriend or a young wife” as he sees the victim and is haunted by the wreck. After trying it in rehearsal in a country-style arrangement, Springsteen settled on a slower, brooding version highlighting Danny Federici’s meditative organ. “The highway’s closed at a certain point,” Springsteen says of the death-obsessed song. “You have a certain amount of miles that you can make. It’s a recognition of mortality.”

bruce springsteen

Ebet Roberts/Getty Images


“Brilliant Disguise”

Tunnel of Love, 1987

I purchased Tunnel of Love when I was 16. I know that for most people, especially bandwagon critics, that album might have been seen as a letdown, because it had to follow the massive eclipse of Born in the U.S.A. But I’ve always felt it got shafted. It’s his divorce album, and I love breakup records – like Marvin Gaye‘s Here, My Dear, or Bill Withers+Justments, or even Richard and Linda Thompson’s Shoot Out the Lights. On “Brilliant Disguise,” Bruce is so open about saying it’s over. Most people in the public eye go to great lengths to be private, even in the celebrity-obsessed society we live in. But he’s just like, “We gave it our best shot, and it didn’t work.” It’s unresolved. You don’t get that type of honesty and vulnerability from music very often.

Last year, I spent two weeks going to Springsteen shows. I went to, like, four of them – night after night, at the Apollo, at the Garden, in Philly and in Jersey. I watched him literally climbing the walls of the Apollo. He’s in his sixties! I couldn’t do that, and I’m way younger than him. I started studying his catalog even more after that.

When Bruce came on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, that was one of the most magical moments ever in the show. He’s so all-inclusive, and so not full of ego. I mean, I’ve seen acts walk through here with, like, 12 bodyguards just to go to the bathroom. Meanwhile, Springsteen walks in our dressing room without knocking, takes a guitar and starts telling us about Nebraska. That’s just him. When we performed “E Street Shuffle,” he just said, “Follow my lead,” and brought the audience up to dance with us. We were all out on the floor, including the entire staff – wardrobe, makeup, producers, everything. He just has this circus-ringleader quality about him. It’s awesome.

By Questlove

bruce springsteen

Steve Granitz/WireImage


“The Rising”

The Rising, 2002

Of all the haunting images to emerge from 9/11, the one that struck Springsteen the most was the one of firemen going up the stairways of the buildings. “You could be ascending a smoky staircase,” Springsteen said in 2002. “You could be in the afterlife, moving – moving on.” This anthemic song – told from the perspective of a rescue worker and recorded in producer Brendan O’Brien’s Atlanta studio – was the first single from the first album he recorded with the E Street Band in 18 years. “You are able to project your own images onto it,” says Melissa Etheridge. “I think ‘The Rising’ is a man coming face to face with his spirituality.”

Bruce Springsteen in Hyde Park, London, Britain - 1982Various

Bruce Springsteen in Hyde Park, London, Britain - 1982 Various

Ilpo Musto/REX/Shutterstock


“Highway Patrolman”

Nebraska, 1982

“It’s the thin line between stability and that moment when time stops and everything goes to black,” Springsteen said of the darkest moments on Nebraska. “Highway Patrolman” shows how rich that harsh palette can be. “My name is Joe Roberts, I work for the state,” he sings, opening the story of a cop chasing his criminal brother to the Canadian border, only to let him escape. The song is an Oscar-worthy drama compressed into a few hushed acoustic verses, with allusions to Vietnam and rural hardship weaved into its sibling narrative. “There are these interesting family dynamics,” says Arcade Fire‘s Win Butler. “It’s like looking through someone’s old wedding photos.”

Bruce Springsteen performs on stage on the 'Tunnel of Love' tour at Feijenoord Stadion, De Kuip, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 28th June 1988. (Photo by Rob Verhorst/Redferns)

Rob Verhorst/Redferns/Getty Images


“Tunnel of Love”

Tunnel of Love, 1987

“There’s a world of love there, and there’s a world of fear, too. . . . Very often that fear feels a lot realer and certainly more urgent than the feeling of love,” Springsteen said in recalling the inspiration for Tunnel of Love. Recorded with a stripped-down version of the E Street Band at his home studio in Rumson, New Jersey, the somber title track looks boldly into that romantic anxiety (Springsteen’s marriage to model-actress Julianne Phillips ended in 1988). In keeping with the song’s intimate tone, the amusement-park sounds at the song’s end sampled a real family (the Schiffers) riding a roller coaster in Point Pleasant, New Jersey.

bruce springsteen

Kevin Mazur/WireImage


“Stolen Car”

The River, 1980

This dark, piano-driven track was retooled several times during the River sessions; an early rendition featured the phrase “hungry heart” that Springsteen used in the song of that name. In the final version, the narrator, coping with the end of a marriage, drives off into the night. (One alternative take, included on Tracks, hints at a positive resolution.) The song, Springsteen later said, was “concerned with those [relationship] ideas: that if you don’t connect yourself with your family and to the world, you feel like you’re disappearing, fading away. I felt like that for a very, very long time. Growing up, I felt invisible.”

GERMANY - APRIL 04:  Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN; 4-4-1993 Dortmund, Bruce Springsteen  (Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns)

Paul Bergen/Redferns/Getty Images


“Streets of Philadelphia”

Philadelphia soundtrack, 1993

In 1993, Jonathan Demme asked Springsteen to write a song for his new movie about the AIDS crisis. Transposing the intimate feel of recent albums into a sonic context, he went to his home studio with a drum machine and no musicians. What emerged was a sparse, haunting ballad that flew up the charts all over the world, genuinely challenged his audience and earned him a Grammy, a Golden Globe and even an Academy Award. “To write from the perspective of someone who is emaciated, with AIDS, is to forsake all of the strength Springsteen had staked his career on,” says Jackson Browne. “It is quite a feat.”

bruce springsteen

Peter Wafzig/Redferns via Getty Images


“Land of Hope and Dreams”

Wrecking Ball, 2012

When Springsteen reunited with the E Street Band in 1999, he was determined to make the shows something more than exercises in nostalgia. The first public concert wrapped with this new song, a gospel-tinged number about a train that carries saints, sinners, whores and gamblers. After being an essential highlight of almost every Springsteen show over the previous 14 years, it finally saw an official release on 2012’s Wrecking Ball. “That song was a wonderful reintroduction of what has become a very different E Street Band,” says Van Zandt. “We just opened with it the other night, and the whole fucking stadium took off.”

Richard McCaffrey/ Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images


“Dancing in the Dark”

Born in the U.S.A., 1984

When Jon Landau heard Born in the U.S.A., he felt something was missing. “He suggested we didn’t have a single,” said Springsteen. “[So] I wrote ‘Dancing in the Dark.’ It went as far in the direction of pop music as I wanted to go – and probably a little farther.” The glossy, synth-driven song masks a story of outright desperation, but it helped reach a whole new audience (especially after Springsteen filmed a video where he dances with 20-year-old Courteney Cox), and it remains his most successful single. “It was much, much, much more produced,” says Van Zandt. “I didn’t like that song when I first heard it. Much later I learned to like it.”

bruce springsteen

Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post/Getty Images


“I’m on Fire”

Born in the U.S.A., 1984

When I first met Bruce, his first album wasn’t out yet. I had just released my first album. The way I’d hear about his early records – it wasn’t on the radio. It was my wife: “You gotta hear this guy.” I think it was “Incident on 57th Street.” He made those first two albums before he really blew up and everybody knew him. He’s an artist that has had many major turns and awakenings. A lot of surprising stuff has happened along the way.

“I’m on Fire” is one of his most intimate songs. And it’s not claiming any high ground. It’s about fundamental deep-seated desire. The drums are played with a cross stick [on the snare]. He says, “I’m on fire,” but he lets all this muscular playing fall away. The performance has its own power. It’s something that exists in him. It’s just there. And it’s astonishing to see somebody who relied that much on physical power to let the music and his voice be understated like this. It’s a great moment.

“My Hometown” [on this album] is the same thing. It’s the same thing that had begun to happen in “Atlantic City” – beginning to recognize that you’re in this place with all of these other people, that where you’re from will always be with you.

It’s the reverse of “Thunder Road” and “Born to Run.” It’s growing up. That had to happen. You couldn’t go on being the outsider, rejecting everybody, believing that redemption only existed under the hood of his car. And at this point, his descriptive prowess is in full force. “I’m on Fire” is a beautifully, economically drawn picture. He has this ability to say so much in very few words.

It’s interesting that Bruce never wanted to act. But what he’s doing is above that. There is acting taking place – a willingness to portray. He’s created a body of work that is possible to perform and act out.

By Jackson Browne

bruce springsteen

Tom Hill/WireImage


“Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out”

Born to Run, 1975

Even Springsteen can’t explain what a Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out is. “I still have no idea,” he said with a chuckle in 2005. “But it’s important.” Beyond the title, the song is about the formation of the E Street Band. The group had been named for only about a year by this point, but Springsteen was already crafting a mythological narrative about when “Scooter and the Big Man bust this city in half.” The song also brought a new member aboard. Longtime friend Van Zandt dropped by the studio while the tune was being recorded and helped craft a horn arrangement for it. Springsteen liked what he heard, and the E Street Band had a new guitarist.

Us Rocker Bruce Springsteen Performs to a Sold-out Crowd at the Commerzbank-arena in Frankfurt Am Main Germany 25 May 2012 He Performed As Part of His Wrecking Ball Tour Germany Frankfurt Am MainGermany Music - May 2011

Boris Roessler/EPA/REX/Shutterstock


“The Promise”

The Promise, 2010

Springsteen spent two years writing and recording songs for Darkness on the Edge of Town. Many were quickly tossed aside, but he kept returning to “The Promise,” making slight lyric changes to the tale of two friends torn apart by a vague betrayal. Inspired by his lawsuit with former manager Mike Appel, it was eventually set aside because it was “too self-referential,” but the song became a fan favorite when he added it to his live set. “There’s a lot going on in those lyrics,” says Van Zandt. “He’s leaving it open as to who broke the promise. You have to recognize the possibility that one can break [a] promise to one’s self, and compromise when maybe they shouldn’t have.”

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“State Trooper”

Nebraska, 1982

Recorded in just a single take at Springsteen’s home studio, the extremely low-fi “State Trooper” is a bracing song about a paranoid criminal barreling down the New Jersey Turnpike on a rainy night. Drawing heavy inspiration from New York synth-punk duo Suicide‘s 1977 song “Frankie Teardrop,” Springsteen plays the same droning chords on the acoustic guitar over and over as his character slowly loses his mind, then lets out an unhinged scream as the song fades. “I don’t know if it’s even really a song or not,” Springsteen wrote in a note to Jon Landau. “It’s kinda weird.”

bruce springsteen

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“Incident on 57th Street”

The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, 1973

“‘Incident’ featured a theme I’d return to often in the future: the search for redemption,” Springsteen said. “Over the next 20 years I’d work this one like only a good Catholic boy could.” This steamy-summer, mean-streets ballad (originally titled “Puerto Rican Jane”) sets up Spanish Johnny with Jane, who “sleeps in sheets damp with sweat” while her man slips out to “make a little easy money tonight.” It’s a sort-of test run for the expansive urban storytelling of “Jungleland,” and Clemons later said that when it was played live, “you can hear the opening violin and piano intro that morphed into the opening of ‘Jungleland.'”

Springsteen Bruce Springsteen is seen in concert in New York's Madison Square GardenSPRINGSTEEN 1978, NEW YORK, USA

Springsteen Bruce Springsteen is seen in concert in New York's Madison Square Garden SPRINGSTEEN 1978, NEW YORK, USA

Jim Pozarik/AP/REX/Shutterstock


“Prove It All Night”

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

This heroic rocker – a glorious showcase for the E Street Band and the first single released from Darkness – went through a series of changes: Springsteen’s book Songs includes nine pages of handwritten revisions. Originally, he said, “Prove It All Night” had “a chorus but few lyrics.” Explaining one of its possible inspirations, Springsteen credited a mythically gritty source: a New York cabbie he’d ridden with. “He was just talking about how . . . all your life you gotta prove something to somebody,” Springsteen told a concert audience in 1978. “He says, ‘I gotta go home, I gotta prove it to my wife – I come to work, I gotta prove it to my boss.'”

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“4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”

The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, 1973

Carried by the seaside swell of Danny Federici’s accordion and Springsteen’s crystalline lead-guitar intro, this elegiac spiritual descendant of the Beach Boys‘ “Surfer Girl” remains one of his most moving songs. Springsteen has called it a “love note and a goodbye song” to his musical home of Asbury Park – its imagery of “carnival life on the water” is an early display of ample storytelling and scene-setting gifts. Its depiction of Seventies Asbury is certainly romanticized: “No one would ever go under the boardwalk,” said then-E Street drummer Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez. “There were rats under the boardwalk!”

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty Images




Nebraska, 1982

Nebraska was about that American isolation: What happens to people when they’re alienated from their friends and their community and their government and their job,” Springsteen said of his stark 1982 acoustic album. On its arresting title track, he sings in a flat, almost emotionless voice as he steps into the mind of Fifties serial killer Charles Starkweather, who with his girlfriend killed 11 people in Wyoming and Nebraska. The song was inspired by seeing Terrence Malick‘s film Badlands on TV. Springsteen’s bare-bones acoustic-guitar/harmonica version fit the vividly descriptive lyrics best. “I was interested in writing kind of smaller than I had been,” Springsteen said.

Bruce Springsteen and Clarence ClemonsBruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons - 01 Jan 1983

Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons Bruce Springsteen and Clarence Clemons - 01 Jan 1983




Born to Run, 1975

Springsteen once described Born to Run‘s grand finale as a “spiritual battleground.” He was referring to the song’s narrative, but he could just as well have been talking about its creation. Recording began in mid-1974 alongside “Born to Run,” but the sessions hit a wall, prompting Springsteen to change studios. A Spanish-­flavored intro was cut, numerous takes were made and discarded, and most famously, in a 16-hour fit of inspired obsessive-compulsiveness, Springsteen led Clarence Clemons through every note of his soaring sax part, over and over, until it was perfect. “All we could do was hold on – smoke a lot of pot and try to stay calm,” said Clemons of the sessions. The result was a nine-minute epic, a tale of outlaw love gone wrong, beginning with Suki Lahav’s searching violin and Roy Bittan’s jazzy piano and building into a miniature rock opera, peaking with Clemons’ magnificent extended solo, which was in fact edited together from pieces of takes by Springsteen. It was worth the effort, wowing even Clemons, who considered the solo collage a pinnacle of his musical partnership with Springsteen. “To me,” the sax man said in his memoir, “that solo sounds like love.”

Bruce Springsteen and Tom MorelloThe Clearwater Concert: Creating the Next Generation of Environmental Leaders, New York, America - 04 May 2009'The Clearwater Concert: Creating the Next Generation of Environmental Leaders', a star-studded one night only concert event in celebration of Pete Seeger's 90th Birthday at Madison Square Garden.

Amanda Schwab/Starpix/REX/Shutterstock


“The Ghost of Tom Joad”

The Ghost of Tom Joad, 1995

After three very personal albums in a row – Tunnel of Love, Human Touch and Lucky Town – writing “Streets of Philadelphia” helped remind Springsteen that some of his best songs reached beyond his own experience and, as he put it, “had some sort of social theme.” “It was about re-finding that place in myself,” said Springsteen, who had long admired John Ford‘s film adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath. “That’s really how the song ‘Tom Joad’ came about. I was interested in reconnecting to those things and reconnecting to the part of myself that had written about them.” In writing “Joad,” he was also thinking about the Republicans’ assault on the social safety net: He dedicated one live version to the “Gingrich mob.” He originally intended it as a rock song, but released it in a hushed acoustic arrangement. Two years later, Rage Against the Machine radically retooled it into an unlikely modern-rock hit – and Springsteen would go on to do the definitive live version with Rage guitarist Tom Morello.

bruce springsteen

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“Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)”

The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle, 1973

Springsteen wrote his first real anthem for exactly the purpose it ended up serving for decades: to blow the roof off concert venues of all shapes and sizes. The cadence and melody of the song appeared in a Van Morrison-style soul-folk tune called “Henry Boy,” which he performed solo acoustic in 1972. By the time he recorded “Rosalita” in early 1973, it was a surging, exultant, breathless rocker – not to mention, a totally true story: “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.” Springsteen later said, “The stuff I write is the stuff I live with. . . . They’re all true. Even the names – Big Balls Billy, Weak-Kneed Willie, all of ’em.” (Ex-girlfriend Diane Lozito is believed to have inspired the song, but Springsteen has never given any indication as to Rosie’s true identity.) The song’s romantic dilemma – Rosie’s dad has locked her away – is presented with fierce urgency, except for one lyric, which Springsteen later called “one of the most useful lines I’ve ever written”: “Someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.”

Clarence Clemons and Bruce Springsteen perform on stage in New York in August 1978. (Photo by Richard E. Aaron/Redferns)

Richard E. Aaron/Redferns/Getty Images


“The Promised Land”

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

The distinctly non-Jersey imagery of this song – tornadoes, a “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert” – was inspired by a road trip Springsteen took as he worked on Darkness on the Edge of Town. The simple, straightforward music, meanwhile, is one of the best examples of Springsteen stripping down in the aftermath of the wall-of-sound grandeur of Born to Run: “I remember him telling me he really wanted to downsize the scale, that big sound,” producer Jon Landau said years later, describing the transition out of the highly orchestrated Born to Run. Bittan’s spare but expansive piano and Weinberg’s driving beat fit lyrics that balance images of isolation and frustration with a hunger for independence within a larger community. “It really begins our folk-based rock,” Springsteen said of “The Promised Land.” “It goes back to blues and folk, and folk structures – I was not trying to be really melodic, because that immediately pulls you into the pop world. I was trying to create this mixture, this sort of rock-folk music that stretches back all the way, in some ways, to Woody Guthrie and country music and up through the Animals.”


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“Born in the U.S.A.”

Born in the U.S.A., 1984

Both “Born in the U.S.A.” and its eventual B side, the quieter veteran’s lament “Shut Out the Light,” had its origins in a third, never-finished song, “Vietnam.” That composition split in two after Springsteen grabbed the phrase “Born in the U.S.A.” from the title page of a Paul Schrader screenplay he’d been sent. Springsteen recorded a solo acoustic version of “Born in the U.S.A.” in the same cassette-demo sessions that produced Nebraska, but the song seemed unspectacular in that format. “It was one of the lesser songs on the Nebraska tape,” said producer Jon Landau. But Springsteen revived the song in E Street Band sessions, where it instantly came to spectacular life: “We just kinda did it off the cuff,” Springsteen said. “I never taught it to the band. I went in and said, ‘Roy, get this riff.’ And he just pulled out that sound, played the riff on the synthesizer. We played it two times, and our second take is on the rec­ord. That’s why the guys are really on the edge. . . . To me, [Max Weinberg] was right up there with the best of them on that song. There was no arrangement. I said, ‘When I stop, keep the drums going.’ That thing in the end with all the drums, that just kinda happened.”

bruce springsteen

Tom Hill/WireImage


“Darkness on the Edge of Town”

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

If Born to Run was dominated by romantic visions of escape, its follow-up was about finding a place to make a stand. The street-racing narrator of Darkness on the Edge of Town‘s album-closing title track has lost his wife, his money and his hope for a better life, but he remains defiant: “Tonight I’ll be on that hill ’cause I can’t stop,” Springsteen snarls over a stately, archetypally E Street arrangement. Springsteen described the song’s hero as having “reached a point where you just have to strip yourself of everything to get yourself together.” Steve Van Zandt said it highlights the feel of the whole album. “It looks heroic, sometimes it feels heroic, but it’s actually an obsession, a compulsion,” he says. “The song just sums up that record very accurately, in terms of ‘the stories now, we’re gonna not necessarily have a happy ending.’ You still have the cinematic thing going on, but it’s smaller. The cameras are zooming in. It’s more of an independent film now.”

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“Atlantic City”

Nebraska, 1982

Nebraska was my entry, how I got into Bruce. That was the easiest one to spend time with, because it was so bare and so direct. And the storytelling is so interesting. The song “Nebraska” – you hear the first couple of notes, and you are right in this world.

Our [2004] album, Funeral, was not exactly the record you want to put on at any minute of the day. It takes a certain amount of engagement to make a connection with it. In a way, it’s like Born to Run, which demands something of you. Whereas Nebraska – it can be on in the background, and it sucks you in. It’s not asking for your complete attention. There is not this huge band hammering in your face. It can sneak up on you.

“Atlantic City” has a hook. The pop aspect to it backs up the storytelling. You find yourself humming that song all the time. And that is the connection point. And there are these little details in that song that you don’t hear in a pop song: “Put on your stockings, baby, ’cause the night is getting cold.” But it’s got this incredible hook to it.

There are certain limitations to rock & roll, the sounds you can make. But there are an infinite number of stories. This record is about storytelling and using music to heighten the story.

By Win Butler of Arcade Fire

ATLANTA, GA - August 22: Bruce Springsteen performs with The E-Street Band at Alex Cooley's Electric Ballroom on August 22, 1975 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Tom Hill/WireImage)

Tom Hill/WireImage



Born to Run, 1975

In his Rolling Stone review of Born to Run, Greil Marcus said Roy Bittan’s cascading piano intro to “Backstreets” was so powerful “it might be the prelude to a rock & roll version of The Iliad.” The song has invited many interpretations: It may be about Springsteen’s early-Seventies ­girlfriend Diane Lozito, or a close male friendship that’s faded (some hear homoerotic undertones in the song). He contrasts tragic images – “Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see/Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be” – and triumphal music that echoes mid-Sixties­ Bob Dylan (especially in its Blonde on Blonde-style organ). It’s taken on deep personal meaning; he played it frequently in 2007, after longtime assistant Terry Magovern died, and it opened the first show the E Street Band played after organist Danny Federici died in 2008 (poignantly, minus the organ part). “Put on ‘Backstreets’ and everyone holds up their whiskey and sings along,” says Bethany Cosentino of Best Coast. “It really brings people together.”

Kirk West/Getty Images


“The River”

The River, 1980

Many of the tragic characters in Springsteen’s songs are fictional. But the teenage couple in “The River” were drawn from his own real-life experience. Springsteen’s sister Ginny became pregnant at age 18 and quickly married her child’s father, Mickey Shave, who took a construction job to support his family. “They had to struggle very hard back in the late Seventies, like so many people are doing today,” Springsteen said when he performed The River live in its entirety in 2009. He turned their story into his most moving working-class lament, a slow, sparse ballad with a mournful harmonica part that starts to sound like a funeral dirge as the song ends. Springsteen debuted “The River” at the No Nukes concert in September 1979, shortly after recording it with the E Street Band at New York’s Power Station studio. His sister was in the crowd, but she didn’t know that Springsteen had written a song about her. “Every bit of it was true,” Ginny told Springsteen biographer Peter Ames Carlin. “And here I am, completely exposed. I didn’t like it at first – but now it’s my favorite song.” Today, Ginny and Mickey are still happily married.

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“Racing in the Street”

Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

Side one of Darkness on the Edge of Town closes with the most quietly devastating song in Springsteen’s catalog. Although it was also recorded as a fiery full-band rocker, the version on the album is a stripped piano ballad, sung from the perspective of a small-town loser with a souped-up car and a tired-eyed girl. Introducing the song live in 1978, Springsteen said it was inspired by “this little fire road” outside Asbury Park. The lyrics riff on Martha and the Vandellas’ Motown classic “Dancing in the Street” and even recommend engine heads for a ’69 Chevy. But as the song’s solemn instrumental coda rolls on, you know there’s no happy ending on the horizon (“Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea/And wash these sins off our hands,” Springsteen sings). “The meaning is as much in the parts where he doesn’t sing as where he does,” says Tom Morello. “You really feel this endless helplessness as they drive on into an uncertain future.”

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 11:  REDBANK  Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN, Bruce Springsteen performing on stage - Born to Run Tour, 27  (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images


“Thunder Road”

Born to Run, 1975

Springsteen was sure that Born to Run would open with its title track – until he wrote “Thunder Road.” “‘Thunder Road’ was just so obviously an opening, due to its intro,” he says. “It just set the scene. There is something about the melody of ‘Thunder Road’ that just suggests a new day, it suggests morning, it suggests something opening up.” He wrote “Thunder Road” on the piano in his living room; later, keyboardist Roy Bittan elegantly extrapolated Springsteen’s parts. Said Springsteen, “Roy’s attack and formulations of what I showed him really created a very, very unique sound, and, in the end, if people hear that today, they go, ‘That sounds like the E Street Band.'” Like many of Springsteen’s early songs, the lyrics hint at a perspective beyond his years: “So you’re scared and you’re thinking maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” “The songs were written immediately after the Vietnam War, and you forget­ everybody felt like that then,” Springsteen says. “There’s quite a sense of dread and uncertainty about the future and who you were, where you were going, where the whole country was going, so that found its way into the record.”

BLOOMINGTON, MN - 1978:  Rock and roll icon Bruce Springsteen jumps into the audience during a 1978 Bloomington, Minnesota concert. Springsteen spent much of 1978 playing small midwest venues while he battled his record label over control of his music. (Photo by George Rose/Getty Images)

George Rose/Getty Images



Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978

“I came up with titles, and I went in search of songs that would deserve the title,” Springsteen said, describing the writing of Darkness. “‘Badlands’ – that’s a great title, but it would be easy to blow it! But I kept writing, and I kept writing, and I kept writing and writing until I had a song that I felt deserved that title.” He nicked a riff from the Animals‘ “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and tapped the ferocity of the punk singles he’d been listening to at the time and ended up with a song that perfectly fits Pete Townshend’s definition of a rock anthem: “praying onstage.” “I believe in the faith that can save me/I believe and I hope and I pray/That someday it will raise me/Above these Badlands,” Springsteen sings. “That’s him singing the high part, while his other voice, this full-throated thing, continues below,” says Jackson Browne. “It’s cool and thrilling. There is an economy of language that comes in here. He’s building a persona, a lexicon of references.”

UNITED STATES - OCTOBER 11:  Photo of Bruce SPRINGSTEEN; performing live onstage at Redbank, on Born To Run tour  (Photo by Fin Costello/Redferns)

Fin Costello/Redferns/Getty Images


“Born to Run”

Born to Run, 1975

When a 24-year-old Bruce Springsteen began writing “Born to Run,” he had a title, a surf-guitar riff indebted to Duane Eddy’s “Because They’re Young” and the Tornados’ “Telstar,” and some desperate, extravagant hopes. “I had these enormous ambitions for it,” said Springsteen, who was, at the time, a hitless cult artist in dire danger of losing his record deal. “I wanted to make the greatest rock record that I’d ever heard. I wanted it to sound enormous, to grab you by your throat and insist that you take that ride, insist that you pay attention – not just to the music, but to life, to being alive.” Springsteen started work on the song one day in early 1974, sitting in his bed in a rented cottage a couple of blocks from the beach in Long Branch, New Jersey, and the record then took shape in a small Hudson Valley studio, via six months worth of overdubs, some never used: endless acoustic and electric guitars, electric and acoustic piano, organ, glockenspiel, strings, violin, synth, engine noises and a choir.

“We went through a lot of different ways of playing it,” said former E Street Band drummer Ernest “Boom” Carter, who left the band shortly after finishing the song. “I became a pretty good dart player, pool player, hanging out in that studio.” Springsteen hit his target, ending up with a brash, careening masterpiece that became his signature anthem. At age 64, he’s still able to infuse passion and meaning when he plays it with the E Street Band under blazing house lights.

“It was a record of enormous longing,” he says, “and those emotions and desires never leave you. You’re dead when that leaves you. The song transcends your age and continues to speak to that part of you that is both exhilarated and frightened about what tomorrow brings. It will always do that – that’s how it was built.”

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