The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen’s 25 Biggest Heroes – Rolling Stone
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The Ties That Bind: Bruce Springsteen’s 25 Biggest Heroes

The artists, activists and friends that have shaped Springsteen’s world

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Brilliant and big-hearted, Bruce Springsteen is as close as a rock musician gets to being a hero. But heroes have heroes of their own, and Bruce has never been shy about giving a shout-out. That generous impulse extends to his newest album, High Hopes, which features covers of tracks by Springsteen faves the Havalinas and Suicide. Bruce even heralded the album with a pre-release statement praising some of his key influences.

100 Greatest Artists: Bruce Springsteen

So in the High Hopes spirit of inclusiveness and generosity, we’ve compiled a list of Springsteen’s 25 biggest heroes: the musicians, friends, filmmakers, authors and activists who mean the most to this man who means so much to us.

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The Animals

"For some, the Animals were just another one the really good beat groups that came of the Sixties," Bruce Springsteen said at his 2012 keynote speech at South By Southwest. "But to me, the Animals were a revelation. The first records with full blown class consciousness that I had ever heard." The passionate vocals and organ-heavy sound of the Animals was a huge influence on Springsteen as a young songwriter and he fully admits he stole the chords of "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood" for "Badlands." Bizarrely, Animals frontman Eric Burdon never met Springsteen until he joined the E Street Band at a gig a couple of years ago. For you bootleg nuts, check out Springsteen's cover of "It's My Life" from his 1976 tour. It's one of the great live moments of his career. 

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Chuck Berry

As an absolutely monumental figure of early rock and the originator of so much of its musical and lyrical language (cars and girls!), Chuck Berry is a hero to just about any classic rocker. But Springsteen has made his allegiance clear, sprinkling his lyrical references to Berry songs like "The Promised Land" and "Downbound Train"—and frequently covers Berry tunes in concert. Springsteen also contributed a foreward to Berry's autobiography and played with Chuck at the 1995 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Concert. 

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Gary U.S. Bonds

No musician on earth was less cool in 1981 than Gary U.S. Bonds. It had been 20 years since the dance classic "Quarter to Three" fell off the charts and the singer had been largely forgotten. But Bruce Springsteen knew the guy had more life in him, and together with Steve Van Zandt he wrote and produced the LP Dedication for Bonds. It was an amazing labor of love that introduced Bonds to a whole new generation of rock fans. They remain close and in 2012 Bonds sat in with the E Street Band at New Jersey's MetLife Stadium. 

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Harry Chapin

Best known for the gently reflective folk-rock ballads like "Taxi" and "Cat's in the Cradle," Chapin's music doesn't have much in common with Springsteen's, but his altruistic spirit helped open the latter's eyes to the importance of social activism. Chapin died in 1981 at 38 years old after a car crash, but not before he'd become well-known for his tireless charitable efforts, particularly towards eradicating hunger. Springsteen has performed at multiple Harry Chapin tribute concerts. "Harry knew that it was going to take a lot more than just love to survive," Springsteen has said. "It was going to take a strong sense of purpose, of duty, and a good clear eye on the dirty ways of the world." Springsteen has continued his friend's fight: Throughout his tour in support of 2005's Devils & Dust he donated concert tickets to organizations that could then auction them off to raise money to help support their relief efforts. 

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Walter Cichon

In the notes Springsteen shared about High Hopes prior to the album's release, he cited Cichon as "one of the great early Jersey Shore rockers." Cichon played in a band called the Motifs in the mid-to-late Sixties. According to Springsteen the band was always "a head above everybody else. Raw, sexy and rebellious, they were the heroes you aspired to be. But these were heroes you could touch, speak to, and go to with your musical inquiries. Cool, but always accessible, they were an inspiration to me, and many young working musicians in 1960s central New Jersey. . .[Cichon] was the first person I ever stood in the presence of who was filled with the mystique of the true rock star." Sadly, Cichon went missing in action in Vietnam in March 1968. 

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Bob Dylan

Bruce Springsteen was driving in the car with his mother listening to WMCA in the summer of 1965 the first time he heard "Like a Rolling Stone." "That snare shot that sounded like somebody'd kicked open the door to your mind," he said in 1988. "It reached down and touched what little worldliness a 15-year-old high school kid in New Jersey had in him at the time. Dylan was a revolutionary. Bob freed the mind the way Elvis freed the body." When Springsteen began his own recording career in 1973 the press dubbed him "The New Dylan," a label he didn't shake until he released Born To Run a couple years later. Despite carrying the burden of that label, he was remained a huge Dylan fan and added covers of "I Want You" and "Chimes of Freedom" into his own show. When the two of them played together at the opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1995, Springsteen was unable to stop grinning.

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John Ford

The legendary four-time Academy Award-winning director, whose career spanned from 1917 to 1966, was most famous for his morally complex westerns. (Ford also adapted the 1940 screen version of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath.) Springsteen drew deeply from Ford's multi-faceted work. He told an interviewer, "I became fascinated with John Ford movies, the fact that they were all westerns. I watched the early ones and the late ones. It was fascinating to me how he'd film the same scene — a dance scene or a confrontation — and make it different in every picture."

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Woody Guthrie

Woody Guthrie's influence on Bob Dylan has been well-documented, but Springsteen is also a huge fan of the Dust Bowl-era folk troubadour. He covered his signature song "This Land Is Your Land" all throughout the 1980s, and was directly inspired to record The Ghost of Tom Joad by Guthrie's work, especially "Tom Joad Blues." "There was always some spiritual center amid Woody's songs," Springsteen said in 1996. "He always projected a sense of good times in the face of it all. He always got you thinking about the next guy, he took you out of yourself. I guess his idea was salvation isn't individual. Maybe we don't rise and fall on our own."

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Ron Kovic

A disabled Vietnam veteran and activist, Kovic, who was portrayed by Tom Cruise in the 1989 film adaptation of his memoir, Born on the Fourth of July, met Springsteen in 1978. Springsteen had read Kovic's book, and the two become close. Kovic's account of his war experiences led Springsteen to stage a benefit concert in 1981 for the Vietnam Veterans of America. Springsteen has also dedicated songs in concert to Kovic, and his "Shut out the Light" and "Born in the U.S.A." were partly inspired by his friend. Kovic spoke in honor of Springsteen at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009.

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David Lynch

Given his penchant for heavily surreal psycho-sexual atmospherics, Twin Peaks creator and Blue Velvet director David Lynch may not seem like an obvious touchstone for someone as seemingly down-to-earth as Springsteen. But look a little closer and the connections become clear. In a 2010 interview conducted by the actor Edward Norton, Springsteen described 1960s America as "Lynchian," and talked of the era's "superficial normalcy." Lynch's dissection of the secret desires of "regular" people is mirrored in Springsteen songs like "I'm on Fire." And in a case of like attracting like, Springsteen and Lynch are both giant Roy Orbison fans. 

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Dale Maharidge

Dale Maharidge's 1985 book Journey to Nowhere: The Saga of the New Underclass — a chronicle of the poor in Reagan-era America — didn't sell many copies when it came out in 1985. Lucky for the journalist (at left), Springsteen picked it up in the early 1990s and found it absolutely riveting, inspiring him to write many of the songs on 1995's The Ghost of Tom Joad. All the attention led to a new edition of the book in 1996, featuring a new introduction by Bruce Springsteen himself. Nearly 30 years later, the book remains a powerful look at how institutional forces make it nearly impossible for many Americans to get ahead. 

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Terrence Malick

The reclusive and painstaking director is famous for his sparse and gorgeous visual style, as well as his examination of spiritual themes. Malick's 1973 debut, Martin Sheen-starring Badlands, a retelling of the Charlie Starkweather murders, was a favorite of Springsteen's, whose Darkness on the Edge of Town contains a song of the same name. Indeed, Springsteen's 1978-1982 work, with its lonely figures wandering through bleak American landscapes, is pure Malick. Nebraska's album cover looks like it could be a still from a Malick picture, and the title track is also a retelling of the Starkweather homicides. Others have picked up on the influence: Bono, during his 1999 speech inducting Springsteen into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, said, "It's like, in 'Badlands,' [Springsteen] is Martin Sheen and Terrence Malick."

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Robert Mitchum

Mitchum starred in two films that provided Springsteen with some essential lyrical content: 1958's The Ballad of Thunder Road (See, obviously, "Thunder Road") and 1955's The Night of the Hunter, in which he starred as sinister preacher with love and hate tattooed across the knuckle of his hands. Springsteen lifted that exact imagery for "Cautious Man," from 1987's Tunnel of Love. It's also easy to see Mitchum's famously laconic, fatalistic presence in the Springsteen's early-career street scamp phase. 

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Van Morrison

Springsteen was a huge fan of Van Morrison's old garage band Them (best known for "Gloria") in the 1960s, but it wasn't until he saw Morrison in concert sometime around 1971 that he truly understood the man's genius. He found the combination of organ and horns intoxicating, and the influence on his first two albums is unmistakable. If you don't believe that, listen to Morrison's "Domino" and Springsteen's "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" back to back. Van's 1968 masterpiece Astral Weeks became a particular obsession. "It was like a religion to us," Steve Van Zandt said in 2005. They even brought Morrison's bass player Richard Davis into the studio to play on Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J.and Born to Run

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Flannery O’Connor

A brilliant Southern gothic novelist and short story writer, O'Connor died at only 39 years old in 1965 from complications due to lupus. Her bibliography is short, but immensely powerful, populated by outsiders full of dread and Catholic guilt. Springsteen was reading O'Connor heavily at the dawn of the Eighties. The title track to 1980's The River and "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" take their names from O'Connor short stories. Springsteen himself said that her work "reminded me of the unknowability of God and contained a dark spirituality that resonated with my own feelings at the time."  

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Roy Orbison

Right before Bruce Springsteen recorded Born to Run, he'd lay in bed every night and listen to Roy Orbison's Greatest Hits. "Some rock & roll reinforces friendship and community," Springteen said when he inducted Orbison in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987. "But for me, Roy's ballads were always best when you were alone and in the dark. Roy scrapped the idea that you needed verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus to have a hit. His arrangements were complex and operatic, they had rhythm and movement and they addressed the underside of pop romance. They were scary. His voice was unearthly." He name-checked the singer on "Thunder Road" ("Roy Orbison singing for the lonely") and in the final years of his life, they played together a handful of times. Even on Springsteen's new album High Hopes, he's trying to emulate his hero. "[On 'Dream Baby Dream'] I thought to myself, 'How would Roy Orbison sing this song?' he told Rolling Stone. "What made Roy's music great is that it was so mainstream, but it had a very strange underbelly to it."

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Elvis Presley

It's a cliché story, but watching Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show changed Bruce Springsteen's entire life. "It was the evening I realized a white man could make magic," he said in 2012, "that you did not have to be constrained by your upbringing, by the way you looked, or by the social context that oppressed you. You could call upon your own powers of imagination, and you could create a transformative self." He urged his mother to buy him a guitar after that, and in 1976 he went to Graceland after a Memphis show and even hopped the fence in a failed effort to meet the King himself. Elvis died during the recording of Darkness on the Edge of Town, right as Springsteen was hoping the King would cover his new song "Fire." Springsteen channeled his sorrow into "Come On (Let's Go Tonight)," which later morphed into "Factory."

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Charlie Rich

Possessed of a liquid golden voice, Charlie Rich, the "Silver Fox," scored a string of country hits from the late Fifties through the Seventies. In his 2012 South by Southwest keynote, Springsteen identified himself as a Rich fan, and even crooned a few lines from the singer's "Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs." 

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Pete Seeger

Bruce Springsteen is such a huge fan of Pete Seeger that his 2006 album We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is completely devoted to folk songs popularized by the folk icon. Three years after that, Springsteen and Seeger stood side-by-side shortly at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. shortly before Barack Obama's presidential inauguration. 

"I looked at Pete, the first black President of the United States was seated to his right and I thought of the incredible journey  that Pete had taken," Springsteen said at Seeger's 90th birthday concert in 2009. "My own growing up in the Sixties in a town scarred by race rioting, made that moment nearly unbelievable and Pete had 30 extra years of struggle and real activism on his belt, he was so happy that day, it was like 'Pete, you outlasted the bastards.'"

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Phil Spector


Famous for his Wall of Sound production style, Spector and his grandiose pop influence are recurring strains in Springsteen's catalog. The use of a dense, operatic sound, booming kick drums, and reliance on non-traditional rock instrumentation like strings and glockenspiels are Spector hallmarks, and those elements can be heard in Springsteen albums from 1975's Born to Run through to 2009's Working on a Dream. Former Los Angeles Times rock critic Robert Hilburn once brought a young Springsteen along with him to a mid-Seventies Spector recording session. Eyeing the upstart, the super producer jokingly told Springsteen, "If you wanted to steal my sound, you shoulda gotten me to do it!" 

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John Steinbeck

Reading the work of the Nobel Prize-winning novelist helped broaden Springsteen's songwriting perspective. In landmark achievements like 1939's The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck focused on the hardscrabble lives of the underclass and their struggles to achieve dignity. Springsteen's stark 1995 folk album The Ghost of Tom Joad is an explicit nod to the protagonist of The Grapes of Wrath and the title-track includes lyrics taken directly from the book. The raging "Adam Raised a Cain," from 1978's Darkness on the Edge of Town is also loosely based on the plot of Steinbeck's 1952 novel East of Eden

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Joe Strummer

When the Clash hit the scene in 1977 it seemed like their mission was to destroy giant arena rock acts like Bruce Springsteen. But it turned out that Clash frontman Joe Strummer was a huge Springsteen fan. "Bruce is great," Strummer wrote in a 1995 fax to Mojo. "If you don't agree you're a pretentious martian from Venus. His music is great on a dark, rainy morning in England, just when you need some spirit and some proof that the big wide world exists." The admiration worked both ways, and when Strummer died in 2002 Springsteen was more than happy to honor him furing the Grammy telecast with a killer performance of "London Calling" alongside Elvis Costello, Dave Grohl and Steve Van Zandt. 

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Suicide’s Alan Vega

It's quite possible that Bruce Springsteen would have never recorded 1982's super low-fi Nebraska without the influence of the New York punk group Suicide. "They had that two-piece synthesizer-voice thing," Springsteen told Rolling Stone in 1984. "They had one of the most amazing songs I ever heard called 'Frankie Teardrop'. That's one of the most amazing records I think I ever heard." When Suicide frontman Alan Vega first heard Springsteen's "State Trooper" he actually thought he was listening to one of his own recordings. Bruce returned the favor by covering Suicide's haunting "Dream Baby Dream" most every night on his 2005 Devils & Dust tour, and he finally released a studio version of the song on 2014's High Hopes. Springsteen has said that "[Suicide] are underground masters," and that "they should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame."

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Hank Williams

Delivering the keynote address at the 2012 South by Southwest music conference, Springsteen explained how, as the Eighties approached, he turned to music other than rock and pop in search of emotional depth, and found it in the music of country icon Williams. "I remember sitting in my little apartment," he said, "listening to Hank Williams' Greatest Hits over and over. And I was trying to crack his code because at first it just didn’t sound good to me. . .But slowly, slowly my ears became accustomed to its beautiful simplicity and its darkness and depth. And Hank Williams went from archival to alive for me before my, before my very eyes. And I lived, I lived on that for awhile in the late Seventies."

Springsteen also interpolated lyrics from Williams songs in 1980's "The River," 1982's "Mansion on a Hill," and 1984's era-defining "Born in the U.S.A."

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Warren Zevon

Around 1977, Springsteen's manager Jon Landau told Warren Zevon that Bruce was thinking about writing a song called "Janey Needs a Shooter." Warren thought he said "Jeannie," and he decided to write the first verse himself before sitting down with Springsteen and fleshing it out with him. The result was one of Zevon's most beloved songs, but it also strengthened the bond between the two great songwriters. When Zevon learned he had less than a year to live in 2002, he headed into the studio to record The Wind, his final album. Springsteen guested on the two of the songs, and the old friends spent some real quality time together before Zevon died from cancer. 

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