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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

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. 

By Andy Greene and David Marchese

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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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