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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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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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