As an introduction to my top 15 Bruce Springsteen albums, I thought I’d share a bit about the road I’ve traveled with his music.
Most of us music fans can probably name an artist/band or two who, despite their fame and critical acclaim, we mostly missed on for years before discovering them one way or another. The same applies to specific albums. One might be excused for such oversight when, as in my case with the 50th anniversaries of album releases that make up the bulk of this blog, they weren’t yet born. (It’ll take three years of blogging before I can say I was alive at the time of the release of a 50-year-old album.) It’s also pretty normal for a child not to be tuned in to current music. But for me, Bruce Frederick Joseph Springsteen is a curious case.
I consider myself to have been a music nut since the day I was born, and I’d imagine my family would concur. I grew up in the 1970’s in a house teeming with rock, pop, and classical albums on any of our four turntables and radios. Just no Bruce. Newsweek arrived in our mailbox every week, and I’m fairly certain the October 27, 1975 issue with Bruce on the cover moved from our coffee table to the trash as quickly as the previous week’s TV Guide (he was also on the cover of Time the same week). But when I was eventually turned on to his music, it gripped me and never let go.
My first memory of hearing a Springsteen song is from late-1980/early ’81 when Hungry Heart was a radio hit, mixed in with songs by Sheena Easton, Rick Springfield, Kim Carnes, Pablo Cruise, Eddie Rabbitt, and Juice Newton (o.k., there was some Stones, Police, John Lennon, George Harrison, and ELO as well, but you get the picture). But that was it. Neither The River nor any of his previous albums had struck a chord with my older brothers yet, therefore I didn’t hear them. In my unknowing young mind, Bruce was a one hit wonder who kind of faded away for a few years. If The River didn’t find its way into our basement, 1982’s Nebraska sure as hell wasn’t going to. And his other early classics? I had no clue about their existence, at least not yet.
As I’ve acknowledged elsewhere in these pages, adolescence was a strange time to say the least. I suppose I can rest easy knowing that some of you might’ve felt similarly. In 1984 I could be spotted walking home from school wearing a tan Izod windbreaker, wrap-around “New Wave” sunglasses, Adidas Top Ten basketball sneakers (oh yeah, I was also going to be a professional basketball player), Levis 501’s that never looked like they were supposed to on me, and the daring beginnings of what I would later learn was called a mullet. So, sooo confused.
Musically speaking, I was all over the place. I still am, and there’s nothing wrong with it. But looking back to my early teens gives me a chuckle. In those days I might follow Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits with a Culture Club or Madonna cassette. The MTV Generation, folks – I was immersed. Then in June of that year Born in the U.S.A. was released and the slow shift began. Granted, this album was just as much a part of the MTV culture as those by Madness or Duran Duran, but I could tell this music had staying power without knowing much of anything about Springsteen. It was real.
Growing up in the Midwest, John Mellencamp (a.k.a., Johnny Cougar, a.k.a., John Cougar, a.k.a., John Cougar Mellencamp) was our “heartland rock star” who sang of the trials and tribulations of everyday folk. I liked his music quite a bit and still do. But little did I know that the guy from New Jersey had long been the preeminent songwriter and performer in that genre. As much as I appreciate Mellencamp, he was never really in the same league as Bruce with the possible exception of a couple of albums. Something else I didn’t know was that my brother Paul was becoming a major fan of Springsteen’s while away at college. Soon he was home on semester breaks, hanging out with buddies at the house, listening to and talking about Bruce. And being the annoying little brother I was, I hung around like a loose tooth, soaking up as much as I could.
My first full-fledged exposure to what Springsteen is really all about came at the age of 15 in November of 1986 with the release of the then career-spanning Bruce Springsteen & the East Street Band: Live/1975-85. The Columbia, MO rock station, KFMZ, celebrated its release by playing the box set uninterrupted in its entirety over the course of three nights, and I was ready with a fresh pack of TDK D-90s and a cheap hand-me-down stereo that was an upgrade from my previous record/cassette combo player.
With my brothers long gone by that point, I had moved into their basement digs which I oh-so-cleverly christened the Cavern. And it was there, on a musty old throwaway couch, that I settled in three late nights in a row with headphones on, awakening to some of the greatest rock ‘n roll ever while keeping my fingers crossed that the radio signal would remain clear while taping. From the early club recordings to the stadium shows just a few years later, I was mesmerized. Whether it was the full East Street Band on stage or his solo acoustic set of mostly Nebraska numbers, I had tapped into a completely different scene and was quickly converted. The first two albums I bought after that were Darkness on the Edge of Town and Born to Run. The River and Nebraska were later among the first ten CDs I owned. As time went on, I absorbed them all.
In my world, the appeal of Springsteen’s music is a bit of a paradox. As famous as he is, listening to him has mostly been a solitary experience for me. Other than my brother and my wife, I’ve never had friends who were into his music. There doesn’t seem to be much of a gray area with Bruce; as with Dylan, most folks seem to either really like him or really not like him. There was one exception though: I had a hard-partying friendly acquaintance from New Zealand named Tays who joined me on a rather harrowing two-hour drive in an ice storm to St. Louis to see Bruce on his Tom Joad tour in January of 1996. It was my first Springsteen show.
I finally got the full East Street Band experience in Kansas City in April of 2000 with my brother, then in Austin in March of 2003 on the Rising tour. Most recently, my wife and I caught his free outdoor show in Dallas in April of 2014 on an unseasonably cold and rainy day. If there had been actual rows, we would’ve been in about the fifth, just off-center in front of Nils and Patti (we’re actually visible during a couple of brief moments during the pro shot show). Hearing Tom Morello play with the band was one of many thrills that day, and it was more than worth standing in horrible weather for ten hours through other acts waiting for it.
As we wind down 2018, Bruce shows no sign of letting up. Sadly, we’ve lost a couple of residents of East Street along the way in Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons, but the show goes on. Besides creating great music for over 45 years, for many of us the Boss has been an important voice in times of national tragedy, war, and economic struggle. With our current state of affairs, I can’t help but wonder if he’s working up another great album which speaks, to my ears anyway, the truth. It might be a selfish expectation on my part, but probably not an unrealistic one. He just keeps doing it. I missed out on the peaks if not the entire careers of many of the artists I write about on this blog, but not Bruce. He belongs on a short list of the all-time greats, and I’m grateful he’s been around as a very current songwriter/musician/performer during my lifetime.
Up next: my top 15 Springsteen albums.