September 16 – Springsteen: My Top 15 Albums – The Final 5

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Recapping 15-6:  15. Tracks 14. Hammersmith Odeon London ’75 13. Tunnel of Love 12. The Rising 11. Live in New York City 10. The Ghost of Tom Joad 9. Born in the U.S.A. 8. The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle 7. Magic 6. Live/1975-85

5. Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973)

“Unguarded teen-underclass poetry” – that’s how critic Robert Christgau referred to the songs that make up Springsteen’s debut.  I wouldn’t say this album is overlooked or underappreciated, but every time I play it I have that “Oh man, I forgot how good this is!” moment at some point, usually by the fourth track, Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?.  This album, recorded in 1972 but released the following year, is Bruce perhaps at his most Dylanesque.

Two of its songs ended up being radio hits for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band:  Blinded by the Light and For You.  Too bad Bruce’s version of the former didn’t garner much attention beforehand, as it might’ve prevented some awkward moments experienced by people singing along to it on the radio with hilariously misunderstood lyrics.  Growin’ Up, Does This Bus Stop…, Lost in the Flood, Spirit in the Night, It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City – that’s a nice career for some.  A great debut for Bruce.

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4. Nebraska (1982)

Bruce dug a little deeper into the underbelly of society for themes which make up the songs on this album, songs that feature a mass murderer (based on a true story) and others who have run afoul of the law and who have little to no hope for redemption.  Even his hint of absolution in Reason to Believe is little more than a glimmer.  Nebraska is a set of demos Bruce recorded at home on a four-track recorder which he intended to record with the E Street Band.  They did record them, but ultimately it was decided to release the demos as the album, which, in my opinion, took balls.  It paid off.

This album was a slightly acquired taste for me, but not too much.  I was already versed with some of it having heard a few of its tracks on Live/1975-85.  But oh, is this a bleak record.  It’s not just that it’s mostly acoustic, it’s also the production with the all the reverb.  He sounds alone on these songs.  I feel like I’m on a dark highway in the middle of the night when listening to it.  The album cover looks like the songs sound.  When Nebraska was released in September of 1982 I was 11 years old and the only care I had in the world was that the Cardinals would reach their first World Series in my lifetime.  Musically, I was more interested in Men at Work, The Cars, and A Flock of Seagulls.  It would be a few years before I discovered this album, but it’s been with me since.

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3. Darkness on the Edge of Town (1978)

I consider Darkness to be #2-B in my ranking.  If there’s a deciding factor which puts it behind The River, it’s that I’ve probably enjoyed these tracks done live a little more than the studio versions.  That’s really not any kind of criticism though.  Bruce is in rarefied air with this one.  It’s raw, guitar driven rock that’s full of anger and angst – about growin’ up, about girls, about reckless abandon – that hits hard right out of the gate and doesn’t stop for 43 minutes.  Badlands, Adam Raised a Cain, Candy’s Room, Racing in the Street, The Promised Land, Streets of Fire, Prove it All Night, and the title track are all fantastic.  And, as we later learned, he had a couple more album’s worth of good songs left in the vault.  Crazy!

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2. The River (1980)

As with Nebraska, the album as released was not what was originally intended; in the case of The River, it was going to be a single album of the more upbeat rockers but ended up as a double with the full range of joy and hard knocks.  The River is the delineation of Bruce’s songwriting and the E Street Band’s sound of the 1970’s and what came later.  Now, young male protagonists are out of school and breaking free from parental constraints and finding just how difficult the road ahead will be, and the girls who had previously been heard from while in a much more carefree state are also facing the responsibilities of adulthood sooner than they expected.

But there’s still the joy of rock and roll, cars, and girls.  It’s not all factories and loneliness.  These songs are more cleanly produced than their predecessors, and they sound bigger and somewhat cinematic.  It works perfectly on The River.  If I have to cite one release as possessing the quintessential Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band sound that has endured throughout the years, this is the one.  There’s not a throwaway track to be found to my ears, but some of the songs I enjoy the most are The Ties That Bind, Sherry Darling, You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch), The River, Point Blank, Fade Away, and Stolen Car.  I don’t know the first thing about hotrods, but even Ramrod is cool.  To me, that song is rock ‘n roll at its purist.  Not only is there no filler, but as with Darkness, he had enough material at the time for another album or two.  Just an absurd level of output.

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1. Born to Run (1975)

I don’t assume that Born to Run is everyone’s favorite Springsteen album, and I took a minute to think it through before I listed it as mine.  The obvious choice can sometimes be the lazy choice.  But not this one – not for me, anyway.  This was Bruce’s make or break album, and it took 14 months to make.  Some of my favorite Springsteen lyrics are found on this record, from the “soft infested summer” of Backstreets to the “barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge, drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain” of Jungleland.  Additionally, I hear some of the best musicianship on all of his albums with Clarence’s sax playing on Born to Run and his epic solo on Jungleland, as well as Randy Brecker’s haunting trumpet on Meeting Across the River.  Roy Bittan’s piano and Clarence’s sax on She’s the One make the song, and it’s a great one even without them.

Yes, this is also the sentimental choice for me.  This is due in part to the iconic jacket, which speaks volumes about the bond Bruce had with Clarence, a bond that could never be replaced and which took an entire brass section including Clemons’ nephew just to begin to make up for the musical loss on stage.  From the operas out on the turnpike and ballets fought in alleys to the heartbroken making crosses from lovers and throwing roses in the rain, and all the rest of Bruce’s hungry and hunted, chrome-wheeled and fuel injected characters steppin’ out over the line:  Born to Run delivers everything when I think of Bruce Springsteen and the East Street Band.  It’s rock and roll poetry, as well as a desert island album for me.

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Some bonus Bruce-related hilarity:

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greetings_from_Asbury_Park,_N.J.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nebraska_(album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_River_(Bruce_Springsteen_album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darkness_on_the_Edge_of_Town

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Born_to_Run

September 15 – Springsteen: My Top 15 Albums, Pt. 2

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Recapping 15-11:  15. Tracks 14. Hammersmith Odeon ’75 13. Tunnel of Love 12. The Rising 11. Live in New York City

10. The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995)

When this album was released it had been eight years since the last Springsteen album with the East Street Band, and over three years since his last release of any sort.  Given that the interim two albums were the questionable same-day twin releases with that “other” band, fans were hungry for a “real” Bruce album.  (To play the “what if?’ game, I feel that Human Touch and Lucky Town could’ve been pared down to a very good single E Street Band album.)  The Ghost of Tom Joad, while not an E Street Band record, went a long way toward satisfying that hunger and was rewarded with the 1997 Grammy for Best Contemporary Folk Album.

Bruce channeled Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie for this batch of mostly quiet, acoustic songs which shed a light on the human element of race, immigration, and the every day struggle in a way only Springsteen can.  To me, a true testament to how good these tracks are is how songs such as Youngstown and the title track are transformed into something just as good if not better as rock versions in a live setting, giving guitarists Nils Lofgren and Tom Morello, respectively, a chance to really shine.

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9. Born in the U.S.A. (1984)

The first album of Bruce’s I listened to, this one is the Godzilla smash hit of his catalog.  Besides great songs, its success was fueled by relentless touring as well as MTV.  Everybody was aware of this record, including non-fans.  Even my older sister saw him on this tour, and I doubt she could name one song of his then or now (yeah, I’m kind of bitter that she saw him in ’85 but I was still too young to go to a concert).  It’s an album I don’t listen to much anymore; I simply grew tired of it.  But it’s still deserving of a top-10 spot.

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8. The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle (1973)

Song for song, this is a top-3 album that is probably way too overlooked by fans.  The reason it isn’t rated higher here is because of the way it was recorded, but it’s difficult for me to put my finger on as I don’t consider myself an audiophile.  I do feel it sounds a bit rushed even though it took months to record.  But again, these songs!  Bruce really started to embrace more of a rock sound compared to his debut, also from 1973, and the vignettes he created about life in the city included songs that have remained concert staples.

This is the E.S.B. pre-Roy Bittan, Max Weinberg, and Steven Van Zandt.  David Sancious is on piano and keyboards, and Vini Lopez plays drums.  These songs performed live are right up there with his best work, and hopefully one of their shows from this period will become available as part of Bruce’s live archives series.  Personal favorites include 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), Kitty’s Back, Wild Billy’s Circus Story, and of course the show stopper Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).

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7. Magic (2007)

Magic, the most recent Springsteen studio album in my ranking, was the first one with the E Street Band since 2002’s The Rising.  In my mind, it’s a continuation of the stories told in The Rising from the points of view of people that we all seem to know.  Only now he’s moved on from grief and the hope for healing and redemption – something that very briefly brought Americans together after 9/11 – to the disillusionment of the individual and national consequences of endless war and reawakened societal divisions that resulted from it.  It’s an angry album which perfectly captures the feelings of dread that many of us felt in those years which, for some of us, haven’t fully dissipated.

Standouts for me are You’ll Be Comin’ Down, Your Own Worst Enemy, Gypsy BikerMagic, Last to Die, and Long Walk HomeGirls in Their Summer Clothes provides a nice mid-album respite, and it reminds me of Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys.  At the end of this high energy roller coaster of an album, Terry’s Song is a sad but very touching tribute to Bruce’s long-time friend and assistant, Terry Magovern.  Also, Bruce looks like a complete badass on the cover photo.  Yeah, yeah, I’m a fanboy.

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6. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band:  Live/1975-85 (1986)

As I mentioned in my intro to this series, this box set kick-started my Springsteen fandom in the mid-1980’s.  From the solo piano version of Thunder Road (my favorite rendition) recorded at the Roxy in ’75 which opens the box set to the arena-anthemic, Tom Waits-written serenade to Jersey Girls that closes it out, this release was a true revelation to me.  The energy in these performances never fails to rev me up, including Side 6, a.k.a. the solo acoustic Nebraska set.

I vividly remember calling my mom into my basement room to listen to his heartfelt stories which lead into The River and War because I thought (and still think) they were great and I wanted her to “get it.”  I don’t know that she did.  I also recall listening to Seeds for the first time, and in my sheltered 15-year-old mind thinking, “Do people actually live that way?”  I learned they do.  I also learned that Fire was a Springsteen song and not the Pointer Sisters.  And all those tracks from the first six albums – what an introduction!  I was beginning to form what I later recognized as personal convictions and a worldview, and this was an early soundtrack for it.

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You can probably predict what the final five will be, but can you guess the order?

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ghost_of_Tom_Joad

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Born_in_the_U.S.A.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magic_(Bruce_Springsteen_album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Wild,_the_Innocent_%26_the_E_Street_Shuffle

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Live_1975%E2%80%9385

September 14 – Springsteen: My Top 15 Albums, Pt. 1

The parameters of my rankings change depending upon the artist.  For Bruce, box sets and live releases are included, with the exception of his live archival releases which are available to order and download from his website.  There’s simply too much material there to cover.  The same thing goes for his archival studio releases The Promise (from the Darkness on the Edge of Town sessions) and The Ties That Band (from The River sessions).  Otherwise, this could be a 50 album list, and ain’t nobody got time fer that.  As for his most recent three studio albums, Working on a Dream, Wrecking Ball, and High Hopes, they’re all good and very listenable, but in my mind they kind of run together unlike his earlier work and I haven’t spent as much time with them.  It takes time for me to make a serious connection with an album.

That said, let’s get rolling…

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15. Tracks (Box Set) (1998)

With the release of this four-disc set, I began to understand just how enormously productive Bruce had been over the years.  While some of its 66 songs are demos, alternate versions, and B-sides, it’s mostly made up of fully formed but previously unreleased songs that could’ve comprised albums which don’t exist.  Among the many highlights for me are the opening four tracks from Springsteen’s 1972 audition with John Hammond at CBS Records, as well as Thundercrack, Brothers Under the Bridge, and the demo for Born in the U.S.A. – the definitive version in my mind.  If that song had been released on Nebraska as originally recorded, its meaning wouldn’t have been lost on so many people, and it certainly wouldn’t be hijacked for use at political rallies as it is to this day.

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14. Hammersmith Odeon London ’75 (2006)

This concert was recorded November 18, 1975 shortly after the release of Born to Run, and was Bruce and the E.S.B.’s first appearance overseas.  It’s a historic performance, and one which Bruce felt a lot of doubt and anxiety about.  But you’d never know it from listening to the disc or watching the DVD.  They may or may not have been at their peak, but I’d argue they were never better.  Young and hungry they were.  Spirit in the Night, Lost in the Flood, and the epic 17:14 Kitty’s Back are among my favorites here.

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13. Tunnel of Love (1987)

What goes up must come down, so they say.  Springsteen’s skyrocketing international fame over the previous couple of years had taken a toll.  His marriage had fallen apart, and he had turned very introspective.  While members of the E Street Band contributed to the recordings on this, Born in the U.S.A.‘s followup, it’s officially a solo Bruce Springsteen record.  It yielded five singles, and among my favorite tracks are Ain’t Got You, All That Heaven Will Allow, Brilliant Disguise, Spare Parts, and the title track.  Even Tougher Than the Rest has grown on me over the years.  Tunnel of Love is considered by some critics to be one of the best albums of the 1980’s, and I agree.  Additionally, I like the live Chimes of Freedom EP that emerged from the accompanying tour.

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12. The Rising (2002)

As I mentioned in my introductory post for this series, Bruce has captured some significant moments, periods, and moods in the US with songs that many of us can relate to.  One need not have actually been laid off at the lumber yard or auto plant, or have a clue how to rig a junk car in the driveway just to make it run one more day.  Daily struggles are daily struggles, regardless of background.  And 2002’s The Rising, his first studio release in almost seven years, is one that cuts very deeply for many people.

For better and for worse, this is Bruce’s 9/11 album.  It’s full of tracks which allude to that awful day and its aftermath from the perspective of every day people who lost loved ones, while our collective sense of security was shattered.  But true to form, Bruce doesn’t leave listeners without hope for redemption (this aspect was more fully unveiled during his live shows on the Rising tour).  I listened to this album quite a bit for the first few years after its release, but until recently I hadn’t played it in a long while.  Not that I want to forget, but it’s just kind of sad to listen to.  I did play it a couple of days ago on the 17th anniversary of the attacks and realized possibly more than ever just how good most of its tracks are.

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11. Live in New York City (2001)

As I begin to write about this album, I’m wondering why I have it placed higher than the live Hammersmith Odeon release.  I suppose it’s because it represents a Springsteen show I’m personally familiar with having seen him on that tour.  For me, the opening four tracks alone make this release worthy of inclusion.  My Love Will Not Let You Down->Prove it All Night->Two Hearts->and the rock version of Atlantic City blow me away every time.  A couple of other favorites here are Lost in the Flood and the electric version of Youngstown with Nils Lofgren’s incredibly grungy and intense guitar solo that takes the listener up and up, all the way to the end of the song, without letting you back down.  I blew out a speaker in my old Geo Prism to that one.

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Up next:  10-6

-Stephen

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tracks_(Bruce_Springsteen_album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammersmith_Odeon_London_%2775

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tunnel_of_Love_(album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Rising_(album)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Springsteen_%26_The_E_Street_Band:_Live_in_New_York_City

 

 

 

September 13 – Bruce Springsteen in My Music World

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 RunThe 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.

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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.

-Stephen