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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
Some bonus Bruce-related hilarity: