"So you're from New Jersey? Do you like Bruce Springsteen?”
I've had innumerable conversations that opened this way. And I've almost always done the same thing: nodded politely and admitted to liking a few songs here and there.
You see, my relationship with Bruce Springsteen's music is...let's say complicated. I grew up in his general area of New Jersey. My family lived about half an hour northwest of his hometown of Freehold. You know the Highway 9 from “Born to Run,” with the sprung cages? About five miles from our house. Our neighborhood was fairly nondescript suburbia, but much of the surrounding area was blue-collar. One of my most indelible childhood memories, for instance, is how the yeast factory in the next town made the surrounding neighborhood smell like beer. So, to the extent Bruce was singing about working-class life, I did relate.
By the time I started seriously listening to music in the early 1980s, Springsteen had long been the king of New Jersey and surrounding states. He hadn't quite made the leap to superstar-level fame – that would come in 1984 with Born in The U.S.A. By 1980's The River, though, you could not listen to New York FM radio for long without hearing his voice. His multi-hour live shows with the E Street Band were legendary. Occasionally rumors would spread that he was planning to stop by the Stone Pony or Brighton Bar to jam with that evening's live band. The result: lines around the block, even if he never showed. He was simply everywhere.
And my response was what you'd expect from any teenager who was discovering punk rock and hardcore: I rebelled.
From high school onward, I officially “hated” Bruce Springsteen. I was not a fan of the bombastic production or the E Street Band's arrangements. Most of all, though, I resented the critical overrating, which began years earlier when he made the Time and Newsweek front covers in the same week. Writer (later manager) Jon Landau may have proclaimed, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen.” But you were much more likely to hear me rave about other New Jersey bands like the Feelies, Yo La Tengo, Patti Smith Group and Titus Andronicus.
And so it was for years - until recently. The nice thing about middle age is that you no longer base your listening preferences on the Billboard charts or peer opinion. To that end, I've spent the last few years revisiting the music I thought I “hated” as a kid. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that maybe I'd never given Bruce Springsteen's music a real shot. It seemed time for a re-evalaution.
Two recent events confirmed this. First, Off Broadway announced “Down To The River: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen” for December 30, featuring several local groups covering the Boss. Then, last week, Springsteen himself announced a tour to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of The River, recently re-released with scads of live and unreleased tracks. As it happens, The River is the one Springsteen album I actually owned – and the tour is coming to St. Louis' Chaifetz Arena on March 6. It's somewhat ironic that I may end up seeing my first Bruce Springsteen show here in Missouri. Then again, many of his songs could just as easily be situated in Granite City, Collinsville, or other Midwest Rust Belt cities.
So I asked several friends - some of whom are Jersey Shore natives who have spotted the guy at the local farmer's market - to recommend some deep cuts. Here are five standouts in no particular order, based on those recommendations and songs I already liked. (For whatever reason, I seem to gravitate toward his sparser, creepier material.)
In my experence, Springsteen superfans are a loyal, pugnacious breed. This means I can probably expect some negative comments below. I'm working on it, folks.
1) “Atlantic City” (Nebraska, 1982).
My general reservations aside, I have always appreciated the stark, spooky Nebraska album. It is the perfect transition between The River and Born In The U.S.A., two of his best-selling albums. The songs are full of dark imagery: late-night paranoia, lonely highways, bad choices and deadly consequences. “Atlantic City” is perhaps Nebraska's highlight. One of the album's many shady characters is facing “debts no honest man can pay,” so he takes the bus down to the casinos (which at the time were only a few years old), and predictably loses it all. But not to worry, as he's got a plan: “Last night I met this guy and I'm gonna do a little favor for him.” It could be a drug dealer, a Mafia capo or a small-time crook. Whomever it is, it's dangerous business, and the progatonist knows it. The video for “Atlantic City” - a rolling montage of boardwalk casinos, rundown neighborhoods that did not profit from legalized gambling, and general Jerseyana - could very well have been the inspiration for The Sopranos' iconic opening sequence.
2) “Highway Patrolman” (Nebraska, 1982).
Another Nebraska cut. Springsteen's covered brotherly conflict before – see “Adam Raised a Cain” from Darkness on the Edge of Town. In “Highway Patrolman,” Joe Roberts is “a sergeant out of Perrineville, barracks number 8.” There's a Perrineville in Monmouth County, New Jersey, but this song takes place in Michigan. Joe's brother, Frankie, is a drunk and a petty thief, constantly causing trouble around town. Joe tries to keep him in line, giving him breaks when he should arrest him, but he can't put aside his family loyalty so easily. Finally, one night Joe finds himself tailing Frankie on a high-speed chase toward the Canadian border, ultimately pulling over and letting him go. Some people interpret this as another expression of sibling loyalty. But I think what Joe sees is a terrible burden fading from his life. The moment Frankie tries to cross into Canada, he will become someone else's problem - and that someone is not likely to be lenient about it.
“3) The River” (The River, 1980).
So many of Springsteen's early hits promised escape from a drab blue-collar existence. He offers “Rosalita” a bohemian life in southern California after his label throws him “a big advance.” In “Born to Run,” New Jersey is “a death trap” to escape while young (which is one reason it's so amusing that the New Jersey state legislature keeps nominating it for the state song). But deep within those songs – perhaps in retrospect, perhaps not – is a hint that the happy ending may never arrive, that today's reckless choices may result in tomorrow's disastrous consequences. This is rarely as vivid as in The River's title track: eighteen-year-old man gets his girlfriend pregnant, they have a shotgun marriage, and he barely ekes out a living doing construction while she acts like this is the life she wanted. Speaking as a father of two, parenthood doesn't necessarily mean kissing your dreams goodbye. But that doesn't seem as true in a world of low expectations and limited alternatives.
4) “Girls in Their Summer Clothes” (Magic, 2007).
The crooning vocals, the guitar/violin interplay, the faint Phil Spector/Ronettes feel, lyrics that vascillate between loneliness and a desire to “burn the town down”...is this a Magnetic Fields outtake? Amazingly not, although the resemblance is uncanny. The closest Springsteen has ever come to indie-pop.
5) “Dream Baby Dream” (High Hopes, 2014)
What is Bruce Springsteen doing covering a song from Suicide's second album? It's not as far-fetched as one might think. It's likely that he encountered the influential duo at Max's Kansas City, or other NYC clubs, during his 1970s dues-paying years. He's actually praised Suicide in Rolling Stone, singling out the minimalistic horror of “Frankie Teardrop” as one of his favorite songs. “Dream Baby Dream” has been an occasional part of Springsteen's set since 2005. His version is surprisingly faithful to the original, although he tones down the art-rock experimentation. Its lyrics – with exhortations to “keep the light burning” and “we gotta keep on dreaming” - aren't so removed from Springsteen's own common themes.