Category: Boss Songs

Boss Songs Part IV: Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: David Michael Kennedy
Image Credit: David Michael Kennedy

Song – “Johnny 99” on Nebraska

This is yet another Boss song in which the central character’s hand is forced by his grim economic reality. The tempo of the song is rather fastpaced, especially in contrast with the majority of the Nebraska album, which can be unnervingly slow. In this case a blue collar man dubbed Johnny 99 loses his factory job, resorts to the bottle, gets his gun, and ironically shoots one of his blue collar brethren, a store clerk. The loss of a low-to-middle wage job is a common circumstance in numerous Springsteen songs, yet it continues to resonate because it’s still such a reality in America, where one economic injustice can lead inevitably to a string of others. There’s the legal injustice that is invoked by telling us that Johnny gets a “public defender,” a moniker that instantly connotes inadequacy, if not downright incompetence, and the drawing of “Mean John Brown,” who attempts to intimidate Johnny with his stare and gives him a life sentence. Johnny’s analytical response is that “it was more than all this that put that gun in my hand.” In his final act of defiance and hopelessness, Johnny requests a death sentence rather than the life sentence the judge gives. The “thoughts in his head,” he says, are deserving of such a sentence. It’s a classic Springsteen song conundrum where the blame game is complicated. For a lighter take, note that the Boss alludes to Tanqueray gin long before Snoop Dogg ever mentions it in his 1995 hit “Gin and Juice”.

Song – “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” on Born to Run

While no one, including the Boss himself, quite knows what a “tenth avenue freeze-out” is, the song is a favorite of many fans and often finds itself on Springsteen’s set lists. It’s one of my favorites for two reasons. First, I love the upbeat tempo created by the piano and horn interplay. I also like the “here I come” attitude of the song’s narrator. Bad Scooter (Bruce alias) had swagger before “swag” was a thing. “Well everybody better move over,” he croons, an artist on the verge of breakout, much like Springsteen himself, whose superstardom begins with Born to Run. “And kid you better get the picture / And I’m on my own, I’m on my own / And I can’t go home.” Success is a must because there’s nothing else left. Blessed with nothing but the naïve dreams of glory, he’s got his “back to the wall,” which we all know is the perfect motivation to “make it.” Throw in a little help from friends like “the big man” (Clarence Clemons), and he’s confident that he’s about to “bust this city in half.” The freeze-out, whatever it is, is in full effect.

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Boss Songs Part III: Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: Chalkie Davies, Getty Images
Image Credit: Chalkie Davies, Getty Images

Song – “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” Album – Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ 

This song is three minutes of pure bravado that concludes the album in a way that must’ve left initial fans clamoring for more. It’s also another example of Springsteen’s superfluous yet pleasing rhyme, reminiscent of “Blinded by the Light”, a song also included on Greetings but later popularized by Manfred Mann. The speaker of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” is a young man who demonstrates a sort of hyper self-awareness, knowing right from wrong. Yet his hand is forced by circumstances beyond his control in the predatory city, a theme often visited in Springsteen’s songs. The most often noted lines in the song are chilling: “The devil appeared like Jesus through the steam in the street / Showin’ me a hand I knew even the cops couldn’t beat / I felt his hot breath on my neck as I dove into the heat / It’s so hard to be a saint when you’re just a boy out on the street.” Since it was recorded before Clarence Clemons joined the band, the album version is mostly guitar and piano, but watch the video of the band performing it at the Hammersmith-Odeon in 1975. This utterly enthralling live version is everything a live rock song performance should be. It includes a ragamuffin Springsteen looking every bit like a “king of the alley” who “could talk some trash.” Clarence Clemons, bedecked in an all-white suit, uses his saxophone to add an eerie tension that is sorely missing on the album. Roy Bittan is caught repeatedly manhandling the keys of the Steinway, and right around the three and half-minute mark Steve Van Zandt dares to duel the Boss and his Fender Telecaster. If the performance wasn’t so quintessentially rock-and-roll it could pass as punk before there was punk. Watch it here—you won’t regret it.

Song – “Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?” Album – Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ

Like “Lost in the Flood” here’s another Springsteen song without a chorus. Instead, we see a typical Springsteen collage of images and fanciful characters (interstellar mongrel nymphs), but the grim reality that pervades many of his songs is absent. Although there’s no real story here, the Boss keeps it freewheeling and upbeat as he describes the cityscape with a barrage of allusions (Joan Fontaine) and quirky rhymes, with Mary Lou telling the Daily News, “Man, the dope’s that there’s still hope.” The music is pared down, the song is over before it hardly begins, and it can’t be slowed down. I’ve never heard of Bruce playing this song live, but if so I’d pay a fortune to see him perform this two-minute romp in a blazing sixty seconds of stream-of-consciousness rock.

Boss Songs Part II – Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: Art Maillett
Image Credit: Art Maillett

Song – “Backstreets”
Album – Born to Run

This is perhaps my favorite Boss song of all time, although it is admittedly difficult and probably unfair to have to choose only one. The piano intro being played by Roy Bittan at the beginning of “Backstreets” feels like home and heartbreak all at the same. In his Rolling Stone review of the album Greil Marcus said it should be a “prelude to a rock and roll version of The Iliad.” The lyrics are also a perfect mixture of nostalgia and desolation. I love the first and last verses especially, which demonstrate Springsteen’s poetry of the lost. He uses the poetic sound devices such as the alliteration in “soft infested summer” and the internal, imperfect rhyme and assonance of “tying faith between our teeth”—all of which balances nicely against the grammatically incorrect yet fitting sound of the phrase “we was born in.” In the final verse he sings, “Remember all the movies, Terry, we’d go see / Trying to learn how to walk like heroes we thought we had to be / And after all this time to find we’re just like all the rest.” At some point in our youth, we dream we’re rising, trying to live up to some unattainable ideal. Then one day we discover that glory passes most of us over, our youth is gone, and all that’s left is life on the backstreets.

Song – “Born in the U.S.A.”
Album – Born in the U.S.A.

When I was eight years old I owned two very distinct cassette tapes: Michael Jackson’s Thriller and Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A What a combination! I listened to both albums every weekend for something like a year. Just like nearly everyone else in the eighties I misinterpreted “Born in the U.S.A.” as a patriotic theme. With the “I was born in U.S.A.” lyric, you can’t  help being jingoistic and dismissively arrogant about being an American. The phrase had to be a boast, but of course, that is all part of the irony of the song about a soldier pushed aside by the economic circumstances of the very nation he defended. Once you really listen to the lyrics you realize this song is anything but patriotic. It’s about a man run afoul of the law who can’t catch a break. He’s sent to Vietnam, does his duty, but returns home brotherless, jobless, and hopeless. He’s wasted from waiting, a “long gone daddy in the U.S.A.” The song is saturated in irony, but most people just don’t get it. Musically, I love the snare drum that opens the song, Mighty Max Weinberg’s concluding drum solo, and in the live version, the wailing guitar at the end. Also, check out Springsteen’s solo version on the slide guitar—it’s intense and much less likely to leave you in a misguided nationalistic stupor.

Boss Songs Part I: Springsteen Vignettes

Image Credit: Frank Stefanko
Image Credit: Frank Stefanko

Song – “Cover Me”
Album – Born in the U.S.A.

There’s nothing amazing about this song; it’s just a simple and somewhat cheesy 80s-style rock song with a good guitar solo that gets me every time. When I was eight years old I used to listen to this song in the back den of my house while playing pool. When Bruce sings “This whole world is out there just trying to score / I’ve seen enough I don’t want to see any more,” you understand we all need some kind of savior, and many people are finding it in the false things of this world. Despite my age and innocence, this song made me feel down and out, just an eight-year-old kid hard pressed for a break in this insane world. Check out Juliana Hatfield’s acoustic cover of this here.

Song – “I’m On Fire”
Album – Born in the U.S.A.

“I’m On Fire” is a song of brevity and desire. If it were any longer it would be ruined. As it is you have to replay it several times to get your fill. To me it’s about those certain moments when your passion takes over and nothing else concerns you. It’s a passion that makes it worth living, but also soul-destroying if you can’t act on it. If you’ve ever lusted after someone, you’ll know Bruce got this song just right. Emily Dickinson claimed she knew when she read poetry because it felt like the top of her head was taken off. That’s what this song is like—it just hits you heavy like a shot to the gut.

Song – “I’m Going Down”
Album – Born in the U.S.A.

If you’ve ever been in love with someone who fell out of love with you, this is your song. There are two lyrics I especially like: “We get dressed up and we go out, baby, for the night / We come home early burning, burning in some fire fight.” Sometimes you naively think one wonderful evening on the town will solve all your problems, but somewhere in the night it all goes wrong and ends in a drunken argument. Then the guy realizes she now gets just as much joy from hating you as she used to in loving you. I think that’s what the Boss is getting at when he sings the last lines in the final verse: “You used to love to drive me wild / But lately girl you get your kicks from just driving me down.” That’s a realization you never want to experience, but it happens all the time.

Song – “Lost in the Flood”
Album – Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. & Live From New York

This is the first Springsteen song to drive me into a conscious attempt to learn its lyrics. To this day I’ll recite it in my head if I find myself stuck in a waiting room with nothing to read. Even though the song consists of three stories in three verses with no unifying chorus, Springsteen still brings it together like it’s an anthem of lost causes. On the album version David Sancious ensures the organ wails like an omen of death, but even so I suggest the live version with its blistering guitar solo and soft concluding piano play. Danny Federici’s work on the keys is tremendous and you can tell the Boss is trying to channel a younger version of himself, the self he was when he wrote the song years before. I’ve never owned a muscle car, but this song makes me wish I did, even though I’d probably kill myself driving it. The demise of Jimmy The Saint is perfect: “Well the blaze and noise boy, he’s gunnin’ that bitch loaded to blastin’ point / He rides head first into a hurricane and disappears into a point / And there’s nothin’ left but some blood where the body fell / That is, nothin’ left that you could sell / just junk all across the horizon, a real highwayman’s farewell.” It reminds me of the final race scene in American Graffiti, but far more tragic. Many of Bruce’s characters go out in a final blaze of glory that seems simultaneously beautiful and desperate. It’s a thought that gets captured perfectly when the “somebody” in the final verse sings, “Hey man, did you see that? / His body hit the street with such a beautiful thud.” It’s a verse loaded with a motley coterie of misfits who marvel at the spectacle of death, tragically unaware that their own demise, “the beautiful thud,” is right around the corner. Undoubtedly, one of Springsteen’s darkest songs, it’s utterly absent of the sliver of hope that survives many of his other songs.