Pat Brothwell’s top 5 from The Boss and why.
I regret to say that I didn’t become a full-fledged disciple of the boss until my sophomore year of college. I always liked Bruce—I’m American after all—but I remember the moment his music became a full-fledged obsession.
It was spring semester and a group of us was gathered in my dorm room after a night out. Someone wanted to hear “Thunder Road” so my buddy across the hall ran over to get his guitar and started playing, while those more familiar with the song than I sang along.
This was a version of the song without the iconic harmonica or tinkling piano. It was sloppy and amateur, and it was late and I was definitely not in the right state of mind, but the lyrics grabbed me. I wanted to know why Mary was slamming the screen door and who she was dancing for on the screen porch while her dress waved. I wanted to know who the lonely people Roy Orbison was singing for were. I wanted to know why Mary wasn’t a beauty and why that was all right, and as for showing a little faith in the magic of the night; well, I was already down with that. How else did I end up in that room with those people at that time, listening and dissecting what would become one of my favorite songs?
I love those music moments, those times that for whatever reason I become instantly enamored with a song. I want to know the story behind it, the inspiration, and I want to become involved in the narrative. I look for ways to relate it to my life and listen to it over and over and over again. “Thunder Road” was the first Bruce song that gave me one of these moments but it for sure wasn’t the last.
The great thing about Bruce (we’re on a first name basis in my mind) is that he gives me so much to relate to, so without further ado, here are five of my favorite Springsteen songs and what they mean to me.
“Badlands,” Darkness on the Edge of Town. “Badlands” always sticks with me because of my high school graduation party. Anyone who’s had one of these knows that your party isn’t the most fun party you’ll be at. While your friends can dance and socialize and sneak out back for a couple of Jell-O shots, you have to thank everyone from coming and pretend you know the names of all your distant relatives and at the end of the night you’re elated that all these people came to celebrate you, but you’re also exhausted.
I remember late in the night, after most of the guests had retreated and only my parents’ normal crew remained, my dad’s best friend, who’s something like a surrogate parent to my siblings and I, pulled me aside and decided to impart some wisdom to the graduate. He told me to always remember a line from “Badlands.” as it describes a majority of people out there, and to try and never let it describe me: “Poor man wanna be rich, Rich man wanna be king, And a king ain’t satisfied, ‘Til he rules everything.” It might have been the single best piece of graduation advice I received. It’s also the only one I remember.
“Bobby Jean,” Born in the USA. “Bobby Jean” is a song a strong friendship that borders on platonic love, and a bittersweet one at that. The narrator and the titular Bobby Jean grew up together. They hung out together when no one else would, they liked the same music, and they liked the same clothes. Then something happened. It’s not specified what, but the friendship ends and while the narrator is sad, they look back on it fondly. There’s no hate, maybe a twinge of regret, but no animosity.
I started listening to “Bobby Jean” a lot the summer a good childhood friend passed away. I still think of him every time I listen to it, looking back fondly and a little regretfully at all the times we had together. When he died we hadn’t seen each other for a couple of months, both too involved with the various goings on in our lives. Like Bruce, I wished I’d had the chance “just to say goodbye” and “just to say I miss you baby, good luck, goodbye, Bobby Jean.”
“Highway Patrolman,” Bruce Springsteen With the Sessions Band: Live in Dublin. I typically steer clear of the Nebraska album. I know people lose their shit over it, but I prefer happy, optimistic, sing-along Bruce to this moody guy. I love me some “Highway Patrolman,” though, especially this live version.
Part of the beauty of music is being able to get out of it whatever you want. “Highway Patrolman” always elicits a very specific memory from me. There’s a part of the song where Joe Roberts, the highway patrolman, and his brother, Frankie, are sitting together in a bar, taking turns dancing with Joe’s wife, Marie. It doesn’t specify, but the melancholy nature of the music always makes me think it’s not a hopping bar, that it’s kind of dead and it’s towards the end of the night and despite this Joe and Frankie and Maria are having a blast, not caring that the bartender and two other patrons are shaking their heads and saying, “Those Jones boys are carrying on too much again.”
I’m very close with my family and the older I get the more I hang with them in socially. I’m also getting to the age where when I go back home a lot of my friends have flown the coop or are busy with the type of things you get busy with when you’re in your late twenties. It seems more and more that if I want to go out when I go home it’s with my parents, siblings, uncle and cousins, and that we’re usually at a bar that’s not really hopping and more often than not the last ones there having a good time, despite the circumstances.
It’s weird, but it’s what I think about whenever I listen to “Highway Patrolman” and I don’t hate that I do.
“Rosalita,” The Wild, the Innocent & the E-Street Shuffle. I’ve always loved “Rosalita.” It’s not one of Bruce’s deeper songs, and this wasn’t one of the Bruce songs that I heard and related to right away but to me, “Rosalita” (or Rosie, if you’re friends) represents pure unabashed musical joy. Listen to it.
Dennis Lehane put this in words so much more eloquently than I can. He uses a simile in Mystic River to describe the feeling a kid has walking down the street when he feels on top of the world. Does anyone else do soundtrack their lives in their heads? He writes that he was “walking like he was in a goddamed Springsteen song, and not the Nebraska-Ghost-of-Tom-Joad Springsteen, the Born-to-Run-Two-Hearts-Are-Better-Than-One-Rosalita-(Won’t-You-Come-Out-Tonight) Bruce, the anthem Bruce.” It’s brilliant. If only “Rosalita” could be my backing track every time I had a great day.
“Rosalita” also contains my very favorite Bruce line ever: “I ain’t here for business baby, I’m only here for fun.” If we all took on the world with that attitude, don’t’ you think the world would be a better place?
“No Surrender,” London Calling: Live from Hyde Park. This song is so applicable across the board, whether it be for never giving up on your dreams, not giving in and growing up, or whatever “no surrender” means to you. What I love most about “No Surrender” comes from the London Calling: Live From Hyde Park DVD. Bruce duets with Brian Fallon of The Gaslight Anthem. If you’re unfamiliar with The Gaslight Anthem and a Springsteen fan, make sure to check them out. Fallon’s always been upfront with how much Bruce has been an influence and alludes to his music frequently.
Having new artists duet with their more established rock idols is a frequent trope of the music industry, although usually these occur with much fanfare and polishing during award shoes or televised concerts. Often it’s obvious that these young guys just give lip service to singing with their “idols.”
But this performance is raw and unrehearsed. Fallon isn’t giving Bruce lip service. He’s a bona fide fan, and much as I obviously adore Bruce I think Fallon hijacks the song and makes it his own. Watch the whole video but pay attention to Fallon’s body language and facial expressions. The guy’s ecstatic, and if I’m not mistaking there might be some tears in his eyes around 2:23.
This gives me chills in the best way every time I watch it (which is frequently). If you watch this and feel nothing, then you have no heart.
Want more Good Men Playlists? Check out “Eight Reasons to Reconsider KISS.”