Bruce Springsteen’s 40 greatest songs are picked by an all-star cast – including Daniel Lanois, Howe Gelb, Mike Scott, Holly Johnson, Ed Harcourt, Ben Harper, Susan Sarandon and more – in this gem from the Uncut archives (originally in our April 2003 issue, Take 71). “He extracts magic from the everyday!” Compiled by Allan Jones
Bruce Springsteen as idol, hero and inspiration by Steve Wynn
It’s hard today to convey the radical and profound impact of Bruce Springsteen in the mid-’70s. In the years since, he’s become more of an icon, a Walking Statement and, through no fault of his own, a prototype of a caricature that has been embraced by lesser sax-driven, good-time party bands over the years. But in the mid-’70s it was almost a revelation to see a performer who was so low on pretence and so devoted and committed to the possibilities and magic of rock’n’roll. On record, and especially in concert, Springsteen broke down the walls between himself and his fans (most likely because he was first and foremost a fan himself) and used catharsis, devotion and boundless energy as the method, the goal and ends in themselves.
When I tell people that a Bruce Springsteen show in 1978 led directly to the formation of The Dream Syndicate, they’re usually surprised. I was back home in LA after my first year in college and was finally able to see Springsteen and The E Street Band play a show at the LA Forum. I had loved his records for years and was excited to see the songs performed live but was unprepared for the gospel-like fervour that he put across at the time.
And I was so blown away by the show that I went home and called my college pal Kendra Smith (who was home for the summer in San Diego) and told her that I was driving down the next night and taking her to the next show on the tour (yes, you could buy Springsteen tickets the day of the show back then). In 1978, Kendra and I were already firmly under the sway of punk rock and had, in fact, met over plans to share a ride to see The Jam in San Francisco. But she was equally knocked out by Springsteen’s show – his genuine enthusiasm and fearless excitement provided a stark contrast to even the punk rock shows we had seen, many of which were just as staged and posed and stilted as any prog-rock event. As we left the San Diego Arena, still buzzed from what we had seen, we decided that we had to form a band as soon as possible.
Kendra had sung a bit in school and I had written songs and played guitar in a few bands. But Springsteen’s show (much like the best punk music) made it seem that we had every right to be on a stage, the only qualification being desire and love for what we were doing and a belief in the power and transcendence of great music. The band we formed was called Suspects and didn’t exactly set the world on fire, but a few years later we formed a new band in LA. The Dream Syndicate mixed many of the things we loved – the noise and psychedelia of the Velvets, Stooges and garage bands, as well as the attitudes and trash aesthetic of punk rock – but I can honestly say that the evangelical qualities that we saw at that Springsteen show in 1978 was also a big part of what we ended up doing with the Syndicate, and is still an influence on my live shows today.
No retreat, baby, no surrender. And that’s true even 25 years later.
40 Dead Man Walking
Theme song of Tim Robbins’ 1995 film
SUSAN SARANDON: Being from New Jersey, I admire most everything Springsteen’s done from Day One, but this song triggers an obvious connection with the movie we made. Bruce is still a good friend of Tim Robbins and me, and his wife and kids are adorable. I liked him back in the day and I like him now, because he’s managed to keep awake, and keep changing. He’s committed as a writer, and a great musician, and I like what he’s about.
Eddie Vedder’s also a great guy and a really thoughtful person… ha ha, Goldie Hawn is now ribbing me about going for the ‘brain’ thing in men. She says she liked Jim Morrison’s looks, but the drug problem put her off. That would’ve been tough. Given that we’ve just made a film about ageing groupies, I’ll add that I did live with a rock star once – but not as a groupie! The problem with being a groupie, or even too much of a fan, is living through someone else, y’know? But hooking up with somebody and finding him interesting outside his job, well, that I have done. Been on the road, the works. But not with somebody I met on my knees in the dressing room – c’mon, let’s get real! Yes, Goldie, a sense of humour and a brain mean a lot to me, yeah. I like to have somebody I can look at in the morning and not be embarrassed. She’s not buying it. She’s still fantasising about what one no-repercussions night with Jim Morrison would’ve been like. But I’m still voting for Bruce.
TIM ROBBINS: Thanks, Bruce.
39 Brilliant Disguise
Tunnel Of Love album track, 1987
ADAM DURITZ: I think Tunnel Of Love is a vastly underrated album, at least by songwriting standards. I’m not crazy about some of the changes in instrumentation on this record. They certainly haven’t aged particularly well. But every artist has the right to try new things and, anyways, if you can get past that shit, the songs are truly beautiful.
HEATHER NOVA: It’s a great song about relationships because it’s about insecurity. That’s what makes relationships both scary and fun, that element of “Do I really know you and do you really know me or are we just two strangers in this bed?” He has a macho image but I think he is really soft and sensitive and I think he is a really thoughtful writer and his songs are really sensual and emotional.
SAF MANZOOR: This is a love song in three dimensions that goes beyond the comforting simplicities offered by most pop songs. In fact “Brilliant Disguise” is less about love than it is about faith, doubt and self-deception; it is about the fear that comes with knowing that we never truly know anyone, even ourselves. It is always tempting to speculate as to how autobiographical this is, but perhaps the fact that Springsteen divorced Julianne Phillips less than a year after the release of Tunnel Of Love suggests that he did not have to look too far for source material to inspire his songwriting. Springsteen’s songs had tended to dwell on how external factors prevented his characters from finding peace and happiness; but in “Brilliant Disguise”, it is his personal demons that stop the protagonist from being content. The character in the song wants to believe that he loves his new wife and that she loves him, but he is plagued by doubt and guilt. He is not a bad man and yet the final lines of “Brilliant Disguise” see him in bed with a woman he is not sure he truly knows, praying that “God have mercy on the man who doubts what he’s sure of”. Springsteen has referred to Nebraska as an album about American isolation – what happens when people are alienated from their friends, community and government. Frightening a prospect as that is, “Brilliant Disguise” was about something perhaps even more terrifying: the consequences of becoming isolated from yourself.