14 My Father’s House
Nebraska album track, 1982
ADAM SWEETING: Bruce’s relationship with his father fuelled many an on-stage rap and several memorable songs, not least “Independence Day” and “Adam Raised A Cain”. “My Father’s House” is more of a dream-parable than a realistic account of life with Springsteen Snr, part scrambled childhood memory and part religious quest (there’s an unmistakable glimpse of the Biblical in the last verse where “my father’s house shines hard and bright”). As with most of the Nebraska material, you’d guess the inspiration came from hymns and ancient mountain music rather than Elvis or the Stones. Even when he’d only just written it, this song seemed to have existed forever.
KRISTIN HERSH: I remember my dad playing this song in our house when I was a kid. He told me that Springsteen had recorded it all by himself with one mic. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I always pictured him in our basement, with his one mic, making up stories about the Midwest.
BRETT SPARKS: The melodic bass line in the guitar is a direct reference to The Carter Family. This is an old-time hymn. Its antecedents include songs of family loss/remorse like “The Prodigal Son”, “Rank Strangers” and “Daddy And Home”.
RENNIE SPARKS: It could be a scene from Kurosawa’s Dreams. A powerful surrealism runs through this song like a snake. Each moment feels as ritualised and meaningful as a Native American corn dance.
BEN HARPER: That’s my all-time favourite. I got to cover it on a Nebraska tribute record to him. I was one of the last people to join the album. I said, “I want to do ‘My Father’s House’. ” They said, “Well, you’re lucky, it’s one of the two songs no one chose.” I said, “What?!” I did it in a really rootsy version. I just love the tune. It’s so powerful, like that whole album.
13 I’m On Fire
Born In The USA album track, 1984
DAMON GOUGH: This is my favourite from Born In The USA. At the time, I couldn’t really equate that album with the rest of his career. By the time he was touring it, I’d been listening to his back catalogue, more or less in sequence. Now that time’s passed, I think it’s a brilliant record. I was in the pub the other night and it came on. Really powerful. Johnny Cash did a great version of it on the Badlands tribute album. It really seems to suit his voice.
RUSSELL SIMINS: The video to “I’m On Fire” is pretty goofy, but the song is one of the best courtship songs ever. I’ve played it hundreds of times since Born In The USA came out and it’s just a really sexy song about pursuing a girl and showing her you want to take care of her. Basically, there’s strength and weakness in the characters that’s just so attractive.
HEATHER NOVA: I think it’s a sensual, seductive song – which is why I wanted to cover it and interpret it as a woman. It’s a song about sexual tension, so when a woman sings it, it becomes more arresting and startling. For me, the song is really haunting.
TOM BRIDGEWATER: Despite the faintly dodgy undertones, I just love this one. Haven’t we all woken up in the middle of the night with the sheets soaking wet and a freight train running through the middle of our heads? Even if it is the 2.30 to Dorking.
DANIEL LANOIS: I always loved “I’m On Fire”. It sounds like a real old folk song but it isn’t. Live, he really rocks out and he’s indefatigable. But that song is so lovely and sweet. There were rumblings of me working with him on a record, but it never happened. He’s a great dude. He’s someone you would want on the ship if it was sinking.
DANIEL DAVIDSON: I think “I’m On Fire” is just a top love song. If you asked Springsteen, he’d probably say it has a really deep meaning that’s gone over our heads, but to me it’s just about a guy and a girl falling in love and getting it on.
JOHN BRAMWELL: Springsteen is wrapped up in American mythology and on songs like this one he conveys it brilliantly. He hints that passion and love can be as destructive as they are beautiful.
RICHARD WARREN: I remember hearing this on the radio loads when I was a kid. It was only about a minute-and-a-half long, but I loved the simplicity ⌦of the music and the ’50s Americana imagery. When I hear the flat-back echo of the drums and vocals now, it makes me think of Roy Orbison and The Everly Brothers, but at the time I just saw it as a really heart-breaking song.
12 The Ghost Of Tom Joad
Album title track, 1995
TIM ROBBINS: I’ve been a Springsteen fan since I saw him play for more than four hours at Madison Square Garden in 1978. I have immense respect for him as an artist and as a person, and I am always happy to see him as a friend. I’ve seen him live lots of times, and my favourite concert of his is usually the last one I saw. However, his Ghost Of Tom Joad tour, playing alone on stage in smaller theatres, stands out as something unique and special.
THEA GILMORE: I came to Bruce Springsteen late. I was born in 1979 so it was the ’80s stuff I heard first and, to be honest, it washed over me at the time. I knew Born In The USA was big and everything but – this is sacrilege, right – I just lined it up with Tom Petty and Don Henley and other kinds of blue-collar American rock that I thought was worthy enough but not really life-changing. Then, in 1996, I heard The Ghost Of Tom Joad album and the title track just pulled me in. For a start, I was really shocked to hear this stadium rocker delivering the song in a sort of wheezy whisper, and the narrative, the pared-down language, the matter-of-fact desperation… brilliant. So, in my head, he changed overnight from being John Mellencamp’s smart elder brother to being Woody Guthrie’s favourite nephew.
ADAM DURITZ: I know this isn’t an album that a lot of people listened to, and as a stripped-down folk album it doesn’t have the status of Nebraska, but this is a great record. You put this album on and you realise you’re listening to a songwriter who’s so much better than the rest of us it’s scary. There’s a simplicity and an economy in the lyrics. Yet he still manages to tell complex stories dealing with subject matter I wouldn’t have the first idea how to deal with and he manages to do it while making it sound so simple that it’s like the words were always there.
SAF MANZOOR: By 1995, Bruce Springsteen had said all he wanted to say about his own life. The twin releases of Human Touch and Lucky Town three years earlier had been perhaps his most directly autobiographical work. They described his new-found marital happiness, and the rewards and dangers of fatherhood. Having exhausted his own biography, Springsteen looked at the world beyond the bourgeois house in the Hollywood Hills for the inspiration for his next record. The result was The Ghost Of Tom Joad – not so much an album as a collection of short stories lightly accompanied by acoustic guitar. The title track is one of the album’s finest moments: a state of the nation address which sees Springsteen assume the role of a modern-day John Steinbeck surveying the trials and tribulations of the forgotten and downtrodden. In a succession of expertly drawn vignettes, Springsteen describes the victims of the new world order, those with “no job, no home, no peace, no rest”. Springsteen has often been accused of being an excessively romantic chronicler but on “The Ghost Of Tom Joad”, there appears no escape, no way out.
LYNDON MORGANS: It’s this album and Nebraska that really stake his claim to greatness; together they paint as powerful a picture of America in the late 20th century as Walt Whitman’s “Leaves Of Grass” did for his era. In an earlier song like “Thunder Road”, the open highway represents freedom, escape or adventure, but now “The highway is alive tonight but nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes.” Once you’ve heard them, songs like this’ll haunt you for the rest of your life.
NIGEL WILLIAMSON: It’s like a novella condensed into a four-minute song, and Jack London, Steinbeck or Hemingway could hardly have done it better. Musically it’s incomparable, too. The harmonica sounds so lonesome and stark and yet sweet and lovely at the same time, and the way he sings “the highway is alive tonight” is one of the most spine-tingling moments in the entire Springsteen canon. Then “Straight Time” follows the opening title song and it’s almost as good, if not better. Fifty minutes later you get to “Galveston Bay” and you realise the entire album is as near-as-dammit perfect.