20 Highway Patrolman
Nebraska album track, 1982
HOWE GELB: People used to compare Springsteen to Dylan all the time, but songs like “Highway Patrolman” showed that was just a goofy comparison. He’s his own man, and “Highway Patrolman” demonstrates that: the song is really compelling and melodic, and the lyrics draw you into the story.
BRETT SPARKS: If you have a brother, you understand. This is one of the greatest story songs ever written. The details are so vivid, so cinematic. “The band played ‘Night Of The Johnstown Flood’.” Man, what a reference.
RENNIE SPARKS: This song has a tragic arc that’s as deep and painful as anything Sophocles dished out.
LYNDON MORGANS: Oh, just another masterpiece of a song off an album full of ’em. The story of Sergeant Joe Roberts and his no-good brother Frankie, but “man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good”. New Jersey’s current poet laureate, in deep shit for stupid remarks made about the bombing of the Twin Towers, is under pressure to step down, but it makes no difference if he does or he doesn’t, because the real title belongs to Bruce Springsteen.
JIM SCLAVUNOS: I think every song [on Nebraska] is beautiful, but “Highway Patrolman” sticks out because it’s a character study of a broken man whose torn apart by his job and the rules he should enforce. Seen in the context of Bruce’s work, it’s another song about how the law fails to encompass the demands made by human feelings and behaviour.
DANIEL DAVIDSON: Everyone bangs on about Dylan and The Beatles, but Springsteen manages to make really complex and detailed songs like “Highway Patrolman” sound effortless. The first few times you hear it, the lyrics could be about anything, then you slowly realise they’re about the working man versus the law.
19 Lost In The Flood
Greetings From Asbury Park, NJ album track, 1973
GEORGE P PELECANOS: One of the dense narrative tracks that populated the debut album and an early example of his car-culture obsession that would reach its apogee on Darkness On The Edge Of Town, “Lost In The Flood” also addresses a young man’s romantic notion of immortalisation by violent, speed-ridden death. As the owner of a jacked-up muscle car who drag-raced on Friday nights in my home town, I knew something about the subject. Hell, my friends and I often discussed what song we wanted to be playing on the dashboard radio when we checked out at 90 miles per hour. Springsteen gets it just right, down to the “flash paint” on Jimmy The Saint’s Chevy Stock Super Eight, then turns on the vocal juice for Jimmy’s gone-to-glory fade-out, who’s “gunnin’ that bitch loaded to the blasting point,” riding “head first into a hurricane” towards his “highwayman’s farewell”. “And I said, ‘Hey, kid, you think that’s oil?’ ‘Man, that ain’t oil, that’s blood’/I wonder what he was thinking when he hit that storm/Or was he just lost in the flood?” If you can get a car-full of teenage boys, typically too embarrassed to show any emotion at all, to sing the above chorus in unison as they cruised down the street on a Friday night, you are doing something special. Yet some of our elders were not convinced. At this point, a few rock writers were criticising Springsteen for the ‘New Dylan’ hype, which they themselves had burdened him with. But if his wordplay and allusions did not always hit the intended mark, that was just an overflow of ambition from a prodigious talent who had yet to find his voice. In any case, the kids on the street knew what the critics could not. None of us had ever heard songs on the radio that spoke to our world so completely and on such a visceral level as this. And he was just getting started.
DAMON GOUGH: Brilliant imagery and incredible lyrics.
STEVE WYNN: For all of the devastation and hopelessness of Nebraska, I think this may be the darkest of all Springsteen songs. It’s unforgiving, hopeless and apocalyptic as a songwriter can be only on his first or his final record, when perspective and levity are just not possible or necessary.
CHRIS T-T: I’ve listened to this song on and off for years and I love the fact it’s both an epic piece of music and a really long, personal story about heroes and villains. A lot of people compare Springsteen to Dylan, but Dylan has always been a very self-conscious poet and spokesperson for the youth. You could argue Springsteen is a poet, too, but he’s always been more interested in rock’n’roll than literature and, as a result, his lyrics are a lot less affected and intellectual. His wordplay never gets in the way of the music, and I think he tells stories better than anybody.
18 Meeting Across The River
Born To Run album track, 1975
GEORGE P PELECANOS: A song about a guy who thinks he’s smart and will be forever doomed by that miscalculation. The narrator is giving the orders, but from the first two lines (“Hey, Eddie, can you lend me a few bucks/And tonight can you get us a ride”), we know that he’s holding the busted hand. Spare instrumentation sets the night-and-the-city mood, with Randy Brecker in particular buying a piece of immortality for his work on trumpet. Springsteen’s asides (“Change your shirt”) are perfect, as are his character brushstrokes (“Well Cherry says she’s gonna walk/’Cause she found I took her radio and hocked it/But Eddie, man, she don’t understand/That two grand’s practically sitting here in my pocket”) that say more than most songwriters can accomplish in 10 verses. As artful in its economy as a Raymond Carver short story. There are many books and movies that made me want to become a fiction writer, but very few songs. This is one that did.
DAMON GOUGH: I bought the Born To Run songbook, and this was one of the first tunes I made myself learn on the piano. In fact, I’m sat at the piano now [plays the opening bars]. I remembered what I’d learnt from school and painstakingly learnt all the notes. I never had any training, but took ages over it and managed to learn “Thunder Road”, “Backstreets” and “Jungleland”. So I learnt to play better piano by teaching myself from that book. The mood of “Meeting Across The River” is superb.
MIKE SCOTT: An understated beauty.
ADAM SWEETING: For all the structure and discipline that manager Jon Landau brought to Springsteen’s career, he also helped nudge several of Bruce’s more interesting creative leanings into mothballs. This after-hours, jazz-inflected monologue by a down-at-heel hoodlum desperate for a last big ⌦score probably owes a little too much to dog-eared pulp fiction, but Springsteen’s laconic, fatalistic delivery is perfect, deftly matching the stale-bourbon-and-sawdust arrangement. His thoughts would pass back this way on the likes of “Atlantic City” or “Murder Incorporated”, but he never sounded like this before or since.