Bruce Springsteen is receiving a major honor today (March 21) at the White House: The National Medal of the Arts.
Per the National Endowment for the Arts, “The National Medal of Arts is the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the federal government. It is awarded by the president of the United States to individuals or groups who are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, growth, support, and availability of the arts in the United States.”
Springsteen is just one of 11 individuals and entities being honored with the award in 2023. Other recipients being recognized this year include Gladys Knight, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Vera Wang, Mindy Kaling and Jose Feliciano. In recent years, recipients of the National Medal of Arts include Mel Brooks, Sally Field, Stephen King and George Lucas.
This isn’t the first national honor The Boss has received. In 2009, he was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors. In 2016, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
The Arts and Humanities Award Ceremony begins at 4:30 PM. It can be streamed below.
Bruce Springsteen: His Top 50 Songs Ranked
Everyone gets the blues sometimes. But on ‘This Depression,’ Springsteen is way beyond that. Despite the fact that in his lyrics he says little else than “This is my confession: I need your heart/In this depression,” few fans realized that the song was, in all likelihood, about Springsteen. To be fair, no one would expect that a rock star in his 60s, still selling out football stadiums worldwide, still making relevant records and seemingly always finding new audiences, to suffer from depression. But a few years later, he discussed a mental breakdown in his 2016 memoir, ‘Born To Run.’ Of all that he’s given to his audience over the years, that might have been the most powerful gift: the knowledge that even the biggest rock star in the world isn’t immune from suffering from depression. And if he can ask for help, so can you.
After the 1999-2000 E Street reunion and the 2002-2003 tour for ‘The Rising,’ Springsteen returned to his dark folk troubadour mode for the ‘Devils And Dust’ album. The title track is a tale of a soldier, presumably fighting in Iraq, who wants to do the right thing, while not getting killed. It’s a tough balance: ‘Now every woman and every man /They want to take a righteous stand /Find the love that God wills /And the faith that He commands /I've got my finger on the trigger /And tonight faith just ain't enough /When I look inside my heart /There's just devils and dust.’
In Bruce Springsteen’s 1999 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, he joked that he tried writing happy songs in the ‘90s -- referencing the much-maligned ‘Human Touch’ and ‘Lucky Town’ albums -- and laughed, ‘It didn't work; the public didn't like it!’ Perhaps if he combined those two albums (which were simultaneously released) it would have been more digestible. At any rate, no one should hold being ‘happy’ against Bruce, as least as far as this gem is concerned. After all, the guy deserves some happiness.
The bass driven original version on ‘Human Touch’ was great in its own right, but Little Steven’s remix gave the song extra edge and fury, driving by drum loops and featuring samples taken from the TV news. Listening to the out-of-print remix today, it feels hauntingly prescient; if we might have thought that cable television -- and cable news -- was getting overwhelming back in 1992. In retrospect, that’s pretty quaint, we had no idea what we’d be in for in the decades to come.
The original version of the song, from 1992’s ‘Lucky Town,’ was overlooked… but not after Bruce rearranged the song for the E Street Band’s 1999-2000 reunion tour. Bruce’s E Street-less ‘90s albums were often a sore point with the members of the band, but this version - which featured Bruce sharing lead vocals with Clarence Clemons, Steven Van Zandt, Patti Scialfa and Nils Lofgren - became a testament to the bond that the group shared.
The song could have been written about Brad Pitt’s ‘Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’ character, the past-his-prime stuntman Cliff Booth. The narrator, like Booth, lives alone, not far from Hollywood, but in a different world from the glamour and glitz. But he still has stories of his glory days: ‘Once I was shot by John Wayne, yeah, it was towards the end/That one scene's bought me a thousand drinks/Set me up and I'll tell it for you, friend.’
One of Bruce’s most ornate productions in decades, he’s in full-on ‘Wall Of Sound’ mode on this song, singing in an Orbison-inspired croon, which he’d pretty much abandoned since the ‘70s. It’s a respite from the rest of ‘Magic,’ one of his more politically-charged albums. This is a bittersweet song that still has room for a wistful smile. The narrator (“Bill”) kids himself, telling us that he’s going out for a night on the town. He sees other people having fun, but he ends up alone at the diner, where we hear his story when the waitress, Shaniqua, says “Penny for your thoughts.” He tells us all we need to know: “She went away/She cut me like a knife.” But all isn’t lost: “Hello beautiful thing,” he says (maybe to Shaniqua, we don’t know): “Maybe you could save my life.” It’s getting late, but not TOO late: “Love's a fool's dance/I ain't got much sense but I still got my feet.” It sounds like Bill’s ready for a dance. Hey, the night’s young.
For 1995’s ‘The Ghost Of Tom Joad’ album, Springsteen returned to telling the stark stories that filled ‘Nebraska’ a decade earlier, albeit with a slightly fuller sound. The title track, inspired by John Steinbeck’s ‘The Grapes Of Wrath,’ placed the title character in the then-present day, an era as harsh and cruel as the Depression. Surprisingly, the song would bring Springsteen to a new audience, after rap-metal band Rage Against The Machine covered it; years later, RATM’s Tom Morello would do a stint as a member of the E Street Band and dueted with Springsteen on this song at most of the shows. They also re-recorded an electric version of the song for Springsteen’s 2014 ‘High Hopes’ album.
A moving tale about a friendship that seems to be ending; most fans believe that the song is about Steven Van Zandt, who was leaving the E Street Band at the end of the ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ sessions. Springsteen has never really addressed this, but it always seems like when the band play it (it’s not a fixture in the setlist, but it does show up here and there) the camera operators focus on Steven.
Bruce wrote this song for Joan Jett as part of a barter: She and Michael J. Fox were co-starring in a film to be called ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ Of course, Bruce and his management didn’t want the film being confused with the album, so to get them to change the name, he wrote this song for them. It’s the kind of roof-raising bar-burner that doesn’t show up on many of his albums. On his 1992-1993 tour, Bruce and guitarist Shane Fontayne had some epic guitar duels during this song, and there have also been some great versions with Bruce, Steven Van Zandt and Nils Lofgren in the decades since the E Street Band reunited.
Bruce had always told some stark tales about dark characters and scary situations (starting with “Lost In The Flood’ from his debut album) but still, the title track and first song from ‘Nebraska’ was a bit of a shock. There was no E Street Band, just Bruce with his gently picked acoustic guitar and his lonely sounding harmonica. More shocking than that was Bruce singing from the perspective of a murderer who finds a younger female accomplice, “and ten innocent people died.” Worse, the narrator feels no remorse: “I can't say that I'm sorry for the things that we done/At least for a little while sir, me and her we had us some fun.” Like much of the album, the song was sadly ahead of its time.
The song sounds like it could have been written a hundred years ago, or maybe a hundred years from now. An acoustic Irish dance song that celebrates the contributions that immigrants make to America, it was an instant anthem. And even though the E Street Band played it at their subsequent tours, the version that Bruce did with the Seeger Sessions Band is the definitive version. Although it was fun to watch Clarence Clemons play a pennywhistle.
Like a lot of Springsteen’s songs, this one reads differently, depending on where you are in your life. On ‘The River,’ it was a song about a failed relationship between a man and woman. But when Springsteen got the E Street Band together in 1999 for their reunion tour -- including guitarist Steven Van Zandt, whose last tour with the band was nearly twenty years earlier -- it turned into a song about the power of healing and reconciling. When Van Zandt left the band after the recording of 1984’s ‘Born In The U.S.A.,’ it was an amicable split, but it also may have been avoidable. Watching Bruce and Steven share the mic on ‘Two Hearts’ was a reminder of how powerful the two were when they worked together.
‘The Rising’ was Springsteen’s response to the horrors of 9/11, and ‘You’re Missing” was one of the album’s most devastating songs. “Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair/ Papers on the doorstep, but you're not there…” sets the tragic scene. “Too much room in my bed, too many phone calls.” Danny Federici’s mournful organ solo gives the song’s ending a haunting funeral vibe.
Wherein Bruce Springsteen realizes that, even if you succeed in achieving your goals beyond your wildest dreams, it may not make you happy. ‘Tunnel Of Love,’ the song and the album, was inspired by the disintegration of his first marriage. Using a carnival and a roller coaster as a metaphor for a relationship, he figures that ‘It ought to be easy ought to be simple enough/Man meets woman and they fall in love.’ Alas: ‘The house is haunted and the ride gets rough.’ The album also saw him distancing himself from the E Street Band (he would give them their walking papers after the tour supporting this album), but ‘new’ guitarist Nils Lofgren cameos here with some amazing guitar work. And the angelic backing vocals come courtesy of Bruce’s future wife, Ms. Patti Scialfa.
A song written during the ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town’ sessions, Springsteen rightfully felt that it wouldn’t fit the vibe of the album. Apparently, he wanted to have Elvis Presley sing it, but by the time the demo got to him, Presley had died. Instead, R&B trio the Pointer Sisters recorded it, taking the song to #2 on the pop charts. But Bruce’s live version, recorded in San Francisco in December of 1978, has become a classic in its own right.
A mournful breakup song, where the narrator -- in this case, it’s likely Bruce Springsteen himself, not a character -- realizes that he’s to blame for the end of the relationship. “When I look at myself I don't see/The man I wanted to be/Somewhere along the line I slipped off track I'm caught movin' one step up and two steps back.” The intimate song features Springsteen on all the instruments, and future wife Patti Scialfa on backing vocals.
Mickey Rourke’s Randy "The Ram" Robinson almost seemed like he was spawned from a Springsteen song. Instead, Rourke and director Darren Aronofsky asked Bruce to write a song for their film about a down-on-his-luck wrestler looking for one more shot at glory in the ring. Springsteen responded with one of his finest songs, and one that absoultely should have been nominated for an Oscar (it did win a Golden Globe, however).
When the E Street Band were inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, Steven Van Zandt noted that the band maintained a huge worldwide fanbase, which he said was ‘Due, directly, to our leader’s relentless striving for greatness, his insistence on our constantly evolving musical excellence and his continuing to write songs at an unnecessarily high level of quality.’ 2007’s ‘Magic’ was a great example of that. By the 2000s, Springsteen would have been forgiven for taking a long victory lap and playing the greatest hits on tour. He certainly didn’t need to challenge his audience, particularly after upsetting fans with ‘41 Shots’ and speaking out against President George W. Bush. But on ‘Long Walk Home,’ from ‘Magic’ (his most underrated album) he doesn’t back down from his convictions, telling the tale of a guy who returns to his hometown and doesn’t recognize anything, or anyone. Except for one thing: ‘Your flag flyin' over the courthouse means certain things are set in stone: who we are, what we'll do, and what we won't.’ It’s a haunting line, and one of his best.
Springsteen’s lyrics are always so deliberate and thought out, but the first track from his debut album wasn’t so much about a specific narrative, as it was about linking words that rhyme. Somehow, it worked. Of course, this song made a huge impact on a British Pakastani teenager Sarfraz Manzoor, who not only wrote a moving essay about it, but it also provided the title the 2019 film based on his memoir, ‘Greetings from Bury Park: Race, Religion and Rock N’ Roll.’
Written during the ‘Darkness On The Edge Of Town Sessions,’ Springsteen didn’t want to put the song on the album. But his engineer, Jimmy Iovine, was producing Patti Smith’s ‘Easter’ album, and suggested giving the song to the punk rock icon. Bruce agreed, Patti changed some of the lyrics and it gave her the biggest hit of her career. Springsteen still plays it in his shows; in 2009, he finally performed it with Smith when the two of them joined U2 on stage at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 25 anniversary concerts at Madison Square Garden.
Springsteen’s early songs were about the power and allure of dreams. The title track from 1980’s ‘The River,’ inspired by his sister and brother-in-law, tells the tale of what happens when life gets in the way: “Then I got Mary pregnant/And man that was all she wrote/And for my nineteenth birthday I got a union card and a wedding coat.” The real life story wasn’t so bad: Bruce’s sister, Virginia, and her husband, Mickey, have three kids and several grandchildren together.
Unlike anything else in the Springsteen catalog, this is a jazz-noir ballad that features his vocals, accompanied only by pianist Roy Bittan, double-bass player Richard Davis and trumpet player Randy Brecker. It tells the tale of a down-on-his luck crook who has one last shot at scoring big -- but if it doesn’t work out, the consequences will be harsh. While other artists have been subjects of so-called ‘jukebox musicals’ on Broadway, ‘Meeting Across The River’ could inspire a stage show on its own.
As Springsteen entered adulthood, he looked back at his strained relationship with his father. He’d later joke at his 1999 induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, ‘I've gotta thank him because -- what would I conceivably have written about without him? I mean, you can imagine that if everything had gone great between us, [it would have been a] disaster!’ ‘Independence Day’ looks at their relationship: ‘Well Papa, go to bed now it's getting late/ Nothing we can say is gonna change anything now/I'll be leaving in the morning from St. Mary's Gate/We wouldn't change this thing even if we could somehow.’ It appeared in a scene in ‘Blinded By The Light’ that underscored the universality of Bruce’s music: a son watches the effects that broken dreams in a small town has on his father, and is determined not to let that happen to him.
Springsteen has always been great at building his legend, and it began with this song, which detailed his early days in New Jersey. Over the years, the song would get extended versions in Bruce’s live sets, as he told (possibly exaggerated) tales of his youth. Check out the live version from the Roxy in 1978 from Bruce’s ‘Live 1975-1985’ box set.
Springsteen performed this song days after 9/11 at the ‘America: A Tribute To Heroes’ telethon, and many thought that it was inspired by that horrific day. In fact, Springsteen debuted the song in 2000; he wrote it for Asbury Park, which at that time had fallen on hard times. But the song was written vaguely enough that it worked as a post-9/11 hymn. As time went on, live performances served as a tribute to fallen E Street Band members Danny Federici and Clarence Clemons; but to the audience, it could be about anyone that they’ve lost. Bruce’s chant of ‘If we’re here, and you’re here, THEY’RE HERE’ provided one of the most powerful moments at any Springsteen show in any era. As a postscript, it’s nice to note that Asbury Park has made a huge comeback since Springsteen wrote the song about it. ‘Rise up,’ indeed.
The title track and opening number to Springsteen’s 1984 album -- which made him a global superstar -- is surely his most misunderstood song. Its bright synthesizers (courtesy of Roy Bittan) and easily chantable chorus led many (including, famously, President Ronald Reagan) to believe that it was a patriotic song. From a certain perspective, it was. Questioning one’s government is a patriotic act, particularly in America. It’s the responsibility of citizens to make sure we are adhering to the ideals that our country was founded on. And in the ‘80s, America wasn’t doing right by its veterans, which is what this song was about. (Reagan clearly didn’t read the lyrics.)
The tale of Joe and Franky Roberts is a dark one. Franky -- the hothead -- went to the army, and Joe stayed home and worked on his farm… until the business went under and he took a job as a highway patrolman. One night, Franky got into a brawl at a bar, and Joe is called in to bring him in. After a bit of a car chase, Joe “chased him through them county roads/Till a sign said ‘Canadian border five miles from here.’’’ So, he “pulled over the side of the highway and watched his taillights disappear.” After all, if a man turns his back on his family, he just ain’t no good. The song, however, was very good: it was covered by Johnny Cash and inspired Sean Penn to write the screenplay to the 1991 film ‘The Indian Runner.’
‘Philadelphia’ was one of the first mainstream movies to address the AIDS crisis: Tom Hanks’ portrayal of the main character, Andrew Beckett, drew audiences who might not have attended a film about the plight of a gay man. Similarly, Bruce Springsteen, one of the biggest rock stars in the world, singing a plaintive ballad about the character’s plight, also helped get the mainstream to pay attention. The song itself was a radical departure for Springsteen: instead of guitars and pianos, the song featured synthesizers and a drum loop. The daring move was rewarded: the song won four Grammys and an Oscar.
Based on a true story, the acoustic rockabilly jaunt tells the dark tale of a guy who got laid off from his job at an auto plant in Mahwah, New Jersey. Upset, he gets drunk. One thing leads to another and he shoots and kills someone. Sentenced to 99 years in jail, he asks to be executed instead. Perhaps he’s more sympathetic than the killer in the title track of ‘Nebraska,’ but his story ends the same way; Springsteen offers neither judgement nor redemption here, which is probably what attracted Johnny Cash to the song; he not only covered it, he named his 1983 album after it.
As Bruce was approaching middle age, he was taking a closer look at less glamorous characters, the people who had to work for a living and had to worry about how they’d get through the week. ‘Factory’ -- at just two minutes and nineteen seconds -- is a moving glimpse at blue-collar workers, and served as a preview of some of the stories he’d tell in the years to come on ‘The River’ and ‘Nebraska.’
By rights, ‘The Rising’ could have been a mournful album filled with ballads. But the title track, which paints a firefighter on 9/11 as a Biblical character, is one of his most uplifting. Interestingly enough, years later, Bruce’s son Sam became a firefighter in in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Sadly, today, when you hear the term ‘Jersey Shore,’ the first thing that comes to mind are spray-tanned steroid and silicone enhanced blockheads. But this song, with its accordions, saxophones and beautifully and sad romantic description of Asbury Park brings you back to an earlier era. The song was a bit prescient: the narrator loves the shore, but he has to move on. By the way, while Madam Marie (a real-life fortune teller) died in 2008, her family maintains her Asbury Park business, and presumably the cops aren’t busting them for it.
A dark tale with some of Springsteen’s most mysterious characters - the ragamuffin gunner (possibly a Vietnam vet) who walks alone, wolfman fairies dressed in drag, pregnant bald nuns ‘pleadin’ Immaculate Conception’ and Jimmy The Saint. Bruce’s complicated relationship with religion and his empathy for soldiers finding their way after their tours of duty ended are on display here. The song feels like a great black-and-white noir film: the line “Everything stops, you hear five quick shots… the cops come up for air” is the stuff classic mob flicks are made of.
“I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra...I could walk like Brando right into the sun, then dance just like a Casanova.” This first-person narrative closed Springsteen’s debut and showed that he had as much swagger as the rock gods of the ‘60s like Jagger and Daltrey, despite having experienced limited success at that point. “With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet/Silver star studs on my duds, just like a Harley in heat” predated hip-hop artists bragging about their gear by a decade or so.
The closing song on ‘Nebraska’ offers a bit of a ray of light on an otherwise dark album. The characters experience heartbreak: a little boy sees a dead dog in the road, an old man dies, seemingly in poverty, a woman is deserted by her man, a woman ditches her wedding (in a Dylan-esque move, leaving the groom waiting at the altar.) But there’s also the couple who baptize their child, Kyle William, an inherent act of optimism; the pure, innocent baby a symbol that there’s still a chance for someone to get it right.
The best song about New York by someone from New Jersey. One of Springsteen’s longest songs, it clocks in at nearly ten minutes. Bruce’s second album features some of his biggest myth-building jams (‘The E Street Shuffle,’ ‘Rosalita’) but here, he shows off his penchant for creating vibrant characters like the Fish Lady, Diamond Jackie and Billy by the railroad tracks. Musically, it combines soul, cocktail jazz and cinematic strings; his Van Morrison influence is on his rumpled sleeve here.
Three albums in, and Bruce was still talking about his legend and that of his musical companions. The song sounded even more joyous on the E Street Band’s 1999-2000 reunion tour (you can hear a great version on the 2001 album ‘Live In New York City’). In the wake of the passing of ‘The Big Man,’ saxophonist Clarence Clemons, as well as keyboardist ‘Phantom’ Dan Federici, the song has taken on the vibe of an Irish funeral; when the band plays it, they, and we, celebrate our friends who are no longer with us.
One of Springsteen’s most joyous songs, the studio version is pretty perfect, but this live version from Los Angeles’ Roxy Theater from July of 1978 is transcendent. Bruce doesn’t play it every night, but when he does, it’s always a highlight.
Featuring Vini ‘Mad Dog’ Lopez on drums, Clarence Clemons on sax and Bruce doing everything else, you can thank legendary record mogul Clive Davis for this one: after Bruce handed in his debut, Davis said it needed a single. Springsteen quickly knocked out this song and ‘Blinded By The Light.’
A nod to Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land,” Bruce’s song is one of his most uplifting odes to escaping your circumstances. In the documentary ‘The Promise: The Making of Darkness On the Edge of Town,’ he said the song is about ‘How we honor the community and the place we came from.’ Even if you have to leave that place. Later in the documentary, he noted that elements of the song reflected his own situation when he wrote it, referencing a lawsuit that was holding up his career. But you don’t need any of that context to love singing along to lyrics “Blow away the dreams that tear you apart/Blow away the dreams that break your heart/Blow away the lies that leave you nothing but lost and brokenhearted.” And those lyrics work, whether you’re a teenager or in your 40s. They also provided a pivotal moment in the film ‘Blinded By The Light.’
A distant cousin to “Meeting Across The River,” it’s a tale of another out-of-luck guy, but his next heist may turn everything around: “Last night I met this guy and I’m gonna do a favor for him.” It probably won’t work out well. But the song is one of Springsteen’s most adaptable: it works in an acoustic setting, but the E Street Band and the Sessions Band rocked very different arrangements of the song; it was even a highlight of his ‘90s concerts with the so-called “Other Band.”
Springsteen’s first three albums were powered by hope, dreams and the velocity of youth. The next three were much darker, his characters realizing that their dreams were fading. On ‘No Surrender,’ Bruce, now firmly in his mid-30s, reclaims that optimism, while recognizing that some things get more difficult with time. ‘Now young faces grow sad and old/And hearts of fire grow cold,’ he sings, but with defiance instead of desolation. ‘We swore blood brothers against the wind/Now I'm ready to grow young again/And hear your sister's voice calling us home/Across the open yards/Well maybe we'll cut someplace of our own/With these drums and these guitars.’ Hey, buddy, it’s never too late to start up the band again. When you write a line like ‘We learned more from a three-minute record than we ever learned in school,’ that’s a love of music that lasts for life.
‘Yeah and I lost my money and I lost my wife/Them things don't seem to matter much to me now,’ is one of Springsteen’s most devastating lines. And the story doesn’t get better from there: ‘I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost/For wanting things that can only be found/In the darkness on the edge of town.’ But the song never seems to judge the narrator: the song’s mid-paced tempo is somehow uplifting, and frames the character in a nearly-heroic life. ‘Some folks are born into a good life/And other folks get it anyway, anyhow.’ Clearly, this guy falls into the second category and is making the best of the situation.
A carnal request or a romantic plea? As is often the case, that’s up to the listener, and it depends on where you are in your life. ‘Everybody's got a hunger, a hunger they can't resist/There's so much that you want, you deserve much more than this,’ is one of Springsteen’s most universal lines. Rich or poor, at some point in your life, you probably related to this line. It’s one of the songs that provided a great moment in ‘Blinded By The Light.’
‘Poor man wanna be rich/Rich man wanna be king/And a king ain't satisfied till he rules everything.” Ain’t that the truth. While never a hit, rock radio embraced the song, and it’s since become one of his most-performed numbers in concert (as of this writing, it’s his 4th most played song). Bruce’s hummed melody line which follows Clarence Clemons’ sax solo has evolved into an arena chant. Springsteen is quick to give credit where it’s due: at his 2012 South By Southwest keynote address, he admitted he ripped off the Animals’ ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ when he wrote ‘Badlands.’
Had he not become an insanely successful songwriter, Bruce Springsteen might have had a career writing films for Martin Scorsese. Every song on ‘Born To Run’ feels like a short film, and none more than ‘Jungleland.’ The ‘Magic Rat’ and the ‘Barefoot Girl’ seem to have a fascinating story, but the real hero here is saxophonist Clarence Clemons. As Springsteen wrote in ‘Born To Run,’ the song is ‘Clarence’s greatest recorded moment.’
Is it about a friendship or a love affair? Is Terry male or female? Does it really matter? “Backstreets” is one of the emotional high points of any Springsteen show. The song took on even more weight when the E Street Band opened their April 22, 2008 show with it. That was their first concert following the death of keyboardist Danny Federici. When Springsteen sang the line “We swore forever friends/On the backstreets until the end” the stage got dark, with spotlights on Bruce and on Federici’s keyboard setup.
“So you’re scared, and you’re thinkin’ that maybe we ain’t that young anymore.” Has there ever been a better lyric in popular music? Springsteen has said that the song was meant to serve as an introduction to the ‘Born To Run’ album; indeed, it sounds like the opening number to a classic Broadway musical. It was also an intro to the piano of ‘Professor’ Roy Bittan, whose playing would be a major factor in Springsteen’s sound in the years to come.
Never one to lack ambition, Springsteen had almost ridiculously high hopes for the title track from his third album (which he released to WMMR a few months early in 1974). As he explains in his memoirs, also titled ‘Born To Run,’ ‘I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth, like the last record you might hear… the last one you’d ever NEED to hear,’ which would combine the surf guitar of Duane Eddy, the operatic romance of Roy Orbison, the epic production of a Phil Spector record, the power of Elvis Presley and lyrics on par with Bob Dylan’s. The song took six months to record to Bruce’s satisfaction (and was the only song that ex-E Street drummer Ernest ‘Boom’ Carter played on; as Springsteen noted in his book, ‘He picked a good one’). But Bruce managed to exceed his own expectations with this one, our choice for his finest song.