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Bruce Springsteen at 70: The Boss's career in 15 key tracks

Bruce Springsteen at the Concert for Valor in Washington, D.C., 2014.
Bruce Springsteen at the Concert for Valor in Washington, D.C., 2014.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images

by Jay Gabler

September 23, 2019

This is a big one: Bruce Springsteen is 70. Today, the Boss enters his eighth decade, still going strong. In honor of the occasion, we're looking back at 15 key tracks that span Springsteen's unparalleled career. Read on for some hits, some rarities, and of course some live classics — and tune in all day to hear these cuts on The Current.

"It's Hard to Be a Saint in the City" (demo)

It's hard to have a more auspicious beginning in the record industry than being signed by John Hammond, "the legendary producer who signed Dylan, Aretha, Billie Holiday," as Springsteen wrote in his memoir Born to Run. Although Bruce would later have an acrimonious split with his manager Mike Appel, to this day Springsteen credits Appel for having the hustle that opened doors including Hammond's. Springsteen walked into Hammond's office on May 2, 1972. He picked up his guitar and sang this song, and immediately Hammond said, "You've got to be on Columbia Records."

The next day, Springsteen recorded the song along with 11 others as a demo tape for Hammond. That demo recording was released on the 1998 box set Tracks.

"Blinded By the Light"

If you know one song from Springsteen's 1973 debut album Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J., it's this number whirling with colorful imagery and wordplay. It was the album's first single, but Springsteen's version only went to number 60 on Billboard's Hot 100. Manfred Mann took their cover to the top of that chart four years later.

It's one of two songs on this list that Springsteen wrote because a producer told him he needed a hit. (The other one is "Dancing in the Dark.") When Clive Davis said that first album didn't have anything "that could be played on the radio," Springsteen went home and "busted out my rhyming dictionary," he wrote in his memoir. "I never wrote completely in that style again," he wrote, saying that after Greetings inspired an avalanche of Bob Dylan comparisons, he decided to take a different tack.

"Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)" (Live)

Before his breakthrough with his third album (Born to Run), Springsteen struggled to get the kind of response to his records that he was earning for his already renowned live shows. Songs like this barnburner, which appeared on his 1973 sophomore album The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle, really came alive in the clubs and theaters where Springsteen and his band were providing an antidote to the calculated commercial rock that was ears on the airwaves in the '70s.

This version, recorded in Los Angeles in 1978, was released on the Boss's epochal 1986 box set Live 1975-85. Released in the wake of the smash success Born in the U.S.A., the album became the first five-record set ever to break the Billboard Top Ten. In fact, it debuted at number one, making it a seemingly ubiquitous presence on '80s record shelves and introducing millions of new fans to a wider extent of Bruce's already-rich musical legacy.

"Born to Run"

There's a reason Springsteen titled his memoir Born to Run. This is his signature song, his big encore, his timeless anthem. It was the title track to the album that put him simultaneously on the cover of Time and Newsweek, the fuse that ignited his rise to musical immortality.

Although he couldn't have guessed just how big this song would be, Bruce knew it was crucial. He spent much of summer 1974 recording this song, using 72 tracks to build his own version of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. "I wanted to craft a record that sounded like the last record on Earth," he wrote in his memoir, "the last one you'd ever NEED to hear. One glorious noise...then the apocalypse."


By the time he was done making Born to Run, Springsteen knew he needed to make a change. Specifically, he wanted to cut ties with Appel and work with Jon Landau, the rock critic who saw Springsteen's show and wrote, "I have seen rock and roll future." This guy gets me, thought Bruce.

The legal battle took years, and by the time he returned to the studio to cut his fourth album, the Boss was in a state of mind that befit the album's stark title: Darkness on the Edge of Town. The record's opener, though, was exuberant. One of Springsteen's signature songs about hope and passion.

Springsteen has admitted to being influenced by the Animals, specifically "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." He played the two songs' riffs back-to-back at SXSW in 2012, joking, "Listen up, youngsters! This is how successful theft is accomplished!"

"The River"

By the late '70s, Springsteen was off and running, experiencing an incredible creative ferment and writing songs at an astonishing pace: box sets and reissues have captured much of the bounty Bruce was able to draw on when he was curating his 1980 double album.

"Hungry Heart" was the album's big single, his first Top Ten hit. The album's title track cut deeper, though: the quiet story-song at the heart of what amounted to a concept album about what we might now call adulting. In his memoir, he called this song "a breakthrough for my writing." When his sister first heard it, he remembered, "she came backstage, gave me a hug and said, 'That's my life.' That's still the best review I ever got."

"Born in the U.S.A."

In his memoir, Springsteen calls this song "one of my greatest and most misunderstood pieces of music." Its title came from a script by filmmaker Paul Schrader, which would later be released as the movie Light of Day (with a totally different Springsteen song on its soundtrack).

Between The River and Born in the U.S.A., Springsteen released Nebraska: a raw, intimate song cycle recorded alone in his bedroom. When his next album opened with a booming, majestic rendition of what sounded like a patriotic anthem, it seemed like a wild transition...but in fact, that very song was first recorded during the Nebraska sessions.

That first version, released on Tracks, demonstrates why Springsteen was so taken aback when the song inspired praise from none other than President Ronald Reagan. The desperate edge to this veteran's story is front and center in the bedroom recording as Springsteen sings, "I'm ten years burning down the road. Nowhere to run, ain't got nowhere to go."

"Dancing in the Dark"

The smash hit lead single to Born in the U.S.A., "Dancing in the Dark" would have been a chart-topping hit if not for Prince, whose "When Doves Cry" kept Bruce stranded at number two. To this day, Springsteen has never had a number one it the curse of Prince.

Ironically, Springsteen shot the single's music video in Prince's home state of Minnesota. On the opening night of the Born in the U.S.A. Tour, filmmaker Brian De Palma shot Springsteen performing the song at the Saint Paul Civic Center (now the site of the Xcel Energy Center) and dancing with Courteney Cox. While filming the video, Springsteen thought Cox was just a fan De Palma had picked for the role; only later did he learn she was a professional actor flown in from New York.

In honor of Springsteen's 70th, Lucy Dacus recently released a guitar-driven cover of the song. "I feel like I was forced to listen to Bruce Springsteen during my youth, and I really didn't like it at first," said Dacus, whose dad played the Boss's songs all the time. "'Dancing in the Dark' was one of the first songs that broke through the noise of my angst and met me where I was."

One lyric in particular caught her ear when she heard the song in middle school, "that awkward age when you're evolving and you have low self-esteem and you're like, 'What is my body up to? Weird!' He has that line about, 'want to change my clothes, my hair, my face,' and I had never heard a man express things like that before. It helped me to realize that what I was feeling wasn't limited to young people, wasn't limited to girls, just something that might occur at any time...which maybe could have been discouraging, but it was actually really encouraging to feel understood."

If you're in the front row at an upcoming Lucy Dacus show, be prepared: she said she's been thinking about pulling someone up onstage to play the Courteney Cox role. "It feels like karaoke to play it live. People sing along, everybody's dancing. It's such a beloved song, it's really joyful to play."

"Brilliant Disguise"

In the midst of his Born in the U.S.A. fame flush, Springsteen wed actor Julianne Phillips. Their tender feelings were real, but the marriage wouldn't last. The relationship's strains informed the pained lyrics of the album Tunnel of Love, a complex collection of brilliant songs about the singer's relationships with his parents, his wife, and himself. With his marriage strained, Springsteen became close with signer-songwriter Patti Scialfa, a member of his band who turned out to be the great love of his life.

"Brilliant Disguise" was the album's polished lead single, a top ten hit that came with a fittingly intimate video: a single shot of Springsteen playing and singing the song, with a camera that brings the viewer steadily closer as the tension rises.

"If I Should Fall Behind"

It wasn't just Springsteen's personal life that was in transition: after spending the better part of two decades playing with various iterations of the E Street Band, Bruce decided it was time to shake things up. As the '90s dawned, Springsteen worked with session pros to record the songs that would fill his album Human Touch. That album was set for a 1991 release, but then the Boss had a surge of inspiration and recorded a new set of songs. He decided to release both Human Touch and the second album, Lucky Town, on the same date in 1992.

Fans and critics missed the E Street sound, and they let Springsteen know. Human Touch landed decidedly mixed reviews, though the more coherent and urgent-sounding Lucky Town fared somewhat better. Of the 23 original songs distributed across the two discs, the one that's proved to have the longest legs is this Lucky Town cut, which Springsteen later reinvented (again, not without irony) as a group number he sang with Scialfa, Steve Van Zandt, Nils Lofgren, and Clarence Clemons after the E Street Band reunited.

"Streets of Philadelphia"

Members of the EGOT club — people who have won an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony — tend to come from the theatrical world, but Bruce Springsteen has nearly extended his reign over all four of those media specials. (He just narrowly missed a shot at winning an Emmy for the Netflix special documenting his Broadway show.)

The song that won Bruce an Oscar is this haunting 1993 ballad, delivered over sighing synths and a gritty drum loop. Though Bruce is best-known for dramatizing the plight of the struggling laborer, again and again through his career he's demonstrated the wide range of his empathy. Here, he provided an AIDS drama with a beautifully understated song about that terrible epidemic as seen from the inside.

That was especially meaningful coming from a man so famously (if misleadingly) associated with the sunny "morning in America" vibe of the '80s — a decade that too often turned its back on the hole this terrible disease was ripping through its heart.

"The Ghost of Tom Joad"

After the big, bright, loud sound of Human Touch and Lucky Town, Springsteen turned back to his quieter side with a 1995 album that was immediately compared to Nebraska with its dark, urgent story-songs. Like that album, its title track inspired by Terrence Malick's Badlands, The Ghost of Tom Joad reflected a cinematic source: The Grapes of Wrath, the Dust Bowl drama about desperate Americans fleeing starvation. The album's title track powerfully compared their plight to that of latter-day immigrants, and multiple songs on the album drew on scenes and characters inspired by the Mexico-U.S. border.

In his 2016 autobiography, Springsteen wrote, "The Ghost of Tom Joad chronicled the effects of the increasing economic division of the eighties and nineties, the hard times and consequences that befell many of the people whose work and sacrifice created America and whose labor is essential to our everyday lives. [...] Here in the early years of our new century, as at the turn of the last, we are once again at war with our 'new Americans.' As in the last, people will come, will suffer hardship and prejudice, will do battle with the most reactionary forces and hardest hearts of their adopted home and will prove resilient and victorious."

"The Rising"

After the devastating attacks of September 11, 2001, many around the world turned to music to help them process their emotions. Notably, U2's recently released All That You Can't Leave Behind seemed to strike the right note for a lot of listeners. Writing songs about the attacks and their aftermath, though, was a challenge many musicians were rightly wary of.

When the United States attacked the Taliban in Afghanistan, belligerent tracks like Toby Keith's "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue" pleased listeners hungry for revenge, but Springsteen understood that his audience wanted hope instead of hate, wanted to help their country heal instead of tearing it farther apart. A few days after the attacks, a fan who spotted Springsteen cried, "We need you!"

As always, Bruce took his art and his responsibility seriously, and the result was one of the signal albums of his career. While The Rising was musically uneven, as a whole it was a remarkable response that helped a nation process one of the darkest days in our history. Musically, it also marked the beginning of Springsteen's collaboration with producer Brendan O'Brien, who refreshed the E Street Band's sound and gave them a denser, more driving sound for a troubled new century.

"Wrecking Ball"

Bruce Springsteen has always been a force of nature, one of the most wildly beloved live performers in the history of rock and roll. He was electric when he was young and reliably inspiring as he got older...and as he kept getting older, like we all do, he just kept proving it all night, as only he can. "Wrecking Ball," the title track to his 2012 album, became a sort of rallying cry for the 60-something Boss, practically daring the hourglass to break.

As stalwart bandmates "Phantom" Danny Federici and "Big Man" Clarence Clemons reached the ends of their lives, Springsteen honored their memory with some of the most epic shows of his career.

Now when all this steel and these stories, they drift away to rust
And all our youth and beauty, it's been given to the dust
And your game has been decided, and you're burning the clock down
And all our little victories and glories, have turned into parking lots
When your best hopes and desires, are scattered through the wind
And hard times come, hard times go...
Bring on your wrecking ball.

"Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out" (Live on Broadway)

If there's been a theme connecting the many eras and accomplishments of Springsteen's 70 years, it's storytelling. His songs tell stories that sound like your own, and he's stayed focused by understanding his own story. Yep, that's meant some therapy...and he put that self-examination to good use in his autobiography, which he drew from for a one-man Broadway show that was so entrancing, he was awarded a special Tony.

The show, later released as a concert album and TV special, drew on songs from across Springsteen's career, including this Born to Run classic that chronicles the formation of the E Street Band. "In a real band," said Springsteen, introducing the song, "principles of math get stood on their head, and one plus one equals three."