Gimme Five: Bruce Springsteen road songs, including ‘Thunder Road,’ ‘Racing in the Street,’ ‘Born to Run,’ others

Editor’s note: Bruce Springsteen’s characters have often found themselves behind the wheel, driving chrome-wheeled, hemi-powered pink Cadillacs past New Jersey’s industrial skyline, through 10th avenue or down the streets of Philadelphia.

These settings, resonant and utterly American though they may be, were never the point, of course. Instead, Springsteen finds deeper meaning in these open-road metaphors, using them as the foundation for broader, deeply revealing character studies.

That only makes choosing five (only five?!) more difficult.

In truth, the ones left off — “Cadillac Ranch” and “Wreck on the Highway” from 1980’s The River, “Valentine’s Day” from 1987’s Tunnel of Love, “Last To Die” from 2007’s Magic were among those considered, as well — could fill a series of follow-up pieces.

But we had to start somewhere. After all, every journey begins with a push of the accellerator past the very first mile. Do you agree? Disagee? Join the conversation through the comments section below.

Meanwhile, here are our five favorite road songs from Bruce, with comments on each from our resident expert on all things Springsteen, Mark Saleski …

“OPEN ALL NIGHT,” (NEBRASKA, 1982): Unlike most of the rest of Nebraska, here there is no ominous subtext, no angst, no life about to be split apart. Instead, it’s just a guy rocketing down the highway toward his girl, fighting off the threat of speed traps and the weirdness of the Jersey nightscape, all of it set to an insistent guitar shuffle.

And as simple as the tune may be, Bruce went ahead and dropped in some nice details to paint a few more pictures. The image of Wanda sittin’ on his lap, the fried chicken, and the Texaco road map — that one scene is my favorite. It’s a moment of pure pleasure that seems all too rare these days.

I truly love both the original (which the Devils and Dust tour version comes closest to in spirit) and the “Mutant Texas Swing Rap” take that came out during the Seeger Sessions tour. Some folks seemed almost offended by Bruce’s re-imagining of his own song. All I know is that the night I saw that show, it rocked the joint.

“BORN TO RUN,” (BORN TO RUN, 1975): You could make an argument that words have been maxed out for “Born To Run,” that everything has been said and there’s nothing new to be gleaned. Yeah well, people have notoriously small imaginations too, so we’ll just have to ignore that.

In concert, I’ve heard Bruce play this song more than any other, most obviously because he plays it every night. There are some folks out there who say that he should drop it from the set list. I complete disagree, for several reasons. Firstly, I really hate the idea of somebody attending their first E Street show and not hearing it. Sorry, that just seems wrong. Perhaps more important, this is one of those Springsteen tracks that is more than a song. It’s the history of E Street, the lives of every single person in the room, the history of rock music. It’s all of that and more. When they launch into it, it doesn’t feel to me like they’re playing a song. No, it feels like “Born To Run” has entered the room. Or maybe it was already there waiting to assert itself.

I remember that segment on 60 Minutes where they asked Roy and Steve if they ever go tired of playing “Born To Run.” Bittan brought up a quote from Tony Bennett about whether he felt the same way about “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” Roy quoted the singer as saying “It gave me the keys to the world.” Bennett’s been asked that many times, so I went and dug up a great interview at Pop Culture Classics. There, Bennett’s initial response was “That’s like asking, ‘Do you ever get tired of making love?’” He then goes on to reiterate that it gave him the keys to the world and that “It’s as fresh as the first day I recorded it…”

Same goes for “Born To Run.” The song hasn’t changed, we have. If you’re tired of it, maybe there are other issues you need to work out.

“STATE TROOPER,” (NEBRASKA, 1982): I’ve always loved the tension that builds up in this little ticking bomb of a song. The sparse yet insistent guitar, the unhinged shouts and howls, and a man carrying that one secret that’s been with him for a long, long time:

…the only thing that I got’s been both’rin’ me my whole life

Every time I listen to Nebraska, “State Trooper” makes me think about all of the stories that are carried around in the cars passing by. Surely some of them are just like this one. It’s a perfect and spooky vignette, where Bruce sets up a simple scene that’s played out in our guy’s head as he drives through the industrial night. It feels like something is about to happen. And years later, it still does.

“RACING IN THE STREET,” (DARKNESS ON THE EDGE OF TOWN, 1978): A fancy muscle car and a pretty girl by your side — that’s all a guy needs to get away from the weight of everyday life. Yeah, it can be as simple as that. But things are never that simple, and most Springsteen songs have layers of meaning that the casual fan might miss (or perhaps not even care about). Sure, “Racing In The Street” can at first seem like more car-enabled salvation, but you hit that third verse and discover that it’s more about the way we cope with a broken life, with spoiled dreams.

The play of Roy and Danny were absolutely key on this track. From Roy’s stark and lonesome introduction, to the instrumental passage that plays the track out, you can hear the desperation that infuses all of Darkness on the Edge of Town.

“THUNDER ROAD,” (BORN TO RUN, 1975): For the most part I don’t compare one song to another, as in “song X is definitely better than song Y.” But “Thunder Road” has stayed with me for years and years. In Bruce’s catalog, it’s definitely my favorite. The song itself is full of so many images, setting forth a template of sorts for the rest of the Born To Run album, the theme being one that’s sort of universal to Springsteen’s world: our ability rise above and move away from circumstances that may do us in.

That iconic opening line — The screen door slams/Mary’s dress waves — it blooms with possiblities, so much so that I never get tired of hearing it, live or on record. It begins with Bruce’s harmonica and Roy’s piano, progressing to full-on E Street roar, with Bruce and Clarence playing those glorious unison lines amidst the glockenspiel’s shimmer.

A close friend of mine used to call me on my birthday and sing “Thunder Road” into the answering machine. It sounds corny but as the years pass, that event gets woven into it all, and lines like “So you’re scared and you’re thinking/That maybe we ain’t that young anymore” take on a whole lot more import.

When the boundaries between a song and your life get blurred, you know you’re onto something good.

Mark Saleski

Mark Saleski is a writer and music obsessive based out of the woods of central New Hampshire. A past contributor to Jazz.com, Blogcritics.org and Salon, he writes several weekly features including the Friday Morning Listen, (Cross the) Heartland, WTF! Wednesday, and Sparks Fly on E Street. Follow him on Twitter: @msaleski. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.