Bruce Springsteen Songs about Cars: Gimme Five

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They were as ubiquitous, at one point, as songs about girls. But Bruce Springsteen did something different with the once tried-and-true car-song genre.

These weren’t your typical paeans to Detroit’s legendary chromeboats. No, dangerous things happen in Springsteen’s cars — things that, in the blink of an eye, can change a life forever.

These weren’t your average tales of escape, either. No, that common trope was typically turned on its ear by what Springsteen’s characters — dark protagonists, average guys with extraordinary burdens, doomed lovers — would find at the end of that long journey.

These weren’t, in other words, your father’s car songs.

But which ones were best? Well, that’s its own road trip, and we happily sent our handy Springsteen-ologist Mark Saleski — just in time to celebrate Bruce’s birthday on September 23, 1949.

Our favorites stretch over a period from 1975 to 1982, taking in several styles and approaches as Bruce released some of his most heralded albums. Buckle up, as we mash the pedal on Bruce Springsteen Songs About Cars …

“USED CARS,” (NEBRASKA, 1982): Is the automobile used too often in American songwriting? Some folks say so. Those complaints — particularly the ones aimed at Springsteen — have always made me wonder just how blind people can be to culture. The car has been a symbol of freedom and free spirit for as long as pop music has been around. The thing is, you’ve got to maybe separate the songs that are purely about vehicles from those employing them either as metaphor or to attach crucial detail to a setting.

and the car still has that new car smell
and dad looks like he might smile
and the world is big and full of Autumn
– Greg Brown

Bruce’s “Used Cars” reminds me of folk singer Greg Brown’s “Brand New 64 Dodge.” The car itself is secondary to the event — in this case the actual purchase of the Dodge — and how it made that family feel. The kid in Springsteen’s tune, in contrast, longs for better days … when he’ll be well enough off to be able to avoid this embarrassment … when a supposed symbol of freedom and prosperity won’t feel like a badge of dishonor.

Now, mister, the day the lottery I win I ain’t ever gonna ride in no used car again

“CADILLAC RANCH,” (THE RIVER, 1980): The lighter side of The River‘s light/heavy axis contains more fun than a person should be allowed to have on any given day. There’s no way I could pick a favorite, but “Cadillac Ranch” is certainly a strong contender.

With a guitar hook that won’t quit, this ode to the American road warrior icon (I’ve always loved that line “Tearing up the highway like a big old dinosaur”), not to mention girls in tight jeans, is pure fun uncut.

Oh, and check out this version from back in the day, complete with goofy onstage hijinx. Dang, I wish I had that much fun at my job.

“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.

“STOLEN CAR,” (THE RIVER, 1980): There are tons of love songs out there. Maybe even more tunes about breakups and their aftermath. The best of them, like a great poem, can take a long-view snapshot of a person’s timeline and distill it down to its essence. Here we have a couple looking back at what was and how it all came apart. But more than that they despair not only for the relationship that was, but also for the passage of time. Who hasn’t felt that weight?

The ballad that is “Stolen Car” is given a darker twist, with the protagonist thinking of these issues even as he admits that his own solitary life has taken an even worse turn. No explanation is given for why he drives around in a stolen car each night, mostly because that’d be unnecessary: he’s desperate and knows it, wondering if maybe he’s “gone” from this world.

And I’m driving a stolen car
On a pitch black night
And I’m telling myself I’m gonna be alright
But I ride by night and I travel in fear
That in this darkness I will disappear

With those spooky descending background vocals raining down, you can just see the look in the guy’s eyes in the rear view mirror.

“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.

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