Thursday, November 4, 2010

10 saddest Springsteen songs

I was reading my friend Patrick's take on 15 songs from The Promise, a new release from Bruce Springsteen of some of the studio outtakes from the Darkness sessions. Patrick, of course, really knows his Springsteen, and he mentioned a song as really sad, and I got to thinking: What makes my list of the 10 saddest Springsteen songs.

It isn't easy. The characters in a lot of Springsteen's songs face really desperate situations, but they hope. Like in Meeting Across the River. The singer is pulling off some illegal deal, but he says "And all we gotta do is hold up our end," and then things'll work out, his girl will "see this time I wasn't just talking."

Or the music is hopeful. Ronald Reagan was silly to try to claim Born in the USA, but its sound -- at least the album one -- is hopeful.

I decided to limit myself to official releases and only one song from any album because Springsteen has several albums with so many sad songs. You could do a top 10 from Nebraska alone.

I ruled out Born in the USA for its sound. I really like the song Downbound Train, but that dude has so much go wrong. Three jobs. His girl leaves. Just a comedy of crap. It's too much. 

In Streets Of Philadelphia, written for the movie Philadelphia, the singer has AIDS. It's pretty sad, but there is a speck of hope. "Oh brother are you gonna leave me wasting away," he pleads. There is also Dead Man Walking. But both of these tell the movie stories so I did not pick them.

Here are the 10, then, but there are a ton more.

The title track to The River is pretty bleak, but neither member of The River couple resorts to stealing cars, hoping to get caught.

9. Reno, Devils & Dust
Devils & Dust is hard. Do you pick the title track;
And tonight faith just ain't enough
When I look inside my heart
There's just devils and dust
Or The Hitter about the son who becomes a street fighter/boxer, which ends with the line: "I move hard to the left and I strike to the face?"

In the end, I chose the song about the prostitute: Reno. I could not know the lyrics, which make sex into something totally mechanical and creepy, and I'd still want to cry. It sounds a lot like The Hitter.

We laughed and made a toast.
It wasn't the best I ever had,
Not even close.

Any song that has the singer begging in the refrain "don't you shut out the light" gets my vote for a sad song. Makes me feel good that Mom and Dad leave all sorts of lights on. It also reminds me of when Gram died. A neighbor told Mom that Gram always asked the neighbor why she left so many lights on. The neighbor told Mom that she turned all her lights on for Gram the day she died. It is about a guy returning from something, Vietnam? But nothing fits anymore.

Talk about hopeless. The ex-con whose uncles steal cars is "sick of doin' straight time," and you know he goes back to crime.

I have to ignore Highway 29, about a shoe salesman turned murderous bank robber, and favorite Youngstown, when the singer hopes "the devil comes and takes me to stand in the fiery furnaces of hell" after his life at a steelworks.

6. I Wish I Were Blind, Human Touch
All the beautiful things in the world don't matter to the singer. He wishes he were blind "when I see you with your man." A friend in college said, Not a man alive doesn't know just what he means.

5. Rockaway the Days, Tracks
Yes, two from Tracks, but not the same disc. You know this song is going to be bad from the first lines:
Billy got out of prison but he wasn't right
Some like to drink or gamble, Billy liked to fight.
Billy wound up hurting someone, then he "wrapped himself 'round a telephone pole way out on 101." This would be one of my favorite songs on this list, but the last verse just doesn't fit. Probably why it is on Tracks, an album of outtakes.

4. Brilliant Disguise, Tunnel of Love
Anything from the second half of this album would fit. But all songs detailing a cheating spouse should sound this good. It is so catchy, I almost ruled it out. If I ever get married, I am not putting a willow underneath the bedroom window.

3. You're Missing, The Rising
Another album you could find most of a top 10 of sad songs if wanted. But You're Missing has always hit me hard. The line "God's drifting in heaven, devil's in the mailbox" just kills me. Seems to me a brilliant way of saying how far away and inaccessible God can seem, while sadness and evil are around all the damn time. That certainly was true around 9/11 when not everyone came home.

Yikes. That's bleak. I really hope manufacturing work is not that bad. Racing in the Streets is not much better, with its references to "one who hates for just being born."
There is probably one happy tune on Nebraska, so by just choosing Highway Patrolman, I am leaving out a song about a serial killer, a song about gangs, one about prison and several about the gap between rich and poor.

I am not sure where to stand on Reason to Believe. Someone argued that it was mocking the little things people grasp to keep hoping. I hope it is a tribute to humanity's ability to hope in the face of overwhelming evil or sadness.

Highway Patrolman, about a good and bad brother, reminds me of a family who lived nearby. They were all good folks but for one who was in and out of jail his whole life. Now his brain is fried from drugs, prison, everything, and it is sad. I don't wish he had a highway patrolman brother to help him elude the law, but I wish he did have a brother who would, or maybe the right word is could, take care of him.


Anonymous said...

awesome. Send it to Bruce. We still have to have you over to watch The Promise on DVR. we have no plans this weekend if you are up for it.

Anonymous said...

Ok, now that I've stopped crying, next can we have a list of best Bruce songs to play at top volume while driving? Stand On It, for example.

Anonymous said...

I vote for JTG's list too and offer "She's the One."

Matt Trott said...

Still want to see Promise, maybe next weekend.

And top-volume songs? All others not on this list? We'll see.

Tony said...

"Downbound Train" = Comedy of Crap. I like it. A great song.

I'm with you on "Reason to Believe." I found myself listening to that and "Better Days," and "Counting on a Miracle" a lot a few years ago.

Tony said...

And yes, I know Countin' On A Miracle is not exactly uplifting but sometimes you just go with titles and that's what I found myself doing in Atlanta.

Anonymous said...

regardless of the lyrics, Counting on a Miracle and The Rising lift me up no matter what.

Matt Trott said...

I think my next list will be songs that make me happy, and the Rising and Better Days are in the running.

kabuki said...

Hey Matt,
The only Springsteen album in my collection is Nebraska. I never thought of the songs as being sad -hard and lonesome maybe and sparse like a one room shack on the backroad. Of course I do have the Pete Seeger Sessions.

Matt Trott said...

Hmmm, I vote sad on Nebraska, Johnny 99, Highway Patrolman and Used cars. But will accept hard and lonesome for the other. I remember seeing Nebraska in with Timbuk 3, Tina Turner and all the others.

Patrick said...

Great list, especially with the unorthodox Rockaway and Straight Time calls. Bruce should listen to this mix anytime he feels like Working on a Dream again. A little balance!

Matt Trott said...

I could produce. My first rule: Turn down that music!

Leah said...

"Independence Day" from The River has always slayed me. It's so autobiographical.

David Caven said...

"Racing in the Streets" which includes the lyrics, "Now there's wrinkles 'round my baby's eyes and she cries herself to sleep at night." It's about a dream that's be lost, torn. Sad, sad, sad.

Anonymous said...

Now I just act like I don't remember, and Mary acts like she don't care. But I remember...

Richard Carmichael said...

Nice, made bearable by the lacing of humour.
Point Blank (The River, again) is tough too. Almost any line but,
"And I was gonna be your Romeo, you were gonna be my Juliet
These days you don't wait on Romeos, you wait on that welfare check
And on all the pretty things that you can't ever have"
Bruce does sad so well. Fortunately he also does uplifting wisdom - Better Days is indeed a good one.
"Every fool's got a reason to feelin' sorry for himself
And turning his heart to stone
Tonight this fool's halfway to heaven and just a mile outta hell
And I feel like I'm comin' home"

Anonymous said...

Bobby Jean, Thunder Road, Independence Day.

Anonymous said...

"Wreck on the highway" is great in its sadness,
"Reason to believe" is climbing out of the deepest sorrows,
"Highway Patrolman" drives me to tears.

He really masters "tell one's entire life story in 5 minutes"

Thankfully, there's HBT* too
* Happy Bruce Tunes
"Radio Nowhere", "Surprise surprise" and many more

and tons of mixtures, like The River,I'm on Fire, Tougher than the rest, Happy, Loose change, Paradise, Growing up, ...

He's a real hero...

Anonymous said...

Great thing about Sprinsteen is theres so many and different interpretions we will all have our ones that are special individually. I agree on highway patrolman however there are two that never seem to fail bringing to tears to my eyes. They would be Nothing man from the rising and Black cowboys from devils and dust.

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