“Tonight I’m going to play a few songs and try to give you an idea about where they came from. It’s kind of an iffy proposition because talking about music is like talking about sex. Can you describe it?…Are you supposed to?”
-Bruce Springsteen on VH1 Storytellers

Bruce Springsteen is undeniably one of music’s greats. As a songwriter, he trades in a special brand of poetry crafted out of the American working class vernacular, where each song tells the story of character(s) who draw breath in the same hard-won world as the rest of us. And as a performer, well, Bruuuuuuuuce is one of the best to ever set foot on a stage. He brings an expansive amount of joy to to every show and he seriously KILLS IT every single time. If you disagree, well, of course you are entitled to your opinion, but quite frankly…you can suck it. Now, with another a highly-anticipated Springsteen album just around the corner, I thought it was as good a time as any to reflect upon the homage other musicians have paid him over the years by covering his work.

Below, I humbly present to you a list of “Twelve Best Springsteen Covers”. “Why 12?”, you may ask. I don’ know. Because it’s 2012 and that’s what I chose. Also, with such fine covers as the ones below, it broke my heart a little to think of cutting two of them to round out the list to the no-less arbitrary number of ten. Deal with it.

12. “Downbound Train” as covered by Kurt Vile

Philadelphia-ish native (hometown shout out!) Kurt Vile covered this Springsteen number – a working class man’s lament for his estranged spouse – as part of his 2011 EP So Outta Reach. Vile’s slurred vocals paired with the layers of fuzzy guitars help create an almost psychedelic sound, which further colors the narrator’s inner life: that of a lonely man stumbling along towards despair, where detachment and resignation may be his only options for survival. Not exactly a feel-good number…

Kurt Vile covering “Downbound Train”

Memorable Lyrics

I had a job, I had a girl
I had something going mister in this world
I got laid off down at the lumber yard
Our love went bad, times got hard
Now I work down at the carwash
Where all it ever does is rain
Don’t you feel like you’re a rider on a downbound train

11. “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In the City” as covered by David Bowie

The king of glam-rock and musical eclecticism, David Bowie, took on this Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J number in 1975 for his live performances, but it wasn’t recorded and released until the 1989 box set Sound + Vision. The Dame’s version of the song is everything you would expect from him and more: it’s a snazzy Wall of Sound-like concoction, with strings and a strong art-rock feel, that takes the story of the narrator and makes it almost mythological.

Fun Fact! This is the song that inspired producer Mike Appel to quit his job and become Bruce’s first manager (even before he had a record contract).

David Bowie covering “It’s Hard To Be A Saint In the City”

Memorable Lyrics

With my blackjack and jacket and hair slicked sweet
Silver star studs on my duds like a Harley in heat
When I strut down the street I could hear its heartbeat
The sisters fell back and said “Don’t that man look pretty”
The cripple on the corner cried out “Nickels for your pity”
Them gasoline boys downtown sure talk gritty
It’s so hard to be a saint in the city

10. “Tougher Than the Rest” as covered by Camera Obscura

Springsteen said that at the time of Darkness on the Edge of Townhe was “too cowardly” to write and release a real love song. Hence the reason he gave away such tunes to other musicians (as in the case of “Because the Night”, which went to and became a hit for Patti Smith). Luckily for us, he eventually got over that fear and in 1987, “Tougher Than the Rest” – in my humble opinion, one of the great straight-up songs – was released as part of the Tunnel of Love album. It’s a hopeful number about love, no doubt, but here the narrator is certainly not wearing any rose-tinted glasses. It is this honest perspective on love that makes the song memorable. Pitchfork Media even agrees with me: it described the song as “a weary but dignified look at the reality of love.”

In 2009, the dreamy indie pop band from Scotland, Camera Obscura, included their cover of “Tougher Than the Rest” as a B-side to their single, “The Sweetest Thing”. Vocalist Traceyanne Campbell’s soothing vocals are a perfect compliment to the lush and fanciful musical arrangement provided by the band. The stakes are lower here than they are in the original, but what it lacks in emotional gravity, it makes up for in charm.

Camera Obscura covering “Tougher Than the Rest”

Memorable Lyrics

The road is dark
and it’s a thin thin line
But I want you to know I’ll walk it for you any time
Maybe your other boyfriends
couldn’t pass the test
Well if you’re rough and ready for love
honey I’m tougher than the rest

Well it ain’t no secret
I’ve been around a time or two
Well I don’t know baby maybe you’ve been around too
Well there’s another dance
all you gotta do is say yes
And if you’re rough and ready for love
honey I’m tougher than the rest
If you’re rough enough for love
baby I’m tougher than the rest

9. “Dancing in the Dark” as covered by Tegan and Sara

The (twin!) Quin sisters tackled this, Born in the U.S.A. chart sensation, for the Hangin’ On E Street series. When it was first written, the number encapsulated what was an explosion of the built up frustration Springsteen was experiencing at the time: during the Born in the U.S.A. mixing sessions, producer Jon Landau argued that the album was still in need of a hit single.  Springsteen, who had already written 70 songs for the album (not all used, natch), pushed back and the, let’s say”discussion”, became heated. That same evening, Springsteen went back to his hotel room and hammered out “Dancing in the Dark”. As Dave Marsh stated in his book Glory Days (pg. 180), “This is a protest song worth keeping – a marching song against boredom, a battle cry against loneliness, and an accounting of the price the loner pays.”

Here, Tegan and Sara whittle down the song to a pretty sparse acoustic arrangement, adding just the right amount of sweetness without losing any of the narrator’s conviction. And it is the simplicity of this version that truly highlights the underlying sadness at the heart of the song (often missed by audiences distracted by the original’s upbeat musical orchestration).

Tegan and Sara covering “Dancing in the Dark”

Memorable Lyrics

You sit around getting older
there’s a joke here somewhere and it’s on me
I’ll shake this world off my shoulders
come on baby this laugh’s on me

Stay on the streets of this town
and they’ll be carving you up alright
They say you gotta stay hungry
hey baby I’m just about starving tonight
I’m dying for some action
I’m sick of sitting ’round here trying to write this book
I need a love reaction
come on now baby gimme just one look

8. “State Trooper” as covered by Arcade Fire

Indie rock heavyweight Arcade Fire began performing their version of “State Trooper” while on their 2007 tour. The band executes the song beautifully, maintaining the tension and unpredictable moodiness built into the original (it was on the awe-inspiring, yet beautifully understated Nebraska, after all), while also elevating the anguish found in the narrator’s voice. It’s a pitch-perfect example of a harmonious pairing between band and (cover) song: Arcade Fire, a band that like the famous E Street Band before it, knows how to make even the most brilliantly restrained song sound majestic.

 

Arcade Fire covering “State Trooper”

Memorable Lyrics

New Jersey Turnpike ridin’ on a wet night ‘neath the refinery’s glow, out where the great black rivers flow
License, registration, I ain’t got none but I got a clear conscience
‘Bout the things that I done
Mister state trooper, please don’t stop me
Please don’t stop me, please don’t stop me

7. “I’m on Fire” as covered by Bat for Lashes

Here’s a little bit of trivia: this number came together in a rather impromptu style during a dinner break from the recording studio in 1982. Springsteen was playing a somber riff and adding lyrics pulled from his famous spiral-bound notebook of work when keyboardist Roy Bittan and drummer Max Weinberg returned. They quickly fit themselves into the freshly molded song and the result was a number that went on to become an oft-covered number brimming with sexual tension (see: Johnny Cash, Swati, Chromatics, John Mayer, and A.A. Bondy, among others). But it is Natasha Kahn’s version that manages to both stretch the song beyond what you might think appropriate, while also imbuing it with a compelling sense of ritual. I know that sounds weird, but it works.

Bat for Lashes covering “I’m on Fire”

Memorable Lyrics

At night I wake up with the sheets soaking wet
and a freight train running through the
middle of my head
Only you can cool my desire
I’m on fire

6. “Mansion On the Hill” as covered by The National

Fun fact! The “mansion on the hill” immortalized in this song was actually a real home that Bruce’s father used to take him to, located not far from his hometown of Freehold, NJ. The song was first released as part of Nebraska and presents a child’s-eye view of class rituals and the all-too-human appetite for acquiring a better station in life. The National, an accomplished Brooklyn-based band who can certainly bring out the heartache in just about any number without ever crossing the line into treacly, does well by the song.

“Mansion on the Hill” covering The National

Memorable Lyrics

There’s a place out on the edge of town sir
Risin’ above the factories and the fields
Now ever since I was a child I can remember that mansion on the hill

5. “Streets of Philadelphia” as covered by Bettye LaVette

This version may be a bit too sweet on the tongue for some, but it is still undeniably moving.  Last Fall I compiled a “Best Cover Songs” list (selfish plug), where I included this one. And so in the interest of time (and, yes, possibly laziness), let me simply quote myself:

“This is an incredible example of an artist making another artist’s song truly her own. LaVette takes this weighty, Oscar-winning song (used in the 1993 film Philadelphia) and makes you forget that it is a cover at all. Not an easy feat, given the source material. LaVette’s emotionally resonant voice injects the song with an impressive amount of soul, giving this version two strong legs to stand on. It’s the same song with a different emotional impact.”

Bettye LaVette covering “Streets of Philadelphia”

Memorable Lyrics

I walked the avenue till my legs felt like stone
I heard the voices of friends vanished and gone
At night I could hear the blood in my veins
Just as black and whispering as the rain
On the streets of Philadelphia

4. “The River” as covered by Josh Ritter

In this version of “The River”, the much-respected indie-with-a-penchant-for-folk singer/songwriter Josh Ritter makes covering a classic look effortless. But, boy, it ain’t so. Ritter’s quiet acoustic version expertly paints a vivid emotional landscape that has been drained of hope and replaced with bone-chilling resignation. He lets the characters and the story – which were based in part on Springsteen’s own sister and brother-in-law’s shotgun wedding – speak for themselves, knowing that any added bells and whistles would simply get in the way.

“The River”, Josh Ritter

Memorable Lyrics

But I remember us riding in my brother’s car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I’d lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she’d take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
they haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don’t come true
Or is it something worse

3. “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as covered by Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman

Badass guitarist Tom Morello, known mostly for his work with Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave, ventured out as a solo act in 2003 under the alias “The Nightwatchman”.  He called it his “political folk alter ego”. Given the voice of that alter ego, it’s no surprise that Morello chose to take on Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad”:  the song is a strong commentary on social injustice, which was inspired by John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, John Ford’s movie of the same title, and (folk music legend) Woody Guthrie’s song “The Ballad of Tom Joad”.  It goes without saying that the guitar work by Morello in this version is breathtaking. Morello even joined Springsteen and the E Street Band a handful of times during the Magic Tour, where they played an extended version of the song, complete with some pretty impressive electric guitar solos.

Tom Morello: The Nightwatchman covering “The Ghost of Tom Joad”

Memorable Lyrics

Men walkin’ ‘long the railroad tracks
Goin’ someplace there’s no goin’ back
Highway patrol choppers comin’ up over the ridge
Hot soup on a campfire under the bridge
Shelter line stretchin’ round the corner
Welcome to the new world order
Families sleepin’ in their cars in the southwest
No home no job no peace no rest

The highway is alive tonight
But nobody’s kiddin’ nobody about where it goes
I’m sittin’ down here in the campfire light
Searchin’ for the ghost of Tom Joad

2. “My City of Ruins” as covered by Eddie Vedder

Though it was released as part of his 2002 album, The Rising, Springsteen originally wrote “My City of Ruins” in 2000 for a benefit concert supporting the revitalization of Asbury Park, New Jersey. But when history took a tragic turn on September 11, 2001, the song took on an even more profound meaning and place within the American song-scape. Mr. Vedder performed his version of the song live at the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors, where Springsteen was a distinguished award recipient. There, Vedder did what only a great artist can: exercise restraint. Backed by a small but powerful choir, Vedder presented a less-is-more, but no less poignant, version of the ballad.  The version was later made available for purchase on iTunes, where the proceeds benefited Artists for Peace and Justice (Haiti relief fund).  Classy move, Vedder. Mad respect.

Eddie Vedder covering “My City of Ruins”

Memorable Lyrics

Now the sweet bells of mercy
Drift through the evening trees
Young men on the corner
Like scattered leaves,
The boarded up windows,
The empty streets
While my brother’s down on his knees
My city of ruins
My city of ruins

Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!
Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!
Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!

1. “Stolen Car” as covered by Patty Griffin

Austin-based songstress extraordinaire, Patty Griffin, recorded and released her version of “Stolen Car” on her 2002 album 1,000 Kisses. When it was first released by the Boss, this number, along with “Wreck on the Highway” and “The River” (all off the two-disc album, The River) marked a pivotal moment in Springsteen’s career and a significant shift in the direction of his songwriting: where his previous work spoke of characters still living with a fighting spirit, these three somber ballads told the tales of people living far beyond the land of hope. In “Stolen Car” the failing marriage and loneliness of the narrator has driven him to car theft. And night after night he drives the hot property, hoping to get caught by the police. Why? To prove he exists and that his worse fear has not yet come true – that he has disappeared. It’s all pretty grim, but also incredibly real. And Griffin’s emotionally-rich voice is just the one to make this cover even more heart-wrenching than the original.

Patty Griffin covering “Stolen Car”

Memorable Lyrics

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

 

 

Honorable Mentions:  “I’m Goin’ Down” as covered by Vampire Weekend, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as covered by Junip, “The Ghost of Tom Joad” as covered by Rage Against the Machine, “I’m on Fire” as covered by Johnny Cash, “I’m on Fire” as covered by A.A. Bondy, “State Trooper” by Cowboy Junkies, and “State Trooper” as covered by Steve Earle