A Bruce Top Five

Just about any obsessive Bruce Springsteen fan — or obsessive Beatles fan, Stones fan, REM … U2 … Smiths … Adele … Zeppelin … Sinatra … Streisand … Pearl Jam … The Who … Billy Joel … Elton John … Billie Holliday … Depeche Mode … Eminem … Jimmy Buffett … Cole Porter … Elvis … Nirvana … Bee Gees … Public Enemy … Blondie … Bob Dylan fan — will tell you it’s pointless to make a Top 5 list.

Why is it pointless? Because of that word: “Obsessive.” If five songs in the oeuvre of any longstanding artist can sum up how you feel about him/her/them then you are, by definition, not obsessive about them. Take the Springsteen song Leah. It is a minor song on what I suspect any casual Springsteen fan would call a minor album, “Devils and Dust.” It is such a small piece of the Springsteen universe that a typical Bruce fan probably would not be able to see it using even the most powerful telescope.

I think about the song Leah probably once every two or three months. I love that song. I was in the car just the other day, and I thought: “I’m in the mood to hear ‘Leah.’ And I asked Siri to play Leah, off my “Springsteen Plane” playlist and Siri responded by playing Dylan’s “Lay Lady Lay,” which might have been my last break with the Apple iPhone*.

*More on my switch to the Google Phone in some post in the future — OK, let’s be realistic, probably never.

Anyway, I wouldn’t put Leah in my Top 5 Springsteen songs … or Top 10 … or probably not Top 25. But I love it. My Springsteen experience would be a little bit less vivid without it. There are probably 50 Springsteen songs like that for me.

So, no, a Top 5 Springsteen list isn’t a really good idea for me.

Then this tweet came out:

Chris Mack is the Xavier basketball coach. I think the world of Chris Mack. He was born in Cleveland where I’m from. He grew up in Cincinnati very close to where I lived. He was director of basketball operations for one of my favorite people, the late Skip Prosser. He coaches Xavier, a team I wrote about at length when I was columnist at the Cincinnati Post and still follow pretty closely. Chris is also one heck of a basketball coach.

But that list hurts my heart.

Understand, it doesn’t hurt my heart because it’s a bad list — there are no bad musical tendencies as far as I’m concerned. I’ve long believed deeply that music is personal, and no one should feel anything but pride for that the music that they love. It’s all just music, you know? If you like “Broken Wings” more than you like “I Heard it Through the Grapevine,” or “Achy Breaky Heart” more than you like “Folsom City Blues” or the Michael Bolton version of “Georgia On My Mind” more than the Ray Charles version, um, that’s cool. I swallowed hard on the last one, but that’s cool, really, life is too short to listen to music because it’s SUPPOSED to be great rather than listening to music that lifts your spirit and moves you high and low and makes you dance. No, it’s true, if those are your musical tastes you won’t get to be in charge of music at my next party (like I throw parties). But really, whatever music takes you to that place is the right music.

So, if those are Chris Mack’s five favorite Springsteen songs, that’s awesome. Listen in good health, my friend.

Thing is, it’s a bit like me listing off my five favorite Beethoven compositions.

You know, I like the fifth symphony. And, um, I really like that fifth symphony. Remember when they made it a disco song? So cool. So the fifth symphony and, wait, um, Fur Elise! I like that one, the girls have played that one on the piano. And, I like the fifth symphony. And, oh, wait, he did Ode to Joy, right? I like that one too. So how many is that? Seven? Oh, it’s only three. OK, wait, what did I say? Fifth symphony, right? Ode to Joy. Um, what was the third one I said? Oh yeah, Fur Elise. Um … Oh yeah, how about that song from the Nutcracker? That one’s great and, what’s that? That’s Tchaikovsky? OK, scratch that one.

I actually do like Beethoven’s music (hey, I have a playlist!), but the only correct answer for anyone who would ask me my five favorite Beethoven compositions is: “Yeah, I don’t feel like I know Beethoven well enough to give you a Top 5. I just like listening to it.” Anything else would hurt the hearts of those people who love Beethoven.

And if someone asks you to name your Top 5 Springsteen songs and you take four from the “Born in the USA” album and your fifth is Springsteen’s first big radio hit, one that he won’t even sing at concerts anymore (he just walks around and lets the crowd sing it), well, just understand that you will hurt some people’s hearts.

Some people have had a little fun with it:

And:

And:

But it has occurred to me — Chris Mack put himself out there. He likes Springsteen, and put on the spot to name his top 5 he chose five songs that Spingsteen DID record, and he put himself out there, and if I’m going to joke about it …

… then I have to put myself out there too. Any Top 5 list I would put out there would tick off people too, would expose me as a rube to more hardcore Springsteen fans while revealing me to be absurdly cantankerous to the more laid-back Bruce lovers (for instance, no matter when I did the list, I would not have a Born in the U.S.A. song on it. There are many good songs on it — Born in the U.S.A. is brilliant both rocking and accoustically and Darlington County is great and so on — but none of them rise up for me).

So, no, I can’t leave Chris Mack just hanging like that. Here you go, to mock and pick aprt, my Top 5 Bruce Springsteen songs as of 10:19 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday, October 22. It could change by noon, but that will be too late.

— Born to Run.

Well, of course. I am of the belief that every Bruce Springsteen Top 5 is really a Top 4 because you are required by Sprinsteen Law to put Born to Run on your list. It is, in my view, everything that the Boss has ever tried to get into his music, all inside one sprawling four-minute, 31 second jam about love and cars and youth and daily life grinding you down and the soaring hope of two young lovers and an open highway.

And it still rocks. I don’t care if it is or isn’t one of your five favorite Springsteen songs. It has to go in the Top 5.

— The Promise.

My favorite Bruce Springsteen song. Springsteen really wrote it about his own agonizing fight with his business partner Mike Appel, which does take some of the romance out of it, but the song has come to take on so much more than that. It was between this and “Independence Day” for the “song that connects me with my father” category on this list.

For the tires rushing by in the rain.

— Rosalita (Come Out Tonight).

There needs to be one early Springsteen song on the list, before Born to Run, a song that captures him when he had nothing but hunger and dreams and fury and lust and the ambition to be the greatest rocker that ever was. It could be “Blinded by the Light,” which he wrote with a rhyming dictionary. It could be “It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City,” which has those suffocating lyrics that any self-aware writer/artist/athlete/movie protagonist should be able to recognize from her or her own vibrant youth, when we had SO MUCH to say but didn’t quite have the control to say it.

I had skin like leather and the diamond-hard look of a cobra
I was born blue and weathered but I burst just like a supernova
I could walk like Brando right into the sun, then dance just like a Casanova

There’s a lot going on there. This was Springsteen unleashed, and it’s such a big part of why so many of us love him — so much inside him trying to get out.

But I chose Rosalita instead. Rosalita is a wild, messy, tangled, ebullient opera with Jack the Rabbit and Weak Knee Willie, featuring a father who knows that Bruce doesn’t have any money, a record company giving out a big advance, the swamps of Jersey, a half-dream of Southern California, and the very essence of Springsteen’s wide open pursuit of Rosalita:

Windows are for cheaters
Chimneys for the poor
Oh, Closets are for hangers
Winners use the door.

One of the happiest songs ever recorded.

— You’re Missing

OK, here’s my crazy wildcard just for this list.

Here’s what I figure: One of the five songs has to be a post-9/11 release. Here’s why: One of the most wonderful things about being a Springsteen fan is his longevity. He’s Willie Mays. He’s Jack Nicklaus. He’s Tim Duncan. He had the extraordinary prime when he was as good as anyone ever. But then, he just kept going, finding new ways to achieve heights. I don’t know that anything Springsteen released after 1990 was as good as “Jungleland” or “Thunder Road” or “Racin’ in the Streets” or “Atlantic City” or 50 other incredible songs he recorded before he turned 40. Man, I love Jungleland.

But it is the last 15 years that have connected him to audiences in a way that no one of his era connects. The biggest stars of his time do reunion tours. From afar, they do not seem to record much that furthers their musical reach. Bruce is still stretching for something. Don’t get me wrong, he’s released some real stinkers the last 15 years — the whole “Outlaw Pete” thing left me gagging and the “Queen of the Supermarket” chapter is better left unread.

But there have been so many good songs too.

The obvious choice for the modern Bruce song would be “The Rising,” which I think captures the moment that Springsteen seemed to get his voice back after a few years in the creative wilderness. “Devils and Dust,” and “The Wrestler” and “Long Walk Home,” and “Land of Hopes and Dreams” and other carry a lot of the old Springsteen power.

And, I’ve made clear my love of some songs that might not be widely loved like the aforementioned “Leah” and “Girls in Their Summer Clothes.” I think “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day,” is undereappreciated too because it’s Bruce’s homage to the great Motown songs.

I chose “You’re Missing” to fill this spot, though, because I love the simplicity of it. The young Bruce never could have written it. This is just the simple pain of loss.

Coffee cups on the counter, jackets on the chair
Papers on the doorstep, but you’re not there
Everything is everything
Everything is everything
But you’re missing

It gets me every time.

— Badlands

And, finally, a Bruce Top 5 in my mind must include an anthem. I suppose you could argue the Born to Run is an anthem, but it’s basically everything else too — a love song, a rage against the machine, a grasp for something bigger, etc. We need a real anthem.

There are many choices — I was thinking this was where I could slot in Jungleland — but I think in the end you have to go with Badlands. For one its’ a great song — great on the record, greater still in concert. And i think it contains the three-line lyric that sums it all up.

For the ones who had a notion
A notion deep inside
That it ain’t no sin to be glad that you’re alive

Here at the end of the list, it occurs to me that my “Springsteen Plane” playlist is that one that I probably listen to more than any other. I listen to it when I’m on planes and I’m writing or dozing off or just looking out the window.

These are the 10 songs on it.

1. Youngstown
2. Streets of Philadelphia
3. Leah
4. She’s The One
5. Wreck on the Highway
6. If I Should Fall Behind
7. Walk Like A Man
8. My Ride’s Here
9. Dream Baby Dream
10. Blood Brothers

I love all 10 of those songs — offer a whole different Springsteen feel. None of those 10 songs are on my Top 5. That’s because doing Springsteen Top 5 lists are pointless. They can only get you made fun of on Twitter.

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