Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Road Songs
Cars have always played a big role in rock 'n' roll, but no songwriter has ever been as eloquent as Bruce Springsteen at turning dead-end streets, endless highways and chrome fenders into meaningful metaphors of his characters' emotions. The folks in the Boss' songs have been driving all night in stolen cars and pink Cadillacs -- from the streets of Philadelphia to a freeze-out on 10th Avenue -- finding gratification or nightmares while seeking escape and salvation. Here are the Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Road Songs.
This revved-up ‘River’ rocker, which references the Route 66 car sculpture, is about a man who fetishizes his car (“El Dorado fins, whitewalls and skirts / Rides just like a little bit of heaven here on earth”). Like a lot of Springsteen’s blue-collar joes, this guy revels in simple automotive pleasures once the five o’clock whistle blows. As drummer Max Weinberg tears up the highway with that pounding beat, our hero dreams of having a road rally with James Dean, NASCAR hero Junior Johnson and “even Burt Reynolds in that black Trans-Am.” Most importantly, on this Wisconsin night, he’s opening up the engines to chase his last love.
There’s an epic sweep to 'Last to Die,' which suggests the Iraq War via a story of outlaws burning through the backstreets of the Southwest. Springsteen slams down on his guitar like he’s trying to make the getaway car turn over, and recounts the needless bloodshed and escalating body count. Whether these are soldiers in a Hummer or bandits in a pickup, one thing is clear: They keep driving, but they’re not getting anywhere.
Springsteen never tells us what the “something” in the night is. He doesn’t need to; his full-throated caterwauling conveys the all-encompassing despair felt by the man who turns up the radio and floors his car so he doesn’t have to think about his life. On this stadium-sized elegy for equanimity, Springsteen speeds hood-first into the void, trying to escape the “stuff going ’round in [his] head.” He ends up losing his mind … and his car.
‘The River’ is loaded with cars – cars that stand for sex, distraction, infidelity, avoidance and (in this haunting 'River' finale) absolute, terrifying fear. ‘Wreck on the Highway’ is a matter of life and death, not just for the man that the song’s character comes across, but for the man who’s kept up at night by thoughts of the horrible wreck he came across. Is he dreading his own untimely end? Is he worried about his wife or who will support his family? We only know that the man is traumatized by the ugliness he witnessed out on “that deserted stretch of a county two-lane.”
To close an album dedicated to the whole man-woman thing, Springsteen turns the distance between two hearts into a spooky drive in the middle of the night. He’s got one hand on the wheel and one hand on his heart as he thinks about his greatest fear: loneliness. ‘Valentine’s Day’ is sort of an update of ‘Open All Night’ (see No. 3 on our list of the Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Road Songs), but with a more mature hero who’s “rushin’ up the highway in the dark” to discover the light he’s only glimpsed in other people’s relationships. He’s not there yet, but he’s on his way.
In 'State Trooper,' Springsteen’s acoustic guitar strumming mimics the steady purr of a cruising automobile. And the man in the song hopes it keeps cruising – he begs, over and over, “mister state trooper, please don’t stop me.” We have no idea what the guy’s done, only that he’s driving the New Jersey Turnpike and wanting desperately to avoid any law enforcement entanglements. The lyrics are great, but the sound of ‘State Trooper’ is what makes it truly special. The raw demo that Springsteen recorded perfectly captures the feeling of the lonely highway. His piercing shrieks imply that the man might be kidding himself when he says “I got a clear conscience about the things that I done.”
On an episode of VH1’s ‘Storytellers,’ Springsteen described 'Thunder Road''s coda as “the ride” (it’s also one of the most transcendent moments in rock 'n' roll history). In the lead up, Bruce offers up his car to Mary as a last-ditch attempt to shake off “the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets” before their hometown crushes all of their dreams. Mary climbs in, Bruce pulls out onto the open road of unlimited possibilities and all that’s left is “the ride.”
This rockabilly-esque rave-up shares some lyrical similarities with the other ‘Nebraska’ track on our list of the Top 10 Bruce Springsteen Road Songs. Both ‘State Trooper’ and ‘Open All Night’ take place in the “wee, wee hours” on the New Jersey Turnpike, but while the desperate man in the first one is pleading for safe passage, the driver in the second song is only desperate to see his girl, Wanda, after being on the night shift. He describes early-morning Jersey as a “lunar landscape,” lets his mind wander to memories of eating friend chicken with his truck-stop waitress girlfriend and sending out a silent prayer for a good rock 'n' roll song on the radio. You can almost hear the neon signs buzzing as Springsteen whisks us through the lonely journey.
When Springsteen planned the tracklist for 'Born to Run,' he arranged the five songs on each side to be companion pieces to their corresponding numbers. ‘Born to Run’ and ‘Thunder Road’ are sister songs, where heroes are stuck, walls are closing in and the only way out is a “last-chance power drive” in a roaring car. While ‘Thunder Road’ emphasizes a singular escape, ‘Born to Run’ sounds like a mass exodus. Wendy and her fella could be part of a gypsy caravan of hot rods, tough guys and pretty girls. Springsteen’s breathless delivery and the E Street wall of sound make this charging gem an exciting trip (rarely does someone shooting to create a great song actually hit his mark), but it’s the romantic, car culture language that’s unforgettable. “At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines.” “Just wrap your legs ’round these velvet rims.” “The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive.” Running away has never sounded so essential.
‘Racing in the Street’ isn’t just Springsteen’s best song about cars, it might be his best song about anything. It’s a perfect synthesis of so many of his most common themes – love, driving, working men, depressed women, and how they all add up to a life (or fail to). The noirish ballad follows one man’s obsession over drag racing and the heartbreak it brings to his relationship. While he’s blowing ’em off in his first heat, she sits alone, staring at nothing with the “eyes of one who hates for just being born.” At least her man knows she’s depressed and attempts a compromise: He’ll keep racing, but she can come along. The song’s wordless finale, which wafts on the back of Danny Federici’s organ, gives the listener time to decide if the highway in front of them is truly bright or if it leads to a grim dead end.