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The Friday Morning Listen: Bruce Springsteen – Born To Run

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Words. I am immersed in them every single day. Magazine articles, stuff on the Internet, books, poetry, newspapers, song lyrics.

Lyrics? Did I just type that?

Yeah, well, with my history of full-on immersion in books and all things literary, you would think that lyrics would matter to me. They sort of do, but mostly they don't.

People are shocked when they discover this odd trait of mine. I'm not drawn into arguments about this since I'm well aware that I'm far outside the mainstream on the issue. Heck, look at your average record review and there's all sorts of text about the songs, who the characters are, what they're doing (or yearn to do). What's usually missing is what the music actually sounds like. Apparently, the story is more important to most people, the sound being separate.

Though this is clearly a personal quirk of mine, it's not like I'm fully immune to the power of a great lyric but the question remains: When I am drawn into a song's phraseology, why am I there? First, let's get to a loose description of the three ways I take in songwriting.

If I don't like the music and/or the singer's voice, then I usually end up in ignore mode. The singer is the key here. If I don't like the voice, then the words and music are irrelevant — I've already stopped listening. This particular stance gets me into no small amount of trouble when I have to admit that I don't like artists such as The Smiths, Joy Division, Roxy Music, Elliott Smith, and Bonnie Prince Billy. Sorry guys, those voices just bother me.

At the other end of the scale is when the voice, music, and words resonate at a high level and my ear parts are at full attention. This is a pretty short list and usually involves singer/songwriters like Greg Brown, Ellis Paul, Dar Williams, and Ani DiFranco, though there are others in there like Tom Waits and Joe Jackson.

In the middle is the most common (and perhaps the oddest) listening mode: I like (or even love) the artist but only hear fragments of the lyrics. Though I'm thoroughly digging the song, I don't hear the words taken together, with only certain words or phrases popping up to my attention level. I don't know why I listen like this but I do. Even stranger is that some of my favorite artists fall into this category: Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan are at the top of the list. To make things slightly more complicated, it's quite common for me to step up into full engagement during particular songs. This may not even happen during every listening session involving the same song.

One other thing that happens is that sometimes a fragment of a song will send me over the top emotionally, though usually by then I'm fully engaged. I've described this before as "forgetting who you are." During Dar Williams' "I'll Miss You Till I Meet You," there's the line: "It all goes by so fast, like waving hands" that gets to me every single time.

By the way, all of this ruminating came about because of a short discussion about Bob Dylan's lyrics in yesterday's Verse Chorus Verse entry by Josh Hathaway. Behind the scenes, there was some email that discussed this question: What's your favorite Springsteen song strictly from a standpoint of lyrics? That's an easy one for me: "Thunder Road." The opening lines — "The screen door slams/ Mary's dress waves" get to me every time. Bruce sings them and forget who I am… I'm gone. Every time.

So let's generalize: What's your favorite song strictly from a standpoint of lyrics?

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About Mark Saleski

  • re #28. very true roger. there are some authors that just don’t resonate with me. i’ve tried reading joyce carol oates several times and am usually turned off by the end of the first page.

  • “If I don’t like the music and/or the singer’s voice, then I usually end up in ignore mode.”

    I suppose the same could be said for literature, Mark. If there’s no rhythm, no cadence, no flow, if it doesn’t grab you, you’ll put it away.

  • I think I should spray paint those lines somewhere. I can see that as a T-shirt message too.

  • For me too, Jordan. Masters of War is a very powerful song.

    You that hide behind walls,
    You that hide behind desks,
    I just want you to know
    I can see through your masks.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Oh, and Tom Paxton’s “Lyndon Johnson Told the Nation” is pretty sweet too.

    Well here I sit in this rice paddy,
    Wondering about Big Daddy,
    And I know that Lyndon loves me so.
    Yet how sadly I remember,
    Way back yonder in November,
    When he said I’d never have to go.

    Good shit.

  • Jordan Richardson

    “Masters of War” has blown me away each time I hear it, even when I hear someone like Eddie Vedder cover it.

    Two lines particularly stick out among this song filled with seething rage:

    But there’s one thing I know
    Though I’m younger than you
    Even Jesus would never
    Forgive what you do

    And, of course

    And I hope that you die
    And your death’ll come soon
    I will follow your casket
    In the pale afternoon
    And I’ll watch while you’re lowered
    Down to your deathbed
    And I’ll stand o’er your grave
    ‘Til I’m sure that you’re dead


  • Aldo Pignotti

    I actually look up lyrics and buy collections of lyrics. The main reason I love the Dead is for the images and characters they create in their songs, like the story told in “Jack Straw” or the images they talk about in “Workingman’s Dead”.

    I love Dylan’s “Boots Of Spainish Leather”. It’s a very plain little story but it’s perfectly told.

  • There are so many great songs and great lyrics but the one that really feels so powerful to me is sung by Joni Mitchell and The Chieftains (From The World Over CD) in the song The Magdalene Laundries. A place run by nuns, that housed unwed mothers until they gave birth. Now, I’m not anti-nun, but still this was a different age and it gives me chills:

    “These bloodless brides of Jesus
    If they had just once glimpsed their groom
    Then they’d know, and they’d drop those stones
    Concealed behind their rosaries
    They wilt the grass they walk upon
    They leech the light out of a room”

  • Morgan


  • Morgan

    Funny, I nevery liked Joe Jackson’s voice, but I was drawn into his music based, partly, on the lyrics.


  • Mat Brewster

    When I was a kid I was fairly obsessed with lyrics. I used to listen to songs over and over writing down the lyrics until I got them right.

    Once I tried it with Def Leppards “Pour Some Sugar On Me.” I was too young to get the overt sexuality, so I thought it was about a picnic. They were eating peaches, drinking sweet tea, etc. Eventually my brother looked at my interpretation, laughed but wouldn’t tell me what was so funny.

    Maybe that’s why I don’t memorize lyrics anymore.

  • maybe it’s because i’m a musician, but here’s a quick example of a Bruce song where i get pulled away from the words…

    during the bridge on Born To Run (“Beyond the Palace hemi-powered drones scream down the boulevard…”)…there are these repeated guitar figures that are played through either a wah-wah pedal or maybe an envelope follower. in any event, this is kind of in the background but it always catches my ear…for whatever reason.

  • Look what you’ve gone and started Mark…LOL. Nicely done.


  • Oops – “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4” above from Elvis Costello.

    For all songs, the phraseology, sound, and words take me outside the ignore mode.

  • Pretty impossible to separate the music and the lyrics (“Thunder Road” doesn’t have the same impact when I read the lyrics off a page — it’s the piano, and Bruce’s voice, and all the rest of it), but I do pay attention to the lyrics. A lot, actually. The feeling doesn’t even have to sustain itself over an entire song — sometimes it’s just a phrase that does the trick. My favorite artists can all turn a phrase pretty well.

  • “Caroline, No” – Beach Boys
    “Waterloo Sunset” – Kinks
    “Every Grain of Sand” – Bob Dylan
    “Downtown Train” – Tom Waits
    “Badlands” – Bruce Springsteen
    “Powderfinger” – Neil Young
    “Withered and Died: – Richard Thompson
    “Couldn’t Call it Unexpected No. 4”
    So Toll the bell or rock the cradle
    Please don’t let me fear anything I cannot explain
    I can’t believe I’ll never believe in anything again

  • no, that actually makes a lot of sense dawn. people have many different ways of listening, is all.

  • oooh! i forgot about Townshend. he’s a great one too…and also one of my favorite guitar players.

  • I always listen to the lyrics. I’ll go one step further and type a statement that I wrote to a friend not long ago, “I don’t just listen to the music…I climb right up into the song and dive right into the depth of the lyrics.” To which that friend I was chatting with replied, “Now, see, that’s just a goofy thing to say. I’m not sure I even know what that means.”

    Perhaps I’m in the minority with this trait. I’ll also grant you that there are songs that make it difficult to clearly understand the lyrics. Often I’ll read the liner notes online of a given song and discover that for years I’ve been mangling the lyrics, either slightly, or to such a length that it becomes a new form of entertainment!

    My point is that I’m not one who just listens to the music. I can’t disengage to that degree – I’m fully involved in the whole song. LOL…sounds rather dramatic, doesn’t it?! Well, what’s life without a judicious application of drama, anyway….

    ~ Dawn

  • Baronius

    Definitely Springsteen’s “Thunder Road” is up there. Good call on that one. Dylan is a hit-and-miss lyricist, really, but he has some gems like “Tangled Up in Blue”.

    Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello.

    Pete Townshend, solo work or with The Who:
    One and one don’t make two
    One and one make one
    And I’m looking for that free ride to me
    I’m looking for you

  • Oh man, the vast majority of the music I listen to, I have no idea what they are saying. I just don’t listen to music for the words.

    There are songs I’ve listened to thousands of times over the years and I couldn’t tell you what the lyrics were other than the chorus, and I probably got that wrong.


  • Josh Hathaway

    “Nightswimming” is a great one, Mat, you’re 100 percent correct.

  • I agree with the premise Mark, there are STILL favorite songs I don’t know all the lyrics to (Stones, Roxy Music, New Order come immediately to mind.

  • Oh, and of course Dylan.

    Lots of examples here, but “Idiot Wind” comes immediately to mind…

    “Visions of your Chestnut Mare, shoot through my head, and are making me see stars…” If that is about Roger McGuinn as some think, it makes me wanna say ouch!

    Of his recent work, I’d also have to cite just about every single song on “Modern Times” but in particular “Thumnder On The Mountain” “Leddie Moore” and “Aint Talkin”…some apocalyptic stuff right there, especially on the latter.

    I have absolutely no idea of what Dylan is talking about most of the time. I just love the way he says it.


  • Springsteen – The Price You Pay:

    “Just across the county line, stranger passing through put up a sign, that counts the men who’ve fallen away, to the price You Pay, and girl before the end of the day, I’m tear it down and throw it away.’

    In a word, awesome. Too many other Springsteen songs come to mind to list, but they’d include “Long Time Comin'” “Tougher Than The Rest” and yes, “Thunder Road.”

    Neil Young – Pocahontas

    That whole bit about the astrodome, the fire, the teepee, Marlon Brando, Pocahontas, and me…that imagery gets me every time.


  • i suppose if you just think of them as poetry than you can make that disconnect. i don’t really do that tho…

  • That’s too hard. How do you disconnect the lyrics from the way they are sung?

    There’s a line in “Oh My Sweet Carolina” that just kills me: “I miss Kentucky and I miss my family” – On paper that’s not that interesting. But the way Ryan sings it with Emmylou backing him up makes my heart shake.

    “terrapin station” has some real gems for lyrics.

    I’ve always loved “Nightswiming” by REM.

    “I’d rather go blind” or is that just Etta Jame’s voice?


  • it’s hard for me to do too, for obvious reasons. and since i also don’t tend to rate songs/albums against each other, that makes it even harder.

  • Josh Hathaway

    Favorite song based on words alone? That’s a near impossibility for me. I can think of several from Springsteen and Dylan. Elliott Smith has a couple I’d throw into that mix, too. Okay, here are a few just off the top of my head:

    Springsteen: “Across The Border,” “Thunder Road,” “Born To Run,” “The Promised Land,” “Valentine’s Day.”

    Dylan: “Not Dark Yet,” “It’s All Right (Don’t Think Twice),” “Ain’t Talkin’,” and “Every Grain Of Sand.”

    Elliott Smith’s “Miss Misery,” “Memory Lane,” “King’s Crossing,” “Waltz #1.”

    I can keep going forever, but those are a handful of my favorites based on words alone…