"I didn't know music could be like that," says the 16-year-old hero of Blinded by the Light, a recent movie about the impact of Bruce Springsteen's music on a British-Pakistani teenager.
As I sat in a darkened movie theater, I resisted the urge to shout "Yes!" in agreement—so closely did I identify with the character discovering Springsteen's music as a teen: The experience of hearing music that does more than you thought possible, that takes you beyond where you thought music could go.
Like Springsteen fans around the world, I cannot imagine my life without his music. It brings me joy, solace, truth and beauty, as well as inspiration. He's also my not-so-secret weapon, a renewable energy source more powerful than caffeine.
The singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, memoirist and leader of the E Street Band turns 70 on September 23. In celebration of his big day, here are my top picks for "The Boss."
Among Springsteen's best-known songs are "Hungry Heart", "Dancing in the Dark" and "Born in the U.S.A.", with their catchy choruses that counteract dark and sometimes misunderstood lyrics. They're all on The Essential Bruce Springsteen, along with songs from his 9/11 album, The Rising, and his haunting acoustic album, Nebraska. You'll also hear his Academy Award-winning song, "Streets of Philadelphia," narrated by a man with HIV/AIDS, and it includes the wildly exuberant concert favorite "Rosalita" and overlooked gems like "The Wrestler."
If I could put just one Springsteen album in your hands, though, it'd be Born to Run. This was the album that made me a Springsteen convert at 16. I was so taken with the big, propulsive sound of the exhilarating title song with its lyrics of escape ("Tramps like us, baby we were born to run"), that I played it over and over. It was days before I made it to the final songs—"Meeting Across the River", an understated beauty of a song accompanied by just piano, bass and trumpet, and the epic "Jungleland," which features perhaps the best-loved sax solo in rock, played by Clarence Clemons, aka "The Big Man." All are lifelong favorites along with the poetic opener, "Thunder Road."
Springsteen's unspoken motto seems to be never the same record twice. His next album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, was leaner and less romantic, with often blistering guitar work and fulfilling his intention to write songs about adults and their day-to-day lives. One of the best of these is the title song on his next album, The River. (A great live version of "The River" that captures Springsteen's intensity is on Blinded by the Light Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.) The song features the sort of details that make his songs hard to shake:
Then I got Mary pregnant
And man that was all she wrote
And for my 19th birthday
I got a union card and a wedding coat.
This eye for detail serves him beautifully in his 2016 memoir, Born to Run, which explores the roots of his music, his artistic vision and his personal struggles, including his complicated relationship with his father, whose depression he inherited. It's also self-deprecatingly funny and wise without being preachy.
To experience Springsteen's storytelling at its best, I highly recommend the CD Springsteen on Broadway. It features portions of his memoir reworked for the stage and deeply personal songs like "The Wish," about his loving mother. ("If Pa's eyes were windows into a world so deadly and true/You couldn't stop me from looking but you kept me from crawling through.")
High points of Springsteen on Broadway are his comic, first failed attempt to learn guitar accompanied by the song "Growin' Up," his reconciliation with his father, a couple of songs about the complexities of love and marriage sung with his wife, and his early days as a young musician on the Jersey Shore—"the beauty of that blank page, just laying there, daring you to write on it."
What's your favorite Springsteen song? What song or artist made you think, like the hero of Blinded by the Light, "I didn't know music could be like that."? Let me know in comments!