Book of the Boss: My Favorite Bruce Springsteen Stories

It’s said that a Storyteller can spot another Storyteller from a great distance away. As a storyteller myself, I don’t have to look much further than my CD collection to tell you that Bruce Springsteen is one of my favorite storytellers. Before you get up in arms about Bruce Springsteen not being a writer, I have to point out that he is. In addition to being a brilliant composer, the Boss is quite obviously a writer. If we think about stories in simple terms: there is pre-conflict, conflict, and the new normal — Bruce Springsteen’s ballads have that and a lot more.

More than that, the great stories of human history began as oral traditions before the written language was utilized. Around a campfire, an elder would regale the youth of their people with stories of their history. Is Bruce Springsteen really doing anything different?

For this week’s blog, I wanted to celebrate one of my favorite storytellers by sharing five of my favorite stories written by Bruce Springsteen.

[DISCLAIMER]: This is just my opinion and I understand that you might have a different idea about which are your favorite. Share your favorite stories in the comments!

In no particular order:

No. 1: Highway Patrolman (Nebraska) – the story of Joe and Frankie Roberts, two kids from a small town where they grew up into adult lives. Joe married Maria, a girl that both Joe and Frankie may have had feelings for, and became a farmer. When the economy turned to ash, Joe lost his farm and became a police officer. Frankie turned out to be something of a shithead after coming back from his enlistment in the army. Frankie would get into scuffles with the law and Joe would look the other way and deal with Frankie in his own way. One night, Frankie busts someone up good, and Joe couldn’t look the other way that time. Joe Roberts gets into a high speed chase with his brother and chases him through the county, until Frankie crosses the Canadian border where Joe has no jurisdiction. Joe muses that Frankie turned his back on his family and Frankie is just no good.

The song was the basis of the movie “the Indian Runner” starring Viggo Mortenson.

No. 2: Downbound Train (Born in the USA) – the narrator had it all: a job and a wife, a relatively happy life. When he lost his job at the lumber yard, he had to take a job at the carwash, times became tough, and his marriage soured. The narrator’s wife decides that she just can’t live with him anymore and decides to leave on the train out of town. During a dream, the Narrator has a dream that his wife wanted him back. The narrator goes to the house they shared, runs up to their bedroom expecting his wife to be there, and the empty room absolutely breaks him. He gets a job on the railroad, where the trains and rails consistently remind him that his marriage is over and his wife is gone.

No. 3: Further on up the Road (the Rising) – I struggled with Thunder Road or Further on up the Road. While Thunder Road is the more complete story, Further on up the Road is the more interesting one. On a dark and empty road (presumably in the Wild West), a ghost haunts the pass. We can infer the narrator is a ghost, as he is wearing his “dead man’s suit,” “lucky graveyard boots,” and “smiling skull ring,” or the clothes he was buried in. How’d he die? He was shot. “Where the gun is cocked and the bullet is cold.” On the road he haunts, it’s dark and cold, but he is certain that he will rise — perhaps in the revelation of Jesus. Until that time, he continues to haunt the dusty desert road, and when your time comes, he will meet you on that road of purgatory.

No. 4: The River (the River) – the narrator and his girlfriend Mary were kids from a small valley town and high school sweethearts and in love. When they wanted to spend time alone, the narrator would take the narrator’s brother’s car down to the river where they’d go swimming …and other things. Other things ended up biting them in the ass and Mary became pregnant. All of their dreams for life and adulthood went straight into the garbage. To take care of his new family, the narrator got a job with the construction union, and married Mary at the Justice of the Peace — the couple had to forgo the fancy wedding and all the happiness that went with it because that’s what teenage parents had to do. Their honeymoon was a simple trip down to the river that started all the trouble. When the economy collapses, the narrator isn’t getting work and times are hard. The narrator pretends he doesn’t remember his hopes and dreams, Mary pretends like she never cared anyway, when they both are clearly affected by it.

Springsteen wrote this song about his sister and her teenage pregnancy. It shows by the feeling that is in the song, making it one of his more powerful ballads.

No. 5: Highway 29 (the Ghost of Tom Joad) – the narrator is a kid working at a shoe store where he begins flirting with a customer. The customer and the narrator begin a sexual relationship at her room at the roadhouse along Highway 29. They both get the wild idea to rob a bank, but when the job gets botched, the narrator ends up killing someone (or a few someones) and the customer is freaking out. The narrator and customer spend the night at a motel and the narrator has a numb sleep. While they are driving to escape, the narrator muses that the whole mess was the customer’s fault, but resolves that the fault was something in himself. While driving through the mountains, the narrator gets into a car accident, the customer is killed on impact. As he laid in the wreckage, dying, he saw himself running and then flying.

BONUS: Outlaw Pete (Working on a Dream) – Pete was born on the Appalachian trail and as legend has it, when he was 6 months old, he’d already served 3 months in jail. He’d identified as an outlaw as he robbed a bank in diapers. By the time Pete turns 25, he’s already a prolific criminal and is on the lam in the Wild West. Pete marries a woman from the Navajo tribe, they have a daughter, and settle into a home on the reservation. Now, when you are an outlaw like Pete, there is no hiding from justice. Enter: Bounty Hunter Dan. Dan is so obsessed with getting Pete that he rides all the way from the East to collect the bounty. Dan gets the drop on Pete will Pete is fishing, but Pete plunges a knife into Dan’s chest and through his heart. As Dan is dying, he whispers to Pete that he can’t run away from his past. Fearing that more bounty hunters were coming, Pete leaves his home so that death doesn’t come to his family’s door step. Pete rides for 40 days until he gets to a mountain top. Knowing that Dan was right, and there was no way to run, Pete drives his horse off the side of the cliff and presumably to his death. His daughter, remembering her father, braids a strip of his leather chaps into her hair.

Do you see what I mean now about Bruce Springsteen being an amazing storyteller? The Boss’ catalog has a lot of other great stories, some of which may show up in my blog at a later date. Until then, I’ll continue spinning Bruce tunes and letting my mind wander to the great creative energy that we all contribute to.

Until your next trip across the Millerverse!

2 thoughts on “Book of the Boss: My Favorite Bruce Springsteen Stories

  1. Great choices. Bruce’s storytelling abilities are what drew me to him way back in the 70s. Meeting Across the River, Racing In the Street, Incident on 57th Street. And the stories he tells on stage has kept me going to see him live.

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    1. My Mom gave me a bunch of her cassettes when I turned eight and “Born in the USA” was one of them. Of all those tapes, I kept coming back to Born in the USA because of the stories that would grab my attention. That really started my fascination with Springsteen and that was 27 years ago!

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