TOP 10 SPRINGSTEEN CRIME SONGS
Bruce Springsteen has mentioned in interviews his being influenced by James M. Cain, Flannery O’Connor, and Jim Thompson, the latter holding a special place in his heart for the writer’s concision, power, and purity. It’s no surprise. One need only listen to Springsteen’s album Nebraska, many of its tracks dark, grim “crime songs,” to get a sense of that inspiration. Yet, Springsteen has written and recorded many songs about crime and criminals throughout his career. Here are my Top 10 Springsteen Crime Songs.
1) “Stolen Car” — A man drives in a stolen car. A broken marriage has unraveled his life and driven him somehow to steal this car and, one infers, to commit other crimes. So crushed is he that he “waits to get caught, but I never do.” He tells himself he’s going to be all right, but he travels in fear that “In this darkness I will disappear.” I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times. It crushes me every time. That’s why it’s #1. Most of us, thankfully, will never relate to being a hardened criminal, but we can relate to a broken heart and the sense of desperation it can create to lead us into a darkness that, if we’re not careful and lucky, we may disappear.
2) “Meeting Across the River” — An overlooked gem on Born to Run. A muted, melancholic trumpet underscores the mood as Springsteen sings of a small-time crook so down on his luck he’s hocked his girl’s radio and doesn’t even have his own ride for the “last chance” job he needs to pull off that night. This two-bit criminal is right out of film noir, yet treated with such dignity and humanity that a listener can’t help but hope he pulls off the petty job—despite sensing he’ll never succeed and will likely end up dead—and finally prove to his girl Cherry that this time he “wasn’t just talking.”
3) “Jungleland” — Lost amid rock music’s most famous and moving sax solo, the poetic lyrics, the rising crescendos, and haunting echo of the last piano note is a song about the ultimate crime: the crime against the heart. By song’s end, “The barefoot girl sitting on the hood of a Dodge/drinking warm beer in the soft summer rain” from the song’s opening guns down her lover, with whom we thought she was going to escape to freedom as they took “a stab at romance.” The saddest crime is not the killing itself, but that “Nobody watches as the ambulance pulls away.” The story we’ve been immersed in emotionally, viscerally, and visually, as if no other story could exist, turns out to be just one more tale of crime among a legion of crimes taking place in any given city on any given night. A crime not worth noticing by those left behind to continue their struggle to protect themselves from being both victims and perpetrators of crimes against the law, and against the heart.
4) “Incident on 57th Street” — This song combines Jungleland’s musical crescendos, poetry, and blooming romance during a sweltering summer night in the city, and Meeting Across the River’s theme of a crime yet to be committed, a crime with a magnetic pull greater than the pull of romance. Spanish Johnny seems a younger version of the Meeting Across the River narrator. Still a “romantic young boy” yet already tainted by the city. He drives in from the “underworld” with “bruised arms” lured by the “action going down,” starts a romance with Jane; yet, later, in bed, when someone calls up through the window for Johnny to “make a little easy money tonight” Johnny can’t resist. Even a new lover is not enough to overpower the temptation. So, he whispers goodnight and promises to meet her the next night on Lovers’ Lane. Except, he never will meet her. Instead, for the choice he makes now—to leave love to pursue “easy money”—he’ll likely end up forever looking for that payday at a meeting across the river.
5) “Nebraska” — Springsteen’s most famous “crime song” is based on 20-year-old Charles Starkweather’s murder spree that left ten people dead and involved luring 15-year-old Caril Fugate into his madness after he murdered her parents and sister. The 1973 Terence Malick film Badlands is its own masterpiece, yet its 95 minutes don’t come close to capturing the sociopath’s lack of accountability, remorse, and empathy that Springsteen nails in 4:32 with just thirteen haunting lines, such as “I can’t say that I’m sorry, for the things we done/ At least for a little while, sir, me and her we had us some fun.”
Springsteen sings with a voice as flat and cold as the plains in mid January, mirroring the words and perfectly capturing Starkweather.
6) “State Trooper” — So often in masterful writing, the tension and suspense come from what is not written. The narrator, driving late at night alone, has no license or registration and claims he’s got a clear conscience about the things he’s done. What things? Somehow we know they are awful, perhaps unforgivable “things”—crimes—yet, the narrator’s vagueness and his clear conscience make both the song—and him—all the more cold and menacing. The narrator here could easily be the one from “Stolen Car,” older now, still driving at night, isolated from the world. Here, though, he no longer waits “to get caught”; his mantra now: “please don’t stop me, please don’t stop me.”
7) “Highway Patrolman” — A classic setup: A younger brother, Franky, who “ain’t no good” and an older brother, Joe, who’s a cop and has always done his job “as honest as I could.” The song hinges on this could. There is a limit, and the family bond is it. Again and again, Joe’s mind returns to what seems the sole good memory, from years ago, of him and Franky laughing and drinking, and “taking turns dancing with Maria,” Joe’s wife. Yet, that one memory is enough. When Franky leaves a boy “bleedin’ hard from the head” after a bar fight, Joe takes chase, but lets Franky escape into Canada. Springsteen sings of the brothers laughing and drinking and dancing with Maria with such fondness and love for that one good memory that the listener can’t help but believe that perhaps the bonds of family do outweigh the obligations to the law.
8) “Johnny 99” — Sometimes our thoughts are our own worst prison. A sad, straight-up crime story sung in a contrary, up-tempo beat of a man who gets drunk after being laid off from his auto plant job, shoots a night clerk, and is sentenced to 99 years. In court, his ugly thoughts toward the world consume him, and he’s so remorseful and broken he tells the judge he’d be better off dead for the thoughts that are in his head. This man is no hardened Charles Starkweather, but an everyday man pushed beyond his limits of desperation, no longer wanting to live with his criminal actions or thoughts.
9) “Murder Incorporated” — A hard-driving song propelled by lyrics of paranoia and claustrophobia as much as by Max Weinberg’s thundering, mounting drums and Springsteen’s searing Telecaster. Is Bobby, referenced once in the opening line as keeping “a gun beneath his pillow,” a criminal, perhaps even a hit man with the tables finally turned on him? Or is he you and I, feeling the pressure of a world that can so often seem so rigged against us we feel we must arm ourselves (literally and metaphorically) against its cold onslaught? It’s certainty no accident that after the first mention of Bobby, the narrator refers to you for the rest of the song, the you whose death the cops report as “just another homicide.”
10) “Highway 29” — This song at first seems about a fateful connection that fuels a violent, bloody bank robbery. But the song proves to be more about manipulation, an excuse for the narrator, perhaps too cowardly to act alone, to commit the crime. He’s sought a partner/victim he knew would be seduced by the danger, yet someone he could dispose of afterward, as he does following a car crash that leaves his female sidekick dead. “I told myself it was all something in her/But as we drove I knew it was something in me.” Likely, he knew it all along, even if we didn’t.
Eric Rickstad is a New York Times, USA Today, and international bestselling author of The Silent Girls, Lie in Wait, and Reap. His newest novel, The Names of Dead Girls, published September 12, 2017, from William Morrow