“Thunder Road” (acoustic version) by Bruce Springsteen

“Thunder Road,” the opening track from Bruce Springsteen’s classic 1975 album, is widely regarded as not only one of the greatest rock ‘n’ roll songs of all-time, but one of the most uplifting and positive ones as well.   However, this version of “Thunder Road” that Springsteen recorded, likely as a demo, is starkly different in tone and feeling.  Without changing any lyrics, this version of “Thunder Road” is mournful and very sad.  Instead of being the inspirational tale of a young couple leaving a small town to make their dreams come true despite the odds against them, this version is a tale of desperation and regret.   And all because of an arrangement that would feel right at home on a Leonard Cohen album.  While the “Born to Run” version of “Thunder Road” will make you feel like you can conquer the world, this acoustic version breaks your heart.

The fact that Springsteen can evoke two different emotions with the same lyrics speaks to his power as a songwriter and performer. As Nick Hornby said about this version of “Thunder Road” in his book “Songbook” (aka “31 Songs”): “It’s slow, and mournful, and utterly convincing: an artist who can persuade you of the truth of what he is singing with either version is an artist who is capable of an awful lot.”

For another contrast, I would also urge you to check out this live version of “Thunder Road” from a 1975 concert at London’s Hammersmith Odeon.  This is closer to the version on “Born to Run,” but it’s mainly done with a solo piano and no rousing guitar work.  Again, it’s not depressing like the acoustic demo discussed earlier, but this version is a lot more melancholy than the version on “Born to Run.”  Apparently, this was the way “Thunder Road” was performed in concert until around 1977 or so.

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“Don’t Change” – Bruce Springsteen

Bruce Springsteen brilliantly covers my favorite INXS song.  If someone put a gun to my head, I’d still favor the INXS version, but this is a terrific cover … full of passion, power, and energy.  This was recorded live in Sydney from February 2014.   This performance also features Steve Van Zandt and Tom Morello on guitar.

“Joey’s on the Street Again” – The Boomtown Rats

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I always thought this Irish version of 1970s Bruce Springsteen was pretty cool. The Boomtown Rats would never earn points for originality, but they did produce a lot of great singles during the mid-late 1970s / early 1980s, many of which were very popular in the UK and Ireland. Their greatest hits album released in the early 2000s has been one of my most played albums for the past 10 years.

“This Little Girl” by Gary U.S. Bonds

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If you listen to 80s stations, you’d think there were only 200 songs recorded during that decade. As much as I love “Come on Eileen,” “Tainted Love,” “Hungry Like the Wolf,” or “Billie Jean,” I’m totally burned out on these handful of hits. Which I why when I listen to 80s stations nowadays, I tend to listen to the Top 40 countdowns for a particular week during some random year in that decade. Here is where you get to hear a lot of songs that were hits, but for whatever reason, are shut out of the very tight programming of such stations. Some of these rarely played songs are terrible … some of them are great. “This Little Girl” by Gary U.S. Bonds is one of the great ones.

Gary U.S. Bonds was a rocker from the early 1960s who had a lot of seminal hits back in the day (“New Orleans,” “Quarter to Three”) and then faded away until Bruce Springsteen and the E. Street Band resurrected Bonds in 1981 with a hit album (“Dedication”) and this gem that made it all the way to #11 on the Billboard charts that year.

I don’t know about you, but where I lived at the time (Tidewater, VA area), you could not escape this song that year. This song was EVERYWHERE and then after a year, I never heard it again … until I happened upon one of those Top 40 countdown shows that replayed the most popular songs for a particular week in 1981. A great, great song that should be in heavy rotation on these 80s stations, but sadly isn’t.

“Baltimore” – Randy Newman

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One of Newman’s best … from 1977’s “Little Criminals.” A beautiful, but despairing look at a city in crisis, very similar in tone to Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.” Also highly recommended (thought I can’t find it on YouTube) is Mink Stole’s recent cover from her album “Do Re Mink”.

“Dream Baby Dream” – Suicide / Bruce Springsteen / Neneh Cherry

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It says a lot about a song when artists from different backgrounds, genres, and perspectives all record the same song. “Dream Baby Dream” was originally written and recorded by the seminal two-man punk duo Suicide (Alan Vega and Martin Rev), who did their thing long before there was such a thing called punk (they started in the early 1970s).

Many famous musicians were fans of Suicide, most famously, Ric Ocasek of the Cars (who produced one of their albums and had them perform on the 1970s NBC program “Midnight Special”) and Bruce Springsteen. You can hear a lot of Suicide’s influence in Springsteen’s minimalistic “State Trooper” from the 1982 album “Nebraska,” especially the shouts and whelps that come directly from Suicide’s monumentally distressing song “Frankie Teardrop.” Included here is an absolutely lovely live version of “Dream Baby Dream” by Springsteen interpersed with clips from F.W. Murnau’s monumental silent-era film “Sunrise.”

And … Neneh Cherry … who lately has been coming on strong as a punk Billie Holiday from hell, filtered through “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” -era Sly and the Family Stone and Eno-era Roxy Music, has her own killer version of “Dream Baby Dream,” from her monumentally awesome album “The Cherry Thing,” released in 2012.

“Keep Me in Your Heart” – Warren Zevon

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Zevon’s last song from his final album “The Wind.” Recorded when he was terminally ill with cancer, “Keep Me in Your Heart” was a nice way to say “Goodbye,” especially for an artist who wrote some extremely dark and cynical songs. This footage is from a documentary about the recording of Zevon’s final album. You’ll notice a lot of famous friends making appearances (Bruce Springsteen, Jackson Browne, Joe Walsh, Don Henley).

“Ball and Chain” – Social Distortion

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Arguably, Social Distortion’s best-known and most beloved song. I remember hearing it on a Walkman when I was walking to work one morning during the summer of 1990 and knew this song was an immediate classic. Mike Ness’s love for Johnny Cash is obvious here.

However, when I returned to college in the fall, I was chagrined to see how popular this song was for the wrong reasons. Don’t get me wrong. I was glad to see Social Distortion (one of the standout bands of the 1980s California hardcore punk scene) getting some hard-fought mainstream success and love from the masses. However, this harrowing song about addiction somehow got adopted as a drinking song for preppie frat boy idiots. Probably the same dolts that thought Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” was a patriotic song (except Bruce would have had to have known that simply having an anthemic song called “Born in the USA” with an album cover that has the American flag in the background during the height of Reganism would have picked up a lot of buyers who weren’t really listening to the lyrics … but I digress). Anyway, despite the bad taste of seeing jock dickheads, who would have beat the snot out of Mike Ness if they saw him on the street, singing his very personal song, this song is still a classic and still has power.