Bruce Springsteen’s Most Surprising Cover Songs

Opening Bruce’s May 30, 2012 show in Berlin was a cover of Wizz Jones’ “When I Leave Berlin.” Yes, really.

Yes, Berlin is obviously a city of great geopolitical and historical importance. And yes, the city has inspired plenty of music, both before (Heroes, Berlin) and after (Achtung Baby) the wall came down. Yes, Bruce’s 1988 concert in East Berlin was a significant moment in his career, both for the location of the show and the size of the audience.

But this was not Bruce’s first return visit to Berlin (that was in 1993) or even his first return visit with the E Street Band (1999). Nor was this a cover from Bruce’s usual repertoire. Doing “Get out of Denver” in Denver (September 25, 2003) might have been unexpected, but given Bruce’s friendship with Bob Seger, the choice was easily understandable. However much it makes sense that Bruce would appreciate the music of Wizz Jones, actually doing a song at an E Street show — as the opening song — ranks pretty high on the “surprise” list.

The top 5, “most surprising” covers by Bruce Springsteen:

5. Run Through the Jungle
Premiered May 29, 1981 in Rotterdam

The third of four John Fogerty-penned songs that Bruce would play on the River tour, this song qualifies for the list primarily for its total rearrangement. Rather than played “straight,” Bruce and the band did a ethereal version to start the show on three different occasions. Changing the music wasn’t enough; he also created new lyrics, including “man’s pulling shotguns out of the trunk/city’s on fire tonight” and “baby look out your window/can’t you see the tide’s turning,” themes that he would later expand on when creating the song “Murder Incorporated” during the Born in the U.S.A. sessions.

4. Have Love, Will Travel
Premiered April 23, 1988 in Los Angeles, CA

A perfect choice for the tour, with Bruce being able to declare the song’s title “my motto” as the encores climaxed. On a tour with mostly static setlists, this addition to the encores was one of the most significant changes to the show. This garage rock song (popularized by the Sonics) was turned into a horn-filled rave-up, complete with a trombone solo from La Bamba. It disappeared from the set shortly after the tour reached Europe and has not been played since.

3. I Wanna Be Sedated
Premiered April 22, 2009 in Boston, MA

First, the signs were for classic E Street repertoire, such as “Rosalita,” “Thunder Road, and “Jungleland” and Bruce was happy to oblige.

Then, the signs started requesting covers from E Street’s past, such as “Mountain of Love” or “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and Bruce obliged those “sassy” requests (“the elephant never forgets!”)

But until this sign request was granted, Bruce had only granted requests for songs the band had already played. With this Ramones cover, the floodgates for the “stump the band” feature were open wide.

2. Satan’s Jeweled Crown
Premiered May 14, 1993 in Berlin

The 1993 leg of the world tour in support of Human Touch and Lucky Town featured a significant development: an acoustic three song mini-set by Bruce to start the show. For all of the shows in Europe that spring, Bruce’s three song set would always end with “This Hard Land,” preceded by two songs out of a roster of “Darkness on the Edge of Town,” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Seeds” and “Adam Raised a Cain.”

Opening the show with a singular acoustic number had happened plenty of times in the past, but doing the three songs in a row was a big change and also foreshadowed Bruce’s future live plans. The three-song set was expanded for the only time all tour in Berlin, when Bruce debuted this “country gospel song,” accompanied by Roy and the five backup singers on the tour. An obvious feature for the the singers’ abilities, the song would be added to the main set, alternating with the other cover added that tour that featured the singers, “Many Rivers to Cross.”

The song’s last performance was at the “Concert to Fight Hunger” on June 24, 1993, at the close of the 92-93 tour. After 6 performances, this Louvin Brothers song (from their 1959 album Satan is Real) was never heard from again.

1. Dream Baby Dream
Premiered May 11, 2005 in Rosemont, IL

During the encore of this show, Bruce finished “Land of Hope and Dreams,” and gave his usual end-of-show thanks to the crowd. He then began his acoustic version of “The Promised Land,” which had ended every show on the tour to date, and as the song finished, it seemed as if the show was over.

But Bruce then walked to the pump organ, stage right, and sat down. The organ had previously only been used for the show-opening “My Beautiful Reward,” so it was clear that something was up. With no introduction to the song, Bruce starts singing: “Dream baby dream / keep on dreaming / dream baby dream / come on, baby, keep on dreaming”

As a member of the audience that night, I was both transfixed and completely baffled. What WAS this? Bruce was playing the pump organ for most of the song, but he eventually got up and walked to the front of the stage — and the music kept going — before he walked off stage without further comment.

The song was identified in short order as a cover of synth-punk band Suicide, and remained as the show closer for the balance of the tour, and while it may never have been quite the shock it was that night at the Rosemont Theatre, it kept most of its power for the remaining shows.

There was some Bruce-Suicide history, of course, as Bruce did identify their song “Frankie Teardrop” as a favorite of his in 1984 interview with Rolling Stone. A Backstreets interview with Suicide singer Alan Vega later in the tour revealed the previously unknown fact that Vega and Springsteen were doing shots of vodka together in the bathroom of the the studio in New York were both were recording at the time.

Even so, this choice holds the #1 spot on this list, and remains one of the most surreal moments I’ve ever seen at at Bruce show.

Also considered:
“Achy Breaky Heart” (March 23, 1993) and “You Sexy Thing” (December 7, 2001). (Both were played jokingly rather than as serious inclusions in the set).
Bryan Adams’ “Cuts Like a Knife,” at Sting’s Rainforest Benefit in 2010.
The aforementioned “When I Leave Berlin.”

Dishonorable Mention:
Centerfield
Premiered October 1, 2004 in Philadelphia, PA
No, it’s technically not a cover, as Bruce was singing the song with John Fogerty. But it makes the list, if only for the horrible surprise that was Fogerty’s baseball-bat guitar and the fake handclaps that started this song during the Vote for Change tour.

Bruce is playing a set with his most clearly focused theme since the Tunnel of Love tour. He brings the “Hank Williams of our generation,” author of numerous classic rock and roll songs, many with political overtones, as a special guest on the tour. Perhaps “Who’ll Stop the Rain” would be too obvious, but “Centerfield,” a contender for the title of worst song of all time? It remains perhaps the most inexplicable setlist decision of Bruce’s career. Maybe it was Fogerty’s choice. Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that this is not revisited in Hyde Park this July.

Thoughts on “Prove It All Night” and the “’78 Intro”

Signs and requests for the “’78 Intro” of “Prove It All Night” always struck me as strange, both for the possibility that Bruce would have no idea what the person wanted, and also for the temerity shown: it’s not enough to ask Bruce to play a specific song, you also want to tell him how to play it?

Obviously the versions of the song on the Darkness tour were inspired performances and one of many high water marks in Springsteen’s live career, but each tour is different for a reason. “Prove It” was played hundreds of times after 1978, and all (save 2 shows in 1980) omitted the “’78 Intro.” The fact that the introduction disappeared spoke to it being a unique product of the Darkness tour, and the way Bruce chose to present his songs at that time.

The pervasiveness of the requests (and/or Bruce’s sharp memory) was revealed on November 21, 2010 as part of a Sirius event for promotion of The Promise, when twenty fans were given the opportunity to ask Bruce a specific question related to Darkness on the Edge of Town. A few questions in, Bruce was directly asked why the introduction wasn’t played again and he responds:

“Alright, you’re one of the ’78 piano intro guys! This, there are clones of you throughout the – you know, in various places throughout the United States.

It was simply a – you know, it was simply a little opening, that at the time, I think we were – you know, you take the music out and you try to think, how can – how you’re gonna make it more dramatic and I said, ok, well, let’s, you know, let’s just start with the little, the opening chords, and Roy can play a little bit, and then I’ll get to play some lead, you know? So, and then eventually we — you know, you build, build and you crack into the tune.

It’s a, it was just a device, you know, something that worked nicely at the time. If you’d like to hear it again, that’ll probably never occur, my friend. But it was – it was good while it lasted.”

The answer (the shortest of all twenty from that night) certainly seemed quite definite and the issue was presumably closed. The answer was unusually specific for Bruce, who of course tends to speak of broad concepts and ideas in interviews rather than setlist minutiae. He clearly is aware of such matters but direct questions are rarely asked and rarely answered.

When giving an interview to Backstreets before the 2007 tour, Bruce allowed himself to be pinned down about “The Price You Pay,” acknowledging that “it’s become a thing just because I haven’t played it,” and further tipped his hand by mentioning in his answer “Crush On You,” which was the other album track that (at the time) had gone the longest without being played. Yet, by way of comparison, his answer to that question was still open-ended, and Bruce followed up two years later by bringing back “The Price You Pay” for a special occasion (his last show at the Spectrum).

Given his answer to the “’78 Prove It” question, it was that much more surprising to see the introduction get played again. Bruce acknowledged a requestor at the beginning of the performance but it would appear from how the band played that there was at least some pre-show discussion about the song, if not also a full-fledged rehearsal. My theory is that a fan had the chance to make an in-person appeal to Bruce and was rewarded handsomely.

One might think that if Bruce is open to playing “Prove It” in the “78 arrangement” the next logical step is the fabled “Sad Eyes” interlude of “Backstreets,” another live feature that was (mostly) exclusive to 1978. The belief here remains that the band could recreate the moment musically but Bruce would not be able to vocally and/or emotionally recreate that performance. The “Prove It” intro in Barcelona — which required no singing or improvisation of lyrics — was genuine, but I fear that if Bruce tries to do the “Sad Eyes” bit, he runs the risk of only achieving no better than a poor imitation of the ’78 performances.

There’s no doubting that Barcelona got a great moment, and given how strong the performance was — particularly as a “debut” — it would not be unwelcome in future shows. Yet a bigger priority is Bruce remaining open to revisiting more of the Darkness period and him finally digging into The Promise during the live show.

Springsteen’s Best “One Time Only” Covers

The E Street Band’s performance of “The Weight” in Newark on Wednesday night was not just a great performance; it was notable as the only time Bruce has ever performed the song. So where does it fall in the rankings of Bruce Springsteen’s best “one-time-only” covers?

Many of Bruce’s greatest covers (“Sweet Soul Music,” “Rockin’ All Over the World,” the “Detroit Medley”) have been played numerous times over the years, and the audiences’ familiarity with them often adds power to their performance. But there are also those lighting-in-a-bottle moments where the band tries something for the first time and nails it. Hence this exercise.

The songs presented here are those performed once and only once. I was fully prepared to include the performance of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” from October 4, 1975 in Detroit (Audio: Link) — it would have come in at #3 on the list below — until research revealed that Bruce had done the song a few other times (albeit without the E Street Band). Additionally, performances where the songwriter was on stage are excluded. Is it really a “cover” if you’re singing “Better Man,” “Bad Luck,” or “Keep the Car Running” with the person who wrote and performed the song? A debate for another time, but those “covers” are also excluded here.

The top 5:

5. Expressway to Your Heart, May 4, 2009, Nassau Coliseum

Video: Link
Ostensibly a “sign request,” but rehearsed in the pre-show soundcheck, to obvious great effect.

4. When I Grow Up to Be a Man, June 1, 1985, Slane Castle
Audio: Link
Dave Marsh suggested in Glory Days that Bruce sounded miserable due to the large, sometimes-out of control crowd at Slane Castle that afternoon and coming out for the encore with a mostly acoustic number was a clear attempt to change the direction of the show, if only temporarily. The choice of song is also notable as this was Bruce’s first show after getting married (for the first time).

3. Haunted House, October 31, 1980, Los Angeles Sports Arena
Audio: Link
The first of the Halloween shows in Los Angeles with Bruce carried on-stage in a coffin. Originally by “Jumpin’” Gene Simmons, and a classic example of the humorous Bruce-Clarence interaction on stage.

2. I’ll Fly Away, April 22, 2008, St. Pete Times Forum
Video: Link
Essentially the public memorial service for Danny Federici, this entire show featured a setlist tailored specifically to emphasize Danny’s role in the band. And then, to start the encore, the entire band (yes, even including Max on the backing vocals) came to the front of the stage for this, a moment too powerful to ever be repeated.

1. Ballad of Easy Rider, August 20, 1981, Los Angeles Sports Arena
Audio: Link
A big part of why the benefit concert for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation remains one of the most important (and best) shows of Bruce’s entire career.

Also considered: Night Train (Atlanta ’78); Little Bit O’Soul (Philadelphia ’09); I Sold My Heart to the Junkman (Boston ’74).

So where does “The Weight” come in? Outside the top 5, but not by far; it would likely be somewhere between #6 and #9, a remarkable feat, as all of the songs in the top five were likely rehearsed and practiced ahead of time.

Newark, Prudential Center, May 2, 2012

The Newark show was a perfect example of how a show can a show can be great even if each individual element isn’t quite right. Obviously, the magical nights happen with the right combination of performance, setlist and crowd (plus lesser elements such as venue and sound). Tonight in Newark, not everything worked, but the show still came out pretty well.

The venue? It was great. We can only hope having now played here that Bruce never sets foot in the Meadowlands arena again. No, it’s not the Garden but it’s clearly the second-best arena in the New York area. A good, organized GA process. Sufficient bathrooms. Easy public transportation access.

The sound? Terrible. Reviews of the sound on this tour have been largely positive, and whether that’s due to the new PA system being used or some other changes to the mix, it’s definitely been improved overall. Tonight, however, was back to the sludge that was present for much of 2009, which is really unacceptable for a major touring artist.

The crowd? Excellent. Enthusiastic and engaged, even in the upper levels. Their singing (and harmonies) on “The Weight” really impressed me.

The setlist? It’s refreshing to see the new songs remain in the set consistently, and Bruce is clearly well intentioned in trying different songs at each show. But “Bishop Danced” exemplifies why putting a rare, old song in the set is not necessarily a good thing. I am being perfectly fair when I say that this song is terrible. There are literally two dozen never-before or rarely-played songs from the Tracks boxset alone that could (and should) have been played instead. It’s simply impossible to have every song one writes be a masterpiece. “Bishop Danced,” “Mary Queen of Arkansas,” “Surprise, Surprise” — these things happen even to the best of songwriters. There’s a reason they don’t show up in the set very often.

“Talk to Me” and “The Weight” were nice additions (via sign) but much of the rest of the set feels stale. There are obviously certain cornerstones for Bruce’s live set that will show up every night but I wish he would challenge himself a bit more. He need not change every song, but if he dropped one song out of “Sunny Day,” “The Promised Land,” “The Rising,” or “Lonesome Day” it would do a lot for the show.

The performance? Uneven. I wrote after the second night at the Garden that it was disturbing to see the band have trouble following Bruce, particularly during “off script” moments, and there was more of the same tonight. A flubbed start of “No Surrender” at the start of the show is one thing, but the band not being able to come in together on the final chorus of that song was surprising. When Bruce wanted to change the ending of “She’s the One,” playing the guitar (rather than the harmonica), the band seemed to be on auto-pilot, not realizing the change in plan. They had trouble following Bruce during “Talk to Me,” making quite the mess of the song.

But then there was that encore! First, “The Weight,” with Bruce starting on acoustic and the band joining in perfectly. The horns impressing by coming up with an arrangement on the spot. Garry, Charlie and Roy distinguishing themselves with their spot-on accompaniment. The sum total of the talent on stage was proudly on display during those six minutes. This was followed by what was arguably the strongest “Rocky Ground” of the tour and a well-executed Rosalita (they managed the bridge after the second chorus — the usual spot that is flubbed — perfectly!).