#1. “Born to Run” – Bruce Springsteen
Just like it was no surprise that I drafted Born to Run as my fave all-time LP, there was never any doubt that its title track would be my pick for all-time favorite song. In fact, I believe that along with Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone,” they are tied for the greatest rock anthems ever to blast the airwaves.
Bruce once said something along the lines of that when writing the song, he wanted to have music like Phil Spector, words like Dylan, and vocals like Roy Orbison. Well, he did just that and outdid himself with a song that to me is just perfect in every way.
The song couldn’t have come at a better time for his then fledgling young career. After two excellent records that went nowhere, Columbia Records were likely let to drop him if this one didn’t make it. And although he did score, oddly, while the LP reached #3 on the charts, the title track and obvious choice as first single, only made it to #23. But, still today, some 45 years later, I’m not the only super-Springsteen fan who considers it their favorite song from the Boss.
Living through this process with Springsteen is a fond memory that started with its early release to a few key radio stations that included my lock-on-the-dial at 102.7 of WNEW-FM in New York City. For a good while you could only hear it that way, and I’d didn’t even own a cassette deck to record it. Those moments of hearing it were the start of a magical summer that would culminate for me with the eventual release of the album shortly after seeing Bruce perform live for the first time at the legendary 1975 Bottom Line shows.
Over the course of the 60 Springsteen live shows I’ve seen, he’s played it every night except for the two solo acoustic Tom Joad tour shows I attended. I’ve even seen it solo acoustic, both on Broadway and on the Tunnel of Love tour. While I give Bruce a pass on Broadway, not seeing him blast it away during the encore with the full E Street Band was however a disappointment.
Hearing this song live has always been an amazing moment for me. Here’s what I had previously written about those experiences for the album draft:
I was a hopeful optimist like the Boss. These lines from that song just clobbered my emotions back then and for the next 40 years made me cry every time I heard Bruce sing them live.
Oh, someday girl, I don’t know when
We’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go, and we’ll walk in the sun
But ‘til then, tramps like us
Baby we were born to run
Those tears reflected the joy of seeing my lifelong dreams fulfilled. I found the girl I loved and together we took that walk and somehow got there.
About the song, it’s no secret that I’m a sucker for rock anthems which “Born to Run” clearly qualifies. Its music is just so powerful, from the opening drum burst to the crescendo of guitars and saxophone blasts. This is a song meant to hear while driving down the highway with the top down (or at least the windows open).
The words? Poetic for sure. And aside for the optimism I’ve already discussed, let’s not forget that I’m from Jersey and the references to “Highway 9” and “The Palace” (in Asbury Park) added a special personal touch.
In reflecting on my history with this song, I remembered a moment on some long-forgotten MTV game show whose name I can’t even recall. There was a question about what the greatest Rock song of all time and the contestant chose “Born to Run.” My “attaboy” was however soon shot down by guest host Alice Cooper who mocked his selection without any explanation. To this day, I’ve often wondered what bothered Alice about the song. Maybe someday I will get to ask him why he doesn’t agree with me that “Born to Run” is the greatest song of all time. Could be that he prefers “Like a Rolling Stone?”
#2. “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding” – Elvis Costello & the Attractions
One of several traits that labels me a bona fide musical nerd is my love of making music-themed lists. In true High Fidelity fashion, I find great joy in behaving just like they did in the record store in the Nick Hornby book and John Cusack film.
So, the fact that I maintain an on-going mental list of my favorite songs puts me right in the groove for this song draft. Of course, my song list is somewhat fluid and subject to change. But, for as long as the songs I have selected for my top two picks in this exercise have existed, they hands down have always taken the #1 and #2 spots.
Following my previous selection of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” as numero uno, my second selection also happens to be another anthem: Elvis Costello & the Attractions’ version of Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding.” While there is no doubt that I find this song to be just incredibly irresistible, it also serves as a way of squeezing two of my favorite artists into my top ten amongst the fierce competition.
“PLU” as us Costello diehards call it, was originally recorded back in 1974 by Lowe’s former Pub Rock-era band, Brinsley Schwarz, of whom a young Costello was a huge fan. The Brinsley’s version was sung by Lowe in a rather subdued tempo and was a “tongue-in-cheek” poke at the Hippie peace and love movement. It wasn’t that he didn’t hold the sentiment, he was just having fun in going over the top with some cheeky lyrics.
Lowe of course later became Costello’s producer and five years later in 1979, the Elvis & the Attractions version of “PLU” was covertly released to the world as the B-side of the British Nick Lowe single for “American Squirm.” The song was even credited to “Nick Lowe & His Sound.” If you looked hard, you could find a blurry picture of Costello hiding in the clouds on the back of the sleeve. The song however would soon be loved enough that it was added to the US version of Costello’s Armed Forces LP. It also would get a single release in the US on a red vinyl promo 45 along with EC’s croon of “My Funny Valentine” on the flip side.
It is quite odd that my favorite song by one of our generation’s greatest songwriters is a cover and not one of his originals. (Strange too that Costello’s best-selling UK single is his take on the George Jones chestnut “Good Year for the Roses.”) But dang, the Attractions arrangement of “PLU” is just over-the-top powerful and amazing! In fact, it’s so darn good that Mr. Lowe himself adapted his live version of the song to sound more like Costello’s take on it. Nick even jokes that he forgets sometimes that it is his song!
While I truly savor the song’s sentiment and adore the lyrics, it’s undoubtedly the mighty musical arrangement that does it for me. And thankfully I’ve gotten the opportunity to stand many times pumping my fist in the air while hearing the song at a Costello show, usually as one of the night’s final numbers.
Something that will make a song a classic as this one truly qualifies, is when it gets repeatedly covered by other artists. (In this case is it a cover of a cover that is getting covered?) The list of “PLU” covers is a long one from Midnight Oil to Wilco and the dozens of other artists who have either recorded their version of the song or played it in their live set. One notable version is by singer Curtis Stigers on the My Bodyguard soundtrack LP which reportedly made enough quid for Mr. Lowe (reportedly over a million pounds) to continue with his musical activities when times were lean.
Finally, the moment I got to miss was one of the dozen times in 2003-4 when Bruce and the E Street Band gave the song a whirl. Maybe someday, worlds will once again collide, and I will be there to hear my three favorite artists represented in a single moment.